Being friends with your adult children

I want to begin with one of my favorite quotes from The West Wing.  Lisa Wolfe is a staffer in a Republican Senate, which controls the confirmation of federal judges.  Josh Lyman is a staffer in a Democratic White House, which controls the nomination of federal judges.  In the quotation below, Lisa is advising Josh to bring her the name of a moderate judge and not to waste his time bringing liberals.  She says:

 I tell you this as a person who would be your friend if I was a person who looked for different things in friends.

I just think it is cute that she the first subjunctive in as if she really wanted to be Josh’s friend and then a second subjunctive which establishes the simple truth that she does not want to be Josh’s friend.  When I think how easy it would have been to write that line so it wasn’t funny at all, I send a silent vote of thanks to Deborah Cahn who wrote this episode. [1]

children 6It does raise the question, however, of what you look for in friends and that is an especially piercing question when the people who might become your friends are your own children.

This isn’t like dating.  It isn’t like striking up a conversation with some new and interesting person at a party.  Your children are people you have known in another way.  The transition will have to have the form of “No longer this…but that.” 

In this essay, I am interested in three things.  What is it no longer?  What is it to become?  And what sort of transition is indicated by that little ellipsis between them?

What is it no longer?

It is not asymmetrical any longer.  Well…it is, kind of, because although you can become new persons for each other, it will always be true that you were, once the persons you were.  You were parent and child.  But you are in the process of leaving that asymmetry behind and the way to do that is to keep your eye on a new symmetry as the goal.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Your children used to be dependent on you, for instance.  That could have been the best part of the relationship for you or for the child or both, but it isn’t symmetrical and it can’t be made symmetrical.  As a practical matter, your choices are interdependence, in which each relies on the other, or independence, in which neither relies on the other.

Now that might not be the way you looked at it. [2] You may have focused much more children 7clearly on nurturance.  You nurtured the child and you did a terrific job of it, sometimes at considerable cost to yourself.  Apart from how good it was for the child to be nurtured, it was terrific to know how good you were at nurturing.  When the child becomes an adult, she doesn’t need to be nurtured, or, what is nearly the same thing, doesn’t want to be caught needing to be nurtured.  We’re all grown up now, right?

I’ve been talking about dependence and independence as if they were positions like ON and OFF.  They aren’t, of course, but I needed to simplify it so I could make the point about symmetry.  It works the same way if the virtue is wisdom. 

Wisdom is just another asymmetry.  I know things that you don’t and you need to know them so you ask.  I may look at how wonderful it is that he and I have such a close relationship (and it may be true) without noticing that it requires him not to know things.  There really ought to come a time when he needs to know things and he will know things and they may be different from the things you know.  They may be contradictory to the things you know to be true.

children 5It is at that point that you find out how tightly wedded you are to the Wise Man role.  If you need to play that role apart from whether your son needs the wisdom you are offering, then you will experience your son’s adulthood as a loss and you will grieve it. [3]  You may continue to offer “wisdom” because, after all, that is what you like to do and you have been really good at it; and find that there is no place to put all that wisdom.  There is no empty space in your son’s life which you can fill to the satisfaction of each party.

Here’s what to do.  Let’s start with the bad news first.

You need to shift over from what you were doing to what your child now needs.  Notice that the trick is to “shift over,” not to stop one thing and start another.  If celebration is the mature form of nurture, then imagine that you are shifting from some kind of 80/20  mix down through 60/40 and on to 20/80.  More and more celebration and less and less nurture.  Or more and more receiving of wisdom from the child and less and less giving of wisdom to the child. 

I promised good new after the bad news, but we’re not there yet.

children 8The two hard things about that transformation are that you have to give up a role you were really good at and start practicing a role you are not likely to be as good at, at least at the beginning.  The nurture that emerged from your compassion and the counsel that emerged from your wisdom were beautiful and practiced and you and your child performed it like a dance.  The celebration of the daughter’s accomplishments is not going to be as good at first (also not as satisfying) so you really need to start now and the same goes for the celebration of your son’s wisdom.

Start now.  Use the asymmetrical relationship as a bank account you can draw from in beginning the new, well new-ish, relationship.[4]  You don’t have to withdraw the adult support faster than the child loses the need for it.  Just don’t be very much slower.  You are alert now for instances where your daughter does things using her own resources that would once have required a shoulder to cry on.  You see them coming, you prepare for them, you prepare to offer nurture should it be required and to lavish your pride on your daughter when she manages for herself.

It might not be easy, but it won’t continue to feel as bad as it feels now.  Here’s why.  When you first lose that wonderful old nurturance, it seems like a loss only.  You have lost something you had a right to.  But as you anticipate the chances to celebrate your daughter’s accomplishments, you can catch yourself feeling that way and you can disapprove of it.  The feelings won’t go away immediately, but when you refuse to approve of them, they will weaken and as you feed the new relationship—the adult to adult relationship—those new feelings will get stronger.

Now the good news I promised.

The new relationship is a relationship you can only have with a friend.  The relationship children 9of oversight and provision is gone now [5] and in its place is a friendship.  The friendship runs, as do all your other friendships, on the things you have in common now; on the complementarity of your current skills and emotions.  This is a small ironic riff on the expression “friends with benefits” only here, the benefit is the past you share and enjoy together.

Now, you get to receive nurture from your daughter and if you are willing to do that, you will get to offer nurture to her as well.  If you are willing to receive advice and counsel from your son, you will get to offer advice and counsel as well, just as you do with your other friends.  This is the symmetry you were looking for; the symmetry that was worth going through all that turbulence for.  It is a rich and caring interdependence.

It was a rough go, you think, looking back.  When she left, I felt only the loss of her leaving.  As I was learning to celebrate her achievements and not to hover, I didn’t always hit the balance right and frankly, she didn’t assert her new independence with unfailing grace either.  But we both learned to do better and then we got really good.  And then we came to rely on each other to play our new parts with confidence and generosity.  And now we are friends who know how to depend on each other, to actively affirm who we are and to relish what we were.

That’s not bad at all.  It brings us back to the little West Wing quip with which we began.  You are friends with you son or your daughter because you do, in fact, find in them the things you look for in a friend.

[1]It’s the 17th episode of Season 5 and it’s called “The Supremes.” Nearly all the episodes of The West Wing are available in full transcript form.

[2]  So I don’t have to keep talking about “the child” and to free this narrative up for a little more breadth, I have invented a mother/child relationship in which nurture is the key virtue and a father/son relationship in which wisdom is the key issue.  I know those are stereotypes, but it does open up some more specific examples without adding a batch of unnecessary words.

[3]  It is easy to imagine that you will not grieve it or at least that you will not show it.  That isn’t at all likely.  We respond to losses at that deep level in ways that are easy to see and easy to understand by everyone but ourselves.  We are literally the last to know

[4] There are lots of good forms of “not nurture anymore” of which celebration is only one, but it isn’t a bad one.

[5]  OK, it’s never entirely gone.  Minds don’t work that way.  But the emotions and the habits of mind that are associated with the parent/child relationship can become something the two of you laugh about together (because you are adults and friends) and secretly cherish because you both have wonderful memories of an earlier time.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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