Parenting decisions today, a relationship with grown children tomorrow

There was an enjoyable essay in The Times this weekend about a mother taking a cross-country train trip with her two twenty-something sons. I agree with the observation the author, Dominique Browning, makes at the outset: “As parents, we are inundated with child-rearing books, but none of them explain how we should behave when children become adults.”

Over the course of the week-long trip from New York to San Francisco Browning distilled several lessons for how to have a good relationship with your children once they’ve grown up. They include:

  • Don’t say everything that pops into your brain
  • No more corrections of any sort
  • Do interesting things together. Do anything together.
  • Listen and do nothing. Or, do nothing and just listen.
  • They will never be 8 years old again. Nor do you want them to be. Not really. Just a bit.

James’  turned two just last week, so it’s not quite time to worry about how I’ll handle things the first time we have a beer together. In her essay Browning says that one of the keys to the success of the trip was that she let her twenty-six-year-old son Alex plan the itinerary as a way to show that she considered him an adult. This morning I let James plan the walk to daycare and it was a disaster. It took 20 minutes to walk two blocks and the experiment ended with him screaming in my arms, “I wanna touch it,” as I hauled him away from a pile of dog poop.

Even though we’re a few years away from traveling together as equals, I still think about how the relationship James and I have now will translate once he’s an adult. The first two years of his life have passed in what feels like almost not time at all; I imagine the next 16 will, too. Given that James will have no choice but about spending time with for only a relatively small percentage of the years we have together, I want to make sure that the relationship we form while he’s young sets the stage for the relationship I hope we’ll have when he’s older.

I don’t have any particularly keen insights for how to accomplish that. As parents we probably have less to do with that process than I think. (Maybe one-third of a child’s eventual happiness owes to his parents, with the rest just alchemy?) But in the day-in-day-out sometimes slog of parenting I find that thinking about the relationship I’ll have with James when he’s older is a useful way to remind myself of a larger point: that Caroline and I are raising a child whose life is ultimately his own.