By Linda Bernstein
Hint: ‘How can you live like this?’ isn’t a good conversation starter
As my 29-year-old son was ticking off all the weddings he and his girlfriend would be attending in the coming 12 months, I blurted, “So when are you getting married?”
“Mom!!!” he said (I swear I could hear the exclamation marks of annoyance) before his sister chimed in, “Yeah, I’d like to know, too.”
I was grateful that took the attention away from me, but I was in the wrong — overstepping parental bounds and sticking my nose where it did not belong. I know perfectly well that young adults hate it when their parents pressure them about marriage, so my only self-defense is that my mouth was working more quickly than my mind. I really do expect that when my son and his girlfriend have news that involves a wedding, my husband and I will be among the first 100 people to know.
Dances With Words
Over the past several years, I’ve been discreetly observing young adults (not my own) on the phone with their parents. I wanted to learn the slam-down-the-phone triggers so I could avoid them. Parents often say ridiculous and sometimes hurtful things. We forget that we’re speaking to mature people (not that they always make it easy to remember). We condescend when maybe we should remember that what seems innocent or even playful to us is nails on a blackboard to them.
There are just certain things that parents should never say to their grown children. Ruth Nemzoff, resident scholar at Brandeis University and author of “Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children,” makes the point that parents transgress the bounds of how we should be talking even before our children grow up. “We fantasize that we can say anything we want to our kids, but the truth is, we never could,” she argues. And, as both we and our kids age, our blurt-it-out tendencies seem to grow worse.
This list is meant to help you avoid uttering those unintentionally hurtful things I’ve heard parents say over the years, and to offer some less offensive alternatives. (And just for the record, I’ve said most of them myself.)
6 Things You Should Never Say to Your Grown Child
1. Have you gained [lost] weight? Like most of us, I’ve read all the articles that warn us not to nag our preteen and teenage kids — especially our daughters — about weight or eating habits. And yet I saw this on my cousin’s son’s Facebook page when he returned from his junior year abroad: “Home five minutes and Mom asks, Have you gained weight?” His friends quickly replied with comments along the lines of “Yeah, mine, too” and “I don’t tell her she’s fat.”
Say instead: “I’m so glad you’re back! I really missed you.”
2. What’s that on your face? Really and truly I have heard parents call out their adult kids’ zits. And I understand — sort of. From our perspective, our kids are perfect, or nearly perfect, so any blemish is a shock. But from the kids’ point of view, it’s “There you go, ragging on my appearance again.”
Say instead: Nothing. However, if your adult child shows up with an actual bruise or cut on his or her body, I feel it’s legitimate to ask about it. (If he or she doesn’t want to talk about it, let it drop — unless you have a suspicion that something bad has happened. But that’s a whole other blog post.)
3. How come you hardly ever call (or text) these days? I’ve found that parents and their adult children define “hardly ever call” quite differently. I know that when my son’s number hasn’t shown up on my caller ID for three or four days, I begin to worry — unnecessarily, of course. These phone silences have more to do with what’s going on in his life than how he feels about me. Sometimes he’s just been really busy. It’s easy to forget that he’s a separate person with his own life. So every morning I repeat this mantra: “Today my kids may feel no need to talk to me.” When they do call, engage, don’t nag.
Say instead: Don’t — just text a quick hello.
4. It’s all for the best; [So-and-so] was a jerk anyway. Never speak too negatively about your adult child’s partner when they split up, especially if the couple has a habit of breaking up and getting back together. This is a hard one because if someone treats your child wrong — even your self-sufficient adult child — your mama/papa bear protection instinct goes on high alert. But what happens if you badmouth the badly behaving ex? You think your kid won’t remember exactly what you’ve said and repeat it to the reinstated sweetheart? Maybe wait it out a month or two before lambasting the b_____.
Say instead: “How are you feeling? Do you want to talk about it? I’m here for you.”
5. How can you live like this? You go to visit and see they’ve got a week’s worth of dirty dishes on the counter — while complaining about mice and cockroaches. Whether they had to do chores when they were growing up or never lifted a finger to clean up after themselves, your adult kids may have ideas about hygiene that don’t match yours. There’s always hope that when they settle into a job and a relationship and have kids, they’ll start washing their sheets more often.
Say instead: “Let’s go out to eat!”
6. What do you expect me to do? I mean, really. Really. This is your kid, and he or she expects you to fix it, whatever it is: a job rejection, a romantic rejection, a fight with a friend, a bee sting. Grownup problems are still boo-boos, and boo-boos are still within your bailiwick. Yeah, it can be exasperating, especially if they reject your advice out of hand. But remember those papers you John Hancock’ed when you left the hospital with your bundle of joy? They meant being a parent is a lifetime commitment, including having continual conversations. So here it is, another opportunity to have a meaningful discussion that will nudge our fledglings onto the road to responsible adulthood.
Say instead: What can I do to help?
And One Day the Tables Will Turn
Researchers, including Kira Birditt, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, report that tensions between parents and their grown offspring may be more upsetting to the parents than to the children. Apparently, we are more emotionally invested. As I’ve said to my kids, “There’s no way you’re going to understand how I feel until you have kids of your own.” Of course, that’s probably not the right thing to say.
Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.