How To Parent Less
Speaker 1: It’s gotten to the point where my stomach sinks sometimes when I see a text or phone call from one of our kids. Are they okay? Are they happy? I don’t want it to be like this.
Amanda Ripley: Welcome to how to. The show where we answer the questions. You just can’t seem to get answered anywhere else. I’m Amanda Ripley. Adulthood is one of those slippery milestones. By age 18, teenagers can drive, vote, enlist in the military. But between the ages of 18 and 29, half of them are still living at home. Only a quarter of young adults are financially independent by age 22, according to the Pew Research Center. So it’s all very confusing for parents.
Amanda Ripley: The finish line for active parenting seems to keep moving further and further into adulthood, and some of us are left feeling like we’re either overly involved or recklessly disengaged. Right now, more than half of Americans think parents are doing too much all together for their young adult kids. So how do you know when to step in and when to step back? Our listener, Karen, lives in North Carolina. And get this, she’s a full time romance writer. Very cool job. And she’s also a mother of two.
Speaker 1: I have a 23 year old daughter and a 21 year old son, and they’re amazing people. But this world just feels so overwhelming. I definitely struggled in my twenties and I remember being poor and and not knowing what I was doing and all of that. But I feel like my kids are struggling in a way that I was not. And so trying to find that balance between helping them and I believe in being a soft place to land for your kids. But also it just gets super stressful when they’re in crisis. It kind of takes over everything. Hmm. I know there is a way we can do this better.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah. Sounds like you’re struggling to figure out how to transition to this next phase of their lives and your life in a way that’s, you know, warm and firm and fair and keep your sanity. Is that right?
Speaker 1: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Amanda Ripley: Could you tell us a little bit more about your kids?
Speaker 1: Our daughter is 23 and she struggles with her mental health. She struggles mostly with depression and anxiety. It was a little bit in high school, but when she when she got to college, it just got much, much worse. You know, she actually was hospitalized multiple times for depression and and then she dropped out of school. And I mean, she’s doing well right now. She went to cosmetology school, but she graduated and has her license. And so now she’s starting the process of finding her first, quote unquote, real job.
Speaker 1: And then her son is 21 and he’s about to be a senior in college and Ryan is on the autism spectrum. So, I mean, in a lot of ways, he’s doing way better than we imagined he would do when he was in middle school or elementary school because, you know, we didn’t know that he would be able to go away to college and pass all of his classes and that sort of thing. But he also struggles with his mental health. He has a lot of social anxiety and COVID has made that 100 times worse. So, yeah, that’s sort of where we’re at.
Amanda Ripley: So on today’s show, we brought in someone to help Karen reset her relationship with her kids.
Arthur Brooks: My name is Arthur Brooks. I’m a professor at Harvard University, where I teach classes on happiness. On the science of happiness. And that’s what I write about for The Atlantic as well, a column called How to Build a Life. My background is as a social scientist. I do work on all facets of human behavior. And what I’m trying to do is figure out why people do the things that they do and to use the science to come up with solutions so that we can live better lives and solve our problems.
Amanda Ripley: Arthur has some surprising tips and some tough love for Karen to help her rebalance her relationship with her kids, for her sanity and for theirs. And these tips, by the way, can be deployed by adult kids as well for managing their parents or their bosses or any grown up who hasn’t quite figured out when to lean in and when to chill out. Stick around.
Amanda Ripley: Arthur, what’s your reaction, hearing what you’ve heard so far?
Arthur Brooks: Well, this is a really common problem for aging parents of adult children. By the way, Carol, I’m not saying you’re aging, except that we all are aging. You know.
Amanda Ripley: Right now as we speak.
Arthur Brooks: And I get it. My kids are 24, 22 and 19. I mean, I have kids in exactly the same zone. And so I’m talking to a lot of people my age and I’m talking to a lot of young people because I’m a university professor. They’re on the other side of this thing. And so I hear this again and again and again. The key thing that we start with is this assumption that it’s that life is just harder than it was when when we were that age. And that’s actually not true. Life isn’t harder. Life is life, and life is hard is the bottom line. The problem is that we’re present right now and we have a bias toward the difficulties that we see around us at the moment. And we tend to there’s a phenomenon in psychology called the fading effect bias, where we kind of remember better the things as they were in the past. This is not good old days thinking. But but basically, you know, even hard things that were bad, you tend to remember good things about them because you learn from them.
Arthur Brooks: So the truth is that we all probably had a lot of the same miseries and the same heartbreaks and the same difficulties and the same fears that our kids did. But it feels a lot worse, and it’s really easy for us to fall prey to the arguments that we hear of the current ism saying, Oh, it’s never been this bad. Yeah, it has. It actually has. Absolutely.
Amanda Ripley: No. Arthur, how do we know it’s been. It’s not worse now. Like how what makes you confident?
Arthur Brooks: Well, it’s part of it is that the the way that psychologists will look at this is that they’ll actually look at people over multidecade time span talking about how things actually are. So we have a study at Harvard called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. It’s an 84 year longitudinal study of the same people, you know, year after year after year after year. And you’ll talk to them about their lives and they’re telling the same stories decade after decade. And, you know, people who are coming in behind them, you know, their their spouses and their kids and their grandkids who are being interviewed are telling the same stories that their parents did with slight variations having to do with technology and whatever is current in the news.
Arthur Brooks: You know, but it’s worth pointing out, you know, we talk about a lot of the crises that we have today, about the identity that people can’t seem to find, that young people, who am I? You know, those types of questions and and even the self-destructive behavior that we see today, not remembering that there was a ton of self-destructive behavior in the 1960s, in the 1970s and the 1980s and 1990s. And just it takes different forms because people are struggling and they they deal with it in slightly different ways. But the data are pretty clear. Humanity’s humanity and and life is tough. So the first thing for us to keep in mind is that it wasn’t so great when we were that age either. What we had was a different set of expectations on who we could go to, and that’s really what I see, kind of the crux of this situation being that difference, Karen, between what you did and what your kids do.
Speaker 1: Okay. Because I was about to ask, how much of this is that? I’m so much more connected to my kids than I was to my parents, you know?
Amanda Ripley: Karen, what was it like for you when you had think of a low moment when you were in your early twenties?
Speaker 1: I was a sophomore in college, and I had this horrible, horrible roommate situation. One female roommate and one male roommate. And the male roommate basically hit on me from the first day that we were in the apartment together. And once I finally made it clear that he needed to stay away from me, he went after my other roommate and she actually liked him. But then that made things super, super awkward. And so, you know, I put up with it for a long time, but, you know, about a month short of my lease, I just I could not take it anymore. I was losing it. I was afraid to go home. It was so uncomfortable.
Amanda Ripley: And you found a payphone?
Speaker 1: Yes, I found a payphone. Yeah. This would have been 1988. I called my dad. And, you know, part of it was, you know, I didn’t grow up with a lot of resources. You know, I’m the oldest of five and my dad was a bread delivery guy. So was it like we were rolling in the money, but he, you know, found a way to get a truck and bring it when he knew my roommates, you know, we’re not going to be at home. And I literally I left my last month’s rent on the kitchen table and I moved out while they were gone. And I felt bad having him rescue me, but it was just I didn’t know a way out. And I had just gotten to the point and had been, you know, at that point, seven or eight months of just sheer misery at home.
Arthur Brooks: Mm hmm. Seven or eight months? Yeah, seven or eight months. Right. This is the big difference. It sounds to me like your kids would be calling you after seven or 8 minutes. To be talking about that. And that’s the key difference, is that we have to have greater access. You can stalk them on social media. They can reach you through the text message. There is no payphone and there’s no expectation that you’re going to try to solve the problem on your own at the very beginning. And that’s a difference in and culturally how we’re dealing with our adult children. I’m not going to say it’s better or worse. I mean, I love having all kinds of access to my adult kids.
Arthur Brooks: And the truth is, my greatest regret in life is having a kind of a causal relationship with my parents. I was a musician in my twenties. I had no money and I went six years without going to the dentist at one point. And it’s not like help was forthcoming. You know, my parents were like, Yeah, you should figure out a way to, you know, to go to the dentist. I mean, that was kind of the best that I got. And the result was it was just an attenuated relationship. And now I’m really, really close to my kids. But the result is both good and bad. And that’s probably the same thing for you, too.
Speaker 1: Yeah, no, that’s definitely true for me. You know, I am super close to my kids and I love that. Like, I love hanging out with them. They’re great people. They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re interesting. And I love, you know, trying to see what they’re going to do with their lives. It’s exciting, but also terrifying at the same time.
Amanda Ripley: Here’s our first insight. Expectations on both sides of the parenting equation have evolved over the years, and that’s not all good or all bad. I have a friend whose mom would shoo her and her brother out of their house in Texas each morning in the eighties and tell them not to even think about coming back until dark. They got thirsty. They could drink from the hose. Nowadays, these norms have shifted and a lot of parents are way more involved, maybe overly involved in their kids lives from a very young age. And it’s easy to make fun of helicopter or snowplow parents, but it’s not that simple, because as kids get bigger, so too do their problems. When your kids are struggling, how does it affect you and when they’re doing good? How does it affect you?
Speaker 1: I feel extremely anxious. I have a hard time working. You know, I write romance novels. It’s really hard to write stories about people falling in love when you’re worried and just, you know, sick about your kids. And I don’t sleep great, you know, depends on what’s going on and how just how severe it is or sometimes when, you know, actually my husband and I went on vacation in June on our own, the two of us for 12 days. We went to San Diego and we weren’t sure that it was going to work because this was soon after our daughter had gone to the hospital. She was she was out, though, and her boyfriend is incredibly supportive. And so she was doing well. And I just told my husband, you know, what are we saying to them if we think they can’t hold it together for 12 days? You know, and as it turned out, she got a flat.
Amanda Ripley: Tyre and it was like how many days into the vacation?
Speaker 1: It was the most the day after we flew. Okay. We’re in a golf cart on our way to lunch, you know, so it is the sun is shining and it is beautiful. And we’re we actually drove by the beach before we went to lunch and it was glorious. And then she called and at that point, she’d already called Triple A. You know, at that point I was in I was so happy to have a little break and to be on this trip with my husband that I felt like, you know, okay, well, we’re lucky that I have money to just throw at this problem and make it go away.
Amanda Ripley: Arthur You’ve written before about the ways in which parents and actually mothers in particular, right, struggle to kind of separate their own peace of mind from their kids journey. Right. What are some of the things you’ve learned that might be helpful to Karen?
Arthur Brooks: Well, to begin with, it’s not costless for Karen. And one of the things that a lot of adult children don’t understand is that their mothers can be more ambivalent about the relationship than they understand. And part of the reason is because they’re used to mom being the provider. And what that does is that goes from mom will take care of me.
Arthur Brooks: I’m a little kid into Mom’s and emotional ATM machine, and a lot of adult children treat their parents like, especially their mothers like ATM machines. In other words, you put in the card and then you get stuff out, you get advice, you get help, you get money, and it’s a one way valve. And they don’t understand that their parents are just people like they are and their parents are starting to perceive the are starting to get the sensation of, look, I love you more than anything else in the world, but you’re taking advantage of me. You’re asking me to solve problems that all the other. Are adults in the universe are solving. And I’m still acting as if you were nine. And I don’t want to do that, but I don’t know how to tell you. And I kind of still want to of course I want to help you. But it gets into this weird cognitive dissonance that turns into this ambivalence, which is very unhealthy for the relationship. Karen And my, my vibe with you here.
Speaker 1: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. The emotional ATM absolutely resonates with me, and I do feel resentful sometimes. Yeah.
Arthur Brooks: And you’re not alone. That’s lots and lots of moms are. And in the research that I’ve done on this subject, you find that a huge percentage of of adult moms, of adult children have more ambivalence than their kids think. Now, that’s the bad news. The good news is that this almost never leads to a breach. This almost never leads to estrangement that comes under different circumstances. 11% of mothers of adult children have no relationship with at least one of their kids, like not talking. And that almost always comes because of what we call a values breach. Where were the children? They don’t just live in a way that’s inconsistent with their parents values. They overtly reject their parents values. They say, you know, your religion or your politics or whatever it happens to be is stupid and misguided. And that’s a really different situation.
Arthur Brooks: So ambivalence is bad. Estrangement is worse. You don’t face that risk. You don’t face that risk at all, on the contrary. But you still do have children that are really, really reliant on you and you sense as bothering you. I think that they’re stunted in their own development and their own autonomous ness and their own independence because they’re so reliant on you said fair.
Speaker 1: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s not easy to admit. No, but yeah, you know, and of course, as a mom, the first question I ask myself is, okay, well, what did I do wrong? But we ended up at this place. Yeah.
Arthur Brooks: Got it. Yeah. Got it. Now, there’s a few things to keep in mind here. Number one is that one of the biggest mistakes that parents make is that they they confuse empathy with compassion. Now, if you look in the dictionary, they’ll be synonyms, but they’re really not. Empathy is to feel somebody else’s pain. Compassion is to do the right thing for your kids, even when it’s unpopular. And when you think back on it, when you know, your kids were in high school and the most dysfunctional relationships that their friends had with their parents were almost always the parents that were extremely empathetic but not compassionate, a.k.a., Oh, I’m sorry, I know how horrible you’re feeling, but not doing what the kids needed. And so the kids couldn’t actually develop and they were running wild.
Arthur Brooks: Now, that’s a problem that we actually and increasingly, I think we all have as aging parents of adult children were highly empathetic to them, towards their problems. Whereas compassion is not to just feel their pain all the time and solve their problems in that way. Compassion is to help them grow up and to become more independent. And so I think that we often people in our generation have a compassion gap and a little bit too much empathy if you get what I’m laying down here.
Speaker 1: Yeah, I can see that. The problem is that I’m a romance author, and the number one reason why I kick ass at my job is because I am a human sponge for emotion. I am all empathy. I can feel what is happening with someone when I’m with them.
Arthur Brooks: I can hear.
Amanda Ripley: Kryptonite and your superpower.
Speaker 1: Yeah, yeah.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah. I can hear it. So I’ve got a few ideas. Some things that you might try. Do we want to go there?
Speaker 1: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Amanda Ripley: Before we get to Arthur’s ideas for breaking out of the empathy choke hold, we’re going to take a quick break. Don’t go anywhere.
Amanda Ripley: Hello. I hope you’re enjoying this episode. We wanted to let you know that we’ve reached a little milestone of our own here at how to. We’ve now been around for three years, and we’ve had the privilege of inviting over 150 listeners like you directly onto the show to talk with the wisest experts we can find, which has helped us help countless more listeners. So, first of all, thank you.
Amanda Ripley: We rely on listeners like you to bring us your questions big or small, heavy or light. We try to solve them all. And if you’re a little squeamish about being on the air, we get it. You’ll notice that we often use first names only, and sometimes we even allow pseudonyms to help you protect your privacy. Plus, you get the chance to talk to some world class experts for free. So I hope you’ll consider writing to us at how to at Slate.com or sending us a voice message at 6464954001. So we can keep the good times rolling.
Amanda Ripley: And also, a huge thank you to the rest of you for not just listening, but for sharing episodes with your friends and family members who might benefit from a little dose of hope and empowerment right now. We’re back with Karen, who loves her adult children but wants to stop being their emotional ATM machine. And we’ve got our expert, Arthur Brooks, who has some powerful tips for her and for the rest of us.
Arthur Brooks: Okay. So to begin with, part of the problem is often that we’re so emotionally tied to our kids that that we have a tendency to think that if we worry enough about their problems, that that will help them in their problems. And this is one of the ways that it’s called rumination, by the way. And rumination is a very, very fundamental thing about human beings that we can look at things that we’re really worried about and turn them over and over and over and over in our heads. And the reason that we have that ability to do so unlike any other animal, because we have this really well-developed prefrontal cortex, it’s amazing, is because we’re practicing for the future and learning from the past.
Arthur Brooks: The trouble is that we make the mistake of thinking, if I ruminate enough on this thing, I’m going to be able to solve that problem. And that’s incorrect. There’s a lot of things that you’re just not going to be able to solve, and a skill to build up is to let go of things that you can’t control. And there’s a lot of things about your adult children’s lives because they don’t live next to you and they’re not under your roof and you’re not seeing them all the time. You can’t control what’s going on that you don’t know about, and you can’t fix things that you’re not physically proximate to very often.
Arthur Brooks: And the way to do this, I know it’s easier said than done, but the way to do this is to, you know, some people do this with meditation, some people do this with journaling, some people do this with therapy. But the whole point is, when you find yourself ruminating to say, I’m ruminating on something I can’t control, that you can use joint metacognition with your husband to discuss this and say, when something is out of our control, this is something we need to reinforce in each other. The truth that we have to let a lot of that go. We are going to let go things that we can’t control and focus only on the things that we can. Can you do that?
Speaker 1: Yeah, I can do that. My therapist always tells me to not focus on the outcome. I don’t know. But I don’t know how. I don’t know how those two things relate, but they do sort of get into my head. It’s hard, though, when you’re a parent. It’s hard to not focus on what’s going to happen.
Amanda Ripley: Yeah, totally. And I wonder if we could take an example. I like these tactics. Arthur. I wonder if we drill down. So you’re in the golf cart as the sun is shining, you’re in San Diego. You finally got away with your husband. And by the way, I just want to note, it sounds like you and your husband are kind of on the same page. Well, yeah, we are. That is huge. Yes, that is a that is awesome, right?
Speaker 1: That is definitely true.
Amanda Ripley: I mean, because then, like Arthur said, what did you say? Metacognition. Yeah, right. That’s like a fancy way of saying, thank God you can work together on this and not be fighting it. Just. Yeah, yeah.
Arthur Brooks: The classic problem here, by the way, is that that dad is saying they’ll figure it out. Let’s go golfing. And mom is like we got.
Amanda Ripley: To moms carrying.
Arthur Brooks: Everything. Now, unfortunately, you’re both saying, no, let’s solve this problem for our kids.
Speaker 1: Right. So.
Amanda Ripley: Okay, in that case, Arthur. Right. She knew Karen could control paying for the new tires. And you can control that. But should you? You know, and what would have happened if you had not paid? What do you think would have happened? What’s your best guess? If you not paid for those tires.
Speaker 1: Then she would have driven around on her spare tire for however long because, you know, she was working a crappy retail job because.
Amanda Ripley: She doesn’t have the money.
Speaker 1: Yeah. And that’s what I would have done in the same situation. But, you know, it’s hard as a parent because I know it’s like, I don’t know, my dad always drilled it into me. Your tires are the most important part of the car. Aside from the brakes.
Amanda Ripley: Right. You don’t want her to get in an accident.
Speaker 1: Right. And so we were, like, thinking, okay, well, this is probably something that needs to get taken care of. And we were fortunate enough that we could do that. And it wasn’t, you know, overwhelmingly painful.
Arthur Brooks: Well, I mean, you just said, Karen, that you would have driven around in your spare tire for a long time. But let’s think about that. Let’s think most of the stuff. That’s a really accurate assessment of it. Bad things happened to you when you were 23, of course, because bad things happen to everybody and things like that happened to you. Think about that in the case of exactly what you were doing at 23 at that point in your life and then and what were you doing for a living when you were 23?
Speaker 1: I worked in the music industry. Yeah. So I also did not make a lot of money, but I was having too much fun because I had a job that was super fun and involved going to rock clubs and drinking beer and hanging out with musicians. So it was kind of a good tradeoff.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, I know. I’m going to assume that that when inevitably you did have a flat tire, that your parents didn’t pay for it because your dad drove a bread truck. Right. So what did you do? You said.
Speaker 1: I guess I just went without something and and got a new tire when I could.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, that speaks volumes because what that means is you dealt with it and in dealing with it, you learned to deal with it. If your parents had solved the problem for you, you might or might not have learned how to deal with a quotidian, kind of normal problem. Right?
Speaker 1: Mm hmm.
Arthur Brooks: And that’s a problem, isn’t it?
Speaker 1: Yeah, it is. Part of it, too, is, you know, the money question cannot be dismissed. Both my husband and I grew up with. Not a lot of money. And, you know, the kind of thing where you we both grew up knowing you don’t ask your parents for money. Right. And so it’s hard to not want to, you know. My husband and I, we worked really hard, but we’ve also, you know, some good things have happened and we have a nice life and it’s hard to not want to, you know, provide for your kids in that way. That just wasn’t available to you.
Arthur Brooks: Yeah, but let’s go back to empathy versus compassion. It’s not that you’re and scarcity of compassion. You’re incredibly compassionate person, obviously, but your empathy can be getting in the way of your compassion. And compassion means your adult children need to learn how to be independent and how to grow up because they deserve to the way that you did as well. And so really, you might be getting in the way of that, right?
Speaker 1: Mm hmm. Yeah.
Amanda Ripley: This can be hard to hear for any parent, but the bottom line is, you don’t need to stop caring. You just need to change how you care about your kids as they get older. Sometimes caring for them means letting them figure it out on their own so they can learn to rely on themselves even after you’re long gone. This is, of course, way easier said than done. But don’t worry, we’ve got more hands on tips to share. So much wisdom, in fact, that we’re doing a second episode next week. But we can’t resist sharing a little sneak peek of what happened when Arthur son recently called him for help after a trip to Vegas went spectacularly wrong.
Arthur Brooks: Someone stole my pants and that’s how it starts. Oh, right. Yeah. And I’m on this. I’m on the Las Vegas strip without a phone. I’m borrowing a cell phone, evidently, from a Russian. I don’t have any I.D. and I have to be in California 8 hours from now because I’m the color guard in Memorial Day parade. Okay. Yeah, yeah. So and then came me ask dad, do you know a senator in Nevada who can help me take care of this?
Speaker 1: Wow. Wow.
Amanda Ripley: So here how Arthur and the United States Senate did or did not respond to this. Wallet lists, phone lists, pantless young man in Las Vegas. You’ll have to tune in next week. Do you have a problem that you need us to call a senator about? Send us a note at how to at slate.com or leave us a voicemail at 6464954001. And we’d love to have you on the show, as always, if you like what you heard today, give us a rating and a review and tell a friend that helps us help more people. You can subscribe to the show on Spotify, Apple or wherever you get your podcasts. How TOS executive producer is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show with help from Katie Shepherd. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by Merritt Jacob. Our technical director Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.