Midlife family dynamics challenge Berkeley mediator

The relationship between a parent and a child — no matter how close the bond — is complicated.

And it doesn't get easier with age.

Roberta Maisel, a Berkeley sociologist and mediator specializing in conflict resolution, offers advice on the transition baby boomers and their now-adult children are going through in her new book, "All Grown Up: Living Happily Ever After With Your Adult Children."

Maisel, who has a 94-year-old mother living in Oakland and three grown children, will be speaking and reading from her book Monday, June 10 at the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. When she speaks, Maisel gives blunt advice and often relates some of her own experiences — good and bad — with her family, and will be signing copies of her book. But most importantly, Maisel plans to instigate a lively discussion on positive parenting between adults.

Though her book is aimed primarily at parents, it is of equal interest to adult children, she has found.

For example, through her association with East Bay Jewish Singles, Maisel "initiated something that's doing very well — a kind of workshop between parents and adult children," she said.

The initial group was comprised of five parents and five adult children, plus others. The "children," in their 30s and 40s, spoke about things that work and things that don't work between them and their parents.

"People were really on the edge of their seats," she said. Digging into such topics as "Is it OK to give unsolicited advice?" (in her book, Maisel says no), the group ventured into interesting territory and shades of gray, she found.

As for whether Jewish families have particular problems, Maisel is steering clear of that one. "In the Jewish community, there's a tremendous folklore about the pushy Jewish mother."

But she is adamant about "letting go of the idea that you know more than the child, or that you know that child better than anyone else in the world."

The key to a good relationship, she says, is developing a friendship. The boundaries of that friendship, however, will vary from family to family and from child to child.

A good starting point, according to Maisel, is to create a new family paradigm, one that's close to equality but still recognizes the parents' valuable life experiences.

"Parents have to figure out what they want in their relationship with this other 'adult,' while also looking at the needs of your child — who will always be your child." There are ways for parents to relinquish their power gracefully, including getting to know the world of their adult children, cultivating their own sense of self and finding new, suitable ways to spend time with their grown children.

Parents also need to learn to hold their tongue. But they also need to speak from the heart and be receptive to frank, and even critical, talk from their children.

"I'm really for parents not giving unsolicited advice or even unsolicited questions, which might seem invasive," Maisel said.

Reminding a 21-year-old to send a thank-you note for a gift, for instance, isn't particularly helpful. Sharing raw feelings will put new "friends" on a path toward some worthwhile discoveries.

As for children who want to be treated as adults, they need to be prepared to act as adults all the time.

"A young person often wants the freedom to make decisions and do what he wants to do, but then he asks for money," Maisel observes.

In her book, Maisel, who has lived in Berkeley for 32 years, is very candid. She admits that much of her advice comes from her own life and the challenges she faced with her children.

Her oldest son, 43, lives in Cupertino and has two children of his own. Her other son is 36 and lives in Los Angeles. In "All Grown Up," however, Maisel frequently delves into the up-and-down dynamics of her relationship with her daughter, Betsy, who lives in Kansas.

As part of her research, she interviewed 25 parents ranging from ages 48 to 70 and heard similar tales of hollow telephone calls, tension-filled gatherings or even periods of estrangement.

Somehow, Maisel says, the communication she had with these other adults opened her eyes to see that she could love her children as the "lovely, imperfect, immensely human souls" they have grown to be.

As for her relationship with the own mother, Maisel says it is good. "We have a remarkably good relationship — better than we've ever had — and part of it is the mellowing that comes with age.

"We both take things a little bit slower; we don't push each other around in any way. I think we both know that every day is precious, every minute is precious."