In December 2009, I released the book Loving Our Kids On Purpose. It continues to be a bestseller for my publisher. I’ve done countless conferences, trainings, and counseling sessions around its content.
In the last few years, more and more people have asked, “When are you going to write a book about how to deal with our adult children?” It’s a great question, and as soon as I have it figured out, I’ll let you know!
In the meantime, I’d like to have a heart-to-heart talk with parents of adult children.
There is a brief moment in the lives of our children—somewhere around age 6 to about 12—in which we think we know how our investment in parenting is going to turn out. We have a shining vision of how we and our children will move along together into our future, and feel comforted and confident in knowing how it’s all going to go.
And then . . . it doesn’t go that way at all. After doing our best to pour out our lives for them, our kids grow up and do what they want to do. Quite often, what they end up doing looks nothing like what we had planned for their lives! They make choices that disappoint us or scare us to death. Sometimes they break our hearts.
Few relationships require us to reformat our expectations of how things will work out than being the parents of adult children. Our children have always had the power to make decisions that have tremendous impact on us. Now that they are adults, however, it seems that we have the least amount of influence over these decisions than ever before.
The pain of an adult child’s bad decision is a special kind of powerless feeling and maybe the greatest challenge I’ve ever experienced. I’ve watched as my Australian son-in-love, my daughter, and my first grandchild were nearly deported for failing to file immigration paperwork on time. I’ve watched another child end up homeless, and listened to numerous conversations about faith and God that I never could have fathomed would be part of our relationship.
When our children make baffling choices, questions naturally arise:
“Where do I put all of this fear and pain?”
“Where is God in this chaotic swirl?”
“Is there a point where I’m supposed to let go of my child?”
I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but I do know this: In the midst of the fear, pain, and confusion, we must choose to focus on the prize—the connection to our adult child’s heart.
My wife, Sheri, has always said that her goal in raising our children is to get them to fall madly in love with her. We both know that getting someone to fall in love with you is not something you can make happen. More than ever, we are in a friendship-style relationship with our kids, which requires the choices of two powerful people. If both parties don’t do the work to preserve the friendship, there isn’t one. (This can be a harsh reality for parents who are still trying to maintain control over relationship with their kids in order to protect themselves.) However, whether or not our children choose to hold up their end of a friendship with us, we still get to choose to hold up our end. Pursuing a heart-to-heart connection unceasingly and at all costs is how we express unconditional covenant love toward our children.
Covenant is a binding agreement that requires death. That sounds morbid, yes, but the deeper significance of covenant lies in the power of forming connection with people for whom we would be willing to die. Soldiers, missionaries, and emergency service workers build these bonds as they work together in life-and-death conditions every day. These men and women know that our strongest relationships are developed in times that require us to rise up in our greatest vulnerability and face our wildest fears.
As parents, we know that nothing exposes us to vulnerability and fear more than when a beloved child introduces disagreement, conflict, or poor choices into our relationship. In these moments, we have the powerful opportunity to make the sacrifices of covenant and hold on to our relationship with them. We can only strengthen covenant by practicing covenant.
I met a carpenter the other day. We shook hands and I had to hold back a yelp. The guy squeezed my hand with the force of a hydraulic press. Dang! I was not expecting that grab. Then it dawned on me that this guy picks up heavy stuff all day. His grip has developed from years of holding on to resistant objects—boards, hammers, and pneumatic tools.
In the same way, the practice of holding on to one another when our lives are under pressure or loaded with resistance (the opposite of easy) is what builds the strength of our connection. Some of our most demanding and difficult relationships translate into our strongest connections. If we will understand the benefit of these struggles, we will not as easily lose heart when they are challenging. Our sacrifice is not without reward. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But, if it dies, it multiplies” (John 12:24).
All three of my adult children are bringing the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced into my life. Navigating issues of faith, political perspectives, and extended family dynamics are all things I didn’t anticipate when they were playing in the yard every day. But all this push and pull has built a new trust and tenacity in our relationships. Through it all, we have worked through our disconnections and strengthened our heart-to-heart connections. We are building a legacy that is saturated with inheritance.
I can honestly say that these are the greatest days of my role as a parent. My kids are teaching me to grow up and not get locked in a comfortable mindset that stops maturing. I’ve grown more that any Master’s degree ever stretched me. This is what I call a finale! I imagine I will smell like smoke when I arrive in heaven after such a wild ride here on earth.
Oh, and did I mention the grandchildren . . .
PS) These thoughts are also published in a recently released free eBook, Parenting With Purpose. I contribute parenting advice along side Bill Johnson, Wm. Paul Young, Kris Vallotton, Kirk Elliott & Shawn Bolz. If interested, you can download it here!