Dr. Rich’s Rules for Great Relationships, pt. 2

This is the second article in the series. To start from the beginning, click here.

Part 2: How to Love our Adult Children

Parenting little children requires one skill set. Parenting adult children requires another. The distinction is made indirectly by an old Jewish proverb,

“Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems.”

The purpose of this brief rumination is to clarify ways to avoid or at least to minimize the big problems so moms and dads can fully enjoy relating to our grown children—those in their 20’s, 30’s and beyond. So, here are a few important principles born of four decades of personal experience.

Sue and I have four grown children ages 36 to 42. All are happily married. They follow Yeshua the Messiah as Jews with real but varying levels of observance. All are successful in their respective careers. Our youngest and his wife recently had their first child—our eighth grandchild!

The best news is that we get along phenomenally well, not only with our four children, but with their spouses. Aside from occasional minor irritations and miscommunications, my wife and I experience an ongoing excellent relationship with our growing family. Of course, this could change. But, to date this really is the situation. So, here are some things we have learned along the way which can smooth your way to joyful connection with these very special people.

#1 – Suggest but don’t push.

You can tell little children what to do. You can try to do the same with teenagers—good parents will have a sense when to “lay down the law” and when to let small problems go. But it is very different with adult children. These big kids are very sensitive to what they perceive to be their parents’ controlling behavior. They want to be treated and deserve to be treated as adults, even though in our minds they will always be our babies.

This becomes difficult when we feel they may be making a life-altering mistake. It may be that we don’t approve of how they discipline their own children. Or, we may perceive an area of disfunction in their way of communicating with their spouse as a couple. Though it can be very tempting to dive in with advice and instructions, most of the time, all we should offer is carefully-crafted advice delivered in a way which assures them that basically, we trust them and their judgments. If they do make a big mistake, this could simply be God’s providential way of bringing them to higher levels of spiritual acuity. We want to protect them from pain, but many times, God uses our and their pain to teach vital lessons which otherwise cannot be learned deeply.

Try not to get in the way of this process. If you do, you will risk alienating your grown children. You probably agree that is simply too high a price to pay. Of course, there are exceptions to this advice as is the case with all general principles. Sometimes, parents have to step in because of the possibility of serious physical or psychological harm. But, usually, we just think they will be happier if we keep throwing in our two cents.

However, our experience is that the weight of all those pennies can sink the boat!

#2 – Pray more than talk.

Related to the first point is this: we should spend much more of our energy in prayer for our adult children and their families than in critiquing them.  My wife and I have discovered this to be our secret weapon. God knows all about adult children. He is on our side as we seek to bring to bear our wisdom and life experience for the sake of the grown sons and daughters whom we love so much. The great enemy here is our feeling of helplessness. We must trust him to bring people into their lives who can guide them since, paradoxically, we parents are sometimes among the last people who God can use in a direct way to enlighten them.

#3 – Include the spouse.

As parents of adult children, you can be tempted to relegate your sons’ or daughters’ spouses to a kind of “add-on” status. You don’t talk much to them. You may send subtle cues that you view them as outsiders to the family. But, there are so many good reasons to relate deeply to the married-in partner. For example, your son and daughter may not listen to your good advice. But, how about his or her spouse? If their relationship with you is strong, he or she may take what you have to say to heart.

More than just gaining influence, our experience proves that developing deep, caring and supportive relationships with our sons’ and daughter’s marriage partners has greatly facilitated family unity and joy all around.

So, make a commitment to get to know the spouses, and don’t take any initial coolness to your overtures to go out to lunch, for example, as the last word. A touch of persistence will likely take care of that.

#4 – Cool it with the criticism.

Adult children, and especially their spouses, tend to be very sensitive to the in-laws’ criticism. There are whole episodes of the 1960s Dick Van Dyke show which pick up on this reality! We saw Laura Petrie wring her hands in nervous anticipation of Rob’s parents arriving for dinner at her home. The main point is this:

For every criticism you may need to offer, be sure there are nine compliments about things you genuinely appreciate.

Of course, these positive comments have to be genuine.

The era of Rob, Laura, and little Richie have in many ways passed. Nowadays, a growing proportion of young adults are not married. In the Jewish community, the numbers have risen dramatically. But, the advice here is just as applicable. Married or not, your grown children cannot be expected to respond to a diet of unsolicited critique. Look for the positive things you can say and occasionally offer needed criticism. If the overall tone in the relationship is positive, adult children will find it much easier to accommodate periodic critiques of their behavior – but keep it occasional!

#5 – Give generously, but not for pay-back.

Parents are natural givers. We love to give gifts to our children and grandchildren. But be sure when you give that you are not subtly seeking to control them or to produce some other effect other than gratitude for your kindness. Sometimes, parents use money to manipulate their grown children. This is a huge mistake and will only bear bitter fruit in the long run. Give wisely and give often. Give without manipulation or as an outlet for your need to control behavior. Let your reward be the smiles and giggles of the little ones and the grateful acknowledgment of your generosity by the adults.

#6 – Let your needs be made known.

Assuming your kids are good people and that they love you with an ever-maturing appreciation of how tough it was to raise them, be willing to share your own needs with them. It may be that you desire more time with the grandchildren. Let your needs be known. It may be that you are not willing to give up every Sunday to watch the little ones while mom and dad socialize with friends. Set your own boundaries without fear. Your children will not become fully mature adults able to help you as you advance in years if you enable self-centeredness now.

Summing Up

I hope these thoughts are helpful. As President of MJTI, a graduate school dedicated to preparing Messianic Jewish rabbis and lay leaders, the things I usually teach about are more specifically technical and professional in nature. But no matter what our professional roles, we are all human beings seeking to live well before God and others.

“Kivud av v’eim” – honoring ones mother and father – is one of the highest Torah values. Every redemptive, society-building impulse begins with this foundation stone. Follow the principles suggested above and your children will have an easier time knowing how to fulfill this all-important mitzvah and you will have a better shot at finishing your life’s journeys surrounded by the love you deserve.

This article was written by MJTI President Rabbi Dr. Rich Nichol. For the next article in this series, click here.

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