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Relationships • Parenting

When Parents Won’t Let Their Children Grow Up

One might think parents who had spent close to a couple of decades ministering to their children would in time be markedly keen to get them off their hands in order that they might enjoy some remaining years of peace and a clean house. But this would be to underestimate just how much certain parents are – in privacy – relying on their children to satisfy a range of emotional needs with which they are struggling: the need to feel powerful, to have an audience, to play a role, to exist.

Black and white photo of two smiling children.
Photo by Chris Curry on Unsplash

These are not necessarily desires it is easy to own up to. Rare is the parent who can cleanly reveal to their child that their maturity – which the child might ardently have fought for over many years – poses a grave threat to their integrity, which would be better assured if the child could, somehow, agree to remain in a cot for the rest of their lives.

In order to delay the moment of abandonment, parents may institute a variety of covert interventions. A parent may develop a psychosomatic illness just as the child is getting ready to go to university – ensuring that the child will either need to stay at home or will never feel entirely free in their minds as they move away.

A parent whose relationship with their partner is not giving them the emotional support they need may set themselves up against any boyfriend or girlfriend who is brought home – in an attempt to keep their child in the role of proxy husband or wife.

Or a parent may suddenly remove an offer of a loan on which the child had been relying on to advance.

Or a parent may alternate between being approving and suddenly withdrawing affection, exciting in the child a morbid dependency and need to confirm a love of which they can never be certain. There are parents who have cannily worked out that the best way to keep a child close isn’t to adore them unconditionally (this will only lead to being taken for granted), it’s to leave them continually unsure that they have any kind of safe place in their fickle hearts. 

Or, most mysteriously, a parent may rattle a child’s mind by implying that the wish to separate isn’t compatible with being kind or good. It doesn’t take much for a child to develop a sense that their freedom has come at too high a price for the person they adore. The child might suffer a breakdown, ostensibly regretted by everyone, yet hugely beneficial to a ‘nurse’ who now needs to be on duty 24/7, much as they would have been in the earliest days.

It’s an immense privilege to be looked after tenderly. It’s an even greater privilege to be – at the right moment – benignly abandoned: to receive no phone calls for many days (or even weeks), to not be asked if one is keeping warm or has enough cake left (one is and does); to have one’s partners enthusiastically endorsed and to be able cleanly, for a while, to forget where one came from.

The complicated truth is that a good parent always needs their child as much as, perhaps more than, the child needs them; a truly helpful parent is sure never to let anyone know.

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