Letting go of parental control with adult kidsWritten by Chuck Johnson
What's inside this article
"Come over to Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16:9). Little did we know that our son, Todd, would hear those words, which were originally spoken to the apostle Paul in the first century. Todd responded by joining a missions effort overseas – to Macedonia, no less.
As wonderful as it is to see him serving the Lord, it’s tough for my wife and me to realize that our role as parents has changed. Our son is now an adult making his own choices as he faithfully follows what God has called him to do.
This hasn’t been a sudden shift for us. When we dropped him off at college and headed home 1,000 miles away, we knew he was attending a good school and was within 100 miles of loving grandparents. But we had to surrender the opportunity to check on him constantly.
The parental ties loosened even more after his college graduation. We agreed that he need not tell us about all his activities (like visiting Mexico for a weekend) until after their completion. This concession saved us anxiety while he was gone – and saved him the aggravation of our trying to talk him out of some activities ahead of time.
In our relationships with adult children, we empty nesters face a decision: Do we lose control, or do we yield it? Either way, the power will shift – but will we hand it over gracefully or have it forcefully wrestled out of our tight grip?
A peaceful transfer of authority makes the most sense, so here are a few suggestions from someone still learning how to make an effective handoff.
A daily discipline of prayer
It is not simply a spiritual "given" to bathe the entire process in prayer. With Todd serving in an area that has seen its share of civil unrest, we have had to place his safety into God’s hands for the sake of our sanity.
And the truth is that, in our society, suburban North America may be every bit as dangerous as the former Yugoslav Republic. Our adult children’s welfare is in God’s control, and we cannot guarantee their protection no matter where they live and serve. Praying for our children is not a one-time activity; it is a daily discipline.
So how do we know what to pray for? By keeping communication open with adult children. While today’s perils may make the world seem more dangerous, electronic advancements have also made it more connected.
A generation ago, parents sending their children into the military or missionary service anticipated lengthy waits for overseas communication. Today, however, email can keep us in touch almost instantly. And while telephone service may be prohibitive financially, voice-over-Internet services allow conversations between anyone with a home computer that has a microphone.
With so many avenues of communication, empty nest parents can stay informed about what their adult children face and how to pray for them.
For those discussions to be effective, Mom and Dad should establish some basic parameters to avoid crossing into the children’s jurisdiction.
Give advice only when it is requested. This isn’t tough to fathom, but the corollary is not as simple to observe: Don’t give advice when it’s not asked for. As parents, we have made decisions for our children according to their best interest. With yielding control, those decisions are no longer ours to make. They belong to the youthful decision makers who will have to face the consequences.
Don’t assume that just because you have given suggestions, they will be followed. Parental recommendations, even when requested, only provide information and resources for young adults to consider. If we empty nesters are honest, we can probably recall many choices we made that were contrary to our parents’ advice. We must give the next generation the same freedom.
Don’t second-guess your children’s decisions. Once a choice has been made, accept it and provide support. Four of the most damaging words that affect relationships between parents and their adult children are "We told you so." If the consequences of a decision illustrate it was unwise, few of us willingly admit our mistake to those who opposed it in the first place – and who threaten to rub it in.
Be flexible and accept changes. When Todd first started discussing Macedonia, he expected the assignment to last six to eight months. After his initial training, he said it might be as long as two years. Shortly before his departure in October, some personal developments shortened the stay to about a year. By the time this article appears, it may have changed again. Each shift could have concerned us as we estimated when he would return, but we try to hold these situations loosely.
From our hands to His
These principles are not limited to parents whose children are considering the ministry, the mission field or the military. They are just as true for us in regard to our daughter in her second year of teaching in the Los Angeles area.
Imagine a middle-aged man running alongside his grown son who is riding a bicycle. By trying to hang on to the bike, not only does the father wear himself out, but he also restricts the son’s ability to ride. The advice for parents: Let go of control over the bicycle, and let God give your adult children the freedom to live on their own.
As a friend prepared to send his last child off to college, he admitted that he and his wife were struggling with the transition. His words echo in my mind: "As hard as it may seem, the truth is that this is why we’ve parented the way we have. All our efforts have been directed toward the day they would be independent, making their own decisions to follow God." After a thoughtful silence, he continued, "We just have to keep remembering that, as hard as it may be for us to understand, God loves our kids even more than we do. And He will be beside them wherever they are."
Chuck Johnson is a former school principal. Together with his wife, Gwen, he worked with senior adults in California at the time of publication.
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