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9 Tips for Communicating Love to Your Adult Children

By Dennis Rainey

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,

and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 4:7-8

For most of us, it’s found in the lifelong relationships at home in a marriage and family.

Of course we love our adult children, but do we show that love in the way that communicates love to them?

And if you don’t know what communicates love to them, why don’t you ask them? Have you ever asked your adult children:

“What are two or three things that we can do to communicate love to you?”

I did ask this question to our six children and their spouses, and their responses begin this list of ways to communicate love to your adult children:

1. Spend time with them. Not surprisingly, all our kids mentioned this. With our children living in other cities (five in other states), this has been a real challenge. At times we’ve felt like losers because we haven’t visited as often as they’d like.

I once had a very busy executive, as in the Governor of Arkansas, tell me, “Dennis, to say you don’t have time is not a statement of fact, but a statement of values.”


But we also had some hard lessons to learn about how time with our kids is measured in more than hours or days. It also means presence … which means being all there when you’re with them. Repeat after me, “When I go visit, I must seek to be all there!”

For me the basic problem was working too much when we visited our kids. Over the past two decades we’ve had more than a few hard conversations with our kids about their expectations when we came to visit. I admit being frustrated because there were times when I really did have work that had to be done.

But there’s something about having the same conversation with several of your children that finally got through to me, and I finally repented! After a lot of discussion we curtailed 90-95 percent of the work.

It meant leaving my phone in my pocket, not making calls, and not sneaking peeks at emails and texts. And when I do need to work, I usually try to do it either early in the morning or late at night. Sometimes it helps to be honest and just say, “I have a crisis that only I can address. I’m sorry, but I need to spend some time today on this.”

And one more application: Time with your children may mean no time with your friends who may live nearby.

2. Create a “SAFE” relationship. Inscribed in Barbara’s wedding ring is 1 John 4:18, which says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” It’s a fundamental of our marriage and a non-negotiable for relationships with our adult children.

Your kids and their spouses may be intimidated by you, by your accomplishments, by your family’s reputation, by your perfect Christmas cards, by your status in the community, by your unrealistic expectations. The bottom line is that they may think they do not match up and will never match up.

Let your kids and their spouses know … repeatedly … that your family isn’t perfect. Share your struggles with them. Let them know how God has redeemed you, your marriage, and your family.

Your family and ours is a MESS. It’s broken, so stop pretending that it’s perfect … and welcome them to your family. Divine love welcomes broken people to the family and to “safe” relationships. Say to them, “You can be REAL here. We will not reject you!”

3. Spend time with their children (your grandkids). Our adult children and their families almost universally endorsed this one. Focusing on their children … playing with them on the floor in the living room, taking them on a walk in the neighborhood, ice cream dates at “Sweet Cow” in Boulder, and reading to their children … will score relational points!

Our kids beam when Barbara curls up on the couch with two grandchildren in her lap reading a great book by C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, etc. Or when I tell a bedtime “Speck People” story to their children. These stories (made up out of thin air, contrasting wise choices with foolish ones) are about incredibly tiny heroes and heroines who are the size of a period.

Speck People stories involve great adventures and cliff-hanging crisis after crisis. They always end with, “and you’ll have to wait until tomorrow night to hear the rest of the story!” Moans from the grandkids follow … and then I’m on the hook for a story the next night!

Relationships are spelled T-I-M-E. Our children are watching where we invest our time.

4. Make plans to make memories with their children. One of the best things we’ve done was taking the grandchildren to the Creation Museum near Cincinnati for a three-day “worldview adventure.” These trips have been a great time for deepening relationships.

The first time we took six kids between the ages of 8-15 … no parental units allowed! It was a blast traveling to Cincy in a van with the kids and giving them all kinds of assignments to prepare them for understanding how our origins are absolutely essential for developing a biblical worldview. We even had dinner with Dr. Ken Ham, the founder of the museum, at his favorite Asian restaurant.

Three years later we returned with 14 grandkids and 6 parents who said they wanted to go. This time we also visited the nearby Ark Encounter. It was a hoot to see a life-sized replica of the ark during the day, followed by Mimi and Papa’s debrief at night … with all 22 of us crowded into a small hotel room to discuss what the ark represented.

Why go to Disney World, which has its own “worldview,” when we can go to an experience that helps parents and grandparents communicate how the Creator displays His purposes for His creation?

Next up: The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. We may have to take out a small loan for this one!

Lesson learned: When you love on your children’s kids in meaningful ways (and perhaps pay for it!) your adult children feel that love as well.

5. Take advantage of FamilyLife events to build your relationships. Barbara and I are no longer in charge of FamilyLife, but they have two major events every year that are among the best ways we’ve found to connect with our kids. So here’s the assignment: Initiate and pursue a relationship with your adult children by going with them to a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway or to a Love Like You Mean It cruise.

The cruise, which takes place each year during Valentine’s week, is a floating marriage and family equipping center with over 80 hours of great biblical content. We’ve found that we really can connect with our kids when we can string seven days in a row when they aren’t distracted by their kids.

Or attend a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway together with your adult kids. One suggestion: When romance and sex are discussed on Saturday afternoon, please give them space and don’t sit together!

6. Love liberally embraces forgiveness. We’ve found that for any family relationship to last, we need to:

· Understand what forgiveness is (giving up the right to punish another person);

· Ask for forgiveness when we’ve offended another person; and

· Grant forgiveness when forgiveness is sought with a repentant heart.

It’s easy to start well in a new relationship with a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law, but it’s far more difficult to finish well. Don’t give in to disappointment.

There are two verses which should be the life source for establishing and maintaining a relationship with your kids and their spouses:

1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” I really like this passage. Our children need this kind of love from us. And, like them, we need this love and forgiveness from them.

Ephesians 4:32 is a kissing cousin of 1 Peter 4:8. It says, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Relationships with adult children are messy. And without forgiveness those relationships die.

When we married back in 1972, Barbara and I thought we knew what love was. But we found that marriage enrolled us in the undergraduate school of love. Then children came and we got our master’s degree … and now our adult children are being used by God as we work our way to a doctorate!

By the way, if you want to find the place in the Bible to study for your doctorate in loving and forgiving your adult child and their spouse, I suggest studying, memorizing, and applying 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.

7. Engage your adult children by knowing who their best friends are. Know who they are and why they are best friends with your adult children and their spouses.

8. Speak well of your adult children … to their face and to others behind their backs. I think one of the things our children are experiencing (and that we’ve forgotten) is the learning curve of being married. Everyone seems to start out secure and confident, but then they start having children. Insecurity in the new roles of mom and dad can rock their world.

Listen carefully: Your children never outgrow their need of your approval … of your affirming words … of your cheerleading as they tackle the challenges of doing marriage and raising a bunch of children in a culture that punishes those who have biblical convictions. Brag often and out loud about how you see a child shouldering the challenges of life, work, and raising children … and most importantly how they are pursuing God.

Resign as coach—they’ll ask when they need your advice—and sign up to be their cheerleader. Tell them frequently how proud you are of them, and their spouses.

9. Love finds a way to pray for our children and grandchildren. Your children need your prayers. They need to know that you pray for them.

Find a way to pray for them and your grandchildren … daily, weekly, or even monthly. I was always encouraged when my mom told me she prayed for me. No child ever outgrows the need for a parent’s prayers.

Some bonus tips from our kids and their spouses:

· Surprise your adult kids by offering to babysit their kids for a getaway … without being asked!

· Be intentional and engaged with “grafted in” children (your sons-in-law and daughters-in-law). Not just in the beginning but off and on as your lives change and grow.

· Know what is going on below the surface. Emotionally, vocationally … and, most important, spiritually.

Don’t give up

I am reminded of the process of life and what Dr. John Stott wrote:

Life is a pilgrimage of learning,

A voyage of discovery,

In which our mistaken views are corrected,

Our distorted notions adjusted,

Our shallow opinions deepened,

And some of our vast ignorances diminished.

Being the parents of adult children means we embrace the past, no matter how many mistakes we’ve made, and we keep following Christ demonstrating maturity, grace and love.

And not give up. As one of my favorite verses says, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10).

This is the second in a series of articles about “Right-Sizing Relationships With Your Adult Children.” The first is here.

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