The Journey Continues:

Parenting Our Adult Children

BabyFrom the time our children are born, our job is to take care of them.  Changing diapers, feeding, dressing and caring for them are what parenting means.  A newborn can’t even smile at us, yet we are committed to that newborn in a mysterious way, one that even a long night of crying or the worst diaper can’t undo.

Then, with wonder, we see recognition in her now-focusing eyes.  A smile on his face and a reaction to our voices.  The next few years we spend teaching them potty skills, how to hold our hands crossing the street and keeping them safe from the dangers they don’t yet understand.

At some imperceptible moment, our role changes and we realize we have to allow them some independence.  All of the skills we have poured our lives into at every moment of the day, begin to change.  We have to let go.  A son climbs a tree and we smile, wave and encourage him, even while calculating whether or not we could catch him – and the distance to the Emergency Room.   A daughter walks alone to a neighbor’s house, carefully watching traffic but not noticing that we peek from the front porch to make sure she is safe.

Letting Go - for the Rest of Our Lives

It seems that as parents, the rest of our lives are spent in letting go.  Yes, there are conversations and corrections.  There are disciplines and celebrations of milestones – and more letting go as they grow into the independent beings we want them to be.

MotherFinally, they are gone from home and we no longer are sure what time they went to bed, if their clothes are clean when they leave their homes or if they have eaten anything all day.  We celebrate that empty nest and the new freedom it brings us. 

Are our jobs as parents complete?  No, but the job has changed.  Now we listen to them as they make decisions and realize that they aren’t always looking for our opinions.  They decide to buy cars or houses, move to new jobs and cities and don’t ask us first. 

The hardest challenge for parents is often watching our children drift away from their faith.  When they have their own children, we might squirm watching the reduced or non-existent role that a church community has in their lives.  We are powerless over our adult children and how they live, raise their children and live a faith life – and it should be that way.

But we are still parents. What do we do?  How do we react?  Can we pretend not to pay attention when they don’t go to church?

Learning New Skills as Parents

ToddlerOur role as parents has changed and our children are no longer 7 years old.  Perhaps we have to learn a new set of talents: parenting an adult child.  Our skills might include biting our tongues, holding our criticism and loving them even more.  Judging and criticizing will not invite them back to their faith lives.  If we really live our faith, the joy of the gospel and the happiness it infuses into our own lives will show itself – and might spark them to wonder as they move into their own parenting, what is missing from their lives?  What values will they have to share with their own children?

Loving our children is like all loving: it is not about control or changing the other or getting my way. A mature love means we truly enter into the journey of another with compassion, affection and support.  We do this even when the journey of our loved one is painful for us; and even when that journey seems to be self-destructive. 

[Note:  This look at changing our parenting styles is not about parenting in some very sad and difficult situations.  Sometimes parents do need to confront adult children who are indulging in behavior harmful to themselves and others, such as addiction or abuse of others.  Professional help and “tough love” might be the best approach in those heart-breaking circumstances.]

For most parents who have healthy but independent children, “tough love” is never needed and sometimes what we call “tough love” is simply being tough on our children.  No name we give it can change the fact that we might be nagging and critical of children, in-laws and grandchildren.  In deciding how to live their lives, our adult children may simply decide to live more in line with the culture around them rather than follow the values of their parents and those of the church.

Letting Them Learn From Their Own Mistakes - as We Did

As children become adults, make life choices and want to assert their independence from their parents, it can be counter-productive for us to intervene in their choices.  A lifetime of relationship and wrangling can also mean a long history of pushing emotional hot buttons with each other.  A more effective long-term strategy might be letting our children learn from their own experiences – just as we did.  We can keep communication open and strive for the difficult balance of loving our children unconditionally without affirming their choices; to listen but not criticize and not silently pout when we disagree.  Sometimes all we can do is hope that the lesson we teach them now is about love and that the door is always open between us.

FatherBeing the parent of adult children now takes us into a mentoring role, rather than one of discipline and correction.  If they are ever to listen to us, we need to listen to them.  What is their point of view?  Even when they are very different from ours, what is their opinion on a subject – and how did it develop?  By trying to appreciate their viewpoint, we can listen to them on their journey and support them as well as possible. 

That kind of openness is what will make it possible for the child who has struggled toward adult independence to trust us enough to return to our loving presence and maybe ask what we think, how we might have done it, or how we might do it now.

MotherWe shared our values with our children constantly by our words and more significantly, by our actions, as we guided our children toward adulthood.  Now it is time for us to model our values and to live and teach our faith, perhaps silently, starting with treating them as adults. 

The most important love we might offer them is a tongue, bitten hard to hold our opinions and barbs.  Rarely does a person turn to someone who has scolded them about their choices when those choices turn out to be a failure.  What they need now is our devotion and support. We had our chance to shape them; now we have our chance to love them more.

So, I can stop preaching and nagging.  I can make an effort to love them more and without the unasked for advice about how they live their lives.  But how do I find peace in this terrible sense of loss I have that my child has no faith life? 

Turning to Jesus for Our Own Help and Support

Here is where we turn to the source of our faith and the ultimate peace: Jesus.  Every morning, before we start our day, as we sit at the side of our bed, we can ask for the grace to love our children today and the wisdom to not criticize them. 

Loving Jesus, come into my life today and help me be a good parent.  I asked for your help so many times when my children were younger, and now I need help in a new way.  Give me the grace to love them even when I disagree with them. Give me the wisdom to be silent as I listen to their decisions, even if I don’t agree with them. 

Most of all, I beg you to let me find the joy in my relationship with you and in my own faith life. Please let my own delight in my faith life spill over into all parts of my life so that I serve as a beacon of light for them in finding a new relationship with you.

I ask you this humbly and with the trust that you want this for me, too.


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