How Do Parents Avoid the Extremes of Isolation and Interference?

Biblically Parenting Adult Children
(Note: This is the third in a series of four articles I wrote and posted on my personal blog in 2011. I think there is some wisdom for parents of adult children that is worth sharing again. Click here to read the previous article. This article was published by the Christian Grandfather Magazine.)

My approach to parenting is based squarely on biblical principles. Let me summarize the pattern I articulated in my last post: God brings a man and a woman together to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Children must learn to obey their parents as well as honor them (Eph. 6:1-3). As children approach adulthood and develop independence, obedience to parents is no longer required, yet honoring remains (Ex. 20:12). Then they go off on their own (leaving) to start the cycle over again (cleaving) (Gen. 2:24).

This article deals with more practical application of these principles on how we relate to our adult children after they have left the nest. It comes down to loving our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31), as that is what they have become. I invite you to read what I discovered.

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I’ve recently posted two articles on my unique perspectives on letting my children go, but I still feel that I have lot more to learn, especially as our number two child is about to get married.

I honestly think my wife and I have been more or less successful at that figuring out that process, with almost eight years’ experience since our eldest started college in 2003. We have watched all three of our little birdies leave the nest and fly off to college. Two of them have already graduated with bachelor’s degrees, and a little over a week ago, the eldest received her master’s degree. She also got married last spring, and the middle child gets married in just a few days. The youngest is now half-way through college. Major milestones! We are so excited to see what God has been doing in their respective lives and are so proud of their individual accomplishments.

But now many questions remain in my mind. How do we as parents maintain a healthy involvement and interest in their lives while they assert their independence? Where are we most comfortable on the continuum between total isolation on one end and total interference on the other end (both of which are not good)? How much communication is required to keep in touch? How much is too much, causing them to cringe every time we text, call, or post something on Facebook? How much is too little, communicating a lack of care and concern?

There’s a biblical basis to this discussion. It has become quite clear to me over the past couple of years that the principle of “leaving and cleaving” is so basic to the success of a Christian marriage. The leaving process starts at birth, literally, and our children continue to leave us, moving from complete dependence to relative independence over the next 18-22 years. They must leave us, sometime before they get married, and we must let them go. It’s not easy for any parent, but doing it right is one of the best gifts we can give our children.

Also, as I discussed in detail in a previous blog, we have to get our children to move past the biblical command to obey your parents, which is temporary, and only applies to actual children, and to begin to live out the command to honor your parents, which is for life, and applies to children and adults.

Moms and dads naturally are eager to help their children throughout every stage of development; it’s one of the main ways we show love for them. As they become adults, however, helping them isn’t always very helpful. We can all recall when we went to tie our children’s shoes or tried to fix their hair at one point, and they told us emphatically, “Let me do it!” It probably took us by surprise, but it was a good thing, because they were moving towards independence.

When they become young adults, parents still want to help them. We may remind them of things they said they would do but haven’t gotten around to yet. We may want to help them find a car or a job. (That’s where we are at now.) Some may even want to help them find a spouse. (Ours have done just fine without any help from us). Some parents seem to want to give unsolicited advice. Not sure all this helping is appropriate or appreciated.

Perhaps the biblical principle of loving your neighbor should guide us as we attempt to relate to our kids as adults. By telling us to love God and love our neighbor, the two greatest commandments, Jesus specifically meant for us to obey God and properly meet our neighbor’s legitimate needs. Love is not just an emotion; it is an action.

What do our kids need? They need us to believe in them. They need us to trust them. They need to make mistakes to gain wisdom and experience. They need to be independent, for us to let them do it.

Rather than telling it like it is all the time, perhaps we can ask them some hard questions to make them think or challenge their thinking. If they are about to make a really bad decision, we can and should confront them at the proper time and place, just like we would any other adult brother or sister in Christ that may be heading into dangerous territory. The difference is, we will commit to approach it as one adult to another, no longer as parent to child.

What we always want to do is to be interested in and involved with their lives. Not so much that we appear to be interfering, but more than enough so that they know we are not through with them. We don’t ever want them feeling isolated from us or their family of origin.

Marie Barone, the family matriarch in the T.V. show, “Everybody Loves Raymond”, humorously epitomized the interfering approach towards her son and his family. My wife’s parents and mine took the opposite extreme, that of isolation. I do think that they meant well, but whether they realized it or not, they left the burden of working on any kind of relationship with each of them on our shoulders. This was extremely challenging at times, since they were divorced and remarried on both sides. We generally had to take the initiative to call them, plan visits, etc. They valued independence in us, which did cause us to lean on each other and the Lord. However, it also communicated that they were greatly relieved of any responsibility for us, financially, emotionally, or otherwise.

My wife and I don’t want to be like that. We understand that adult relationships are a two-way street. Both parents and adult children have a responsibility to reach out to the other to maintain the relationship, communicate if boundaries are crossed, and need to be committed to figuring out what works throughout the course of many years and in every season of life to come.

(Click here for the next article in the series.)

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

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