“Mum, it took me forever to get to work, and I didn’t get to stop for dinner. You know how awful I feel when I don’t eat, and I don’t have any breaks to go out and get something. Can you pick up a sandwich and drop it in to me?”

This was not a request from a secondary school child but a phone call from my 24-year-old daughter who worked 35 minutes away.

Whoa, I thought. Had I unknowingly advertised free dinner delivery service?

Food deliveries aren’t the only request on the table for parents of college students and young adults. Through e-mail, text messages, phone calls and over lunch, many parents of adult children face appeals for room and board, laundry or chauffeur service, short- (or long-) term loans.

Some parents have bonded to their children in such a tight way they are sometimes called “helicopter parents” because of their tendency to hover and jump in to help at the first sign of need. Many parents love the notion of family closeness and an abundance of support. Other parents, however, are afraid the apron strings will never be cut, so they refuse to give any help lest they interfere with their child’s developing self-sufficiency. Even experts disagree on the amount of involvement that is beneficial without smothering.

How can young adults launch their own life while maintaining a close relationship with their parents? And how do parents switch their role from caregiver to prayer partner, listener or consultant yet still offer assistance?

Like any other aspect of parenting, one size does not fit all, but some general principles can help.

  • Start early. Gradually transfer responsibility to your YA (young adult). By sixth year, expect him to be able to get himself up, juggle his schedule, do his own laundry, turn in his homework on time and manage his money. Some parents also lift curfew to prepare for the college years ahead.
  • Wait it out. It is easy to call “just to check-in” or e-mail an offer, “I’m going to the store; do you need anything?” Letting your YA be the initiator pays off in the long run. Similarly, refrain from jumping into a conversation with offers of help. Your YA might just be thinking out loud and not be asking for assistance at all.
  • Pass it back. Practice active listening. Questions like “What do you think?” work well when your YA is asking for advice. “You are putting a lot of thought into this” builds confidence. Asking, “How can I pray about this for you?” leaves it in their court and gives you something to do.
  • Believe in them. Assure your YA that you believe in him and his abilities and skills to make good decisions. My parents watched me, their only daughter, head off to a short-term missions project instead of the job market. It must have been the source of some worries, but I never heard about them. They showed confidence in me.
  • Enjoy the new dynamic. If you count the years, you’ll notice that you will spend most of your life alongside of your child as an adult. Laughter and fun can enrich this season of life. Enjoying it starts with letting go of your primary role of instruction and embracing your new role of influence.

Considering my daughter’s request for dinner delivery, I wasn’t initially sure how to respond. I finally said, “Let me get back to you about this in a minute.” A quick prayer for wisdom and direction followed, and I knew what response I needed to make. Some parenting tools never change.by Letitia Suk

This article first appeared in the Midlife & Beyond Edition of the June, 2008 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. Copyright © 2008 Letitia Suk. All rights reserved.