How to Be a Great Long-Distance Parent
We still have a role to play even after our adult kids fly the coop
Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.
And that’s both good news and not so good.
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Early Lessons in Letting Go
Unlike a lot of parents, especially mothers, I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable from the very beginning. The day my son was born and I held him for the first time, I looked into his big, moony eyes and said, “One day I will have to let you go.”
I figured if I started then, I might be close to ready in 18 or so years.
My son, now 27, helped my process of accepting him as a self-sovereign individual from a precocious age. When I used to attempt to discipline him by explaining the consequences of not doing the things he was asked, he would sometimes reply, “I don’t like the punishment, but I’m not going to do X, so I guess I’ll just have to accept it.”
Once, when he was in grade school, he actually said, “If you’re trying to use reverse psychology on me, it’s not going to work.”
That was the day I felt the balance of power shift.
Watching Them Sprout Wings
I used to say to friends with similarly feisty, confident, righteously indignant kids that the qualities that frustrated us most then would be the things we’d be most proud of when they became adults. And yet, waiting it out took all the self-restraint I had.
A psychic once predicted I’d have a wonderful, deep, lifelong connection with my son, but that the years from 14 to 19 would be a little difficult. This woman was not only spot-on accurate, but she could have been crowned the queen of understatement.
On my son’s 14th birthday, in a very fancy restaurant in front of his father, me, my parents and a scrum of singing waiters bearing a blazoning birthday cake, he uttered a two-word phrase we can’t print here. (Technically, he’s still grounded.)
And so it went for the next five years, until one day, on a visit home from college, he was suddenly … just … nice. No more stubborn, angry, passively and blatantly aggressive teenage angsty behavior. I didn’t dare question — or comment. I just smiled to myself … and have been smiling ever since.
There’s only so much you can “tell” a college student. After all, part of the experience for them is to begin to truly separate and individuate and learn to navigate the big, scary world on your own: the successes, failures and everything in between. My role for those four years was tiny bit adviser and full-time CFO at the Bank of Mom.
After college, unable to find meaningful work at home, my son joined WWOOF, one of the coolest programs out there, and worked on organic farms in Argentina for a couple of months. He stayed in South America for five more months and traveled through half a dozen countries. This is when I started to learn the lessons of good long-distance parenting.
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Away on his own — really away, and really on his own — for the first time, he grew wiser, more mature and a bit vulnerable. He seemed genuinely happy to share his adventures with me and sometimes even asked for advice. For my part, I had to find a balance between wanting to give too much yet stay involved. In the process, Skype became my lifeline.
He eventually came home — enriched in unexpected ways — but still couldn’t get anything resembling a career off the ground. In South America he’d heard about teaching opportunities in Korea and talked excitedly about doing that. But when a year later he was still just talking about it, I started to doubt it would happen.
Despite my own grave reservations (think lunatic to the north), I knew he really wanted to go, so I encouraged him. When that didn't work, I did the next smartest thing I could think of: I told him I forbade him from going.
One month later, he’d landed a job and an apartment and the company was buying him a one-way ticket to Seoul.
6 Tips for Long-Distance Parents
It’s never easy, but as long as we remember that we brought our kids into the world to become their own independent, happy, remarkable selves, the job description of "parent" becomes clearer. Here are the six most important things my son has taught me about good long-distance parenting.
1. Be up-to-date with technology. We’re not just talking Skype on the computer, Mom. You need it on your phone — along with Viber. For photos, use Dropbox and make sure to give each other sharing access. And there’s probably two newer, cooler apps since I wrote this.
2. Listen more than you talk. Of course you’re eager to share all your news, but take your time. You have a lot of friends, but your children have only one mother and father. However cool or self-sufficient they may seem, they still have some need to impress or please you (or just be heard). Let them.
3. Be sparing with advice. Banishing the word “should” from your vocabulary is a good start. Wait for them to ask. If they share information that you feel is harmful in any way, find a gentle way to make your suggestion.
(MORE: How Not to Talk to Your Adult Child About Money)
4. Never play the guilt card. No matter how much you miss them, don’t make them feel bad about their choice to live far from home. If possible, offer to visit. Seeing where and how they live can deepen your bonds.
5. Help keep them stay connected. Forward emails or pictures you know they’ll appreciate. Take photos of people and new developments so they’ll feel up to speed. I give my son virtual home tours via Skype and hold the cats up to the computer. (TMI?)
6. Always end conversations with “I love you.” You know why.