Harry Truman once said, "I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want, and then advise them to do it."
Author Jane Isay might be willing to go that far, but not much further. After interviewing 70 parents and grown kids for her book "Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents," Isay advises parents to "keep their mouth shut and their door open" (although not too wide, lest they move back in).
That guidance has resonated widely with parents of a certain age who have been mystified by their 20-somethings' tentative steps into early adulthood. Herewith, other "rules" she discovered (and how to break them without an argument).
Rule No. 1: Keep your advice to yourself Your children will resent your instruction, Isay says. Why? "Many of us have kids who are graduating to full-blown adulthood later than we did," she says. "So when we see them struggle through their 20s, we feel compelled, out of love, to help them. But they may perceive any advice we give as being critical of their slow start." Parents who are still "helicoptering" —that is, hovering over their child's every move — magnify this perception.
Case in point: Doris, a schoolteacher, wonders why her son, a 38-year-old contractor, visits her only occasionally, even though he lives just a mile away. When he was a boy, Doris told Isay, "it was obvious to me that I made a big difference in his life." Today, she still calls often to counsel him about how to expand his business or solidify his relationship with his girlfriend. "It's hard. I just want to help him," she says.
According to Isay, Doris "needs to back off" from giving unsolicited advice or risk even greater estrangement.
Break it gently: If you can't resist, dispense your wisdom in a neutral way, Isay suggests. "Couch it in terms like these: 'Some people might think' … 'Have you ever considered' … That kind of language is judgment free," she says. "Before you leap in with advice, remember this: It's not so bad to make a mistake. You learned from yours, they'll learn from theirs."
Rule No. 2: Be clear about the terms under which you give money Today, many comfortable middle-age parents want to share their good fortune while they're still alive with kids who, because of social and economic changes, may not be so well off, at least early on. Unfortunately, parents' good intentions can produce divisive results.
"There are no secrets among sibs," says Isay. "All their lives they've been adding up what each has gotten from their parents, so offering to help only one child may be perceived as favoritism, even if the others are comfortable financially. And that divides kids from their parents and from each other."
Case in point: When Melanie's daughter Julia asked her to forgive a $10,000 loan she'd provided for Julia's home improvements, Melanie was stupefied. A widow, she simply couldn't afford to, and told Julia — who then complained that her parents paid for her sister's entire college tuition years before, while Julia was awarded full scholarships and cost her parents nothing. To keep the peace, Melanie decided to forgive the loan. Doing so is bound to lead to requests for similar amounts from her other kids, Isay predicts, and resentment if she doesn't grant them.
Break it gently: Whether you decide to be absolutely equitable or dole out money "each according to his needs," set boundaries and time limits and stick to them, says Isay. As a model of generosity that can be used by both parents and grandparents, Isay recommends adopting this tactic: Henry set up a small fund so that each of his adult grandkids would have $2,000 a year to spend while he was alive. There was one stipulation: The money was strictly for pleasure — a vacation, music lessons, or a new pair of skis. "His generosity sets the standard of wise giving — just enough to make a reasonable wish possible but also allowing each child the autonomy to make a good choice."
Rule No. 3: Don't take it personally
Divorce and remarriage add layers of complexity to family dynamics. "Stepparents who come on the scene when the children are in their 20s and early 30s are not welcomed," says Isay. Fortunately, time — and new additions to the family — have a way of repairing the rifts.
Case in point: When she married for the first time at 50, Esther imagined she would be getting a family along with her husband. But his grown kids refused to accept her. After one particularly strenuous dinner, when both her stepdaughter and stepson snubbed her, she retreated to her bedroom in tears. "They don't know me well enough to hate me so much," she said.
But when the first grandchild arrived, Esther fell in love with the little girl, and the baby adored her grandmother. As the kids witnessed Esther's natural love and kindness over the next few years, they gradually warmed to her. Esther, in turn, became less sensitive to their slights.
Break it gently: Keep in mind that your stepchildren are the offspring of the man you love — and they are likely to have many of his good qualities, too. Keep your cool and they'll come around eventually.
Your goals, their lives If your child is not living up to your expectations — yet — you have to recognize that you're not a failure as a parent. Once you do that, you won't be so judgmental of him. Keep in mind: They may not think you're perfect, either. So the best you can do is accept each other for who you are. You're basically saying: Welcome to the adult world, honey. I love you even though you're not what I prayed you would be. And they're saying: Thanks, Mom and Dad. You're a little annoying but you're my parents. And I love you, too.
Advice for grown-ups Ask Jane Isay questions about your 20-somethings throughout the month of May at prevention.com/family.