When my kids were little, I thought I pretty much rocked the whole parenting thing. My kids sat still in the pediatrician’s office – at least for the first hour. They obediently held my hand all the way across the parking lot. And when one of them tried on the whole defiance attitude, I moved in swiftly with strong parental authority, setting them down firmly in a chair while telling them to sit there and think about it until I said they could get up. And nine times out of then, they did.
When my children became adults, I believed the same authority-driven parenting skills would still work. I continued to believe it would work despite multiple failed attempts proving otherwise. Making a toddler sit in a chair until they’re willing to accept your rules may be exhausting, but sitting in a chair all night wondering where you almost-adult child is … that is terrifying. I struggled quite a bit with the transition of being a mother of adult children, and it was fear that drove me to escalate my attempt to control my children as they escalated their own attempts to break free. I tried withholding affection and giving them cold shoulder. I pointed out every wrong decision and lectured whenever possible. I held strong, despite it feeling very much like bondage, believing that not giving ground was the only way to parent a child who was making choices I was sure would end badly.
And then one day my great-aunt, a sweet, quiet woman who had raised six children, pulled me aside at a family gathering. At the time, I had no idea it would be the last time I talked to her. She passed away a few days after our conversation, and I am so grateful that she intervened in my own struggle – when I hadn’t even asked for her help – to tell me that what I was doing was all wrong. Her words changed everything for me as a mother of adult children.
“I’ve learned a lot in my years on this earth, and I feel compelled to tell you something that I wish someone had told me when I was a younger mother,” she said. Something in me bristled. I didn’t want to hear that my parenting might be part of the problem. “Right now … where you are with your kids? This is the time in life when you just shut up and love them.”
She had tears in her eyes. Her advice obviously came from experience, from wisdom she’d gained at great personal cost. Not a week later, my own mother gave me the same advice, and when I received the same advice from two women who had dedicated their lives to being good mothers, who were looking back on their own journey and seeing from their side of the struggle what might have delivered better results, I knew I had to listen.
I decided to swallow my pride and try their advice.
Instead of pointing out the obvious to my kids, I just shut up.
When I felt hurt, I shut up.
When I wanted to lecture, I shut up.
When I wanted to get angry and yell, I shut up.
I just loved – whatever the cost.
And here is what I learned:
- Just because something works well for one stage of a relationship, it doesn’t mean it will work for the next.
- Don’t make rules that keep you in bondage.
- Be willing to hear hard truths and swallow your pride.
- If you want things to change, be willing to make the first move.
- It isn’t anyone else’s job to call you, reach out to you or make the first move.
- They don’t owe you, even if you think they do.
- A child never learns a good lesson from a parent withholding love.
- You can make your children fear you, but you have to earn their respect – and their love.
- Sometimes, the right answer – the only answer – is to just shut up and love.
For me, her advice worked miracles almost overnight. The bonds that were so nearly severed, the fights that almost ripped our relationship apart – they ended abruptly when I chose to take the higher road, to give my children the space to explore their own adulthood. And they’ve made mistakes, painful ones that cost them. But instead of anger and self-righteousness, I’ve found myself filled with compassion, my heart breaking right alongside theirs. They learned they could lean on me, ask for help and advice, and they learned through their own journey that with almost all of the mistakes we make, there is still a way out, a way back – even if it is with a few scars and consequences along the way. My children found the courage to address their own problems once I wasn’t trying to wrestle the decisions away from them in order to prevent the mistakes.
I am sure that I will have to once again have to learn how to be a different mother when my children begin having families of their own. But whatever it is I have to change, I’m ready. I now know that whatever it requires on my part, it’s worth it. It’s so well worth it.