How To Raise An Adult
For most of my young adult life, I called my mom every time I faced a problem.
When I got my first big credit card I put all my expenses on it and paid the minimum each month. All of a sudden, one day, the minimum jumped to a price in the $1,000s. I had no idea what led to the increase. I just knew I couldn’t afford it.
I called my mom.
She told me to call the credit card company and ask them to explain. So I did. But that phone conversation was where it fell apart because I didn’t understand what the person was explaining. It didn’t make sense. And rather than ask more questions and feel stupid that I couldn’t understand, I just said thank you and hung up.
In her book, How To Raise An Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims explains:
“Kids don't acquire life skills by magic at the stroke of midnight on their eighteenth birthday. Childhood is meant to be the training ground.”
But what were the life skills needed to be a successful adult?
My husband is self-sufficient. Whenever there’s a problem he takes care of it immediately. He pays his bills on time. When something breaks, he hires the appropriate person to fix it. And he asks so many questions.
Not until I met him at 32 years old did I learn that it’s not only okay to not understand something, it’s normal and expected to not know how things work until you ask a lot of questions. To be comfortable not knowing and asking questions until you feel competent is the foundation of becoming a successful adult.
Trying to look smart all those years made me feel dumb. The more I tried to fake it ‘till I made it, the more insecure and anxious I felt.
I see the same behavior with my younger sisters. When my husband talks about his work in investing - a foreign concept to them - I see their eyes glaze over. Then they nod and say things like, “Cool,” or “Interesting.” Sometimes I push back and ask if they know what he’s talking about. Then they admit, no, they have no idea, but for some reason, they’d rather appear like they understand something than actually understand something.
I didn’t call my mom again about the credit card problem. I figured it out on my own. By getting another credit card. My way of solving the problem made things worse. It was the beginning of my debt compounding.
So even though Lythcott-Haims encourages parents to assist “by getting out of the way and letting kids figure things out for themselves,” it’s not always that simple.
If I want my son to be self-sufficient and eager to take care of his everyday problems it’s important to get out of his way and let him fail. But it’s equally important to prepare him for those roadblocks. It starts with encouraging him to ask questions, and for me to model that behavior.
Once I allowed myself to start asking the questions I was thinking I noticed I didn’t feel insecure and anxious. I felt empowered. It’s ironic that with every question I ask, the more confident I feel.
So it’s okay if I’m the first person my son calls when he has a problem. Sometimes we just want to feel like someone is there for us. But I won’t be giving him answers.
I’ll be asking questions.
Big thanks to Florian Maganza, Ayomide Adebayo, and Matt Tillotson for their feedback on this essay.