Our daughter, Jodi, was here for a couple of days of R&R from her crazy, busy life in Chandler as a nurse in a pediatric critical care unit. She loves to come and flake out, get up late, eat the food she remembers from her childhood, and spend long hours visiting, looking at the mountains, and sharing how God is working in her life. I mentioned that I was working on a blog about parenting but that I wasn’t sure who would read it since most of my Facebook friends, the largest audience for my blogs, are long past child-bearing years. She stared at me and said, “So parenting stops?”
As I’ve thought about it, I now realize that parenting not only never stops, parenting adult children has become a lost art in our society in which nontraditional families flourish and generations live miles apart. These “forgotten years of parenting” actually corroborate for your adult children everything you told them as they were growing up. In fact, the same actions, traditions, and practices that were important to your children as they were growing up are even more important to your adult children and grandchildren. In other words, they need you now more than ever. They need to know that you are who you said you were all those years. Tremendous security emanates from dependable people and we all need such people in our lives. How wonderful to be those people for our children.
They still need your approval
Adult children don’t need to be told what to do but they need to know that you love them and believe in them. You can never tell anyone too much that you love them. They need to hear from you often. They still need you to take an active interest in their lives and families.
When our son, Jon, was in Little League, Karon used to sit in the stands and yelled at him to pay attention, to watch the ball (when he was batting) and to watch the batter (when he was on the field.) Mostly, however, she yelled, “That’s my boy!” Years later she yelled, “That’s my boy!” when he was in pilot school and took off in his F16, and again when he graduated from the USAF Academy. She doesn’t yell that particular phrase much these days, but she says it in many other ways every time they talk on the phone or text.
Understand that your relationship has changed.
Now you and your children are adults. We don’t want them treating us like children, and you must no longer treat them like children, correcting their behavior or controlling their friendships. We must respect our children as we respect any other adult and wait for them to invite us to give our opinions. If we blatantly disagree with their living patterns and act like they don’t have a brain in their heads, we will only distance them and will eventually drive them away.
Karon is a master at treating our children like adults. For example, when watching our grandchildren (when they were small), she always kept open communication with their parents about their preferences in disciplining and training them. Then she supported that behavior. She never corrected their discipline or the things they did, and would never have even dreamed of correcting them in front of their own children. When our kids did ask her for advice, she was happy to offer it.
Set and keep boundaries.
We all do better when someone expects us to be our best. We act better when someone is watching and caring about us. However, sometimes parents of adult children still have a reason to “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it” (Proverbs 22:6). A dear friend of ours struggled with her youngest child who, partly because of unfortunate physical issues, got the short end of the stick in life. However, as an adult he consistently made bad choices, chose bad friends, and developed bad habits. Even after he got married he called her to bail him out. She didn’t want to believe that those were the only times he called until we pointed it out to her. She so desperately wanted him to be happy that she enabled his irresponsible behavior, repeatedly sending him money when she could not afford it, and even buying tires for his car. What he needed from her was for her to say, “Enough!” which she finally learned to say. This story still has not had a happy ending. Ultimately we learn that our children make their own lives and we must accept it.
Love them unconditionally.
Life is hard and sometimes our adult children choose people and habits that make life harder. While we must set boundaries, the most important thing we can do is to love our children unconditionally. This does not mean we do whatever they ask or condone wrong behavior, but it does mean that we never withhold our love. Sometimes –rarely, thank God—extreme circumstances dictate that, for our own safety, we must totally cut off a relationship. Most of the time we can keep communication open and continue to invest ourselves emotionally. We pray and trust that our prodigal children will someday come to themselves and come home (as happened in the parable Jesus told in Luke 15). Our children need to know that when that happens, they will find a warm smile, hot food, and open arms. God is the one who told this story and we need to remember that we all have been prodigals who are whole only because of his incredible, healing love.
Let them see your struggles
Mimi was married and Jon and Jodi were still at home when my depression forever changed our lives. I left pastoral ministry and for the next seven years followed other career paths. My faith was severely tested. My marriage and family suffered from my inability to maintain any emotional closeness. I questioned everything I ever believed and withdrew from every important person in my life. Because of my wife and children’s incredible longsuffering and commitment to me, and because of God’s extremely personal care for me through His Word, I eventually moved beyond the worst of it. Forever scarred, we live on, thankful for God’s grace and each other.
I asked them later how this experience affected their respect for me. They all said, “I respect you more.” This speaks of their integrity, maturity, and faith. But it also underscores the wisdom Karon and I had (by God’s grace) to openly discuss it and keep them apprised of every step along the way.
I am able to live with depression because my wife and children love me and also because of antidepressant medication. But aging is continuing to change things: my back problems limit both movement and travel. It’s likely that our physical strength will continue to decline, changing our lives in ways that many older adults are discovering. I’m thankful that I can talk with my children openly about these struggles, because I need their outlook and spiritual support.
Keep the Faith
The most powerful legacy we can leave our children is our faith. It is no accident that scripture promises God’s blessings on those he favors to continue for several generations. Karon and I recently talked about how blessed we are to each have grown up in Christian homes. Those homes were by no means perfect, but they gave us priceless foundations that sustain us. Those of us with adult children must continue growing, forgiving, serving, and loving. How we behave in our later years validates—or invalidates—everything we have ever taught them. Maybe this is the time to conquer longstanding habits that have plagued us through the years and to finally forgive siblings for old hurts. This is not the time for them to hear us ranting about how people treat us or that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. God gives us hope and optimism even in the face of cancer and Alzheimer’s and we must point them to it.
Above all we must pray: pray for our children and their children; pray for ourselves and our country; pray for those who need help and healing; and pray for our world. Our schedules are more open these days. Physical limitations may corral us, but this we can do. For years we were too busy to read the Bible through and to keep a detailed prayer list. Now we have the time and there is no better way to use it.
Stay in touch
Years ago I waited for people to make an overture of friendship before I would offer a hand. Such a misguided idea! Thank God I learned to take the initiative! Over the years I have been saddened to observe many people who wait for others to communicate. “She should apologize first!” “Why doesn’t he ever call?” “They never write.” Your children lead busy lives and you should not be too proud—or lazy—to keep communication open. You will find a way that is best for each relationship. Some like you to call. Others prefer texting. Email is still used by some (although not by many under sixty years old). Sending a note or card is uncommon these days, but there still is nothing quite like getting a handwritten note or letter in the mail. Don’t be offended if they never let you know they received it. God will use your every effort to strengthen the bond between you.
My adopted mother, Helen Flynt, always calls on my birthday. We don’t often talk at other times of year, depending instead on Facebook and email. But I can expect to hear her familiar voice on my birthday, and I love it. I know she’s thinking of me. She, now that both of my parents are gone, reminds me many times each year that she’s thinking of me, or that she’s proud of me. And if you think that a seventy-one year old man doesn’t need this anymore, you fail this exam.
David Shultz enjoys mountain views in Arizona where he lives with his wife and two dogs, Molly and Maggie.