Parent–to-Parent, these are . . .

The Ten Best Things You Can Say to Your Grown Offspring

Barbara Greenleaf

1. “I love you.” Some families are very huggy/kissy, others will spill their guts at the drop of a hat, and still others tend to keep a stiff upper lip. These families may be equally loving; they just express it in different ways. No matter what your family’s style, try tossing in an “I love you” at the end of a conversation with your adult child. It might feel weird (especially if your relationship is more of a jokey or reserved nature), and in response you might just get back a casual, “Love ya, bye.” On the other hand, you might start a trend toward more open and emotional communications in the family. According to Deborah Tannen in I Only Say This Because I Love You, the underlying message in parent/adult child conversations is too often interpreted as criticism. By contrast, “I love you” signals acceptance, appreciation, respect, and liking. It’s a good thing.

2. “You know best.” Does anybody ever say that—and mean it? Parents like to sound highly evolved by making such statements as, “It’s their movie now and I’m just sitting back and watching it.” However, it’s hard to be that Zen when you’re convinced your daughter is marrying the absolute wrong man or your son is making the worst career move of his life. It would be unnatural for us not to have strong opinions on their momentous decisions, but nothing sets your children’s teeth on edge like unsolicited parental advice. The experts say not to volunteer our opinion unless asked for it and even then to comment with such neutral phrases as, “I am sure you have thought it through.” If ever there was an instance where silence is golden, this is it.

3. “I’m just here to listen.” Per #2, it’s the new, nonjudgmental you. You’re merely offering to lend an ear to hear and a shoulder to lean on.” The sentence, “I’m just here to listen,” signals your intent not to solve, meddle, act superior or put in your two cents. You’re showing that you have confidence in your child’s judgment yet are happy that he’s using you as a sounding board. It is really hard for us just to listen because as parents we are hard-wired to take charge and make sure everything works out okay for our kids. The most difficult thing to do is let our child take their lumps, but, of course, it is the only way they will gain self-confidence, bounce back, and learn to stand on his own two feet.

4. “Congratulations on ___ (fill in the blank).” And feel free to add, “That’s just wonderful! I’m so happy for you! You should be flattered and thrilled that your adult child thinks enough of your relationship to share his happy news, so be sure to rise to the occasion. This is not the time for comparisons with his more successful sibling; the higher aspirations you had for him; or implying how, with all his shortcomings, he’s made it this far. I’m particularly aware of how inept and ungracious parents can be upon hearing their child’s good news, because I still remember my father’s reaction when I told him I had landed a job at The New York Times, the pinnacle of print journalism and the fulfillment of all my professional dreams. “That’s okay,” he responded, “but let’s see whom you’re going to marry.” Case closed.

5. “You’re managing your life really well.” It’s not in the cards for almost anyone’s offspring to be either the next Silicon Valley wunderkind, the NBA’s first round draft choice, or the winner of the Miss America beauty pageant. Unlike Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where all the children are above average, the majority of our offspring are just trying to play the cards they were dealt. Since money is not life’s only report card, we want to focus on areas where our children are really making an effort and applaud them mightily for it. Sure, they could be could be growing up faster and better. They could be studying more in school or trying harder at work—as could we all. However, there’s always some area of their lives that can be complimented. If your goal is an improved relationship with your adult child, you’ll find that a lot of positive thinking and a little boosterism will go a long way.

6. “I just want you to do what makes you happy.” This is the corollary to #5. The knock on many parents of grown offspring is that they are obsessed with their child’s material, marital, and professional success because these are public statements of how well they did their own job as parents. But after countless conversations with POGOs, I’d say that for the most part the older generation is much more concerned with their children’s emotional well-being than with their resume. They know what it takes to get through this life, and they are deeply empathetic even if they don’t always say it. Say it. Your children may be skeptical at first when you utter the words, “I just want you to be happy,” but eventually they’ll believe you and love you for it.

7. “I really enjoy our new, adult relationship.” You may understand intellectually that you won’t have the same kind of relationship with your children as they mature, but it can be hard to grapple with emotionally. Too often we parents get stuck in, well, parenting mode despite the increasing number of candles on our child’s birthday cake. Confusing the issue is that, depending on the crisis du jour, your daughter may signal that she wants to be your baby or expects to be treated as your peer. You may also be sending out mixed messages that you want her to think of you as a pal but at the same time respect you as an authority figure. Most of us are inconsistent—we’re human, after all—but it can’t hurt to take a look at your role as it morphs from enforcer to coach to cheerleader and revel in the liberation it brings.

8. “I’m here for you.” As your grown child finds his way, he will have his share of triumphs but he will also encounter his share of trials and tribulations: medical, financial, relational, professional. No one gets through this life unscathed. If as it has been said, “Home is where they have to take you in,” your walking the walk will mean everything to your son. While you are not his savior and you can’t and shouldn’t run interference for him on every front, you are providing enormous moral support by saying you are always in his corner –and that you hope he’s in yours.

9. “I think you’re a terrific parent.” New parents are insecure enough without your telling them how you did it--and did it better--back in the day. Parenting “how to” has become a veritable industry and your adult children are facing a barrage of so-called expert advice, a lot of it conflicting. It’s lose-lose to add to the noise. So what if your daughter-in-law picks up her child at the first peep when you used to let yours cry it out? So what if she feeds the baby only organic vegetables and insists on dressing him in renewable hemp? Keep your eyes on the prize, which is open access to the precious little one. Keeping your child-rearing theories to yourself while bucking up the new parents is a small price to pay and the humane thing to do.

10. “I know you love me.” Most of us judge our grown offspring by the widely accepted social standards of our ownday. In relation to our parents, these might have included mailing paper cards on birthdays and holidays, arranging parties for milestone occasions, sending lavish presents at Christmas, and phoning home once a week. Most of the younger generation think such ritualized gestures of caring are artificial and outdated, if they think of them at all. This mismatch between our expectations and theirs leaves a lot of parents feeling disregarded—“and after all I did for you!” But, let’s face it, perpetual outrage is the kiss of death in any relationship, which means we have to learn to let it go and look for our children’s version of genuine regard. In the process we might find just what we are looking for: assurance that we are appreciated.