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In many ways, parenting adult children starts when the kids are quite small.

Navigating a relationship with adult children can be rewarding. It is wonderful to see them grow, experience independence, and strike out on their own. But this is also a period that has some challenges. While many of the challenges are unique to this particular time in history, some challenges are literally thousands of years old.

In the third chapter of Mark’s gospel, we read a passage that doesn’t seem to get talked about very often. Mark wastes no time in getting to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We get no birth narrative; the first story in Mark is about John the Baptist’s work. So by the time we get to chapter 3, we’ve already read many short passages about Jesus teaching, healing people, eating with sinners, and appointing his 12 disciples. It really is astonishing how much Mark packs into the first few pages of his gospel. Then, in Mark 3:20, we read, “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’”

A few verses later Jesus’ family shows up:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

It’s interesting that Jesus’ mother shows up where people gathered to hear him with the intent of taking him home. It seems that Mary, like all of us who have adult children, was still concerned about how her son was doing.

Of course she was. Just because children hit the age of legal adulthood doesn’t mean our parenting instincts automatically turn off. At the same time, they are adults, and to a certain extent our job as parents is done. So we find ourselves in a liminal space, and, as with all transitions, it can be tough on everyone as we get used to our new roles. They are still our children, but they are no longer children. How do we relate to them now?

Parenting adult children at this point in history is different than it was for parents a number of years ago. Telecommunication and social media have made it easy to reach out and touch base with our kids. Today’s parents of young adults did not have as much easy access to their parents as today’s young adults do. Because almost everyone has a cellphone, many young adults have frequent conversations (or at least texts) with their parents even if they live far away. It’s hard to say whether this change has been mostly positive, giving additional support to young adults as they strike out on their own, or whether it makes young adults too dependent on parental input when making adult decisions.

Still, the goal of this stage of parenting has remained the same. We want our children to be independent, well-functioning adults who love the Lord and strive to serve God. There is no magical process that will help us get there. Some of our children will not flourish as young adults despite our best efforts, while others will do very well despite our epic failures. It’s important for us to remember that God continues to be with them as they navigate this new stage of life. Nonetheless, we want to do the best we can for our children, regardless of their age.

Here are a few things we’ve learned from launching our own children and hearing from other parents.

Parenting adult children starts early. Anyone who has adult children knows that the personality traits you see in them as adults were present when they were much younger. Maturity happens, of course, but one can look back and see that a lot of who our children are as adults was always there. So in many ways, parenting adult children starts when the kids are quite small.

In some ways parenting is a continuous act of letting go. The difference between how closely you watch a two-year-old and a four-year-old is significant. As our children grow older, we expect them to be able to make more and more good decisions. Parenting adult children is the natural last step in that process. What this means is that the process of letting go should be well underway when your teens are in high school.

When one of our children was in her first year of college, she did not feel well. She called to ask if she should go to class or not. She was in the process of making the transition to being in charge of her own decisions and still desired our input. Later that year she no longer needed our input or approval to make those decisions. One family we know were deliberate in preparing their middle school children by giving them responsibility for purchasing and washing their own clothes. Each family and child will come up with their own ways of helping their children prepare for this important transition.

The relationships we have with our children before they are adults will inform the relationships we have with them when they are grown. You will also heavily influence their faith journeys. Children and teens learn how to be adults by watching you. How you treat your spouse is central to their learning how to treat others, including their future significant others. How you disagree with others, how you use your money, and how you treat them as children are all important as they figure out what it means to be an adult. Model being a person whose faith and everyday life are not two disparate things but rather are integrated into a whole. If they have seen you weave things about your faith into conversations—not in a preachy or artificial way, but in a way that shows that your faith affects your everyday decisions and your long-term goals—they will see that as a natural way to integrate their faith with their everyday living.

One size does not fit all. Any parent knows that you need to adjust your parenting for each child. That does not stop when they reach adulthood. Just as each child is different, the circumstances of your adult children will vary from each other.

The daughter we described earlier who asked for advice about whether to miss class for illness has a twin brother. He never asked for that kind of input. In fact, when he was diagnosed with mononucleosis as a college student, he called and said, “I’m fine. They gave me a brochure.” The differences in how these two responded illustrates how two people raised in the same environment still will have different personalities and will need different types of parental involvement as they reach adulthood.

All of these factors will make a difference in how you relate to adult children. One child might be completely independent while another might need emotional support, financial support, or help with making life decisions. Parenting a child who leaves home will be quite different from parenting a child who stays living in your house.There is no best way to approach all these differences.

Prioritize the relationship. One of the joys of parenting is when your children grow up to be interesting, bright adults who are fun to be with. But that relationship can be fraught as you navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood. They are making lots of changes in their lives, from deciding on college majors to finding a career. They might be meeting a significant other, which adds another complex layer into the whole enterprise. You can only be as much a part of their lives as they are willing to let you be, so make it easy for them to invite you in. Ask them how they are doing. Ask about things they are interested in.

Remember when you were their age? Your life was busy. You were in the early stages of your career and perhaps also in the early stages of an important relationship. Because they are caught up in their own lives, which are also in transition, there is a good chance they won’t call you. It isn’t because they don’t care.

Be available and encouraging. Getting the approval of our parents remains important to us even as we reach adulthood. Young adults want their parents to be proud of them. They want to know they have a place where they can turn for support, love, and encouragement. So being encouraging needs to be important to their parents.

We all know that people tend to dwell on criticism, and criticism from parents sticks with us for a long time. Things we say that might seem neutral to us might come across to our kids as a critique, and unsolicited advice might seem like code for “You should be doing better.”

As one of our friends said, “We advise when we are asked. But we also know that they want our approval!” Be authentic in your encouragement. We’re not suggesting that you be dishonestly positive in your comments, but if you see your children doing well, tell them. Some of us assume our kids know that we are proud of them, but it means more to them when you say so. Because of the dynamics at play, our children cannot always hear what we are trying to tell them without interpreting it as critical.

It has been a joy for us to be the parents of adult children. Ours have all taken different paths, but they have all become people we enjoy being with. We’re especially grateful that we continue to have relationships with all of them. Of all the things we’ve learned over the years as parents, one of the most important lessons is that even if we disagree with our children’s decisions, we should prioritize the relationships. That has paid off for us.

Encourage faith. The data is pretty clear that today’s young adults are not attending church as much as older generations did. Many young adults appear to love the Lord, but being part of a church congregation is more than they are willing to commit to.

All Christian parents want their children to be people of faith too, but badgering them about church attendance is probably not helpful. Very few people have benefited from being shamed into going to church. While church attendance is one indicator of the faith of a person, it is not necessarily the best indicator. Your children might well have a strong faith despite their relationship with the church. So continue to model your faith and even talk about it without scolding them for not acting on their faith in the ways you would like them to. One of our friends said that sometimes as parents they’ve needed to just “shut up and pray.” God remains faithful even when we, or our children, are not. Prayer is the best and most effective way to bring them back to a full relationship with God. The promises we heard at baptism are still true.

The good news is that many of our young adult children remain in the church, continue to make their faith a central aspect of their lives, and become leaders in their congregations. They will have much to teach us about how to be people of faith in this current age. God has brought the church through scores of generations, and he will continue to see it through the next generation and the one after that.


Discussion Questions

  1. What were your experiences either with parenting adult children or being parented as an adult? Are they mostly positive or negative?
  2. “In some ways parenting is a continuous act of letting go.” Is it hard to let go? Or is it hard when your parents start to let you go? Why or why not?
  3. Do you feel your parents were critical of you or encouraging? If you are a parent, do you feel you have been more encouraging or critical of your child(ren)? Can you share examples?
  4. How difficult is it to not scold or lecture your child about “not acting on their faith in the ways you would like them to”? Or have you been on the receiving end of such lectures? What are the fears and/or frustrations underlying these? How can we rise above them?

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