"When your kids do something great, you feel on top of the world. If they are being hurt by a friend or a relationship, or they didn't make the team or whatever, it's a like a knife in your heart. You share all of what they go through as though you're living your life over again."
A long time ago, a boss of mine was talking about his two children and often shared the ups and downs of parenting with me. I was in my late 20s and I didn't have kids yet and wasn't really thinking about children for myself at all at the time.
I was really struck by what he said - and surprised. I never imagined a parent could feel that much themselves about what their child is going through.
Fast forward more than 20 years later, and boy do I get that.
The culture of parenting over the last couple of decades is to tightly bond to our children, for better or for worse. Whether it's the extreme of helicoptering or something a bit lesser, parents today have been involved with their kids from the start in every way. We started out with Mom and Baby yoga, Parent and Tot gymnastics, coaching their sports in grade school, traveling with their sports teams or performance groups, helping carve the entry into college and then helping even beyond those days - it's truly like our children are now an extension of ourselves.
That means that the boundaries between where a parent ends and a child begins are very blurred these days.
It's easy to see why. As adults, we more clearly envision how we could have approached things differently than when we were kids or teens. Especially if we have some regrets (and who doesn't have some?) we want to see our child achieve academically, athletically or in whatever interest they have better than we did. Our life experience and maturity has helped us come up with new ways to approach everything and coach our kids how to do it better.
Did our parents do this? Yes and no.
Certainly, most people's parents probably had "words of wisdom" to give to their children and had expectations for behavior, provided support and carried out discipline.
Parents also left teenagers and young adults to their own devices more. There were no terms like "helicopter parenting" or "soccer mom" to show the involvement or amount of time put into children's activities when I was a kid or teen.
Much of what young people did was their own business. They got to their sports practices on their own. Parents rarely if ever came to watch practices - and many didn't attend games or meets unless it was the end of a season.
Teens of 30 years ago or more worked out their own academics, social relationships, and life plans. For better or worse, they stumbled through it.
Was that better?
Research now shows us that parental involvement can have a significant positive impact on a young person's self-esteem, helping them make better decisions. Getting into college is a much more intensive process now than it used to be, and young people need their parents to help guide them through it - not do it for them but guide them.
Again, research shows that teens whose parents talk with them about things like substance abuse and sexual pressures are less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors. Young people admit - even when they say "I don't want to talk about this" - that they pay attention to their parents' input beyond all else.
At one time, raising a "successful" child meant raising a person who upon adulthood could take of themselves emotionally and financially, and offspring generally left home and went out on their own in their early 20s. At that point, parents felt the bulk of their parenting work was completed. And it was.
This is where parents from previous generations seemed to have an edge over most of today's parents. Perhaps it was leaving kids to figure out how to manage life that made those young people better at taking on responsibility without expecting anyone else to take care of things for them.
Medical research now shows us how adolescence is "extended" into the mid-20s for so many young people. Critical brain development isn't completed until then (although I'm sure this was also true of people from previous generations).
I don't believe that people's brains developed any faster in previous generations than they do now, but we do see so many young people these days who can't seem to cope with life as well as young people in the past, and who still depend on their parents to do many things for them that previous generations of parents would never have done.
When grown children fail to thrive, their parents feel that anguish of "failure to launch" - and they desperately try to get their children on their feet, pointing them in the way to go, pushing them there. It's heartbreaking to see a child whom you believe has the greatest potential just struggle and go nowhere with their lives - I get that. It's hard to just watch it and do nothing.
Our culture has also seemed to accept this delay more than previous generations, so young people seem to have less motivation to move on since so many others are in the same boat. Of course, every person is an individual, and people are wired differently for certain so it's not all about nurture - nature does play a role. Yet, I still argue that our society and approach to parenting in recent times is much different than the past and I do think that plays a role in how young people see themselves and how we view our offspring.
For those young people who are the most successful, it means parents bask in pride over their children's successes in a way previous generations of parents perhaps never did - because today's parents feel directly involved in those achievements - likely because they were.
We parents hover over our children to ensure their success, to bask in it ourselves...but it can backfire.
We all know the best wine comes from the grapes that struggle to live a bit - they have the best flavor and must be fighters to survive. If life is too easy for the vine it will just keep growing shoots and more vines - without producing any grapes. Or the grapes will be round and full of water - but without flavor and substance.
I don't want my children to struggle. I hurt deeply whenever they do. I joke about being Bev Goldberg, but I really am like her at times. I want the best for my children and I am very, very tempted to intervene and help them when I need to sit back and watch. And I talk too much, advise too much. I'm in danger of creating vines with too many shoots and far too little grapes.
Pruning an overgrown vine can mean trying to force it to catch up instead of pruning it gradually as it grows, allowing it to struggle daily but also develop good fruit a little at a time. All things require moderation.
Even the parent birds of a fledgling watch it from a safe distance as it hops around on the ground. The first time I saw a fledgling on my lawn I assumed it fell out of a nest and looked in vain where it came from. Then I heard the chirping from my fence - and a parent bird swooped in to bring the fledgling some food. But it didn't stay. It went back to the fence and watched, but didn't interact unless the fledgling needed help. In a day or so, the little bird's wings had fully developed. And it flew away on its own.
I know that in my own mind I'll still daydream about my kids' futures - I have an overactive imagination and I can't help myself. I love to think about all the wonderful things they can do and experience. I pray for all of the good things I'm thinking of to become reality. I want to share in all of what they do as well. No, it's not my life to live, but it IS my role as a parent and perhaps someday as a grandparent to enjoy. So as I fantasize about my children's lives, I'm really fantasizing about my life, too.
But for my kids to get to the next phases of life successfully, I need to remind myself of the grapevine and the little bird. How too much love can stifle, even if it seems like it's the right thing at the time. I need to realize that a bit of a struggle gives the natural world a chance to grow the right way, to fly away when the time is right.
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