If you browse the parenting bookshelves at a local bookstore or pull up the category at Amazon, you’ll see dozens of trusty manuals filled with black-and-white counsel about breastfeeding, sleep schedules, and toilet training. I find it telling that there are no comforting manuals with certain advice about how to launch your young adult, or offer a sure-fire guarantee that you will have a great relationship once they’ve left the nest.
My husband and I parented were in our years of active parenting during the 1980’s and 1990’s. We lived in a world full of formulas that promised to fill in all the gaps of “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). If you were an Evangelical Christian, you were probably getting some of your parenting cues from people like Gary and Ann Marie Ezzo (“Growing Kids God’s Way), Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family radio broadcasts and publications), and, in our case, from the home school community, which was all about doling out parenting advice. Everyone was hawking sure-fire programs guaranteeing that if only we followed them, our kids would not depart from the way they should go. Though we could never sign on with any one program, we were influenced by this culture of glib certainty – at least until our kids hit their early teens.
When children are infants, parents carry on their shoulders the weight of responsibility for every aspect of their lives. From birth, we begin the slow process of handing the reins of their lives to our kids, and no parent does it perfectly. Both parent and child are learning every step of the way. And this learning is messy and uncertain and beautiful, all at once.
At some point in our parenting journey, usually around the time the messy hits the fan, parents discover two things. First, we learn that there are no guarantees or sure-fire formulas. Every family is different. Every child is different. God revels in the uniqueness of each one of us! Scripture reveals that our heavenly Father handles discipline of his children in a vast variety of ways, customized to the specific individual and in the context of that person’s history, calling, relationships, and culture.
Second, we discover that the illusion of control that comes when our children are little and making most of the decisions about their lives, such as whether we’ll put grape or strawberry jelly on their PBJ, is just that – an illusion. We may be able to “make” a tantruming toddler wear a winter coat in -10 degree weather even if she does not want to do so, but we can not “make” our adult children listen to what we have to say, or even choose to stay in relationship with us and/or God. A child who has vowed to be a prodigal will likely do all they can to end or diminish those primary relationships. If you mix in other issues like substance abuse or mental illness, things get even more complicated.
We’ve walked the prodigal journey in our family for a long time. I can’t go into much detail here in a public forum, as the story is not mine alone to tell. I can tell you that it has shattered and re-constructed me. I learned there are no quick fixes or tidy formulas. Interestingly, a single sentence I read in a book profoundly shaped my approach to this journey. It is telling that the sentence was not found in a parenting guide, but a book written by a broken, humbled priest.
In the introduction to his book The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Story Of Homecoming (Doubleday, 1994), author Father Henri Nouwen shares a sentence that an influential friend spoke into his life at a time when he was wrestling with a great many things. She referenced the parable of the prodigal sons, and then told Nouwen, “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize you are called to be the father.”
Most of us can find ourselves in the parable of the prodigal as one of the two sons. Some resonate with the story of the libertine, ungrateful younger son who parties through his entire inheritance. A few of our us, if we’re honest, may see ourselves in the story of the self-righteous, unmerciful elder son. I’ve been both the younger and the older at different times in my life. But Nouwen’s friend’s words gave me my marching orders regarding my role as a parent in my relationship with my adult children – and, in fact, to many other areas of ministry at this stage of my life.
I am called to be like the father in this beloved parable. In terms of parenting, it means I am not to chase a run-away adult child, carrying their winter coat and begging them to put it on because it’s cold outside as I did when they were little. There is a time to pursue in age-appropriate ways. There is a time to try to work through conflict, and seek peace. And having done all, there is a time to stay put at home, praying, lamenting, hoping, and waiting with open arms, just as the father did in the parable.
If you are the parent of an adult prodigal, I’d be honored to pray for you. Use this form to contact me if you’re feeling alone in your wait.
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We married and started our family later than most of our friends, so our firstborn came along at the same time many of our peers were raising teens. It hit me like a freight train when I saw that these well-meaning parents, having done all the “right things” a la Dobson and all the experts were finding mixed results, and I began to feel very betrayed by the formulaic insert-tab-a-into-slot-b parenting guides that I kept reading.
Parenting has impacted my prayer life like nothing else because the power to choose is there always — and I am also prone to wander, so I know that any one of my children could go astray in spite of my best efforts toward orthodoxy.
It has helped me to remember that Adam and Eve had a perfect Parent, and still managed to rebel against him. We are indeed prone to wander. – Michelle
My husband and I have been feeling the same way – there is not much written about parenting a young adult. It is so much more difficult and stressful than parenting younger children. The stakes are much higher. You are right that the control that we think we have when they are younger is just an illusion. It sure keeps us on our knees praying. Which perhaps is the whole point.
We have often joked that if only we didn’t care so much about our kids and their futures it would be much easier. In reality, I think that would be much harder and more stressful. We have found it so difficult to be one of the few parents in our kids and their friend’s lives who are willing to say that certain behaviors are not okay. But, we are beginning to see how very important it is to take that stand. It has affected not only our children, but also their friends in a positive way.
Thanks for writing this article. It helps so much to just know that others have gone through similar things.
You’re right, Gretchen. It would be SO MUCH EASIER if we didn’t care so much. 🙂
I’d love to hear more about an example of how you’ve taken a stand and seen it work out in positive ways in your kids’ lives. We need to keep this conversation going! – Michelle
One example of how we have taken a stand is that we give our over 18 year old who is still living in our home a curfew. I don’t think any of his friends still have a curfew. A second, related example is that we have let our son know that it is not okay with us that he drinks while under 21 and that there are consequences for it (that we have put in place). It is this example that we have seen especially impact his friends. One of the friend’s parents have said it is fine with them if their son drinks under age as long as he doesn’t drive. They have also provided the alcohol. Some of parents of his other friends either aren’t around much or look the other way. We have had situations where our son has had to face consequences for this behavior. While we have never talked directly to his friends about this behavior, they have shown that they recognize that we have guidelines that we expect our son to follow by telling us before they leave for a night out that they are going to have, “a safe and responsible evening”. Another friend acknowledged that he would take care of something borrowed from us which solidified that he understood what our guidelines are. These are small things, but we felt like they caused our son’s friends to think about their own behavior – even if just saying these things to us were for show.
Another example is that we have dealt with one of our children having an eating disorder. After trying the conventional way of dealing with it and finding that it wasn’t helping, we dealt with it in an unconventional way. We did lots of research and sought out professionals who could help. It has been a long journey, but has paid off. Because of this experience we were able to help another family who was dealing with another type of mental illness. Our son (who has the eating disorder) has also been able to encourage and help friends because of his experience.
Both of these situations were hard and we were never sure if we were doing the right thing. We didn’t do any of it perfectly and made many mistakes. And we still do as we are still in the process of figuring out how to live with young adult men in our home. We know that they won’t be in our home much longer, but we hope and pray that the decisions we make now will help them make good choices when they leave our home.