Childhood is not a lifetime debt

Parents of teenagers sometimes tell me that they don’t feel appreciated by their kids. “Look at all I’ve done for them,’ they say. ‘Why can’t they show gratitude?” As reasonable as this may seem, it contains a huge error. Gratitude is an emotion one feels when somebody did something you wanted them to do. For example, I needed the door held for me, and you held the door. I feel gratitude. I asked you to be truthful and you were truthful. I feel gratitude. You got me a discount on my new car. I feel gratitude. All of these are things I wanted, and you delivered.

As shocking as it may seem, the same does not apply to a child. Yes, you brought them into existence, you endured their infancy, fed them, clothed them, and you worked hard to ensure their education. Though these are big things, you child asked for none of them. Put bluntly, your child did not ask to be born.

Nobody likes to help anybody who feels righteously entitled. Yet, your child is entitled to your care. You have no reason to feel resentful, because entitlement in this context is valid. You chose to give him life, and with that comes the responsibility of helping him into adulthood.

Some parents go to the opposite extreme. Instead of resenting their child for feeling entitled, they actually assume she’s entitled to everything — forever. You’d be surprised at how often I see parents of twenty- or thirty-somethings pouring money and resources into that adult. They rationalize: ‘It’s my child. And I love him or her.” But does that love make you their slave in perpetuity? Sometimes I’ll ask such parents if their son or daughter deserves that help. The question rarely occurs to them, and sometimes they even resent it.

Some help is deserved and some isn’t. And this doesn’t change just because you gave life to that person and cared for him when he was helpless. Many parents of grown children resent the help they feel they’re expected to give those children. Some find these grown children mooching off of them. In spite of that, they feel guilty for their resentment. “How can I resent my own child?” Well, the child is no longer helpless. You can’t throw a two-year-old or a fifteen-year-old out on his own. But that doesn’t mean that you can never throw that grownup out. These resentful parents can’t have it both ways. They can’t righteously announce, “I’ll never throw my (adult) child out, no matter how much he mooches or brings his problems upon himself,” and then feel resentful about it. Your grown child is just acting in response to the message you’re sending: He or she is free to live off you forever if he chooses.

A parent has to be prepared to let a grown-up child go — even if it means throwing him out. Set a deadline, and stick to it. Anything else conveys the very unloving message that, “You can’t survive in life. I don’t have confidence in you, and I know you have to rely on me.”

Though childhood is a temporary state of helplessness, by adolescence a healthy young adult is capable of abstract thinking and a significant measure of responsibility and freedom. An adult child is no more helpless than you are. As fellow adults, you may be able and willing to help each other out; but short of an obvious accident or illness, nobody is helpless.

The challenge for parents is to keep things in perspective. When your kids are young, don’t resent them for the fact that while they may enjoy being alive, they didn’t ask to be born. They cannot help that they require your help to survive. But grown children are not the helpless creatures they once were. They’re adults, and the responsibilities you once had don’t convey into their adulthood.