Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How to Get Along with your Adult Children

"You'll probably get in a fight with her, and you'll kick her out," someone told me, talking about my adult daughter who lives with me.

"No, I won't," I said with certainty.

"I can't wait until mine grow up and move out," someone said.

"I would be happy if mine lived with me forever," I said. And I felt bad for her (and for her children) that her relationship with them was like that.

We have our moments when we drive each other crazy. But for the most part, things are pretty smooth sailing. Some people just don't get that.

From the time they were small, I made our relationship a priority. We spent hours reading books together, playing games, going on day trips. But we struggled, mostly because I was new at peaceful parenting. I was new at modeling patience and not taking challenges personally. So when my kids fought, I worried that I was doing something wrong. I wasn't doing anything wrong, at least not usually, but I was determined that I was capable of finding solutions. I dug my heels in and didn't give up every time we had a struggle. I promised my children that I would never punish or threaten them with punishment again, and I've kept that promise for over ten years. I asked questions on unschooling message boards a lot, tried the advice, panicked when it didn't work or when I had misunderstood the advice and applied it wrong. But I kept at it, and I got past all our challenges. The longer I kept at it, the more peaceful our home became.

I allowed my children the freedom to choose whether they wanted to go to school, and I was glad that none of my children chose school. I embraced radical unschooling, which is based on the concept that children are inherently learning machines, capable of learning what they need, when they need it, and that my role was a facilitator rather than a teacher.

My role wasn't to mold them into who I thought they should be, but to observe and pay close attention to who these people are. I made sure to provide more of what fascinated them, whether it be a book, toy, a video game, or meaningful conversation.

I never made my kids do chores. I did the dishes, laundry, and housework with as much joy as I could muster. That was a growth process for me, too. I came into this mothering gig with the idea that housework was a drudgery and had a victim mentality about having to do it. When I needed help, I let them know. Sometimes they would help, but they always had the freedom to say no. I took care of the pets when they didn't. I never threatened that I would take their pets away if they because they didn't care for them. Our pets were welcomed into our family and didn't deserve to be discarded simply because of a misguided attempt to teach my kids a lesson about responsibility.

Because our relationship was consensual rather than authoritarian, we had lots of practice learning to talk things through with each other. When one child wanted me to take him somewhere and another wanted me to stay home with him, we spent time hashing out what the best solution might be. It wasn't always easy, and sometimes I messed up, but I persevered, because relationship is important. There's always a solution, even when it isn't obvious and you have to dig for it.

They're not kids anymore. They are 20, 16, and 14, with my daughter's 2 year old and a baby thrown into the mix.

I bought a 50 pound bag of dog food today. There was never a doubt in my mind that my teen boys would carry it in when I asked. The dog also threw up in her crate today, and my 16-year-old took the garbage out because it was too full to put the paper towels in once he cleaned the vomit up. No one told him to clean it up. It was time to feed them, and he didn't want to put her food in her crate without cleaning it up. He feeds the animals every night now. It's not a chore I made him do, but something that he's taken on because he loves his dogs. He's so reliable that I don't even need to think about it. Our relationship has evolved into that naturally, without demands or threats from me, without sticker charts or other forms of bribery. Just, "We do what needs to be done, and whoever is most able and willing to do a task does it. No biggie."

My daughter got pregnant at 17. Then again at 19, right before she and her boyfriend broke up. She messed up. I've messed up before in my life, too. Not in the same way, but who among us can throw the first stone? It never even occurred to me to not help her. It never occurred to me to kick her out just because she's reached the arbitrary age of 18 or to somehow punish her for getting pregnant. It never occurred to me to not watch her babies for her while she worked on her new business or took a shower. It never occurred to me to not wash her diapers for her when the laundry was backed up.

She's always been interested in sign language, but until recently, never really found a means to learning it that felt right to her. Recently, she found a mom and baby sign language class that she really wanted to take. It never occurred to me not to help her do that. I watch her active toddler while she and the baby do the class. It is a part of her learning, and just because she's over the age of 18 and would have "graduated" had she gone to regular school, why should learning count less now? What's the difference if she learns it now at age 20 instead of at age 14? Does she benefit any less learning it now than if she had chosen to do it when she was still "school aged?" Does it somehow "count" more before she's "graduated?"

I was talking to a friend not long after her 18th birthday, and I said something about homeschooling three kids. She said, "Three? She's 18 now. You mean two."

But no, I meant three. Legally, only two. But I encourage my kids to be life long learners. That means that they don't really ever graduate. How can you graduate from being a self-directed learner? Can you graduate from being curious about the world? Do you graduate from asking your mom a question she might know?

From the time they were little, my kids and I were partners rather than adversaries. It was never me against them, putting my foot down and making them do something they didn't want to do. When they wanted to do something that didn't seem to be easy to make happen, I figured out a way to do it. When one of my kids said they really wanted to throw a pie in someone's face, I made whipped cream pies and invited friends over for pie throwing followed by swimming on a hot summer day. When they wanted a game but we didn't have the money in the budget, we analyzed all our spending plans for the week and found that if we ate peanut butter sandwiches on Friday instead of ordering pizza, we could afford it. My daughter and I are even more of a team since she's had children. When she was little, our common goal might be how we can get the house ready for her friend to sleep over. And by common goal I mean that she wanted the friend to come over and I did most of the work. But now we talk about what everyone would like to eat, and we work together to make that happen. Now we talk about what her children's needs are, and we work together to give them the best life that we can. We talk about what our goals are for our businesses. I help her get pictures of clothing taken for her online thrift store and she makes dinner when I leave the house to take a writing day.

And we talk. We really, really listen to each other. I don't just assume that because my kids are a certain age that they need a certain thing. We are all unique individuals with individual needs. We should meet those needs for each other accordingly. But you can't know what a person needs unless you know the person. Unless you care more about who that person is instead of who you think they should be.

So my daughter and I are the moms of the house. I don't think that partnership would flow so easily now if we hadn't worked to make it happen when she was little and she and her brother both wanted the last piece of pie, or she wanted to get her first piercing when she was 13 or when she was 16 and became a vegan, making meal times more challenging.

We both learned how to live consensually with someone of another generation during her growing-up years, and since we had so much continual practice, we've got it down pretty well now. We're usually able to hash out our differences pretty quickly just by effective communication. "I feel this way when you say that in that tone of voice" is usually followed by a "I'm really sorry. I was frustrated but shouldn't have said that" kind of response. It helps that we constantly talk about parenting philosophy, dynamics of different types of relationships, and all types of philosophical things.

My kids may choose to move out for a whole big variety of reasons. But when and if they choose to move out, it won't be because we can't get along.

You don't get from mainstream, authoritarian parenting to peaceful, consensual parenting overnight. It takes years of dedication and practice, and it gets better bit by bit, sometimes so slowly that you don't realize it's happening until one day your child does something that would have made you lose your cool, and you realize that you didn't. It's better to start when they're little, because then the transition to an adult-adult relationship is much smoother. But I don't think it's ever too late to be a more involved and more peaceful parent.

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