How do you know when you are done parenting?
For many parents, when their children enter the teen years, things get more confusing. When the kids were younger it was kind of easy, or at least simpler. Keep them safe. Make sure they eat healthy. Let them know they are loved, etc…
But when the kids are teens, “good parenting” gets harder and harder to define. Are you supposed to step in and fight their battles for them, or hang back and let them figure it out on their own? Can you prevent heartbreaks or must you only provide counseling afterwards? And does anyone know exactly what do to about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll? When are you done parenting?
If you survey your friends about this question you might get responses like, “when your children are independent,” or “when they can take care of themselves.” But how shall we define “independent?” When are our kids grown up? Does it magically happen one day, perhaps, the day they graduate high school or move out? Those seem like arbitrary dates and not all kids mature at the same rate, right?
If we focus on what really worries parents, that their children will not grow up happy, healthy and wise, we are lead in a different direction. For example, most – if not all – parents have been focused on taking care of their child’s “future self,” not just the present one. Responsible parents have been denying their children candy in the grocery aisle, getting them up for school every day, and making a thousand other decisions knowing that these choices will be best for their child in the long run.
So, one answer to our question is “when the young adult starts making decisions that are in the best interests of their future selves, not just meeting their current wishes or needs.”
So what does that look like? How shall we define a “happy, healthy and wise person” and how will we know when our children are headed in the right direction?
Fortunately, these questions are somewhat answerable. The Gallup organization has been studying life satisfaction and individual happiness for many, many years. Their concept of the good life is informed by millions of survey responses and top notch social scientists. Their results support our intuitive notion that we all want basically the same things. Gallup has combined these few universals into a concept called “wellbeing.” When we are doing well in each of these categories, we give ourselves very high scores on wellbeing.
For our purposes, these five categories allow us to break down the question “is our child headed in the right direction?” into five more specific questions. Our child will do well in life and have high wellbeing down the road if they are taking care of themselves in the areas of career, social, physical, financial and community wellbeing.
- Career: The Gallup organization has discovered that the single most important element of one’s wellbeing is a person’s self-evaluation of their career wellbeing. This question is not about how much money you make, but instead about how much you enjoy what you do on a daily basis. Part of our job as parents is to help our children select and get in to a career they will enjoy. This doesn’t mean we have to find the right job for them, or even select their college major. It means we have to help our children understand enjoying your work is very, very important. As they understand themselves better and better, they have to be responsible for making their careers, and thus their lives, enjoyable.
- Social Similarly: We cannot make relationship decisions for our children, but we can pull back on parenting when we can see they are taking care of themselves and their future selves in this arena. Are they forming strong bonds with people at work or school? Does it look like these relationships will last for years? Are they able to navigate brief disruptions in those relationships? Are they forward-looking in their choice of a spouse?
- Physical: We as parents have been taking care of our children’s physical health for quite some time. How are they doing in that department? Are they doing the day to day things that will lead to a long term healthy life style? Are they avoiding major risk factors that could create catastrophic results for their health and wellbeing? We might disagree as parents in the specifics, but if we step back and assess the overall pattern, is our child on their way to being a healthy, productive adult?
- Financial: Can our child manage money? Many parents will “test drive” their teenagers’ financial decisions by either giving them their own money, maybe as an allowance, or encouraging them to get a part-time job. Though we won’t agree with every buying decision, we want to know is our child learning about the importance of money, and whether or not they can save for big things instead of spending it all right now.
- Community: Finally, the Gallup organization has found a significant correlation in an individual’s self-reported wellbeing and their involvement in their community. Volunteering is a significant contributor to our happiness and can inoculate us from stress and other negative emotions. Does our child show any tendency toward this kind of sacrifice and involvement? Do they belong to clubs or service organizations? Do they understand the importance of volunteering?
To answer the question “when are we done parenting?” we must have a goal in mind. Wellbeing is at least one way of answering and describing what we want our children to achieve throughout their lives. As we begin to think about when our jobs as parents might be winding down, we can use the five categories of the Gallup organization’s wellbeing index as a way to ask more specific questions about whether our child is not just taking care of their present needs and wants, but also their future selves. Though all of us know our roles are parents will never really be over, it is completely acceptable to say the job can evolve. The kind of parent we want to be is someone who can celebrate, from the sidelines, our child’s happiness and wellbeing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erick Lauber, Ph.D. is an applied psychologist and faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He speaks and consults on personal growth and development, life balance and change. He has won 19 educational TV/film awards and is published in numerous journals and psychology conferences. For more information, please visit www.ErickLauber.com or call 724-464-7460.