Help me relate to my parents
November 29, 2005 8:48 AM   Subscribe

I would like a meaningful, non-awkward relationship with my parents. What can I do to cultivate this? Am I just in an awkward stage that I/we will outgrow? How can I better relate to them and appreciate them? What the heck do adult children talk about with their parents?

I am 29, and I am newly a "real adult" (living and earning entirely independently of my parents, after long bouts with education and its close companion, poverty). I moved away to "the big city", and enjoy all of the events/activities that entails.

My parents have more or less retired, and have no hobbies (I don't count watching tv as a hobby, exactly). They are not offensive; they don't judge me; they are not annoying or controlling. It just feels like they're non-entities. We have nothing in common, and therefore nothing much to talk about, and I'm worried that this will continue to be a problem (unless I have children). Additionally, my mother is getting more forgetful, and seems noticeably less sharp than before. This doesn't help with my ability to relate or converse. Holiday gatherings are driving me insane.

We used to have a perfectly comfortable relationship, but seem to be drifting apart, and I can't figure out how to fix this. Lend me your advice and experience (yes, I have already tried drinking heavily at family gatherings)!
posted by unknowncommand to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Seems like you need to make some sort of first step. Do they live near you? You could try inviting them to dinner and maybe some kind of night out on the city. It'd probably be awkward, given your descriptions, but it migt make a good first step. The thing with parents is that people tend to regret not doing these sorts of things once it's too late.

Good luck.
posted by xmutex at 8:53 AM on November 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

I talk about everything with my parents. What I'm working on, girls I'm dating, the drinking I'm doing, what my friends are up to... we make fun of people together, we discuss ways to get things done, we swap recipes, my dad and I talk construction, we catch up, we tell stories. I call them about three times a week and talk for half an hour. I turn off the censor, too, so my dad can honeslty hear what's on my mind about the girl who wasn't a girlfriend but I feel like I cheated on anyway or the problems I've been having concentrating or whatever.

If you don't already have a meaningful relationship, try turning off the censor. What do you have to lose?
posted by jon_kill at 9:09 AM on November 29, 2005

A few suggestions:

Being around your age (27), but maybe not as "newly adult" .. I still find myself in need of advice on life-things.. like buying my first home (which I'm on my way to), buying my first car, etc...

Your parents won't feel like you're just using them when you need advice if you call them up about these things. In fact, they'll be thrilled that you can trust them and rely on them for such help.

Do you know much about your parents personalities and talents? Is your mom or dad artistic? Why not suggest some fun hobbies for them to take up in their retirement? Are you well-off enough now that you could even semi-force that by buying one of them a paint set, or pay for a cheap community art class or something? How about a reasonably priced digital camera and a road trip map/atlas if one of them might like photography?

I'm not suggesting you bribe your parents into a relationship by buying them stuff, but understanding that they're retired and since they have no hobbies, bored, they might be thrilled that you're looking for things for them to do to keep entertained.

I have a strange relationship with my parents, in that I can go weeks without talking to them and not "miss them" -- but at the same time, there's nothing negative about our relationship. We get along just fine, but like your situation, my parents and I just don't have a real lot to talk about. I've been trying to change that by helping my dad convince my mom to take art classes (she has a real talent she's rarely made use of), and talking to my dad about photography (a hobby he has taken up especially now that they're newly retired).

Some people just aren't super close with their parents, and don't have to talk to them every day to be happy - but hopefully the above suggestions might lead to some ideas on how to talk to them a little more often, and actually have something to talk to them about.
posted by twiggy at 9:12 AM on November 29, 2005

I'm 28-y-o guy, just finished my first year living on my own in September.

Definately check out a book called "The Five Love Languages" and determine which of these your parents are. My dad is a "Receiving Gifts", while my mom is an "Acts of Service". Having read this book made a WORLD of difference. The best way mom feels she can express her maternal love for me is to do something for me and feels most loved by someone doing something as simple as a chore for her -- while my dad feels that the best way to express his endearment is to buy me something, and feels most loved when he is given a gift. The best way I perceive expressed love is proximity ("Physical Touch") and value hugs to such a tremendous degree, than even by standing near me a link or bond is made on my side toward you. In both cases with my parents, it involves my proximity to them, so they get a genuine expression of my appreciation for them.

The other two languages are "words of affirmation", whereby the simple act of just saying loving things means the greatest kind of love more than anything else. "Quality Time" folks highly value your undivided attention, even just listening especially when looking them right in the eye, no distractions, as the best expression ever given. Even 20 minutes a day completely paying attention to them means worlds of difference in how their day goes. I'd really advise you to read the book, because it has loads of examples of how incredibly straightforward it can be to make a solid connection in the language someone else speaks.

unknowncommand, I will totally *buy* you a copy if you don't have one. Just email me and let me know.
posted by vanoakenfold at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2005

Best answer: One useful strategy I have when conversation lags with either of my parents, or my grandmother, is to ask them questions about the past. You say you see your parents as "non-entities" now, but do you know how they met? when they decided to get married? what they felt the day you were born? what their favorite memories of their own childhoods are?

Sometimes the simplest little questions will get them talking. I personally always find it fascinating to hear about family history, and I think it makes them happy to sense that I am genuinely interested.

In general, I think very few of us are lucky to have parents who, if we were not related to them, we would end up being friends with. So don't worry about having something "in common". You most likely don't. But that's okay, that's what family is about :)

Sit and watch tv, have lame conversation, drink some. Just appreciate them for what they offer--they knew you way back when, they love you--and don't worry about having the kind of relationship with them like you would other people.
posted by eileen at 9:16 AM on November 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

Much like jon_kill said, turning off the censor and trying not to think of them as parents, but as just some people you know may help. Tell them about your life and also ask them about theirs. Maybe ask them about times when they were younger and get them talking--sometimes you find out interesting things that you never knew.

(on preview: eileen said this way better!)

It took me a while after I started working and living on my own before I started to appreciate my parents as real people. So perhaps time will help.
posted by jdl at 9:24 AM on November 29, 2005

The right approach will depend a lot on your parents' specific personalities.

For example, my father is very shy. My relationship breakthrough with him came when I started treating him like any other adult, e.g.. I would take responsibility for the ebb and flow of the conversation rather than assuming that it was his responsibility as the "senior adult" present. All of a sudden, my Dad started to respond and engage with me (just like other adults do).

But, it could be the opposite for your parents. They might relate better to you if you are more deferential.

It also sounds like you need some common interests. Probably about 25% of the time I hear from my Dad it is because he needs help with his Macintosh. Hey, it's not deep emotions, but it does increase the frequency of our contact, which has side benefits.
posted by alms at 9:27 AM on November 29, 2005

I remember going through that stage and it was one of the best times of my life. It really felt good to talk about things like work and finances with my parents as equals. From that point on, I have just talked about the same things with my parents I would any other adult, with the addition of family news.

It is hard to know what the ideal relationship is with your parents as you are a complete stranger on the internet, but some drifting apart is an essential part of growing up; otherwise you will never develop your own personality.

Having nothing in common shouldn't be a hindrance to conversation; I generally seek out friendships with people who have different jobs, political views and so forth so that we will have things to talk about. If your parents watch a lot of TV, there should be plenty to talk about right there, although the quality of conversation will vay with the programs they watch.
posted by TedW at 9:28 AM on November 29, 2005

sports and investing.
posted by CrazyJoel at 9:30 AM on November 29, 2005

Best answer: A simple thing, but I have a blog and my parents read it regularly. It's not a particularly personal blog, but I think they like that and it keeps us in communication.
posted by BigBrownBear at 9:36 AM on November 29, 2005

One thought might be to develop a hobby of your own, and then gradually include your parents in it. Enlist their help in developing your hobby, which gives you a reason to visit, the 3 of you something to talk about, and could well lead to more fulfilling conversations on other topics, and a growth in your relationship with them.

Oddly enough, the fact that they watch a lot of television might be the key to picking a hobby that all 3 of you can enjoy. What sort of shows do they like to watch? What themes do the shows touch on? Is there something in there that might give you some inspiration on a hobby based around collecting some specific type of item (baseball cards, newspaper articles about strange crimes, a particular celebrity, etc) or being involved in some specific type of activity (gardening, creative ways to save money around the home [there are a lot of web sites devoted to this topic, and if your parents are not 'wealthy retired', this could have the added benefit of helping them enjoy their retirement in other ways, as well], etc).
posted by planetthoughtful at 9:39 AM on November 29, 2005

get married and have children. that seems to have helped my siblings. (i'm in the same awkward stage as you, but with the additional stress of having to deal with perfect siblings - thanks for asking the question, the answers are insightful)
posted by echo0720 at 9:57 AM on November 29, 2005

I still find myself in need of advice on life-things. ... they'll be thrilled that you can trust them and rely on them for such help...

This is so true, especially as a newly-independent. Nothing did much for the "meh" relationship I had with one parent until said parent was asked for advice on things he could actually answer. We still don't really share much in common, but it was a start, and something we come back to. It doesn't have to be touchy-feely stuff either, if they're not the type. For me, this was "where do we hang that with what type of nails," "how do i get the toilet to stop making that noise," and things like that.
posted by whatzit at 10:03 AM on November 29, 2005

Maybe take a small trip with them somewhere occasionally.
Especially if it allows for new experiences.
posted by TheLibrarian at 11:37 AM on November 29, 2005

It's very difficult to speak as equals to people who are a generation older and wiser than you, and who once had such authority over you. But you almost certainly have much more in common with who they were when they were 29 then you think you do. I only started to relate to my parents as people like myself when I came to know more about their own young adulthoods; my mom's life as a model/actress/party-girl in Greenwich Village, and my dad's brief earlier marraige that ended when he knocked up my mom. Your mom may be remembering less of what happens now, but I bet if you dug up some old pictures or letters of hers she'd love to tell you a lot of humanizing details about that young woman; get your dad drunk and ask a couple of leading questions and I'm sure he'll reveal something you can identify with.
posted by nicwolff at 1:00 PM on November 29, 2005

Ask them questions about themselves. Where did they first meet? Go to school? What kinds of games did they play when they were young? What were their parents like? Do they have pictures they could show you? One day they will be gone and you will wish you had asked some of these things.
posted by LarryC at 5:33 PM on November 29, 2005

Response by poster: Many thanks for your answers and suggestions. They do live far away, so meeting with them or getting together to work on hobbies isn't much of an option. I like the idea of asking for advice, and keeping a blog that is parent-friendly. It's funny because the suggestions like "take the filters off" and "talk to them like they're any adult" are probably great ideas, but really hard for me, as an introvert/social-phobe. It's as though one of the reasons I liked them before was that I didn't have to relate to them like ordinary people. So really, it's most likely that my way of communicating is falling short in this new situation. It's something to think about at any rate. Thank you MetaPsychotherapy!
posted by unknowncommand at 12:00 PM on November 30, 2005

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