Open Book

When the Rules Change

Learning to Learn from Your Children

Magazine Issue
November/December 2016
A headshot of a woman

Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers
by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
University of Chicago Press. 270 pages.

The term helicopter parents was still new when, about a decade ago, a national magazine asked me to write about intrusive moms and dads micromanaging their high school kids. I quoted experts who warned about the dangers of parental meddling and overcontrol, and felt smugly confident that I myself had achieved the Goldilocks balance between distance and oversight with my own adolescent son. Famous last thoughts!

Shortly after the article appeared, my son had his first session with his high school college counselor about what schools to apply to. I panicked—on his behalf, not mine—badgering him about everything from raising his grade-point average to getting more serious about the future in general. If he wasn’t going to take control, I told him, then I needed to. But as it turned out, he was the one who needed to help me control myself. “Mom,” he began, with a calm maturity that quieted me immediately. “Maybe you should reread that article you wrote.”

This anecdote kept going through my head as I read the esteemed sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s newest book, Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, a longtime professor of education at Harvard, begins her latest book by quoting an exchange with her friend, the well-known cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. After listening to Lawrence-Lightfoot complain about the unending tug-of-war with her adolescent daughter, Bateson advises her to try another stance altogether. “Your daughter is living on another planet, and she has a lot to teach you about it,” Bateson advises. “Listen to her.”

Out of that response came the subject for this book: what happens when, as parents, we actually follow that advice? As in, what happened when I actually listened to my son? Short answer: it marked the real beginning of our adult relationship, a conversation that deepened into mutual acceptance and shared respect, even when arguments inevitably cropped up. Lawrence-Lightfoot provides a far more comprehensive answer to how that can begin to happen. She does so by listening to parents like me—of children who’ve aged out of childhood and are now adolescents or young adults, between the ages of 15 and 35.

These are the empty nesters and the about-to-be empty nesters—a group whose family dynamics are distinct from the new parents at center stage of so much research on the psychological impact of parenting. At this point in the parenting life cycle, she points out, the future that parents have envisioned for their babies has now been superseded by the often dismaying reality of an almost (or already) formed adult, who actually does seem to have emerged from an alien culture and, moreover, demands the independence to live by its rules, not yours. Cue disputes over just about everything, and not only if the parents have been hovering far too low in their helicopters.

For Lawrence-Lightfoot, the solution to this deadlock lies in learning to accept the notion of role reversal, in which parents switch over from teaching their children to learning from them. The catch is that this usually can’t happen until parents begin to loosen and let go of the appropriately protective and sometimes overly tight reins they held for their kids in early childhood. The adaptation is crucial, she believes, not only to allow adolescent and adult kids to flourish as independent beings, but also to provide a foundation for a continuing connection based on mutuality, rather than control.

And it’s good for the parents, too. As one woman put it, setting a boundary and backing off from the need to know every detail in her kids’ lives has afforded her the opportunity to set the stage for what comes next in her own life—in her case, “nesting” with her husband. Lawrence-Lightfoot documents how this has worked in a sampling of 15 parents from across the country. Their stories aren’t case histories, per se, but detailed portraits of the difficulties, and the benefits, experienced by parents in switching mindsets. And though they can be long, and sometimes familiar, their specificity will speak to any parent who’s experiencing the push–pull poignancy of seeing their children begin to launch their independent lives. Also, recognizing this stage of parenting as distinct in itself will allow adults to talk about it more openly with each other, as well as with their kids.

Lawrence-Lightfoot organizes these portraits around four basic themes, which can also be seen as four stages by which parents incorporate these reverse lessons. The first is “witness.” She defines this as learning to “listen and observe, not intervene or fix” the adult that the child is becoming or has grown into. Hannah Fairchild, for example, learned this lesson with difficulty as she watched her son change in adolescence from the studious, nonmaterialist son she’d admired to the status-conscious jock whose values she questioned. Had he not gotten the message of placing meaning over consumerism that she and her husband had attempted to convey? It was only when her son pointed out her and her husband’s own inconsistencies—from not hesitating to drink and drive despite their admonitions to their kids to the contrary, to the family’s constant moves in order for the parents to pursue more prestigious job opportunities—that she began to recognize the hypocrisy of her own behavior. As a result, she became more introspective, questioning for the first time her own authoritarian upbringing and how she’d automatically adopted it as a mother. She began to train herself to stop and bite her tongue before jumping to judgment when it came to her kids. Although the adaptation was difficult and disagreements still occurred, her newly learned restraint set a baseline for mutual respect in the family. Of course, it remains a work in process. As she tells Lawrence-Lightfoot, “My grown children and I are not agreeing on procedures, not on the same page about childrearing. But neither did I agree with my parents, whose shadow of authoritarianism I am still trying to escape.” In this case history, as in many throughout the book, letting go in the present also means letting go of a legacy of dysfunctional parenting from the past.

Her second theme is “growing.” Lawrence-Lightfoot characterizes this as another type of role reversal, in which the kids now inspire their parents to develop emotionally, or cheerlead them on to spread their wings to pursue new interests or careers. One mother, for instance, was stopped dead in her tracks when her adolescent daughter told her in no uncertain terms, “You will not control me. You can’t make me be anyone but who I want to be.” In response, she began granting her kids more autonomy. Showing respect for their ability to set their own pace for clean-ups and homework rippled through their relationship. In particular, it led to more relaxed, expansive, and deeper family conversations, especially about spirituality and religion. In fact, the mother’s commitment to find a way to do good in the world led her older daughter to urge her to apply for a job at an international peace organization, where she now works. One of the most important skills she brings to the job, the mother says, is listening to the needs of other people—something she learned from her daughter.

The next theme is “intimacy”—the capacity to remain close and connected, even as offspring form independent lives and move away. In one story, an extroverted, opinionated mother talks about how far she’s come in respecting her shy daughter’s need for privacy—so much so that now that the daughter has grown up, they can even share a bathroom when staying in a hotel together (a point of contention from the past). But arriving at that point has taken years. In the past, the mother’s first impulse had always been “to observe, judge, and criticize,” until one day her then adolescent daughter called her on it. In a polite but firm voice, she asked what pleasure she derived from always being so cynical. The remark was a milestone for both of them. The daughter had spoken up, and the mother’s consciousness had been heightened, but change remained hard, the mother admits. “You just can’t stop being critical on a dime if that’s the way you’ve functioned your whole life.” Still, she prides herself on being mostly successful in training herself to think before blurting out her first, inevitably critical thought. An example of this came when her daughter invited her to try meditation: rather than rejecting it immediately, she accepted—and learned a new way to connect with her daughter while heightening her own awareness.

The final theme explored is “acceptance,” particularly when parents and children need to confront different sexual orientations or disability. These form some of the most powerful stories in the book. In one, an adolescent son supports and encourages his closeted, high-school teacher father to come out as gay at a “diversity” assembly. In another, a mother relates how her now 26-year-old autistic son has taught her humility: first, in her own struggle to relate to him, despite his severe language deficiencies, and later, in the way he befriends and supports those more language-impaired than he. Discovering a way to connect with her son through his love of painting led to her a new career teaching children with learning disabilities. She also credits her younger son with helping her become less self-conscious about his brother’s often unpredictable behavior. “He would just bring him along to a rock concert or to a bar to meet up with his friends. [He] loved his brother unconditionally and he was never embarrassed by him, never.”

The book’s power resides in its careful observations of generational relationships shifting over time, as both parents and their children move into new stages of life. You won’t find prescriptive how-to tips here, but there’s no mistaking the underlying message of the narratives, of the necessity of yielding control in favor of attachments based on a two-way flow of communication, connection, and mutual respect.

I wish the sampling hadn’t been so narrow, with most parents falling into a similar professional middle-to-upper class cohort. In addition, Lawrence-Lightfoot’s themes can begin to overlap with and bleed into another, and some stories do run on a bit too long. But those flaws don’t take away from the larger importance of a book that speaks so directly to parents whose once full nests are quickly emptying, or already have.

Yes, the empty nest has become a cliché, but this book makes you look at it afresh, with a broader appreciation of the parent–child dance. Whether because of their length or the sense of immersion in family life that Lawrence-Lightfoot brings to each tale, for me, they had a sneaky impact, speaking to my heart, not just my head. And Lawrence-Lightfoot reminds us that what matters most in parenting is how fully the attachments encompass the capacities for connection and autonomy, for nurturing both ensures that those relationships will continue to endure and even flourish.

Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.