How To Know When You Are Done Parenting?

Various forms of this article have been published in several parenting magazines, including Women’s Sourcebook and Today’s Family.

How Do You Know When You Are Done Parenting?
5 Categories to Assess Your Child’s Well Being

By Erick Lauber, Ph.D.

“What now?”

That was the first thought Betsy had when the message on her phone said the principal wanted to talk to her about her youngest son.  Though she wasn’t thrilled, she knew it wasn’t quite yet time to panic. Joey had just entered his freshmen year but his two older siblings, one a 17-yr old junior girl and the other an 18-yr old senior boy, had already taught her to remain calm until the details emerged.

As she waited for the designated time she started to wonder when this stage of parenting might end; the “anxiously waiting up at night and never knowing what crisis might come from a phone call” stage.  She’d already made it through the “three in diapers” stage and the “he won’t let go of my toy” stage.  The “grandparents” stage was still a long way off. At least she hoped so.

The kids fed and clothed themselves most of the time now, and the long conversations before bed had turned in to quick chats in car rides.  The crises were fewer and farther between – less about skinned knees and more about dating and drugs – but they seemed bigger and harder to handle than the earlier, elementary school days.

In truth, her confidence was a little bit shaken. She wasn’t as sure of herself about her parenting as she was during the “play-dates and birthday party” years.  Was she backing off the right amount and training her kids to handle their own dilemmas?  How involved was she supposed to be about their college choices?  Should she speak directly to that high school coach or stay calm and show her kids that, in the end, high school athletics shouldn’t be taken too seriously?

Her questions seemed endless and she knew her husband was even less confident than her.  All of her older friends said it would change when the kids moved off to college.  But she knew a couple of them still checked in with their grown-up child quite often. She had heard the phrase “helicopter parents” and she didn’t want to be one of those. On the other hand, some of her older friends seemed very hands-off with their kids.  Was that because their kids were doing really well?

Betsy wanted the best for her kids and was willing to work at it, and knew eventually she would just be an advisor, a parent-friend who was available as needed.  Certainly, that’s how her parents “parented” her now.

But when would that time come?  How would she know when her kids were ready to take over their own lives?  When would she be done parenting?  Not done loving them, of course, nor done being available, but done making decisions for them  and done checking in and monitoring them to make sure everything was “still on course.”

Focusing the Question

Betsy’s questions are not unusual. For many parents, the teen years are a very stressful and confusing time.  When the kids were younger it was kind of easy, or at least simpler.  Keep them safe. Make sure they are well.  Let them know they are loved. Etc…

But when the kids become 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 the way you used to – back when they were just children?

For many, when they survey their friends about this question they get responses like, “when your children are independent,” or “when they can take care of themselves.”  But when and what is “independent?”  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, correct?

If we focus on what really worries parents, that their children will not grow up happy, healthy and wise, it is possible to gather these worries into a coherent whole. For example, most – if not all – parents have been focused on trying to take care of their child’s “future self,” not just the present child.  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 the child in the long run.

So, one answer to Betsy’s question “when is she done parenting, at least the way she did when they were elementary school students?” 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.”  She can stop making decisions for them when they are making decisions that will lead to their long-term happiness and health.

And 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?

Well being

One way to answer this question is to turn to social scientists.  For example, the Gallup organization has been studying individual happiness and life satisfaction for many, many years.  Their concept of the good life is informed by millions of survey responses.  Their results support our intuitive notion that we all want basically the same things.  Gallup has combined these few universals into a concept called “well being.”  When we are doing well in each of these categories, we give ourselves very high scores on well being.

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 well being down the road if they are taking care of themselves in the areas of career, social, physical, financial and community well being.

1.       Career and Purpose

The Gallup organization has discovered that the single most important element of one’s well being is a person’s self-evaluation of their career well being.  This question is not about how much money you make, but instead about how much you enjoy what you do on a daily basis. Do you feel like your work has a purpose and does it feel meaningful?  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 that enjoying their 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 and meaningful.

To help make this happen, Gallup recommends people learn to use their strengths every day.  This might mean in Betsy’s case she helps her children identify their strengths and encourages them to pursue careers that capitalize on those strengths.

Gallup also recommends we identify people who share our mission and passion, and spend more time with them. Perhaps Betsy can suggest joining a professional club or business organization to each child?  Can she help them connect with people who share their interests and values?

2.       Social

Gallup recommends that to increase our well being in the social sphere we spend roughly six hours a day socializing with friends, family and colleagues.  Unfortunately, we all know as parents we cannot make relationship decisions for our children.  But perhaps we can help in this area.  Betsy can ask herself, are her children forming strong bonds with people at work or school? Does it look like these relationships will last for years and are her children able to navigate brief disruptions in those relationships?  Most importantly, are they forward-looking in their choice of relationships, particularly the most important ones such as their spouse?

Gallup also recommends mixing social time with physical activity.  Are the kids’ social lives contributing to their physical well being? Or is it the other way around – are their social lives getting in the way of their physical well being?

3.       Physical

Betsy has probably been taking care of her children’s physical health for quite some time. She’s been buying and preparing their food, dictating their sleep schedule and enrolling them in physical activities after school and on weekends. So, are they starting to make healthy decisions on their own?  Are they developing eating habits that will contribute to a long-term healthy lifestyle? Are they choosing to be physically active at least 20 minutes a day, or is their physical activity waning off?  How about their sleeping patterns?  Are they choosing to get between seven to eight hours a night? Or, are they getting too few or too many (more than nine hours) per day?  Young people have a tendency to think they are invincible.  Is she helping them to see that risky behaviors eventually lead to bad outcomes? Do her kids fully realize their health is now their responsibility?

4.       Financial

Betsy would be wise to investigate how her kids are spending their money. Though happiness and well being are not strictly tied to absolute wealth, most research supports our intuitive notion that too little wealth can have a decidedly negative effect on our well being.  To achieve financial independence all of us know we need financial discipline and an ability to forgo near-term pleasures for longer-term financial goals.

Betsy probably knows that long-term financial health means spending less than you earn.  But being obsessed with earnings will produce a one-dimensional person; one who misses the truly important things in life such as time with family and friends.

But the Gallup research also shows that how we spend our money – whether on experiences or things, on friends and loved ones or just ourselves – can have an impact on our overall well being.  So Betsy’s immediate two questions might be: are her children able to demonstrate some financial discipline when they have a long-term goal? And, do they spend their money recognizing that experiences are more important than things?

5.       Community

Finally, the Gallup organization has found a significant correlation in an individual’s self-reported well being  and  their involvement in their community.  Volunteering is a significant contributor to our happiness and can inoculate us from stress and other negative emotions.  A sense of community counteracts the feelings of isolation and loneliness that are still possible even in today’s technology-connected world.

Betsy can encourage success in this area by helping her children develop a personal mission or purpose with respect to community needs and activities. What might be their focused area of involvement? Habitat for humanity? The animal shelter? The opportunities are endless.  But even if they start small, she should encourage them to start now.

Hope and Optimism

Though these are the five components of well being according to Gallup, an important additional determinant of a child’s future success is also hope and optimism. A person can only succeed at what they try.  As the famous quote goes, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are correct.”

Betsy, and the village around her, needs to encourage in her kids a sense of forward-looking hopefulness.  She may do this with what she says or doesn’t say, with what she does or doesn’t do – but if she keeps this important goal in mind she will find numerous opportunities throughout the teen years to encourage optimism and hope in her kids.

Betsy was wise to remain calm waiting for the phone call. To her pleasant surprise the principal was calling to get her permission to invite her son on a school academic review committee. It was an honor for her son to be nominated – not a punishment.

For all of us, the answer to the question “when are we done parenting?” requires that we have a goal in mind. Well being is at least one way of answering and describing what we want our children to achieve in the long run. It is one way of describing the goal.

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 well being index, plus the additional goal of encouraging hope and optimism, as a way to assess whether our child is taking care of not just their present needs and wants, but also their future selves.  Though all of us know our roles as parents will never really be over, it is completely acceptable to say the job can evolve.  The kind of parent most of us probably want to be is someone who celebrates from the sidelines, not be in charge of the entire game.