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Parenting Adult Kids: When Do We Become Hands OFF Parents?

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This article was originally published on Better After 50.

It turns out that my very odd upbringing ironically may have prepared me for the next phase of parenting -- parenting adult children.

I walked a mile to school -- I'm not kidding, and I wasn't even from a farming family. I lived in downtown Boston and went to school in the suburbs. Actually, it was way more than 1 mile -- I walked 10 minutes from my lovely home in Back Bay (so don't feel sorry for me) -- took the Green Line (rattily old trolley -- the "T") 45 minutes from Copley Square and THEN, after I dropped my little sister at her school, I walked a mile from her school to mine.

No surprise I started hitch hiking at an early age, until a creep with a riding crop on the dashboard picked me up and stared at my exposed legs for the mile ride. Freaky, scary and stupid. When my sister was old enough to travel on her own, I got a 10-speed bike for my birthday and rode from Back Bay to Chestnut Hill with books on my back -- no helmet of course -- down the commuter clogged Beacon Street -- about 8 miles. I loved my newfound freedom.

I don't remember my parents being particularly concerned about me riding in traffic. I don't remember my parents being worried about anything I did. Actually the only time they got concerned was when I worried about stuff and got stomachaches. They would tell me there was nothing to worry about anyway -- so I ultimately, never told them about my worries.

I didn't tell my parents too much of anything. They were not on the front line of my life and our relationship was one of "checking-in."

Parenting happened at dinnertime. I deflected the questions about grades and focused on my sports stuff. But to be honest, I was not the center of the dinner table talk -- I was lucky to escape the veal sauce experiments, slipping the food into my napkin. My dad usually shared his take-aways on some article he'd read in The New Republic or Commentary and invited our OPINIONS, of which there were many. Mom was focused on whether the veal experiment would work for her next dinner party. Four girls sat around that table plus mom, for a few years until my two older sibs got smart and went away to school. Shortly after I left for college, my parents divorced, after 20ish years of marriage.

So basically, what I learned as a kid I taught myself -- or my sisters taught me. Did they even have self-help books in the 60s? I could have used them. It turns out as a child of hands-off parenting, I relied on the wisdom and focused guidance of 1. my Nana who was around a lot in those early years, 2. Eugenia, our live-in help, who was truly my best friend and cheerleader, and 3. my two closest high school friends.

Not surprisingly, when it was my turn to parent, I was hell bent on being hands-on. I wanted to be on the front line of my kids' lives, and the rewards were staggering. My husband and I purposely chose a community to raise our boys where they could walk to school, their friends were walking distance from our home and our work was nearby. We could, and did, show up at everything.

When just a short 17 to 18 years later the kids left the nest for college, we believed we were no longer on the front line as parents. But, in fact we were. The question, remained, how much of an impact would we have once they were outside the nest?

Despite their new grown up playing field of college (or not), of work disappointments and challenges, and the nuances of dating and relationships -- which all happen outside of our homes -- some of us are not letting go of our parenting front row seats as they move through their life's performances -- even though a shift is occurring.

At what point do we shift from shapers in our kids' lives to observers and guides and become way more hands-off?

I don't know too many parents who can resist helping their kids as they explore their new independent lives. But, when are we supposed to stop helping them negotiate daily life, i.e., make their own dentist appointments, take them off the family cell phone plan, stop booking their travel stuff because they don't have time, or resist going into their apartments and tidying up... etc. When does this line in the sand get drawn?

When do we move off our kids' stage, into the orchestra and ultimately the bleachers? When is it enough to say our parenting roles are limited to watching quietly as they stumble, fall and get up again without fixing or trying to? At what point do we zip-it and trust that they will figure it out?

As my eldest finishes up graduate school and heads to another part of the country to work and my youngest develops his music career -- I know we are no longer on the front line. The process has been evolutionary, and surprisingly quite liberating. It does not feel like the loss I had imagined, as I am no longer "on-call" on a daily basis.

One of my most favorite parts of being post-50 is indeed this shifting role as a parent. Despite some frustration about sitting in the bleachers of our kids lives and dealing with obstructed views -- my  husband and I are loving our independence.

Read more from Better After 50:
10 Reasons To Wear A Towel In The Locker Room
50th Birthday Gift Ideas For Your Girlfriends
What Is Your 'Life's Calling'?
No Judgments Until The End Of The Story, Please

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

  • Katie Couric, 56
    Talk show host Katie Couric has been a single mother for the past 15 years after husband, Jay Monahan, passed away from cancer in 1998. Couric has two daughters, Ellie, who graduated from college earlier this year, and Carrie, a senior in high school.
  • "It's less that I'm worried about being an empty nester than I am at being absolutely flabbergasted at how fast time flies. That's a little bit scary. As my friend John says, 'You're never going to be any younger. You've got to enjoy the road ahead.'" – Katie Couric, USA Today
  • Andie MacDowell, 55
    Getty Images
    Actress and model, Andie MacDowell (center) is mother to two daughters, Rainey Qualley (left) and Sarah Margaret Qualley (right). She also has a son, Justin. When MacDowell's youngest daughter went away to college, MacDowell decided it was time to focus on her career again. "I asked myself, 'What am I doing here? There are no kids. I am ready to go now,'" MacDowell told TV blog Zap2It.
  • I’m learning a lot about parenting young adults. Because of technology today, we expect kids to stay in touch with us too much. I think that’s unnatural. We really do have to give kids their freedom and allow them to go off and become adults. I had to recognize my clinging and stop it. – Andie MacDowell, The New York Times
  • Susan Sarandon, 67
    Getty Images
    Academy Award winning actress, Susan Sarandon, has two sons, and a daughter, Eva Amurri (left). Her youngest son, Miles, left for college in 2009 and Sarandon couldn't have been happier. Sarandon embraced her empty nest and took advantage of her extra free time by fulfilling her dream of starring in a Broadway show.
  • "I'm so ready for an empty house...The thing is, when you have kids you're such a captive to their school schedule so you get an invite or you wanna go someplace or something, you have to be back by a certain time. I'm very hands on so I have to break that habit." – Susan Sarandon,
  • Alfre Woodward, 60
    Getty Images
    Actress Alfre Woodard struggled with her empty nest last year when her son, Duncan (left), and daughter Mavis left home. Woodard decided, however, it was time to throw herself back into work and starred in the 2012 film, "Steel Magnolias."
  • "(Being a mother) was just the most incredible human experience I think that I could have, and I miss it terribly." – Alfre Woodard, Associated Press
  • Michelle Pfeiffer, 55
    Actress Michelle Pfeiffer has two college-aged children--daughter, Claudia Rose, and son, John. Being an empty nester is "scary," Pfeiffer told Ladies Home Journal in 2012, but she's finding ways to stay busy. Her new hobby is painting portraits.
  • "It's scary, but it's also exciting to think about. Once I get past the shock of having an empty nest, I'm going to be really happy with my newfound freedom." – Michelle Pfeiffer, Ladies Home Journal
  • Meredith Vieira, 59
    TV Host, Meredith Vieira, is an empty nester after her three children--Ben, Gabriel, and Lily--have left home. But instead of letting the blues settle in, Vieira is taking the time to enjoy the extra time with her husband, Richard, she told Parade Magazine.
  • “I sometimes feel guilty saying it, but I think the empty nest is great! We did our job, as my husband points out repeatedly. You’re supposed to give your children roots and wings...The fact that our three kids are launched, so to speak, and seem to be very happy, young people, makes me feel good about what we accomplished." – Meredith Vieira, Parade Magazine
  • Cybill Shepherd, 63
    Getty Images
    Actress Cybill Shepherd has two daughters, Clementine Ford (right) and Ariel Oppenheim, as well as son, Cyrus Shepherd-Oppenheim. With the children grown and flown, Shepherd had a hard time adjusting at first, crying and having a hard time dealing with the empty bedrooms, she told The New York Times. She is using the extra time to focus on her career and even found time to pen a memoir.
  • "Yes. I still suffer from the empty nest thing myself... Once the kids are gone you have to find yourself again. But there’s also a chance to take on new things." – Cybill Shepherd, More Magazine