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Detachment Parenting: Are You Mom Enough?

It’s past noon, and my twentysomething daughter is still asleep in her bedroom (aka my recently repurposed home office.) The light from her laptop—a Buffy retrospective of her own making still playing—is the only sign of life. I return to my dining room table to continue my own work only to be interrupted 15 minutes later by a sleepy-voiced plea: “Mommy [she hasn’t called me that two syllable appellation in over a decade], can you make me breakfast?” I feign deafness until she shuffles into the kitchen to … I am hoping now … make it herself. Before I can ask her what her plans are for the day, she asks me if I want to go to the movies later. No, I say, thinking to myself one of us has to work. Plus, I have no desire to see The Avengers—especially not in 3-D. And, yes I am fully aware that Joss Whedon (the movie’s writer/ director and creator of Buffy) is a genius. OK, she says, maybe I’ll go to the gym. Has she forgotten that I asked her to freeze her membership until she has the money to pay for it?

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Welcome to my world—a world that I share with increasing numbers of people my age whose beautifully educated children have been beaten down by a brutal job market and returned home to heal and regroup. As their parents, we believed we had provided them with everything they needed to succeed—more than just a first-rate education and a loving home: dance classes and music lessons, coaching for sports and coaching for tests, semesters abroad and summer internships. The list goes on. We were so attentive that we were dubbed helicopter parents; our involvement in their childhood and adolescence knew no bounds.

We lived by the mantra “Give them roots and wings,” but during this relentless recession their flight has been postponed. It's estimated that 85 percent of the class of 2011 has moved back home, according to a poll conducted by the consulting firm Twentysomething Inc. As of 2010, census estimates indicate that 5.9 million people between the ages of 25 and 35 are living at home, an increase of more than 25 percent since the downturn began.

Detachment parenting requires helping our kids learn to stand on their own two feet, even if those feet are currently on your living room sofa.

Behind those depressing statistics are lots of frustrated parents of frustrated offspring. When our children were little, we relied on Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Penelope Leach to bring up baby ... but there’s no manual yet for raising grown children. Certainly, you can’t follow the pediatric guru of the moment Bill Sears who encourages attachment parenting. (You know, baby wearing, cosleeping, prolonged breastfeeding.) That’s why, being a mother of invention, I’ve come up with my own doctrine: Detachment Parenting.

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This adult-child-raising style isn't about tough love, it's about tough times. We have to re-feather our no-longer-empty nests in ways that take into account fragile egos and dashed dreams while at the same time building resilience and adjusting expectations for our children’s futures. Detachment parenting requires helping our kids learn to stand on their own two feet, even if those feet are currently on your living room sofa. It’s a difficult task that requires you to stand back while you watch your kids to succeed or fail. You need to send the helicopter back to the hangar permanently.

To be able to cohabit with your adult children without losing your temper, your mind or your retirement funds, you need to develop the following four qualities. Not mom enough? You try putting a 24-year-old in a time-out chair. Throw out your child-raising strategies of the past but remember this acronym—P.A.S.T.:

Patience: Your unemployed son or daughter may not be able to find a job quickly in this sputtering market. Even when they do, it will take a while until they can support themselves. Stay cool.

Acceptance: Remember neither you nor your children expected to be in this situation at this stage of life. Accept that you will have to pay for some things. Along with room and board, I pay for cell phones and health insurance, but not the gym membership. Do what you can afford, and do so without resentment.

Silence: Don’t give advice or opinions unless you are asked. Better to hold your tongue than to compound the problem. And, if they ask you to make their breakfast or do their laundry, remember you are hard of hearing.

Tolerance: They may sleep late, watch too much TV, or play their iTunes too loud. Those are common twentysomething traits. Leaving their dishes in the sink or the towels on the bathroom floor is unacceptable behavior. Pick your fights. Tolerate the rest as best you can.

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Detachment parenting is hard and sometimes painful work. No one likes to see their child suffer. I was encouraged to learn, however, in a recent New York Times article, there may be an unexpected payoff. Academic researchers Karen L. Fingerman and Frank F. Furstenberg have found that young adults who received financial, emotional and practical support from their parents develop clearer goals and enjoy greater satisfaction from their lives. Even better news: This reconstituted relationship doesn’t impede their developing independence. Maybe later—when I’ve finished this post—I’ll see if my daughter wants to go to the movies. Maybe she’d like to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. OK ... we’ll see The Avengers.

How to deal when your kid is home from college for the summer:

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