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Retire as an Active Parent, Help Children Become Adults

Since I’m still actively working, I can’t speak with credibility about retiring from a paid job.

But I do have experience with another kind of retirement. I’m inviting you to think about retiring from parenting.

I bet you haven’t heard much about retiring from parenting. Though it’s sorely needed in our parent-frenzied society, it’s not a very popular topic. That’s because today’s parents, fueled by the fantasy of their indispensability, cling to their adult children like bark to a tree.

Personal Experience

I’m speaking from personal experience.

As my three children pushed past college and into their twenties, I realized I was still treating them like they were teenagers: worrying about them, reminding them, assuming that not hearing from them signified a problem, and asking them leading questions such as “Are you eating enough protein?” and “Don’t you think Aunt Josie would love hearing from you?”

It took awhile for me to realize that those little munchkins I took sledding and hiking years earlier were now adults capable of exploring the wide world around them, getting a beat on their values, beliefs and dreams, and finding their way in money, work and love.

Becoming aware that my adult children could function without my direction came slowly and arduously. A few nasty parenting habits worked against my ability to encourage their well-deserved autonomy: I often suggested more than inquired, worried more than trusted, and assumed help was needed instead of creating the emotional space for them to decide when and if they needed my help at all.

I had three strong horses clamoring to break out of the barn and run freely into the fields, but I couldn’t bring myself to unlock the barn door. What would I do with an empty barn, and my precious lock and key?

Holding them back proved difficult for me to admit and defend.

That was a few years ago.

Now, with the advantage of a little hindsight – they’re 27, 29 and 32 – I can see more clearly what was really going on: Over-focusing on the actions of my kids kept me from facing my own responsibility – figuring out how to stay out of their way so they could grow on their own terms.

Defining Parenting

I define parenting as a process of conceiving and raising one or more offspring into early adulthood. Its purpose is to prepare children to function as confident, self-responsible adults.

At that point - roughly ages 18-28 - parental retirement should kick in. The process happens over time.

Parents of older children can begin to examine their role periodically and to question their motives. "Does my child really need my help?" “Am I acting thoughtfully or automatically?” “Is my behavior in the best interest of my child, or am I simply too anxious to get out of the way?”

Markers of Parental Retirement

So what does it mean to retire as a parent? Three markers come to mind:

First, as a retiring parent, I view my offspring as adults, giving up the claim that they are children under my protection. Adult-child interactions – where the needs of the child automatically come first and the child is not expected to be fully responsible – morph into adult-adult interactions, in which each supports the freedom of the other, takes responsibility for self, and regards the other as an equal.

I know I’ve made progress towards an adult-adult relationship when I get interested in better understanding my offspring as separate individuals. This is the opposite of assuming that because I raised them, I know them like the back of my hand.

Second, as a retiring parent, I commit to breaking the habit of unsolicited advice-giving. I am no longer responsible to monitor the decisions of my offspring, or to advise them without invitation. If and when my help is solicited, I reserve the right to help or not help, based on my assessment of whether my help is likely to be truly helpful.

Well-intentioned, unhelpful helpfulness is a good example of a bad habit developed over years of parenting that usually continues even as our children grow into their 30s, 40s and 50s, whether or not they marry and have children of their own.

Unrelenting advice (“I’m just trying to help”) undermines the adult-adult commitment, contributing to distance and resentment.

Third, parental retirement requires that I prepare myself for the inevitable push-back from friends, extended family, and my least mature children. As I develop respectful space from my kids, a sensible and caring idea, I’ll sometimes be thought of as “selfish,” “unstable,” and “abandoning my children.”

That’s because child-focused parents in their 50s and beyond have become a societal norm in the Western world. Those parents – and the children they produce – will likely regard the entire idea of parental retirement as a threat to their existence.

The intense emotional attachment between parent and child helps explain why many parents fight the idea of healthy separateness. The trick is to accept the importance of autonomy, recognize when the time is right, and let it happen naturally.

Separateness, not Disappearance

That separateness doesn’t mean we disappear from their lives.

We can support and love our adult children, celebrate the important events in their lives, and actively grandparent their kids. We can still be there for them if and when they need us. What gets in the way of their functioning is our unregulated emotional need for them.

I’ve found the best way to get less involved in my kids’ lives is to get more interested in continued learning, contributing value to society, taking care of myself, and enjoying the company of other adults. It may have been necessary to push some of these activities aside during my active parenting years, but now is the time to explore and learn.

One friend recently attempted to reassure me that even though my mother is in her 90s, “She’s still your parent.” I corrected my friend: “Actually, she’s no longer actively parenting me, but she’s a most important adult in my life whom I will always love and be grateful for.”

When we retire from parenting, we learn how to love our offspring as separate, cherished adults without controlling, directing, or obstructing them.

As we give up active parenting, they benefit, and so do we.

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