Bobble On:

A Guide for Getting Along with Your Grown Children

By Victoria Duncan

In the overcrowded Starbucks, the three-generation trio piling into the seats next to me drew my attention. Young mom wore a scowl, grandma looked like she’d been crying and the toddler in tow whined for his treats. All looked disheveled, irritated and desperately in need of something stronger than caffeine.

Returning to my laptop while the toddler tucked into his snack, I heard grandma blow her nose. Just as I refocused on my work, an argument began. In such close quarters, it was impossible not to overhear what was taking place:

“For goodness sake, stop crying!” Mom raked her hand through her blonde ponytail.

“I was only trying to help.” Grandma dabbed at her eyes. “I don’t want you to make the same mistakes that I did.”

Mom leaned forward and hissed, “Why can’t you ever see things from my point of view?”

“It’s just that I think you should … ” Grandma began.

Mom sprang to her feet and the table tilted. As his cookie fell to the floor, the toddler began wailing.

“Since you have all the answers, I’m going to the restroom!” mom flounced away.

Grandma caught my eye, and shrugged. “What are you going to do? I’m only trying to help.”

In return, I smiled weakly. I’ve been there and, probably, so have you. We mean well. We want our grown children to be happy and, yes, we want them to avoid some of our own mistakes. Clearly though, this grandmother had not climbed the steep learning curve toward effective communication with adult children. It’s a slippery journey that demands we get up to speed quickly. To interact well with our grown children, we need specific skills—and we need them fast. In short? Grandma needs to make like a bobblehead.

Recently I gave my dear friend, a new grandmother-to-be, a bobblehead doll made in her own likeness as a reminder of what I’ve learned about being a nonintrusive grandparent. Bobblehead dolls sport a rather large head (filled with all kinds of knowledge and experiences) balanced upon a flexible neck. The head bobbles in a random and nonjudgmental manner. These dolls don’t necessarily agree, they rarely disagree and are pretty easygoing in all things. Most importantly, they do not impose their opinion on others. In my mind, a perfect blueprint for dealing with adult children.

Want to know the secrets of the bobblehead approach? Read on:

  • Self-examination: Know what you have at stake. Are you really just trying to be helpful? Maybe you still wish to be the authoritative parent? Perhaps being useful was your identity and it’s hard to relinquish that control. Turn your attention to making your own life as fulfilling as possible. When you invest in that, you will have less energy left to intervene in your children’s lives. That’s good! 
  • Use your memory: Remember being a young parent and bristling at advice given by your parents? Your adult daughter or son is finding his or her own way and deserves the chance to do that unencumbered by your opinion. You have not walked a mile in her stilettos or in his wingtips and, even if you think you have, it was a long time ago. Allow them their turn to try new approaches, to enjoy their own successes and to learn from their own mistakes. 
  • Discipline yourself. Are there times when you know best? Doesn’t experience count? Of course! Carefully choose those issues where you must say something (mostly in cases of risk of bodily harm) versus those times when you just want to give an opinion (everything else). When you reserve your “help” for those essential times, it will be more readily accepted than if you sprinkle your views about like toxic fairy dust. Watch your nonverbals too. Pursed lips, a raised brow or a smirk can carry crueler judgment than words. 
  • Cultivate curiosity. Remember the television detective Colombo? Rather then putting his opinion out there, he “played dumb” to gather information. Often Colombo began sentences with, “I wonder … ” Give his approach a try. When you encourage your loved one to talk without passing judgment or offering your solution, you are giving her the space to figure things out on her own. This builds self-confidence! If asked for an opinion, avoid sentences that begin, with “You should …” Instead, slap on a puzzled frown while you remember something from your own experience and wonder if that might work today. 

Does being a bobblehead mean that you are a pushover or less than honest? Absolutely not! Being a bobblehead means being mature enough to let go of your need to control and to release your need to be right. It means respecting your now grown-up child as a fully functioning adult. It translates to trusting their ability to make decisions and to handle the consequences. Being a bobblehead means having the wisdom to practice restraint.

Back at the Starbucks and before mom returned to her table, I considered cluing grandma in the bobblehead approach. However, since that would be giving unsolicited advice, I packed up my work just in time to see mom heading our way looking like she was ready to rumble. More harsh words were imminent and I made my exit with just a bobble of my head in sympathy for all parties. Although I ignored my desire to offer advice, I hope that grandma might read this article and learn to practice–as we all must do if we want to have harmonious relationships with our grown children–how to bobble on.

Victoria, a licensed professional counselor, lives in Annapolis and thanks her sons and daughter-in-laws for their patience and understanding while she learned these lessons. She can be reached at [email protected]



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