Parenting kids over 18 is still parenting. You just get less control and the stakes are higher.

I once looked forward to my kids’ legal adulthood as a kind of finish line, but I now I know how delusional that vision was.
Parenting children in their 20s is no longer about teaching them life skills like how to cross the street. But it's no easier.
Parenting children in their 20s is no longer about teaching them life skills like how to cross the street. But it's no easier.Keith Negley / NBC News
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By Meagan Francis

When my five kids were small, I naively saw the age of 18 as the light at the end of the tunnel. During that sleepless stretch in which my life felt like an endless blur of night feedings, diapers, bandaging boo-boos and navigating piles of sippy-cups and sippy-cup lids that never seemed to match, I looked forward to my kids’ legal adulthood as a kind of finish line. Once they’d crossed it, I figured, I could relax and celebrate having gotten past the hardest parts of parenting.

Now, with two of my children well past voting age and their three other siblings hurtling ever-faster toward that benchmark, I can look back at my former self and say with the benefit of hindsight: Hahahaha!

The lines between appropriate helping, spoiling and enabling are often difficult to define.

Instead, I often feel like I’m learning “how it works” all over again. Parenting older kids is still very much parenting — only you get even less say, the results are more public, and the stakes are higher. The lines between appropriate helping, spoiling and enabling are often difficult to define and the concept of parenting “to the child” rather than following a one-size-fits-all plan starts to feel less conceptual and more necessary.

It’s true that my two eldest sons, ages 20 and 22, are less dependent on me now. When they were young, my entire existence seemed to revolve around stopping them from doing certain things while compelling them to do others. Today I no longer need to teach them basic life skills, like how to cross the street without being annihilated by a garbage truck or why showering every day is a good idea — though, let’s be clear, there are days I ponder reviewing that particular lesson — and I have neither the responsibility nor opportunity to monitor their schedule minute-by-minute.

But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. Nor that my duties are behind me. Despite all the bold statements I made when they were 8 about tossing them unceremoniously out of the nest the moment they turned 18, I have since realized my smug error in thinking they would be fully formed adults ready to be thrown out into the world without repercussions.

That’s largely because, while the government may tell us that once you’re 18, you’re an adult, neuroscientists now know better. Emerging research on brain development shows that a young adult’s brain isn’t fully developed until the age of 25.

Developmental psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls this period — the seven years between the day a kid legally becomes an adult, and the day they have the reasoning power and impulse control of an actual adult — “emerging adulthood.” And navigating it can be tricky for both children and their caregivers.

“Parents are often glad their kids are more mature and can do more things for themselves,” he notes, “but at the same time you often realize they’re making decisions that aren’t wise, or that they aren’t ready to make.”

This can be particularly difficult because those decisions often carry larger weight. Arnett compares it to the damage done if a toddler takes a spill while learning to walk versus when an adult falls. “Questions like whether to move in with a girlfriend or boyfriend, drop out of college, choose a major — those choices have big, long-term implications,” he says. “Naturally, you have ideas about this — and not unreasonably, they also feel like it’s their life to live.”

That’s why it’s important to listen as much as instruct, according to Lisa Heffernan, co-author of “Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults.”

“Since our ability as parents to mandate and control our kids’ decisions is lessened, it’s time to switch to listening and modeling adult behavior,” she says, suggesting acting like a “sounding board” for them. “Getting kids through this stage is all about showing them what adulthood feels like and sounds like and looks like — literally walking them through your decisions and explaining, ‘This is why I did it this way; here’s what happens now.’”

And it’s true that my boys do want to talk to me — but I’m never quite sure how to be available and yet age-appropriately detached. I don’t want to pry too much into their personal lives, and yet I want to make sure they’re taking good care of themselves. That makes it only too easy for our conversations to devolve into nuts-and-bolts mini-nags, asking about their bank account balances and whether they’ve renewed their car registration yet. (Answer on that last one: No. I had to do breathing exercises to keep from threatening to repossess a car I do not own.)

Part of what makes this hard is that it’s different from the model I and other parents of my generation typically experienced.

“We’re raising our kids differently than we were raised,” Heffernan agrees. “Our kids want to spend more time with us and talk to us more than we did [with] our parents, so we’re always trying to find the line between parenting and overparenting.”

As an action-oriented mom accustomed to managing the lives of a large family, the “sit back and listen” approach doesn’t exactly come naturally. But that doesn’t mean I’m helpless to enact change, or that my subtle advice won’t eventually reach its mark.

As an action-oriented mom accustomed to managing the lives of a large family, the “sit back and listen” approach doesn’t exactly come naturally.

In fact, I am encouraged by knowing that while the seeds of self-sufficiency and maturity are still sprouting, others I worked hard to tend — like kindness, empathy, strong family ties and curiosity about the world — are coming to fruition more and more.

For years, I’ve been advising other moms to play the long game — parenting not just for today or this moment, but for the big picture; making decisions not because it’s what other people think you should do or a cultural norm, but because it’s what your gut says is the right thing for your child, right now.

So the tunnel, as it were, still stretches out ahead of me, and for how many years, it’s hard to say. My youngest is 10; I’d like to think I’ll be a real-life empty nester within the decade. But just like I’ve had to at all stages of parenting, I’m learning to adjust my expectations as I go.