The parent child relationship is constantly changing. From a newborn's total dependency on the parent to the geriatric's dependency on their adult child, through crawling to walking to running to driving a car, to having to tell a parent that they can no longer drive, it's the natural life-cycle of a family. Some families struggle through the changes. The parents aren't ready for their child to grow up or they push their child towards independence. The child wants to climb and the parent wants them safely on the ground. The parent wants the child to use the potty and the child isn't ready to leave diapers behind. The child is ready to stay out late with friends and the parent isn't ready to trust them on their own. The child is ready to be an adult and take responsibility for their life and their parent isn't ready to let go of their illusion of control. The child doesn't feel ready to leave home and yet the parent feels the need to push them out of the house. The child may not feel ready for their parent's dependency and being responsible for their own life as well as that of their parent. The parent may resent their adult child's involvement in their life decisions or the dependency that can come with aging.
The families I know that have had the smoothest transitions, who have passed through the stages and ages of family life with the most grace and humor and love, are the families who have based their relationships on respect, truly unconditional love, and acceptance of each family member as the individual they are. In these families the relationships change gradually over the years. The children have been making decisions and choices and learning who they are and where their passions lie. The parents have been supporting their child as they all learn and grow together, being actively involved in their child's daily life. The child trusts the parents to be there no matter what, the parents trust the child to reach out for help when it's needed. Over the years this naturally transitions to larger and larger life decisions and choices, greater trust and a shift to where the parents know that the child is there for them just as much as they have been there for their child. The mutual trust and respect provides them with a solid foundation for relationships as adults, not just as parents and children.
In families with parenting that is based on control through punishment, rewards, and conditional approval this natural progression can fail to take place. The relationship between the parent and the child does not have a foundation of trust and respect, the child often reaches adulthood still trying to win their parent's love and approval. The parent is often still trying to control the child in subtle and not so subtle ways. Since the natural progression in the relationship, from child to parent into adult to adult, did not take place gradually the parent may struggle with knowing when to start treating their child like an adult.
When should we start treating a child like an adult? Often when a question or statement is made along these lines someone will jump in and say "Children aren't adults! You can't expect a two year old to know not to run out into the street!" Let me be very clear about what I'm saying so as to avoid those types of comments. I'm not talking about behaviors or developmentally appropriate environments or anything remotely along the lines of children being allowed or expected to do things that are not safe. I am talking about relationships and how we interact with other people. Put another way it could be said, "When should we start interacting with a child as if they were a person?" Well guess what? Children are people. They are born with preferences and personality and unique abilities. As Horton said, "A person's a person no matter how small."
When we recognize the person inside that tiny baby, and we encourage the individual exploring the world as a toddler, and support that child following their passions and are there for the teen when they need a place to come home to after they've been adventuring, we feel comfortable in our relationship with the adult our child becomes.
If, in the future, I become a parent who is dependent on my children for care I'm going to have to depend on that relationship with my children . It is my hope that my children will continue to treat me as a person even if I'm unable to care for myself. I certainly don't want my children saying, "Mom, you can't have ice-cream until after you eat your broccoli." That's one of my more selfish reasons for parenting unconditionally. :)