Adult parent, adult children

Families: You know how to treat your 4-year-old -- but how do you treat your 40 year-old? A sociologist has some suggestions.

Life After 50

February 24, 2002|By Sara Steffens | Sara Steffens,Knight Ridder / Tribune

As babies, they needed you to change their diapers. As schoolchildren, they needed you to bandage their scraped knees. As teen-agers, they needed your curfews and the use of your car.

But what do your children need from you when they're 40 years old? When they're 50 years old? How about 60?

As America's longevity revolution opens new chapters of the parent-child relationship, such questions are becoming commonplace, says author and sociologist Roberta Maisel.

"We may now be on the planet for 40 years or 50 years with our children as adults," said Maisel, of Berkeley, Calif. "Are we still going to say to them, 'Don't forget your umbrella,' or 'Did you send your grandmother a thank-you note?' "

Maisel's search for new models of interaction grew into a new book: All Grown Up: Living Happily Ever After With Your Adult Children (New Society Publishers, $15.95).

The work is based on Maisel's interviews with fathers and mothers between the ages of 48 and 70.

Maisel, a mother of three adult children who watches over her 93-year-old mother, sat down recently to answer questions about the hurdles parents and children face when struggling to build an adult relationship.

Q. In your book, you write about how society has changed since 1963. Can you explain a little about that? What are some of the major shifts?

A. I call it the "big bang." Socially speaking, some incredible things happened in the '60s and early '70s.

When I was coming into adulthood in the '50s -- which doesn't seem so far away from the '60s, but yet it was the Dark Ages by comparison -- there was no such thing as a middle-class woman not being married to the man she was living with. "Living in sin" was the phrase that was used.

It's now a commonplace arrangement, which the younger generation, my children, grew up with as the norm.

Along with that major force came other things: the acceptance of homosexuality. Despite a lot of backlashes, fighting and arguing, a homosexual lifestyle is, in large parts of the Western world, nothing very remarkable.

The idea of choosing to remain childless. That didn't exist as recently as the 1950s.

Q. There's also been a change in our ideas about adulthood. What makes someone an adult?

A. People before me have made note of the fact that adolescence doesn't just end at the age of 20 or 21. Young people sometimes go on in what we think of as adolescence up to age 30 or even beyond.

They're not sure what they want, they bum around, finding themselves, making forays into education. They put off marriage or parenting. They may take a long time to settle down -- or what their parents would consider being settled down.

So when I talk about adult children, I felt I had to define what that really means. There are a number of definitions, but I think the main one is someone who has taken responsibility for himself or herself, who is using his abilities to contribute to society.

Q. What is one simple thing that parents can do to improve their relationships with adult children?

A. An important point is the very simple act of listening: letting your adult child talk when they're talking, especially if it's an emotional subject matter. Listening with a loving ear, not listening so they can pounce.

Listen so that you can understand who they are and where they're coming from.

Q. Do you have any advice for adult children who are struggling with these issues?

A. To not give up on a parent who's not acting the way you want him or her to act.

To have faith in your feelings, but not make the mistake of thinking that the feelings constitute the whole of the relationship.

You may have a resentful feeling toward your mother for always making remarks about your appearance. It's important that you isolate that feeling, that thing your mother does, and not look at it as the crux of the relationship.

It's just something that doesn't suit you.

Find a time to sit down with you mother and say, "There's something I want to talk about." In case your parent refuses to listen, you have to plan ahead, to set the rules of engagement. Say, for instance, "I can talk for five minutes and then you can talk for five minutes and I won't interrupt you."

Avoid the temptation to go into ancient history, "You did thus-and-so 10 years ago." Stick to the present. Stick to your feelings now. Going back to the "you always" number makes it seem like a huge edifice, a set of events that can never be changed.

The idea is to change things, so deal with the here and now.

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