Parenting Adult Children: Lessons from King Lear

Dr. Robert Ritzema

March 17, 2016

As our children grow, we begin by parenting infants, then parent children, then adolescents, and finally we parent adults. Many resources exist to help us parent infants, children, and teens, but where can we find guidance on parenting adults? Here's one suggestion: turn to Shakespeare, at least for a negative example. His play King Lear portrays troubled relationships between a king and his adult daughters. Lear's errors teach us a good deal about how not to parent adults effectively.

Love as a Competition: Who Loves Me Most? 

As the play opens, Lear plans to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. His way of deciding who is to get what is at best unwise and at worst likely to generate tremendous problems. He says,

Tell me, my daughters,
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge. (Act I, Scene 1, Lines 50-55)

In other words, if you prove to me that you love me the most, I’ll give you a larger portion of the kingdom. The oldest two daughters, Goneril and Regan, oblige by making exaggerated professions of love. For example, Goneril claims:

No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honour;
As much as child e’er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable;
Beyond all manner of so much I love you. (I:1:60-63)

Love as Taking: Fair-Weather Attachment

Dismayed by her sisters’ insincere praise, Cordelia, the youngest daughter and formerly her father’s favorite, refuses to enter the competition:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less. (I:1:93-95)

Enraged, Lear disinherits Cordelia, dividing her portion between Goneril and Regan. Those two had promised to alternate housing Lear, but quickly tire of having him around. One after the other, each pushes him to leave and deprives him of his knights, whom they had agreed to support. When Lear angrily leaves them both behind even though a terrible storm is brewing, neither daughter tries to dissuade him. The Earl of Gloucester points out the hazardous conditions, but Regan replies coldly:

O, sir, to wilful men,
The injuries that they themselves procure
Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors. (II:4:302-304)

Love as Manipulation: Conditional Love

Lear ostensibly has been generous to his daughters by giving them his kingdom. He seems to think he has acted in love. If Lear loves at all, though, he loves conditionally. If, as with Cordelia, a child doesn’t do or say what the parent wants, all signs of love are withdrawn. Lear is seemingly incapable of unconditional love. Such love doesn’t always give the child what he or she wants, but it always values the child and does what seems to be in the child’s best interest.

Young children need their parents’ love, but so do older children, adolescents, and adults. In my work as a psychologist, I regularly meet with adult clients who are hurting because one or both parents were and still are unloving towards them. One woman is constantly told that she is incompetent and will fail; another is repeatedly informed that her brother has always been a better child, a third always is instructed that she should sacrifice her life to take care of everyone else in the family. I suspect that each client’s parent believes that he or she is loving. Yet any affection or affirmation that they give is highly conditional; it’s withdrawn whenever the child doesn’t follow the script the parent has laid out, regardless how onerous and harmful that script is. If the child deviates, he or she is treated like Cordelia, cast out of the kingdom.

Love as a Gift

How can we know whether our love of our adult children is conditional? A good place to begin reflecting on the nature of our love is to examine Paul's description of love in I Corinthians 13, which reads in part:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. (v. 4,5 NIV)"

Unlike the love that Paul describes, Lear's highly conditional love focuses especially on keeping record of wrongs. It is also impatient, unkind, proud, self-seeking, and easily angered. Cordelia is certainly dishonored by Lear's treatment of her, but so are Goneril and Regan, for having to profess their love in front of Lear's court while the king judges the adequacy of their words must have been at least embarrassing and possibly humiliating.

So, if you wonder how to parent your adult children, consider what King Lear has to teach us. Don't love conditionally, as he did, but show your young adults the patience, kindness, honor and all the rest that Paul described in I Corinthians 13!

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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