When you’re raising your children, you have a lot of ways to measure your success as a parent. On an almost-daily basis, parents get feedback about their growing children. Report cards tell us how hard they’re working and how well they do homework and take tests; coaches let us know when they’re performing at their peak or when they’re slacking off; teachers let us know, usually only if it’s a problem, about their behavior in the classroom; their friends’ parents tell us how well they play with others and how polite they are. Store clerks praise them for their patience and grandparents generally love them no matter what they’re doing. Pediatricians keep us informed on their physical health and, via those cursed growth charts, let us know if they are below or above average their peers in both height and weight, causing many parents anxiety about someday having abnormally short or horrendously obese grown children.
And most of all, parents instinctively and intuitively sense how their children are doing. There were a number of times when I was raising my kids when I knew something was not quite right, but it wasn’t until months or years later that they would confirm that yes, in fact, there were issues that they weren’t discussing with me, for whatever reasons they might have had. Despite what parents may believe, our children do sometimes keep things from us.
Because of all of the information we gather from others about our children, along with our own insights, we are able to modify what we are doing as parents and guide our children in better or different directions if we feel something is amiss. This is the main job we have when we are raising our children – helping them to become strong, successful, independent people.
Once our children leave home it becomes far more difficult to keep tabs on their state of mind and how they are moving through the world each day, and for many parents this is not easy. The desire to know our children as grown-ups as well as we did as children has us scrambling for information as often and as detailed as possible. Because they are adults, and because they have lives of their own, parents are often left in the dark about aspects of their children’s lives that were once ours to manage. We wonder: Are they eating right? Is their hair brushed? Did they do their homework? Did they get to work on time? Have they paid all their bills? Are they lonely, are they happy, are they fulfilled?
As much as we want to say good morning and good night each day, most parents come to the realization that letting our children go is one of the ways we help them to succeed in life. You don’t get teacher conferences or feedback from coaches, and you can’t ask roommates or RAs about their cleanliness or social activity. You cannot call their bosses and co-workers to find out if they are doing their jobs and working well with others. You cannot talk to a doctor about their health without their consent. It is a good idea to not interfere with anything in their lives, from social to academic, unless it is a serious, life-changing issue.
When my son was a freshman in college, a difficult time for him, he was falsely accused of plagiarism by a teaching assistant on a final paper in his English class. My husband and I had stayed out of most things during this stressful year. He had a roommate who would not talk to him, an eye that was not working properly due to a poor surgical procedure the summer before, and the challenge of college classes that, in many ways, he was not prepared for. He kept going, though – to classes, out with his friends, staying on course with bumps in the road that he, for the most part, navigated on his own – though we listened to him when he needed to talk, of course. However, when this accusation happened, my husband and I kicked our parenting mode into high gear. I wrote a blistering email to the president of the university, and my husband got in his car and drove the 7 hours to our son’s school, my daughter in the passenger seat, deeply concerned not only about our son’s academic career, but about his state of mind. I was (wisely) not invited to come because everyone knew I would not have been able to stay calm when face to face with the people involved. The issue was dropped after the president of the school responded to my email and talked with the head of the English department, who investigated further and found that the accusations by the young teaching assistant were completely unfounded.
That situation, for us, was worth putting ourselves and our son’s education on the line for what was right, and was the first – and last – time that we would get that deeply involved with his college career. We offered lots of support and encouragement as he navigated the next three years of school, but never again did we react the way we did when he was falsely accused of something that we knew he would not ever do. He was hugely grateful to us for helping him in a very scary and serious situation that he had little idea how to manage or challenge. While we may not have done everything right when we were raising our kids, in this case we were absolutely sure that it was time to step in, and it turned out we were correct.
If you are someone who wants to help your young adults in college and beyond at every turn, wants to know every good and bad moment, every heartbreak and hurt and accomplishment and victory – like most parents do – use care deciding when and where to jump in. Save your parenting superpower for when it’s seriously needed. Listen, advise, care, console, cheer and encourage, but give your young adults room to make and repair the mistakes that will inevitably happen. Then, when something occurs that is serious, like what happened to my son, you will know that you are right to get involved. And your child will appreciate it.