“All I Did For You!”

Parents of teenagers often expect their children to appreciate them. “All I’ve done for you! Why can’t you show gratitude?”

To see the error here, think about what gratitude is. Gratitude is an emotion one feels towards someone for something you wanted the person to do. I needed the door held for me because I’m carrying three bags, and you held the door; I feel gratitude. I asked you to be truthful and you were truthful; I feel gratitude. I wanted the name of a good electrician and you gave me a competent and reliable one; I feel grateful. All of these are things I wanted, and you delivered.

The same does not apply to a child or young adult you brought into existence. On the one hand, it seems like such a big thing you did, at least if you did it right. You brought them into existence, you endured all kinds of struggles through their infancy, and you work hard to make sure they’re properly educated, fed and clothed. Those are pretty big things. But none of these are things that your child asked for. Put bluntly, your child did not ask to be born. Your child, before being born, wasn’t in a position to want anything. He wasn’t even alive.

Nobody likes to help someone when they feel righteously entitled. Yet your helpless child is entitled to your care. You have no reason to feel resentful if he feels entitled to your care throughout childhood and, to some extent, in young adulthood. This is because the feeling of entitlement, in those contexts, is valid. You chose to bring him to life, and with that choice comes the responsibility of helping him until he’s no longer helpless.

Some parents make the opposite error. Instead of resenting their child for feeling entitled, they actually assume their child is entitled to everything, forever. This is why you end up with parents of twenty-somethings or even thirty-somethings who are pouring money and resources into that adult. Why do they do this? “Well, it’s my son or daughter. And I love him or her.” That’s fine. But does your love of them automatically make them entitled for you to be their slave, for their whole adult lives? You can ask such parents if their son or daughter is deserving of the help. The question has not occurred to them, and they might even resent it. But some help is deserved and some is not. If someone brought the problem on themselves, or if someone wants to buy something that they’d like to have, but don’t absolutely need, then they don’t deserve your help, especially if that will cause you strain. The rules about this don’t change merely because you gave life to that person originally, cared for him when he was truly helpless and needed all those things you previously helped him with.

Many parents of grown children resent the help they’re expected to give those children. Some of these parents find these grown children living with them, refusing to look for work or do anything but mooch off of them. They resent it, but they feel guilty for their own resentment. “How can I resent my own child?” But that child is no longer helpless. You’re not entitled to throw a two-year-old, or even a fifteen-year-old, out on his own. But it doesn’t follow that you can never throw that person out.  The almost universal attitude is, “I cannot and will never throw out my child, no matter how much he’s mooching off of me, and no matter how much the problems are his own fault.” OK then, but don’t feel resentful. Your grown child is simply acting in accordance with the way you feel — acting as if he or she is entitled to live off you, free of charge, forever if he chooses.

I would argue that you have to be prepared to let your child go, once he’s a grown up. Yes, this even means throwing him out. Set a deadline, and stick to it. To hold on to him indefinitely is to convey a very unloving thing: “You can’t do it. You cannot survive in life. I don’t believe in you, I don’t have confidence in you, and I know you have to stay with me.” If you’re not prepared to bluntly and honestly say these things to your grown child, then you have no business acting towards him or her as if you believe these things.

Childhood is a temporary state of helplessness. The young child is physically and cognitively helpless, for the most part, although cognitive training can begin early. By adolescence the young adult is capable of abstract thinking and a significant measure of both responsibility and freedom, just so the two are matched. In adulthood, your grown child is no more helpless than you are. You’re two fellow adults who are certainly able and willing to help each other out, if needed, in all kinds of respects; but absent a horrendous or obvious accident or illness, nobody is helpless.

The challenge for parents is to keep the proper perspective. When your kids are young, don’t resent them for the fact that while they may very much enjoy being alive, they didn’t ask to be born, and they cannot help the fact they require your help (in the early years) to survive. Likewise, don’t think of your grown children as the helpless creatures they once were. They’re adults now, just like you. The responsibilities towards them you once had don’t convey indefinitely into the future.