PAC It In: Advice for Parents of Adult Children

By Steven Libowitz   |   July 30, 2020
Author Barbara Greenleaf’s new book Parents of Adult Children: You Are Not Alone tackles thorny intergenerational issues

Veteran Santa Barbara resident Barbara Greenleaf founded the Santa Barbara Jewish Film Festival and served as vice-chancellor at Antioch University. But writing has also been her longtime profession with a particular focus on how the way families behave has changed through time yet have endured for centuries. Now partway through her eighth decade on the planet, Greenleaf most recently published a blog that tackled the issues of her generation who are faced with a changing world regarding their adult children. Her new book, Parents of Adult Children: You Are Not Alone, features a selection of the posts and advice-column-style scenarios, all with the aim of lightening the load and helping older Americans form better relationships with their grown children.

While the subject receives serious attention, Greenleaf has also approached it with some of the humor revealed in her self-referential book THIS OLD BODY: And 99 Other Reasons to Laugh at Life. For the official online release party, Greenleaf has planned a similarly fun hour of activities including split-screen conversations, a quiz where scenarios are described and participants choose from three options for handling the situation before Greenleaf reveals what the panel said. The 11 am launch party on Thursday, August 6, also features giveaways, music, balloons in the background, and lots more. Visit

Greenleaf talked about her approach and some of the surprising secrets over the phone earlier this week.

Q. “You are not alone” is part of the title. Does that mean that parents of adult children think they’re the only ones with these issues? 

A. One way to look at it is that there’s still a lot of pressure in our society to say everything is great with the kids because parenting is our report card. If the kids aren’t doing all that well, it must mean that we have been crappy parents. So “you are not alone” means that there are lots of other parents who have issues with their adult children. But it can also be taken that we’re in there with you. When I had my blog, people would write in and comment a lot and people could get support.

And then, I guess literally too: with so many adult children moving in with their parents, it’s the literal truth that you are not alone.

Absolutely, young adults are moving back home in much higher percentages than in decades, which is a huge change. We haven’t had this kind of intergenerational household since World War II when there was a housing shortage. It’s a worldwide phenomenon by the way. And there are so many reasons why people are living at home.

Obviously, COVID-19 has had a massive impact in terms of that situation. People are coming home to stay for any number of reasons, including financial if they lost a job, or safety. But on the other hand, I imagine the opposite is also true in that lots of adult children are deliberately not seeing their parents because they don’t want to take the chance of infecting their own mother or father who might be in a more vulnerable state. That’s too new to be in the book but it must be an absolutely fascinating dichotomy.

It is interesting. I just interviewed a therapist and she said that in some perverse way, the pandemic is bringing families together because they are Zooming or they’re doing FaceTime, which maybe they hadn’t done before, or they just have more time to spend with each other. I think that they realize that the older people who are isolated are feeling very anxious and very alone. So younger people have more of a role to play than ever. And hopefully many are stepping up.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but what makes you an authority on giving advice for parents of adult children?

I’ve been looking at the American family for four decades, starting with my book Children Through the Ages: A History of Childhood and A Handbook for Working Mothers. And then I was a contributing editor at McCall’s Working Mother magazine before writing the blog for three years. So in addition to being a mother of two and grandmother of four, I’ve been in the arena for quite a while. But I’m very glad you asked because I do not hold myself out as an authority. I’m not a therapist and I’m not trained to counsel people. I’m a historian and I am a journalist. The family is my beat, so to speak. And when advice is given in my writing, it’s always from an expert in the field or parents chiming in with their comments.

How did you compile the articles, the poems, and the other material that you use, either verbatim or referred to in your essays?

You know what they say: When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I start with the Internet, and I’d look on Amazon to see what books were available. I am particularly fond of that poet, Linda Schwartz, who’s a local poet. She writes about family in such an accessible yet touching way that kind of gets to your heart the way prose cannot. There were a lot of cartoons and songs I found that unfortunately I couldn’t put in this book because of copyright, so those are going in the newsletter I’m putting out every month.

It also doesn’t appear that you draw on your own family. Does that mean you didn’t have many of these issues, or is it just something you are curious about?

I was just always interested in children and families. I don’t use my situation, but friends would often talk to me about issues, and I think even if you don’t have adult children, it’s an interesting topic. In our society, seniors, if they’re not blind, are ridiculed. Parents and in-laws aren’t venerated for our wisdom, which is very different than things used to be. So the idea was to get this information out there because most writers are younger than I am and write about it from their own generation’s perspective. It’s a big field, but this is written from the parents’ point of view. Also, there is so much advice for parents of young children – it’s an industry. But surprisingly there isn’t much for parents with adult children, and yet we’re going to have our children as adults three times longer than we had them as kids. 

You have a big chapter on money, which is always a sticky wicket. What are some of the trends you’ve found?

Young adults today seem to interpret “Honor thy father and mother” in a very loose way. They don’t feel it’s incumbent upon them to create family togetherness or one big happy family. A trend I’m seeing is young married women taking care of their parents and their husbands taking care of his. And while the divorce rate has stayed steady at 50 percent, what has really climbed is what they call the silver splitters – people of a certain age who get divorced. That has some impact on the young adults moving back home. Another trend is people deciding to skip marriage, as much as a quarter of the millennials. This has so many consequences, especially for parents who are dying to become grandparents who may be left with the grand dog. And yet 40 percent of American babies are born out of wedlock, which to me is so startling.

You start off the book with “The Difficult Daughter-in-Law,” which seemed almost like its own subject, and then close it out with “Leaving a Legacy,” which goes way beyond money. Can you say more about each?

Much to my shock, the topic of the daughter-in-law was searched on the Internet six times more than all my other articles put together. I was so astounded. I have daughters so I don’t know much first-hand, but there’s so much pain out there that I felt I had to handle it in some depth. Mothers-in-law feel disregarded and disrespected and in some of the worst cases the grandchildren are weaponized. So it’s a huge issue and it alienates the son from his mother. That’s why I kicked off with that topic.

Another one of the shocks is that the kids nowadays don’t want your stuff. Those fantasies that grandma’s china and her silver that needs polishing were going to go on generation after generation just isn’t happening, and we have had to detach ourselves from these material things. So now what I’m emphasizing in the book is what you would leave in your “memory box.” One man said he’d leave the baseball glove and the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series program. A woman would leave nice notes that she got from her students when she was a teacher, and another wanted to leave the certificate she won at a contest to be the official taster of Dreyer’s ice cream, and somebody said she’d leave a recording of a bar mitzvah of songs where she wrote the lyrics. It’s become a very personal thing. We’re getting down to values and how we want to be remembered rather than just what’s in the will.


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