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Staying close to adult children without stepping on toes

Open communication + clear boundaries = no hurt feelings. Or how a pair of wooden salad tongs changed my life.
Susan Swann, FamilyShare Modified: May 21, 2014 at 8:06 am •  Published: June 2, 2014

As parents of adult children, our goal is to remain close to them without interfering. The importance of maintaining appropriate boundaries that foster good relationships is never as important as it is when our children get married and have children of their own. This is the point where we need to learn to let go of our babies and redefine our relationships with our children, adult to adult.

Remember the salad tongs

When my son was engaged to be married, I came dangerously close to losing the budding affection of my soon to be daughter-in-law, Karry. The inciting incident happened over Thanksgiving dinner. In order to fully appreciate this story, you have to know that Karry is a fabulous cook while success for me in the kitchen is serving up a delectable pre-cooked meal from the deli. Needless to say, Karry was in charge of our meal. She cooked a succulent turkey, accompanied by homemade corn bread stuffing, mixed in with fresh ground sausage. When Karry offered a legitimate suggestion on how I might more easily toss our green salad, using salad tongs instead of two forks, I bristled, hurting her feelings. We were off to a bad start.

A few weeks later, I shared my still tender feelings with a good friend, as we sat talking in front of a roaring fire. He listened carefully, nodded a few times, and then said, "Susan, your goal is to gain a daughter, not lose your son." The obvious truth of his statement took my breath away. He was right. This wasn't about salad tongs. It was about my fear of being replaced, which is the way life is supposed to work, when it works well. My goal was to gain a new daughter, and it was up to me to make our relationship work.

Since then, I'd like to think I've become much smarter. Now whenever I feel like interfering in my adult children's lives, I try to say to myself: "Remember the salad tongs!" That reminder has saved me and my children more grief than they perhaps know.

Living Next Door

Jaci lives next door to her son Matt, wife Diedre, and baby Lydia. Living that close has the potential to generate lots of problems on both sides, and yet they all seem to be doing very well together. I asked Jaci to share the secrets of their success. She gave me four words: clear boundaries and frequent communication. Jaci never goes to Matt's home unannounced. She always calls before she goes over. She assumes nothing and asks about everything.

Matt does the same. Recently when his wife Diedre decided to work part time, Matt asked his mom about baby-sitting Lydia a few mornings a week. All three of them sat down together and discussed how this might work best for everyone. They also talked about contingency plans, in the event that Jaci had a day when she needed to do something else. Open communication plus clear boundaries equaled no hurt feelings.

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