May/June 2011

I have a friend whose almost-adult children clamor to spend time with her and her husband. Now this comes with its own set of problems, but there is something tremendously appealing about “The Brady Bunch” togetherness that I somehow have never been able to pull off.

I have to admit here that we Gottliebs sometimes struggle to create quality family time. I dangled the lure of a family trip to London and everyone jumped at it, but then our oldest got a new job and she had to bow out. Then, we rented a house at the beach, but the older ones couldn’t get away from work. We scaled down our expectations and tried to simply gather for dinner out at the Star Tavern in Orange. The line was so long, we ended up at two separate tables. What’s a mother to do?

I had this genius idea a few weeks back that I was going to invite my children to a dinner party. It was over Easter weekend and I gave them plenty of notice so I didn’t get too much push back. Our 18-year-old was away with a school event and was out of the picture until dessert. I was disappointed but that suited him just fine because he hated the very idea of the trendy butterflied marinated leg of lamb that I planned to grill.

The older children were intrigued. They had never been invited to a dinner party before. We had a little setback when we all had to attend a wake that Saturday night, but the delayed start to our dinner actually gave it a more formal feel. Darkness had descended so the candles we lit provided both light and atmosphere. The oft-neglected dining room table was set with the non-dishwasher-safe China. It was an event worthy of Christo.

If I am being honest, my expectations were pretty low. I simply wanted to enjoy my children the way I enjoy my friends. I wanted to fuss over them a little bit and I wanted to see if we could spend an evening gathered together in love and friendship.

I am pleased to report that my experiment worked nicely. Everyone was on their best behavior. The leg of lamb wasn’t such a big hit, but the Easter basket desserts for each child went over smashingly.

This modest success at family collegiality reinforced my belief that our relationships with our children as they grow to adulthood need to shift. We need to abandon the “Mommy will tell you what to do” often-adversarial relationship that we can find ourselves in and position our children in the same perspective we hold our friends and siblings and parents. Bite your tongue when they say something outrageous, just the way you would if your best friend went on a rant. Somehow, because it’s our kids who are talking, we think we need to solve the problem, change the behavior, run interference, slay the dragons… but we don’t.

Now that our children are emerging on the other side of a long, long tunnel that included infancy, childhood, and the teen-years, they are equipped to be adults. We made them so. We taught them through our own words and example how to fight their own battles and form their own opinions.

It is now our turn to sit back and let them succeed as adults. And this, of course, means lots of personal failures and situational problem-solving. They will continue to run to us to make the bad things go away, but that’s not our job anymore. Every time a parent calls me at work to complain about his son’s grades or her daughter’s tuition bill, I want to shift the conversation to the disservice the parent is doing to the child. Fighting your children’s battles for them when they are old enough to do so isn’t helping them; it’s probably crippling them as functioning adults.

Thus, my rather simplistic solution: invite them to dinner. Talk about their lives. Chat about their problems over a leg of lamb and a package of stale Peeps. Offer perspective and advice. And then scoot them away from the table to solve their situations, while you tackle the dirty dishes.

~Tracy Gottlieb, Ph.D.

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