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Empty Nester: Were You a Good Parent?

The author of a new book says you may be using the wrong yardstick

posted by Wendy Aronsson, May 6, 2014 More by this author

Mother and daughter hugging

Wendy Aronsson, LCSW, has been a licensed psychotherapist since 1981 and is in private practice in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her book Refeathering the Empty Nest describes children leaving as an evolution instead of a loss.


Mother and daughter hugging
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(The following is adapted from Refeathering the Empty Nest: Life After the Children Leave.)
 
Each person’s life contains a variety of punctuation. Some moments suggest a pause in the flow, like a comma, whereas others signal a full stop, like a period.

For some parents, taking their young adult to college as a freshman is the latter type. For them, it’s a defining moment when day-to-day hands-on parenting stops; the natural thing to do next is start a new sentence in their story.
 
When writing, people will often go back and reread what’s already been written so they can make sure they are satisfied with it. The author cannot help but wonder, “Did I say what I meant to say?” “Could I have said it better?” Reflecting on one’s strengths and limitations as a parent is natural.

(MORE: 6 Things You Got Right as a Parent)
 
One of the survey questions I posed to parents whose children had recently left home was the following: “Currently, how would you evaluate your parenting?”
 
a. Overall, I feel good about my parenting but know that I wasn’t perfect
b. I don’t feel bad but wish I could have done better
c. There’s so much more I wish I would have known
d. I met the challenges as best I could
e. I have many regrets
 
Eighty-five percent of the respondents checked “a.” The rest checked “b.” Of note is that all of the parents described themselves as somewhere between “involved” and “extremely involved” in their child’s life.

(MORE: When the Kids Leave Home, What's Next?)
 
In discussions with parents, a common theme is that they appraise their performance as parents on the basis of criteria that relate to their young adult’s success. They tend to focus on areas of their child’s experience such as the following:
  • Academic achievement
  • Social adjustment
  • Career choice
  • Sense of values
  • General happiness

‘Could I Have Done Better?’
 
In reflecting on their parenting, it’s not uncommon for parents to be hard on themselves occasionally — to focus momentarily on “I could have done better?” rather than pat themselves on the back. A May 2013 survey by a New York Times reporter indicated that, for the most part, young adults are giving their parents kudos for trying rather than criticizing them for being overbearing or out of touch with them.
 
Katherine Schulten posed a set of questions to teenaged and young adult readers that asked them to describe their parents’ behaviors in relation to so-called helicopter parents. She asked them:
 
"How involved are your parents in your life? How much do they step in to help you with your schoolwork, social life, college applications, hobbies, sports or anything else? How often do they try to solve your problems? Do you like having their help, or do you find it burdensome? Why?"
 
Sixty-two comments quickly came in to the New York Times website. Some of them were quite detailed in answering each of the questions posed, and one respondent after another said unequivocally that their parents were not helicopter parents.

What they described were what I refer to in my book as precision parents — that is, deliberate and diligent in their parenting but not overwhelming.

Comments like this were common: “My parents haven’t stepped in recently, because I haven’t given them a reason to.” The young respondents, themselves, also chimed in about what they thought was good parenting — and gave their parents credit for achieving it: “I think the perfect amount of help from a parent is enough to steer you in the right direction and to your full potential but not enough that they do all the work for us.”
 
Dealing With ‘The Shift’
 
Part of the task of The Shift [the evolution of both parents and adult children as the nest empties] is to reconcile your own success and regrets in the parenting of your young adult. More importantly, part of the task is to recognize that your young adults are developing their own blueprints for their life and they may be different from yours or from what you’d hoped for. Additionally, they may not be compatible with yours.

(MORE: How I Learned to Stop Pushing My Children)
 
Cheryl was a single mom who completed her Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry just before giving birth to her son, Sam. Sam grew up around chemists and, through the years, sat in on many of his mother’s conversations with her research colleagues at the university hospital. He was absorbed into a community of people who enjoyed their work and were extremely diligent parents; they were a support group for Cheryl that made her life as a single mother much easier.
 
Sam decided to major in chemistry. The summer after his freshman year of college, he took a job in a breeding kennel, and, suddenly, decided he wanted to breed and train purebred dogs for a living. He told his mother he wanted to drop out of college and pursue his new passion.
 
Cheryl and her son agreed that it was important for him to return to college and complete another year of his studies. Cheryl told him if he still felt as passionate about working with dogs after that, she would do what she could to help him pursue that profession.

During his sophomore year, Sam discovered that he really liked studying chemistry, and he concluded he could combine his enjoyment of it with his love of animals by becoming a veterinarian.
 
Leave Space For Children to Grow
 
This vignette captures a wonderful result of allowing a young adult to feel his way. College is a period of self discovery. By taking a step back, Cheryl enabled Sam to explore his interests and his options, as well as figure out what kinds of things were really important to him in spite of her own hopes and desires.
 
Cheryl’s reining in her opinion about what her son should study and how he should live his life is a very hard thing for many, if not most, parents to do. Precision parents may have an especially difficult time in allowing this process to take place, because they are so used to playing a key role in shaping their children’s pursuits — sports, academics, habits and social life. They have spent years behind the scenes providing opportunities for their children.
 
It may take an ongoing conscious effort for precision parents to remind themselves that the period after they leave home is supposed to be a time of exploration and discovery for their young adult.

“Ongoing” is an important part of the message because it could take all four or five years of college, or even longer, for that young adult to figure out what career he or she wants to pursue. It’s like creating a sculpture: You’ve envisioned what the outcome will be, but there are often surprises throughout the creative process.
 
Cheryl encouraged her son to explore and come to his own decision through his own experience; she knew her son and trusted his judgment. The understanding the two of them came to about his sophomore year helped her son reach his own decision about what he wanted to pursue on his own, to sift through different options to determine what felt right. In this way, Sam was able to facilitate his own independence.