For starters, we may need to rethink our role as Mr. Fix-it — the idea that dads are supposed to save the day for young-adult children, whether it concerns career, finances or a faulty furnace. Instead, fathers should act as a "supply and support station," writes Ken Canfield, Ph.D., the founder of the National Center for Fathering. Offer the occasional home-cooked meal or even a car down payment.
And be available to provide advice — but only when kids ask for it. Cautions Jane Isay in Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, "When we tell [adult children] what they should do, they feel small and powerless all over again."
Along with being there when kids want advice, it's worthwhile to shift from teacher to learner, to recognize our kids' growing expertise and seek their advice ourselves.
There's no crime in telling them what we're feeling. "Our children tend to see us as fully grown, static adults: no changing, no learning," says Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D., author of Don't Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships With Your Adult Children. "That's a mistake. After all, we've never been parents of adult children before. We're still making mistakes, feeling vulnerable, struggling. Explain that to your child."
I took her advice and talked to my children, separately, about my complicated emotions. And I asked them each the same question: What do you expect of me now as a father?
My son didn't hesitate: Be there when I need you. Or, as he's too polite to say himself: Butt out until I ask for help. My daughter gave a different response. In short, she said: I need your wisdom. The word jolted me. I felt both honored and a bit intimidated.
Their answers felt like a small breakthrough for me, providing more clarity in our relationships. As our family continues to grow and change, I will ask this question again.
For his part, Jeff Oster had his own small breakthrough. He and his wife still regularly visit their daughter in Colorado, but he has different expectations. The boyfriend who once caused him such heartache has become his son-in-law and the father of his first grandchild. Oster embraces the new man his daughter relies on. "That guy," he says, "is a good guy."
Ray Paprocki is a writer and editor living in Granville, Ohio.