When our children are young, living at home and within our care, we often serve as umpire. We call balls and strikes, fair or foul, out or safe. It’s an important job to be keeper of the morals, definer of right and wrong and the voice of conscience. Children need this guidance to become healthy and well-balanced adults. But what happens after they leave home and seem to forget about what we taught them or face challenging situations where they could actually use advice but don’t seek it from us?
After talking to many mature clients facing these situations, I hear a common theme. They know their adult children could benefit from their counsel. But they don’t want to meddle, to be seen as controlling or to cause friction. I have come to believe that offering advice to adult children is more art than science, more coach than umpire. If you’d like to become an advisor your adult children will actually listen to, here are some ideas to transition from umpire to coach.
IN THE SHADOWS OF THE ARCHES
My family recently took a vacation to Arches National Park. We made sure the schedule worked for our two daughters, aged 24 and 21. Our oldest daughter is now gainfully employed (yes!) and our youngest is still in college. It’s important to us to have these moments together as a family because I know major changes are coming soon. Career choices, marriage, children, pressures from the workplace: all of these are just around the corner for our girls.
But there was a problem. The view from our rented house was beautiful. Yet if we stepped outside on the veranda to enjoy the sunshine, we couldn’t hear each other talk. We were constantly interrupted by the roar of dune buggies running up and down the road at a breakneck pace. They just happened to leave that little detail out of the Airbnb listing.
So we took the noise out of the equation by moving indoors to talk. I think this is analogous to a point I want to make in this article. Sometimes, to have meaningful conversations with our adult children, we have to get rid of the noise. What kind of noise?
Many times, when mature parents try to give adult children advice, the conversation is hampered by two types of noise. First, adult children may not want the advice because they still see their parent as umpire, not coach. Second, it’s difficult for mature parents to know when to, and when not to, give advice and how to do it in such a way that it sounds like a coach, not an umpire.
Here is one thing I’ve learned after experimenting with a number of different ways to communicate with our daughters. Many times, the lighter the touch, the bigger the impact. The way I approach the conversation often determines whether or not my wisdom benefits them. Let me share an example.
SHOULD I TAKE THE JOB?
Just a few weeks ago, my 21-year-old called me to discuss a prospective job opportunity. She’s a senior in college and is in the process of actively pursuing a full-time job to start next spring. She’d recently turned down a job offer from a company she’d interned with over the summer. She knew that we (her parents) didn’t necessarily agree with that decision.
She was feeling pressure to lock in a job, but this wasn’t exactly her dream job. She’d gone through a few phone interviews and now had the opportunity to go for an in-person interview. This required a two-day visit to the company with multiple interviews and other team-building activities. This also meant taking time off school, missing classes, and travelling to a different state. She was on the fence about whether or not she should keep going in the interview process.
That’s when she called me, asking for my perspectives. Rather than spout out my opinion, I asked questions designed to get her to talk about the company and the job. Ultimately, she knew she didn’t want to relocate to another state to take this job. She also knew she’d get nothing more than experience interviewing and networking from the in-person meetings. She felt our hometown had much to offer and she could continue to apply for jobs that are close to home for the next several months.
She had a big decision to make:
- Should I keep interviewing for a job I might not like just to have the security of locking something in?
- Should I keep looking for a job that might be closer to home and I might like a lot more—even though there are no guarantees I’ll find one?
This is an important decision in her young life and one of the biggest she’s ever had to make. I did not make it for her. At the end of this article, I’ll tell you what decision she made and how it turned out for her. But the point I want to make here is that I attempted to use influence, not authority, to help guide her.
THE ART OF INFLUENCE
I believe influence is an indirect way of advising adult children to find the best path forward for them. Coaching is about influence. Umpiring is about authority. As our children mature, they need our influence more and more and our authority less and less, if at all.
Here is the difficult part for us as parents, as mature people who’ve seen a lot, especially as it relates to consequences from making poor decisions. Because coaching is such an indirect way of helping our adult children, it often feels as if their outcomes remain very uncertain, as if we should do more. Some of us struggle to simply let go. It would be so much easier if we could just tell them what we think and then they would listen to and act on that advice. But that rarely seems to actually work.
If you are interested in becoming an advisor to your adult child, someone who can use influence to shape a brighter future for them, here are five ideas to help you.
- Recognize the limits of your influence.
- Stay true to your word.
- Remain calm—most of the time.
- Know when to pull back.
- Be inquisitive not demanding.
RECOGNIZE THE LIMITS OF YOUR INFLUENCE
In my experience, adult children often have pre-formed opinions and thoughts about the topics they might be bringing to you or might be thinking about but not discussing with you. This means they probably already have their own ideas. This also means they might not take your advice, even if it is the best thing for them. I believe you have to be okay with this and not see it as a failure on your part. Think back to when you were their age. Did you always listen to your parents?
The goal is to be able to insert your wisdom into their decision-making process—to create real communication. But that doesn’t mean they’ll listen every time. Sometimes the only way to learn, in certain situations, is to try something and fail.
Our oldest child taught us this lesson when she was just a little girl. We put her in a variety of activities to see what she would like and where she could thrive. She is a type-A person, full of competitive drive. But gymnastics was really not her thing. She realized this long before we did. While she received a ribbon at the end of the gymnastics session for being in the top ten in her class, it was not lost on her that there were only ten children in the class. Needless to say, that was the end of gymnastics.
Sometimes, even when we use our influence to the best of our ability, our adult children still might fail. This is where we have to recognize the limits of our influence and be comfortable with that.
STAY TRUE TO YOUR WORD
We all believe that staying true to our word is important to maintain integrity. But for mature parents of adult children, there is a moment that seems to push us to the edge. Many parents tell their children that they can come to them with any problem. They say this to create an atmosphere of open communication and trust.
But do we also promise not to judge, to not be upset about what they’ve done or are thinking of doing? More importantly, can we actually deliver against this promise? If you tell your adult children they can come to you with any problem and you won’t pass judgement or get angry with them—regardless of what they need to tell you—and then you become judgmental or angry when they spill the beans, you probably won’t be their first phone call the next time they have an issue to discuss.
REMAIN CALM—MOST OF THE TIME
A moment ago, I noted the importance of allowing our adult children to fail. I want to qualify that statement just a bit. I believe we should allow our adult children to fail up to a point, based on the size of that failure. Here is a simple guiding principle. The bigger the failure, the longer the recovery time, the more permanent the consequences—especially to grandchildren—the more we should insert ourselves, even to the point of being annoying. Sometimes we just have to do that.
Most decisions our adult children will make have very few long-term consequences. For example, even if my youngest chose to move to another state right after college, she could always come back to Illinois later and she might even have a deeper appreciation of her life here. There were no meaningful long-term consequences from that decision. But this is not always the case.
If we prove to our adult children that we will only rarely insert our opinions into their decisions, that puts us in the best position to influence them when something big is on the line. In other words, if you remain calm most of the time, you preserve your perspectives for when your children need it most. I believe this increases the likelihood that they’ll actually listen when it really matters.
KNOW WHEN TO PULL BACK
I was once accused of micro-managing, from another state, when talking to my youngest on the phone. She was at home watching the dog and the house while my husband and I were on a short trip. She was telling me about her plans for the next few days.
Apparently, I was telling her how she should do whatever it was she was planning to do—without even realizing I was doing that. It became clear that I had overstepped my bounds based on the silence on the other end of the phone. I asked what was wrong and she said, “You are micro-managing me from Arizona!” Point well taken.
Part of being a good coach is knowing when to push forward and when to pull back. Most of the time, our adult children will give us cues that we are pushing too hard. But we have to be prepared to listen to them and recognize these moments. Sometimes silence is a very real way of saying, “I don’t want your opinion on this.”
BE INQUISITIVE, NOT DEMANDING
One of the best ways to be a coach and use influence is to ask questions far more than make statements. As mature parents of adult children, we often think we know what is best for our kids. We might indeed be right. But we rarely seem to stop and ask ourselves—how did we come by this knowledge?
Most of the time, it seems there are two answers to this question. First, I know my children because I raised them. Second, I know someone who faced a very similar situation, the decisions they made and how it turned out for them. But knowledge alone is not enough. Applied knowledge—wisdom that is lived out by the ones we love—is what prevents pain.
When young adults arrive at their own conclusions, they own their choices and take responsibility to chart their path forward. Isn’t this what we want for them? Questions involve the art of helping a young adult make decisions that feel completely autonomous for them—decisions that they made, not you.
Here is a simple guiding principle to help you use influence in this way. Every time you are tempted to make a statement, pause. Think back to the situations that formed your opinion about why you want to make that statement. Then find ways to formulate that statement into questions.
AND NOW, THE REST OF THE STORY
My youngest child had a difficult decision to make: should I keep interviewing for a job I may not want but that provides short-term financial security, or should I keep looking? She chose the latter. Ultimately, she felt that living near friends and family was more important to her. She also knew that Chicago provided ample opportunities for her chosen field.
Shortly after turning down the interviews, she attended a networking event. She met the CFO of a logistics company and then participated in a few phone interviews. Will this work out for her? Time will tell. But for now, she has chosen her path and is committed to it. I can ask for no more than that.
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