"Children Who Break Your Heart": A Reader Asks for Your Advice

At the Legacy Project, we’ve asked over 1200 of the oldest and wisest Americans for their advice about how to solve life’s problems. In this post we ask: How do you deal with children who break your heart? For advice on this topic and much more, see the bestselling book 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

In an earlier post, one of the Legacy Project elders shared her mixed feelings about having children. Loraine,89 , talked about accepting both the joy and the pain children can bring. She stated: “If you don’t have children now, when you have them you will have these moments.  When you look at them and your heart – it’s like your heart takes all the pain and all the love for them that you have.”

We just received a comment on that post from one of our readers, who would like your advice:

What about when your children are disappointments? I would like to hear how parents handle situations when their most loved children are cause for a broken heart? Comments please!

We asked some experts for their advice, which you can find here.

Can you help? Does anyone have advice for overcoming the heartbreak children can sometimes cause? Please share your comments!

Accepting Our Mixed Feelings about Children – Loraine’s Lesson

Loraine Bauer, 89, was married at age 15 and had three children before she was twenty.

I was much too young because it meant that I was not a very good mother.  You know you love them and you do the best you can, but I didn’t know about being a mother.  I never even held a baby until I held my first baby.  And contrary to what most people would think, I was not pregnant when I was married.  She wasn’t born until fourteen months after we had this marriage.  But that was much too young, even though I married a good person.  He was to the best of his ability a kind and loving husband and father but we wound up divorced when the kids were still little.

You know they’re beautiful children, beautiful physically.  They have also grown into beautiful people.  And I guess hell, they must have gotten that from somewhere, wouldn’t you think?  I must have done something right.  One thing is that I would design and make beautiful clothes.  And even for my little son. 

And I remember one day – you probably have events that for no particular reason memories that staywith you. Well, maybe you don’t.  Maybe you’re not old enough, I don’t know, to have all that many memories.  But I remember one Saturday afternoon. 

We lived way away from any grocery stores or anything like that.  My husband would hitch up the mule and buggy and drive two miles to pick up the week’s supply of groceries.  And I remember one day he was taking our little son with him who must have been about two years old.  And I had made him this lovely little white shirt and a little pair of short brown pants with suspenders that buttoned over him.  And he was sitting there on the wagon seat beside his father. 

 If you don’t have children, when you have them you will have these moments.  When you look at them and your heart – it’s like your heart takes all the pain and all the love for them that you have because he looked so beautiful sitting there beside Daddy.

A “Magic Bullet” for Fathering? Here’s a Tip from the Elders

Amid the gifts and Father’s Day festivities, an undercurrent of confusion can be detected. As a dad for 30 years, I know that figuring out what constitutes “good fathering” can be something of a challenge. We live in a society of rapidly shifting roles and responsibilities, and many fathers (and mothers, of course) are looking for what makes parenting really “work.”

So what if, out of the enormous muddle of child-rearing advice, there was something close to a “magic bullet?” What if there was one course of action you could take to create life-long, loving relationships with your children, serve as an “early warning system” for problems your kids are having, and lead to positive relationships throughout life?

In our interviews with over 1,200 of the oldest Americans for the book on the Legacy Project, we asked them in detail for their advice about parenting. I think they qualify as experts, given that they have raised a total of nearly 4,000 children. In our hectic and driven society, parents look endlessly for programs, gimmicks and therapies to improve their relationships with children. But what do the elders say?

According to them, there is one key to successful parenting: Spend more time with your children. And if necessary, sacrifice to do it. The elders tell us that there is one great contribution to lifelong closeness for which there is no substitute: Your time.

In their opinion, your kids don’t want your money (or what your money buys) anywhere near as much as they want you. Specifically, they want you, with them. Parents who work double-shifts to keep the family afloat may have no choice. But if you and your spouse work 70-hour weeks to buy consumer goods and take lavish vacations, they say you are misusing your time. Even if it means doing with less, America’s elders tell you that what you will regret at their age is not spending time with your children. And it’s what your children will regret, too.

They also told me that the activity you and your kid engage in is not particularly important: It’s the shared time. In off moments during whatever the activity may be, there’s time to talk, to share confidences, to connect. And in those activities, the miracle of real communication sometimes occurs.

I remember an essay by former treasury secretary Robert Reich about his sons. He used the analogy of a clam to emphasize that to really know our children we need to be there at exactly the right moment. Our kids are often closed up tightly like clamshells, hard on the outside but with a soft and vulnerable interior. Suddenly and unexpectedly, however, they will decide to open up, and if you’re not there, Reich says, “you might as well be on the moon.”

This is why time spent together is so critically important. No scheduling of “quality time” (whatever that is) has you there at the precise moment when Matthew decides to tell you that what is really putting him in such a bad mood is the English teacher who just hates him, or when Allison will reveal that yes, there is this one boy in her Spanish class…

Clayton Greenough, 79, has very close relationships with his son and daughter, both of whom settled nearby as adults. When asked for his lessons for child-rearing, he reflected on the importance of going along with children’s interests, making them shared activities.

Maybe it’s maybe an old fashioned way of speaking, but I feel that it’s pretty important to stick with them. I know when my son was about 12 or so, he was fascinated by anything with an engine on it, even with lawn mowing. Generally I tried to go along with him. With lawn mowing, for instance, I finally said “okay, you can push it” but I stayed with him and worked with him for a while.When he was a sophomore in high school, I started putting up a shed in our back yard. And he had just gotten into a carpenter shop at high school at the time. I had him help me there, and before I knew it, I’d come home from work and he was sitting out there with a tool box waiting to go ahead with some work. And ultimately this led him down a road where he actually saw the need for measuring and things like that, and started to recognize that there is some value to arithmetic and mathematics.

And he eventually wound up being a mechanical designer. Now if I hadn’t been available to him at that time, I’m not sure what course he might have taken. So many of things that he’s doing now were initiated because we spent time together. I think the fact that there was somebody who was there and interested in what he was interested in.

 Interestingly, the elders often highlighted time shared in mundane daily activities and interactions, rather than memorable “special occasions.” Their message is to involve your children routinely in your activities, and this requires your physical presence for large blocks of time.

Larry Handley, 84, described how important such experiences were for his children:

When they get old enough to kind of help you around, you know, let them help doing things or cleaning. Maybe you’re out digging in the garden or something, or whatever, to share in the chores around the house or the yard. Helping either the mother or the father, doing things that are not always that easy or pleasant, but you know, to get it done. So, these are things that you don’t realize but they do come along for their whole life, they can enjoy those things and you can too.

Time spent with children is critical for another reason: It serves as a key “early warning” system for emerging problems. Betsey Glynn, 78, has two children, a son and a daughter. She was able to head off problems in their lives because she was right there with them:

It’s so important, while your kids are growing up, to be with them and support them. Because otherwise you don’t really have a clue what their direction is, what they like and don’t like and what they want to give their time to and what they’re doing with it. This way we not only went to their games or concerts, but we met the other kids on the team or in the band or whatever it was. Otherwise they would have gone off and who knows who they would have associated with?Let me tell you, if your kids have a concert or a game, you should put aside whatever it is — if the house needs fixing up or the laundry needs doing, it’ll wait. It’s more important to devote your time to whatever they’re interested in. Otherwise you’re going to lose them. They’ll become strangers.

So to those of us getting ready to be acknowledged on Father’s Day, America’s elders bring home three key points. First, it’s your time that kids want and they will look back on the hours together with fondness and nostalgia. The elders remember this from their own families — indeed, it is the source of most of their pleasant memories about childhood. Second, what counts the most are shared activities — time spent in hobbies, sports, camping, hunting, and fishing (it’s extraordinary how many older men cherish hunting or fishing trips with their fathers), and in seeking out a new interest together. Third, the elders agree that we should be willing to sacrifice to have that kind of time. If you are going to have kids, they say, it’s worth it to live on less to be able to be with them.

Avoiding (and Healing) Estrangement from a Child

I sat with Susan, a petite and lively 85 year old and talked about growing up in the rural south, her work and her two marriages. Susan, despite a daunting array of health problems, is a funny, lively person. She likes a drink or two and enjoys her activities with friends in her assisted living community.

But the atmosphere changed in an instant when I asked her, “What advice would you give for having a good relationship with your grown children?” Susan became very still, holding her breath. Then words nearly exploded from her, and she pounded her hands in frustration on the arms of her chair.

I don’t know, I don’t know! I did something wrong, I’ll tell you right now! Because I don’t hear from either one of my kids. I don’t even — I never hear from them. And it hurts like crazy. Why do you think that is? Do you have any idea?

Susan did have a possible explanation for the estrangement from her children:

I think when I married the second time it was such a different life, it was such a different life from what we had lived before. And I was so occupied, and we went all the time, and my life was so busy so I lost track of them, being close to them. They weren’t exactly unhappy about it; we just had nothing in common anymore. And after I married again — I don’t think they really resented my second husband, but they just didn’t have anything in common.I think that’s where it began. But I do wish I’d hear from them more often now, yes I do!

By the time I ended the interview, Susan had recovered and was back to telling me colorful anecdotes about her long life. But I’ve never forgotten the anguish in her voice as she told me: “I did something wrong … And it hurts like crazy.”

Among the saddest people I met in interviews with older Americans for the book “30 Lessons for Living” were those living in this situation. The destruction of the parent-child bond was a persistent source of melancholy, a feeling of incompleteness that weighed down the soul. And the one failed relationship is not necessarily mitigated by having warm, fulfilling ties with other offspring. Almost all of the elders who found themselves with one child who was “lost” to them or with whom there was “bad blood” felt unresolved or incomplete. Such feelings only became more acute as they neared the end of life.

Fortunately, the elders interviewed for the project offered suggestions from their long experience for avoiding family rifts or patching them up before they occur. Here are several of their tips:

See the potential rift early and defuse it.

The elders acknowledge that once the rift sets in, it takes on a life of its own and becomes much more difficult to repair. The time to act is when the first warning signs show themselves. Martha, 74, who had a major blow-up with her son and daughter-in-law, said: “I should never have let things deteriorate the way they did. Looking back, I could see problems brewing and I couldn’t hold back from criticizing my daughter-in-law.” Parents of adult sons and daughters need to ask themselves: Is the battle worth it? The elders told me that usually it’s not.

Act immediately after the rift occurs.

The elders warn that the viewpoints of both parties harden quickly; in a relatively short time it becomes easier not to make the effort to reconcile than to try to do so. The new reality sets in fast; therefore, the time to “make things better” is as soon as possible after the blow-up.

Janice, 72, spoke about her problems with her daughter Gloria: “After our big fight, I should have had a heart-to-heart with Gloria right away. After a week or two, we were both so angry — and I guess hardened — that it was terribly difficult even to start a conversation.”

In contrast, Maria, 82, was very disappointed and angry at her son, because he would not help Maria care for his father during his last illness. But she decided to act as soon as possible. She sat down with him and told him exactly how she felt, allowing a reconciliation to take place. “It’s worth it,” she told me, “not to feel like I might lose what I have that’s good with my son.”

It’s often the parent who needs to compromise.

I am well aware that this sounds unfair; however, in my review of the accounts of intergenerational rifts, it’s usually the parent who pays the higher price if a rift occurs. Older mothers and fathers tend to invest more in the relationship as they get older and therefore stand to lose more by letting it disintegrate. Particularly acute is the separation from grandchildren that can occur as a result of the rift.

Many elders recommended that parents try their best to “forgive the unforgivable.” Some have had the worst happen, stood on the brink of the rift and decided that it still wasn’t worth the end of the relationship with the child.

So here’s a key life lesson from America’s elders: Avoid the rift. Of course, it is possible that a child’s behavior is so damaging or dangerous for a parents’ physical or mental health health that separation is needed. But the elders tell us that rifts usually occur over less extreme matters that seem important at the time but are almost never worth the pain of separation when you reach your later years.

Listen to Your Children

Despite her cheeful good humor, Ida’s memories of her early family life are painful, and for good reason. Her father died  when she was a toddler. Her mother remarried, but then died when Ida was four years old. Her stepfather then remarried, leaving Ida to be raised by him and a new stepmother. She told me: “I didn’t care for my childhood life, so I just don’t talk about it. And I try to teach my children lessons that I have learned.”

Ida, 81, emphasizes spending time with children, because it allows for communication to take place. Most important, she urges parents to listen to their children. Bringing back family dinners is one way to make this happen.

When we had our three children, we got involved with them. You’ve got to do things together, and in this day and age, people aren’t doing things together. I feel that children bring their parents together, except for the ones who haven’t got time. You’ve got to give up some of your pleasures, sometimes, in order to spend time with your kids. When the kids are gone from home, then you can do things on your own.

Yeah, what I feel, I have seen it right around here in my neighborhood. Parents aren’t taking time to listen to that child. You have to listen to them. What are their needs? What would they want? What would they like to do?  Some parents are always so quick to discipline, give them a time out.  No. What you have to do, I feel – is you have to have time for the child. Mom and Dad should sit down and say, “Okay, how did your day go?”

In fact, our dinner table was always that way.  “Well, how did your day go?” we’d ask each one separately. Then we would find out exactly how they went through the day, if they were having problems. We had three children and we were living on $30 a week. The kids ate good and we would have cereal for supper at night after they went to bed. But those were the days; Frank and I used to laugh about them. I try to tell my kids:  “That was hard times, but we made sure you kids always had a good meal in your tummy before you went to bed.”

We used to have dinner as a family, almost every night. I think it’s very important. You should have it now. Yes, I know people are busy now, so you go to McDonalds, Burger King. All those fast food. All right. But you know something? If that’s what you choose for your dinner, okay, but you sit down, you talk to the child.  Did you have anything interesting happen today? What were your stressing points today?” Get feedback from the kids.

Great Advice for Marriage and Child-Rearing: New Video of Ruth, 95

What do you learn over 95 years of living? Ruth is an inspiring example of what we learn from our own experiences that we can pass on.

One interesting finding of the Legacy Project (described in the book 30 Lessons for Living) is that most elders did not endorse corporal punishment of children; Ruth tells you why. She also offers tips for a happy marriage.

Don’t Play Favorites with Your Children: It Can Last a Lifetime

There’s a theme that struck me in talking with elders about the families they grew up in. Of all the things that left an unhappy feeling about their childhoods, parental favortism was right up at the top. I had respondents in their seventies, eighties, and nineties tear up about memories of being the unfavored child.

Christine, 77, was the middle child, with one brother and one sister. When asked about lessons she learned from her childhood, she emphasized the dangers of favoritism.

I would say my family was dysfunctional, as most of them are, I suppose. I don’t look back a great deal on my childhood because it was what it was, and I accepted it, and I don’t have any excuses for my own life because of my childhood. I don’t really think that’s a great thing to do. Life progresses, and everybody has their own issues with growing up, and you have to get past that. But I think being a middle child, it was difficult.

My brother went in the service because he got in some trouble and that was the way out. You know what I mean? And my younger sister was always favored very much so in the whole family, especially by my dad. I think it bothered my mother tremendously.

The unequal treatment had lifelong repercussions for Christine:

I think the hardest think in life, for me, is relationships with people. I think because we’re all so very different and I think that’s one thing that I was not taught was that we are different and especially in my immediate family, with my sister. And I think we were never taught to believe that we were different people, and that we had to accept each other’s differences. And therefore it caused an awful lot of friction in our lives.

That experience taught me a great deal in accepting people the way they are. Not to say that I can always do that, because as I said, that’s the hardest thing in the world to do for me. But like I say, I got through that through the grace of God.

The message I took home from stories like this is: Be very aware about showing favoritism to children. If kids are treated very differently, it’s not something they easily forget – even after seventy or more years.

The Best Advice for Parents of Adult Children? Don’t interfere…

I’ve gotten to the stage where I now have my own adult children (24 and 29, to be exact). I listened with rapt attention as the elders told me their advice for getting along well with children – after they are grown.

And just about everyone had one piece of advice: When in doubt, don’t interfere with your adult children. When their gone, the elders say, let them go.

Grace, 74, told me:

How do have good relationships with adult children? Oh, I think give them their own life.  Don’t make demands on them. I think any adult, particularly adults with children right now, they have enough on their plate. Don’t make demands. Don’t ask much of them. Just be there for them when they need you.  Try to laugh with them.  And certainly don’t tell them what to do.  Because I think your guess is as good as theirs.

Charmayne, 80, also believes in the “non-interference” principle: ”Well it’s their life.  It’s not my life.  I lived my life the way I wanted to.  I don’t have a right unless they ask me for advice.  As I say, they all have their own way to do things and if they get in trouble and they want some help, they’ll come to me.  That’s all.” She acknowledges, however, that “holding your tongue” can be very difficult:

So one of my daughters, she’s not going to get married.  She said she’s too set in her ways, she likes her life the way it is.  She likes to have a nice clean house and apartment.  She just doesn’t want to have to think about cow-towing to a man or anything.  She likes her life the way it is. And all right, for a while I kept saying “You’ll meet somebody.  Honey, you’ll meet somebody and then you’ll change your mind.”  But then I thought: I know she’s fifty-something now and I don’t think she’s going to get anyone.  So I guess I better let her live her own life and realize that she knows herself then.  She’s thought about it enough, so that’s fine.  That’s her life.  It’s not my life.  I just happen to think the Lord put us on this earth and He said “Be fruitful and multiply.”  But if she doesn’t believe that and she doesn’t want to live by that, that’s up to her. 

Conrad, 88, asserts that the time to have your influence is before they move out:

Don’t tell them how to live their lives.  Tell them when they’re home, before they leave.  I’m satisfied that that’s what works out, because the rest of it they’re gonna figure out anyways, you know. 

I have taken this advice to heart. It’s hard for me not to give advice, but I’ve learned to wait until my kids ask!