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.


High School Leadership Workshop transcript (8)

This is part of the transcript from a high school leadership workshop Dr. Lauber conducted in Indiana, PA in 2011.

There are such things as individual differences in the world.  As much as we like to study brains and minds, they’re not all the same, and they all interpret even the exact same stimuli differently.  They come up with different conclusions, different interpretations.

I remember the day my wife and I were sitting on the beach; my daughter Emily is making a sand castle, and my son Casey is pushing this dump truck around, and you know what’s going to happen next.  At some point, he runs the dump truck in to the sand castle because they’re about the same age, and that’s just inevitable.

And I remember my wife’s interpretation, “How could our son possibly do that?  What kind of evil kid is this?  He is going to grow up to be a mass murderer.  This is terrible.”  And my interpretation was, “That was inevitable.  I have seen boys build sand castles just so they can run over them with their dump truck.  It’s just the way it is.”

So the differences is between them, but more importantly, in that situation, there was another difference – between me and my wife and how we interpreted the exact same stimuli, the exact same situation, watching it happen in front of us.  She had a different interpretation of what it meant and what to do about it.

You’re going to come across these kind of situations in your life.  Differences between people can be significant and have impacts on your relationships with them.  Some differences aren’t quite important as others.  I like to do a little task with audiences because I have taught television production and I ask “What are your favorite television shows?”  So what’s your favorite television show?

SportsCenter on ESPN?  What’s your favorite television show?  You’re not sure?  Let’s have some volunteers.  Who over here wants to tell me what their favorite television show is?  Come on, it’s not that hard.

You like House?  Who else likes something else?  Yeah?  What?

Burn Notice?  Yes, you?

Reno 911, the comedy.  Anybody over here, what’s your favorite television show?

Law & Order, we’ve got some serious drama going on. Good deal.  Anybody else over here, favorite television show?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’ve always had fun watching that show.  She kicks butt, doesn’t she?

Anybody over here?

The Secret Life of the American Teenager, we watch that in our house because we have teenagers.  I think it’s a great show.  How about over here, favorite TV show, anyone?

Doctor Who, the British one, yeah, that’s a good – well, there’s an old, old, old version, and then there’s the new version.  Yes?

NCIS, I haven’t heard that one yet.

Hey, folks, that’s a huge diversity of TV shows that you all like in a crowd that the TV industry considers to be identical.  The TV industry thinks you are all the same demographic – little, tight narrow age range in the room right now – little tight geography as far as they are concerned.  They think you’re all identical and yet, I can walk around this room – and I can do this in any place – and find a huge diversity of shows that you all like.

Now let me share a little story with you.  I’m so old that when we watched television as a kid, we didn’t even have cable.  I know that sounds like a horror movie basically.  We didn’t have any cable, and HBO hadn’t been invented yet, let alone satellite.  Guess how many channels we had – three; ABC, CBS and NBC.  That’s all we had.

We had the test pattern on UHF.  Us old guys – we can go reminisce about that test pattern later.  That’s all we had.  Now let me tell you a little consequence of this that had dawned on me much later in life as I taught TV and communications.

When I went to college at Northwestern University in Chicago – I’m from a small farm town in Ohio – when I arrived at college and started having conversations over lunch and dinner and stuff, it turned out that nearly everybody had seen the same TV shows that I had.  Whole countrywide had seen the same TV shows.  We all chatted about Happy Days; we’d all seen Laverne & Shirley; we’d all seen the Wide World of Sports on ABC.

We had the exact same content to talk about.  And when we made jokes and references at the dinner table, we all got them because they were all jokes about Happy Days and shows that we’d all seen.

In fact – this is a funny story – I was watching – my favorite show in college for a time was Baa Baa Black Sheep, probably only the really old guys – Baa Baa Black Sheep was about a Korean fighter unit – Air Force fighter unit in Korea that would go up and have these fighter jet planes.  Robert Conrad was in it.

And all of us in my fraternity right after dinner would all go sit in the living room; we’d all watch Baa Baa Black Sheep together.  It was a huge fraternity event.  One day, they cancelled it.  It ruined our lives.  They cancelled the show.  We had nothing to do.  We didn’t know what to do with ourselves because we didn’t like the show they put on.  It could have been like Blossom or something, Facts of Life.

So I just started to go to the library and started studying.  So, “All right, might as well go to the library.”  A couple of buddies joined me.  You know what – our grades went up.  I have to write a thank you note some day to the network for cancelling Baa Baa Black Sheep.  I may never have survived Northwestern academically.  We all did better.

But the consequence of this today is that with the fractionation of the media, with all the little niche markets and all those channels… people are not having as many shared common experiences.  And when they meet new people, they don’t have much common ground as they used to have in the old day when everybody watched Walter Cronkite for the news.

They have a huge diversity of information, and it’s harder to communicate with people who don’t share as much background with you as maybe your sister, brother, or your neighbor.  When you go off to college, it’s a more complicated task for you now than it was when I went to college.

Even though Northwestern was very cosmopolitan – everyone from all 50 states – we had all that shared knowledge from TV, from music, back whenever LPs – remember those things.  But you guys, you have a bigger task.  You have a bigger task and a challenge ahead of you to have conversations with people who are more diverse.

So one of my messages today for you at your age is to think about the tolerance and diversity that you are going to have to exhibit in the near future.

High School Leadership Workshop transcript (7)

This is part of the transcript from a high school leadership workshop Dr. Lauber conducted in Indiana, PA in 2011.

I’ve just used this automatic driving example to show you that even complex behaviors, like getting from point A to point B that might take an hour and a half, can be on autopilot.  Well, if that can happen, how much of our life can be on autopilot?  How much of it can be, “I’m just kind of going through the motions.  I picked some goal a long time ago, and now I’m just kind of following along in the usual pattern of behaviors.  I’m not actually contemplating the decisions that I make.”  We’re just kind of going on autopilot for long stretches of time.

I’m afraid that can happen more often than we think. Unless we take control of our lives and stop it.  I, for example, wanted to be an astronaut.  Anybody else wanted to be an astronaut?  You want to volunteer that information?  Yeah?  Be an astronaut?  You know what happened?  I went to see the very first Star Wars movie – that’s how old I am – in junior high, in 7th grade.  I went and saw the very first one with Luke Skywalker.  I can still do, “Zoom, zoom, zoom” with my pretend light saber.  I got that down, the sound effect with the lifesaver.

I walked out of that film so jazzed up I decided, “I’m going to be an astronaut,” even though I found out later you don’t really get to fly around in the Millennium Falcon and save princesses, if you’re an astronaut.  But I was still psyched about it, and I followed that goal for eight straight years.

In fact, it was in the summer before my senior year that I finally got denied my last waiver to get into the astronaut program because I had bad eyesight.  And they won’t let you in the astronaut program if you have bad eyesight.  And I had applied and applied myself to that goal, studied physics – my first degree is in physics – to try to get in the astronaut program, and I finally got a big, big fat, “No, it’s not going to happen.”  I’m sure that contributed to my depression senior year.

Since then, I’ve learned how to accomplish and reevaluate goals on a consistent basis so that I’m always trying to think through what is it that I really want because I didn’t really think again about being an astronaut from 7th grade until I was 22.  That was just something that was the goal.  Let’s keep moving forward; let’s keep doing the things I think I should do.

You’re going to enter a period in your life – you’re going to start thinking about goals and college careers and majors and things.  I hope you start thinking about what it is you really want to do every step of the way.  “Is this something I still want to pursue as a goal?”