10/12/2011 08:03 am ET Updated Dec 12, 2011

Boomers, Butt Out of Your Adult Children's Lives

How many times have you heard parents trying to tell their adult children how to live their lives? Maybe you've even done it yourself. I know I have. What I've learned as a boomer dad, though, is that not allowing my adult son to make his own choices without judgment or advice erodes his trust and undermines our relationship.

Young adults are desperately trying to establish their own identity and place in the world, and what they need from their parents is compassionate questioning and listening -- not criticism and dictatorial you-shoulds. A young adult who's constantly barraged with advice and judgment from his or her parents quickly learns to keep personal dialogue to a minimum and, eventually, stops communicating them altogether.

In addition to maintaining open communication with our adult children, letting them make their own mistakes gives them the chance to clarify their goals and develop strong character while pursuing them. Children who never face adversity without parental interference remain children, dependent on their parents to rescue them at every turn. They're denied the self-knowledge and personal responsibility that come from making painful decisions -- and ultimately lead to maturity.

Of course, no parent wants their children to suffer. That's a given -- and especially for many of us boomers who, ourselves, struggled significantly as young adults. In the 60s, we had the rare opportunity to help change the social landscape of America forever, and many of us faced parental and societal resistance head-on to do so. We mistrusted our parents and "the establishment" for their fear-mongering advice and were correct not to heed it. We became peace activists and civil rights advocates, and the change we created is a testament to our values and persevering character.

Two decades later, however, my character was ironically tested when my son graduated from high school and told me he wanted to enlist in the Marines. He was only seventeen so he needed my signature to join. I'd raised him as a single dad until he was six years old, and I loved him deeply and unconditionally. No choice he could've made about his future would've been less in line with my feelings about it, but I realized that this was his life and gave him the kind of parental support I never got. I listened -- without judgment or advice -- to his reasons for wanting to enlist instead of enrolling in college. His reasons were compelling, and while I spent the next several years terrified he might be sent off to war, I was enormously proud of him. He was becoming his own man.

In fact, his experiences in the Marines helped build his strong character, and the moment he mustered out, he enrolled in college. He received his degree in economics and now is the father of an eight-year-old son, and a contributing member of his community.

Our relationship still takes sensitive handling, though, and I have to continually monitor my tendency to dole out advice. When I fail to, my son becomes quiet, and our phone calls became less frequent. Then I remember that he's a grown man and needs the space to keep developing into his own person. As a result, we have a deep and close relationship, and he trusts me and knows he can always count on my support and help.

So, butt out of your adult children's lives. Trust them enough to give them the latitude to become the men and women you hoped they'd be. After all, you raised them to have good values and judgment.