Family & Relationships Friends & Friendship

Letting Go Of Grown-up Children

It was Christmas Eve morning; we should have loved, instead we were having an awful fight. Lionel and I just expected the kids would go to church with us. We go every year, so what was the big deal?

Lois, Lionel, and their grown-up daughters sit in my office trying to understand the hurt they caused each other this past week.

Although theyve just started talking about this, Carolyn is exacerbated, as if shes explained herself to her parents a million times already. The big deal is that I didnt want to go. Ive always gone because youve made me, but this year I though, as a college freshman, I should be able to make my own decision.

Emily, her older sister, joins in. Mark and I have decided when we have kids were not going to force them to go to church.

Force, exclaims father. Did we ever force you? Youre just using all this stuff in the paper about the priests as an excuse. You know you should go to church.

Clearly father isnt hearing the contradiction in his saying he never forced them to church and then saying they should go. Emily and Carolyn hear the should and feel his demand.

Mother apologizes for her part in what happened what Wednesday. It started as a simple discussion, but we ended up yelling at each other. I know I blew up; I over-reacted as soon as Emily mentioned the court suits against priests. Im really sorry about that, girls. I shouldnt have done that. I do get defensive when anyone criticizes the Church.

She turns to me and explains, I was brought up Catholic and went to Catholic schools. When I hear them challenge me or question the Church, I feel I need to defend it.

Why? asks Carolyn, in a tone of voice that doesnt sound like she really cares about the answer. Why cant you two go, enjoy it, and let us make up our own minds?

You may make the wrong decision, father blurts out. Again, he doesnt hear the irony, but Emily does.

What you mean is we may not make your decision. Let me tell you what I think about your beloved Catholic Church.

Whoa. What is this family really arguing about? The Church and Catholicism is only the topic; what is really being discussed is how parents and their grown-up children handle differences of opinion. Its a variation of the control battles they had when the girls were little. But as with all control battles, parents must ask: Is this particular battle worth it?

Parents need to pick and choose. With young children, parents have more battles from which to choose, but as children move out of the home, there are fewer arenas for their control.

When parents take on a battle, they need to be clear what they want. In this family, what is the real issue? Is it Mom and Dad want their daughters to go to church? Always or just for Christmas? Do they want them to believe in the Catholic principles or just defend the Church? If asked, each would probably answer differently.

Listening as their therapist, I hear Emily and Carolyn talking about their maturation, insisting on being treated as adults; mother is fighting for the respect of her heritage; father is holding on to his parental authority if the girls make their own decision, he must acknowledge they are grown up. These are the real issues; going to church for Christmas is only the topic that demonstrates these issues.

Back in the conversation they think they are having, Mother is hurt by Emilys sarcasm about the Church. She says, I dont want you girls to give up on the Church without first thinking carefully about it. I guess Id be okay if you made a thoughtful decision, but. She isnt sure how to finish that sentence.

Father is. A thoughtful decision is one that sees the importance of going to Church. He stops and grins. Everyone laughs. I did it again, didnt I? Its hard to give up trying to teach you kids. I want you to have the right values.

Emily and Carolyn look at each other with that parents-dont- understand look. If you havent taught us what you want us to know about your values by now, its too late, says Emily.

Besides, adds Carolyn, we do have your values about most things. How do you think Ive managed at college this year with all the drinking and drugs there? Of course Emily and I have learned your values and now leave us alone to show you.

Emily jumps back in. But, learning your values doesnt mean we do everything as you want us to. We have your values; now as adults, we must make our own decisions, to use these values in ways that make sense to us.

And that wont always be the same decisions you would make, Carolyn completes the message adult children have to send to their parents.

This is a loving family struggling with what it means for children to grow up. In this conversation about Christmas services, the girls are 18 and 23 years old, but it could just as well be occurring when they are 38 and 43 about child rearing or how to spend their money or any other topic.

I turn to the parents. Its clear youve done a nice job of teaching them values. Now its up to them to figure how to use them. I suspect you learned from your parents but then experimented, to see what fit for you. You probably made mistakes and learned the hard way. Thats what growing up is about.

Father grins. Putting it in that perspective reminds me of how I constantly challenged my parents, but Im fine today. Okay girls. This is tough, but Im going to let you finish the job that Mom and I started: getting you grown up.

Everyone is smiling, a true Christmas gift.

Leave a reply