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Psychologist Laurence Steinberg offers advice to parents of adult children

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

A while back, the AARP asked Laurence Steinberg for help. The organization for retired people said its members had a problem - how to parent their adult children who weren't quite ready to leave the nest.

LAURENCE STEINBERG: They were hearing from members about how challenging this time was for them and how there weren't any resources out there for them.

MARTÍNEZ: Steinberg is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University. He took on the challenge and wrote a book called "You And Your Adult Child: How To Grow Together In Challenging Times." When it comes to parents of grown children, Steinberg has a view not unlike that of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.

STEINBERG: Parents don't really get it. Parents don't fully understand how hard it is to be in your 20s or 30s today. And so in some senses, a lot of the issues that parents confronted when their kids were teenagers are still surfacing during the young adult years. And I think that that's very surprising for parents.

MARTÍNEZ: But we were in our 20s and 30s once, Laurence. What's so different?

STEINBERG: Well, the economy is very different. The labor force is very different. I mean, the challenges are huge, and it just takes so much more time and money to make the full transition into adulthood. And people nowadays are making that transition at later and later ages. And so a lot of the things that people in our generation did when they were in their mid-20s, let's say, have been pushed into the 30s. And I think this takes parents by surprise.

MARTÍNEZ: So then with so many adult children relying on their parents more and more, then how can the two ever be on equal footing as adults when the bonds of dependency remain?

STEINBERG: Well, I'm not sure that striving for an equal relationship is what the goal ought to be. One of the reasons I wrote the book was that I want parents to understand what it's like to be a young adult today and to adjust their parenting accordingly. The other point is that today's parents have been so involved in their kids' lives from the time that their children were very, very young. I mean, they, you know, searched for preschool like it was a life-and-death decision. They were hugely involved in their kids' education, not only helping with their children's college applications, but sometimes writing, you know, the essays for them. And so now I think a lot of parents wonder, what is the appropriate level of involvement in my child's life now that my child's an adult?

MARTÍNEZ: But I want to be less involved as a parent in my adult's life. I already worry because I'm a parent and I'm going to worry about them forever, but I want to worry less.

STEINBERG: I think most of us want to worry less. But given the financial dependence that's there in many households where kids in their 20s and 30s need their parents to help them, it really is difficult to not be involved.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Laurence, I became a grandparent very, very young. I was 39, so I was an extremely young grandparent. I immediately, when I picked up your book, went to Chapter 8. That's the last chapter on grandparenting. And in the book you lay out three reasons why grandparents should keep their opinions about parenting to themselves. I want to go through them one by one. Let's start with the first one, which is fads and fashions in parenting change. And I understand when the years go by, you get more information and we become more knowledgeable about things. But aren't certain things tried and true?

STEINBERG: Yes, to some extent. But if you look at the history of parenting advice books, what you see is that there are changes from generation to generation. And so one reason to resist giving your opinion to your adult child about their parenting style is that the books that they're reading and the advice that they're getting from their pediatricians - they're very different than the books that we read and the advice that we got.

MARTÍNEZ: I always think, like, when my kids finally get around to following the advice that I give them, it's only after they've asked a million different other people and consulted millions of other books before they finally come back to the advice that I gave them from the beginning. It's frustrating.

STEINBERG: It's frustrating. But I think that one of the struggles that adult children go through is establishing some kind of autonomy from their parents. And I think what you need to recognize as a grandfather and as a father is that when your kids push back and don't follow your advice on parenting, it's not about you. It's about their need to see themselves as autonomous, competent adults who don't have to rely on their parents anymore.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so second reason - second reason for grandparents to keep their parenting opinions to themselves - you write that it's a no-win situation. So if it's a no-win situation, why should I say anything at all?

STEINBERG: Because you can't resist the impulse, because you see your kid doing something that drives you crazy. And as I say, you know, if it's that hard to watch, get up and leave the room because it is a no-win situation. If your child isn't doing something that's going to really harm the baby, it's better just to sit back and not offer unsolicited advice.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, now, reason No. 3 why grandparents should keep their opinions about parenting to themselves - and you write that you might undermine your kid's confidence at a time when they need to feel more assured about their parenting skills.

STEINBERG: Yeah. And I think that a couple of things that parents perhaps could do more of is complimenting their children when they like something that they see them doing, when they feel that their kids are parenting in an effective and thoughtful way, and not just save your remarks for the times when you disagree with how they've handled the situation.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, I grew up in a Latin American household where my grandparents had just as much authority over me as my mom. My grandparents didn't have to ask my mom permission for anything, you know, much less any little thing. How much of a cultural divide, Laurence, do you think there is when it comes to grandparenting and the parent-to-adult-child relationship?

STEINBERG: I think it's huge. And I think that as our nation becomes increasingly diverse in terms of people's ethnic and cultural backgrounds, we're going to see very different dynamics in families and very different kinds of relationships between parents and their adult children. Some of my friends who are married to individuals whose families came from Asia or from Mexico, let's say, say that they're expected to maintain much closer bonds with their own parents. And I think that can sometimes be difficult because a child of immigrants may be comparing herself or himself to the other American kids that they meet in college or, you know, in the neighborhood, whereas the parents may be comparing the behavior of their child to how they behaved toward their parents when they were a young adult. And those may be very, very different ways of relating to each other.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Laurence Steinberg. His new book is called "You And Your Adult Child: How To Grow Together In Challenging Times. Laurence, thanks.

STEINBERG: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARENTS JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND")

DJ JAZZY JEFF AND THE FRESH PRINCE: (Rapping) You know, parents all the same, no matter time nor place. They don't understand that us kids are going to make some mistakes. So to you all... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.