My youngest son is graduating from college soon, so one might think that now I'll just rest on my laurels until the grandkids arrive. But I'm not fooled; even if he isn't one of the thousands of 20-somethings who move back home after college (and he very well may be), I know he'll still need me. Though my three young men (21, 24 and 29) no longer ask me to paste Band-Aids on their skinned knees or wake them up for baseball practice, my parenting days aren't over. And I bet that if you have twenty-somethings (and beyond), neither are yours.
Sure, sometimes we feel forgotten or inconsequential. One mom recently complained to me that her newly-married daughter had no use for her any more, but she soon realized her offspring still sought her emotional support. Another mom told me she initially felt as if she'd been demoted from Vice President of the Family Corporation to a temp job when her kids entered their twenties. Yes, the relationship changes, but I'm finding that older kids have plenty of reasons to keep our files active. Here are a few:
First, as a sounding board. No matter how old you are, who else really cares more than mom (or dad) when there's a problem or an achievement? (Friends, spouses and lovers are dandy, of course, but parents just eat it up when grown-up kids call to bounce their ideas off us, visit or -- if still living at home -- give us any kind of audience at all.)
Approval. After all, we've played this gig for years: cheering them on to first base in tee ball, beaming when they learned to tie their shoes or aced a chemistry test. So it's not a stretch to be thrilled when our kid gets a raise or a promotion. And don't underestimate the negative impact of your disapproval or judgment at this age. Not long ago I made the mistake of subtly (I thought) rolling my eyes when my youngest son told me he is changing his career plans (let's just say the new direction has something to do with rock music). "That's right, Mom," he admonished. "Make fun of my dreams!" Ouch! Needless to say I apologized profusely but the damage was done. Older kids still need their parents to say, "We're behind you!"
Third, interest. I'll never forget the day I realized my dad -- who had suffered from a disease similar to Alzheimers -- was no longer inquiring about my life. Much to my dismay, he had entered his own world, and at times, scarcely knew who I was. At that point, I realized how much it had meant to me when he asked what I was writing about, what books I was reading, or how my job was going. In my thirties then, I still needed my parents to care about my life. Kids never stop wanting us to show our interest, even though -- thankfully -- it's not quite like the old days ("Watch me jump off the couch!" "Watch me brush my teeth!").
I thought I'd ask a parenting expert about this, since though I've been writing about parenting topics for nearly 30 years, I wanted a second opinion. So I turned to Michele Borba, PhD, an educational psychologist who's written 23 books on parenting. "There's one truth about parenting--it's a 'womb to tomb' scenario," she says, "Our kids will always be our 'kids' regardless of whether they're three or 43. And whether they admit it or not, our kids will always need us (and that goes beyond the "Can I have a loan, Mom?"). Our relationship even turns -- if we parented them well when they were little, they'll seek us out for advice or a personal sounding board. They love to call for that favorite recipe or come back for the favorite home-cooked dinner, but most important is that they know we'll be there to offer our unconditional support and love."
I felt validated by Borba's response, which leads me to one last point: Validation. Even more than approval, I believe our older kids need us to simply validate that what they say, think and do matters. It's a rough world out there, and it's good to know that your parent is not going to make a snarky remark, be competitive, or contradict you. In my view, parents of young adults are like invisible safety nets: When our kid falls or fails (as he inevitably will in the twenties and beyond) our support softens the blow so that not every metaphorical bone is broken.
Of course, my boys still occasionally come around looking for me to spot them a twenty or bake some cookies (good luck with that one, kids!), but mostly, I think, our older offspring just want to know that they can count on us. I'm not saying we have to coddle them or solve their problems. No way. But simply "being there" for our kids -- just like when they were little -- is huge, no matter how big they get.