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Right-Sizing Relationships with Your Adult Children

By Dennis Rainey

After introductions at a small gathering of Christian leaders, I decided to shake things up a bit. So I announced, “I’d like to discuss what you have been learning about how to relate to your adult children and their spouses.”

What happened was much more remarkable than I expected. Heads nodded. Notebooks and iPads flew open for note taking, and these leaders authentically engaged with one another. The next two hours were a cascade of lessons learned, mistakes made and wisdom gained from fellow travelers.

I discovered everyone was suffering from RSRWAC Syndrome … Right-Sizing Relationships with Adult Children. Both the young adults and the parents were contributing. Someone even suggested that Barbara and I write a book about it, to which we responded, “We’d love to, but all the witnesses are living!”

We had our feet in two worlds

Looking back over the decades, I think Barbara and I were somewhat prepared for toddlers, middlers and teens because we had books to read and friends just ahead of us to question for advice. And our children were home so we could apply what we were learning immediately.

But when we started releasing the arrows out of our quiver (Psalm 127:3-5), we discovered we had our feet in two worlds. We now had children at home and others away. We were beginning a new dance without finishing the first jig. We were very naive about all the new voices that were talking to our now grown children as they lived away from us for the first time.

All of us—us and our kids—made lots of mistakes which increased as the kids married and had babies. All of us learned lots of lessons. All of us have had to make ongoing recalibrations of expectations.

Here is the first lesson we’ve learned:

Lesson #1: Clarify expectations with one another … continually.

Real relationships, those that are living and growing, have expectations. It’s the relational law of gravity. Only dead relationships have no expectations.

One of the challenges we faced in these new relationships with our children and their spouses was geography. For a few years we had children literally living coast to coast: Washington, D.C. … Gainesville, Florida … Indianapolis … Russellville, Arkansas … Denver and Seattle. None were local.

We laughingly say, “When our kids grew up they fled the penitentiary!”

During a road trip to visit our kids out west, one of our sons said he and his wife wanted to see us more often. His desire was a minimum of three full days twice a year. As we drove away from Seattle we began to “count the cost” of doing that with each of our six children and including two travel days for each visit.

Six children times five days, times twice a year. The math was clear … 60 DAYS A YEAR!

Coast to coast!

We burst out laughing! We were still working full time and couldn’t possibly take that many vacation days. But we did give thanks that the request was for more of us and not less!

Today, years later, we are still trying to figure out how to get more time even though the geography has narrowed. All six still live away, but only from Denver in the west to Nashville in the east.

The disappointment gap

Judy Dabler, a friend and counselor, put it this way to us: Each of us has desires, dreams, and hopes that will never be fully met by what we experience. We have them and our children, their spouses and children all have them. That separation creates a disappointment gap. It is impossible not to know repeated disappointment.

How we respond to that disappointment gap is the one of the most important decisions we can make as parents. Will we respond in faith and prayer, trusting God to use the pain and losses to produce spiritual maturity in us, to make us more like Jesus? Will we increase our prayers for our children as we remember the hard things we faced in early marriage and parenting? Will we give grace along with encouragement, and button our lips, keeping our opinions to ourselves?

Your relationships with your grown children will not be all you hoped for. Period. Too often we hope for heaven here on earth.

Surrender to Jesus Christ is always ongoing. Surrender again and again to this present place of God’s will for you. Re-read both of those sentences again. Now read Romans 12:1-2 and apply it.

Relational realities

And remember these basic truths about relationships. We’ve had to re-learn them over and over:

1. Each of us is broken and selfish. So are our children. We all live in a broken world. We will not communicate our expectations clearly. We will disappoint and miss connecting well with one another.

2. Realize that verbalized unrealistic expectations can crush and kill a relationship with your child and his/her spouse.

3. Unspoken expectations also exist. Sometimes they disappoint without the other person having a clue they’ve done anything. Happens in marriage a lot, too. Any person in these relationships can feel like a failure without even knowing why.

4. A one-size approach doesn’t fit all. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made yet mostly clueless about what God has built in us, our children or grandchildren. Right size your expectations by asking God for understanding and wisdom and an abundance of love.

5. When things don’t turn out the way we wanted, ask God to help you give abundant grace and lavish understanding on those who need it. Grow as a follower of Christ. Let your children see in you how a mature Christian deals with disappointment. Parents should be more mature than their children.

6. Never lose the ability to admit a wrong attitude or action, ask for forgiveness, and bring forth the fruit of true repentance.

7. Remember our children are one of the primary tools God uses to chisel and shape maturity and Christlikeness in us. When we first started having children I mistakenly thought God gave us six children to help them grow up. Instead we learned that He gave us children to finish the process of helping us grow up and preparing us for heaven. (Read Philippians 3:10.)

This is no less true for adult children. God’s instruction of us didn’t end at graduation or at the altar when they said, “I do.” We love what Ruth Bell Graham had chiseled on her tombstone:


Some advice from an adult child

I also asked one of our children what counsel he’d give parents as they relate to their children and spouses. He had three suggestions:

1. Seek to understand the context of where your children and their spouses are coming from: life stage, age of children, health issues, pace of life, etc.

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Over-communicate what your desires are and what is expected in areas like:

· Frequency of phone calls, visits, etc.

· Attending family get-togethers, vacations, holidays, etc.

· Celebrating grandchildren birthdays and sporting/dancing/special events

3. Be flexible. Go with the flow … not everything is going to work out. Adapt. F-L-E-X … and then FLEX EVEN MORE!

Next week: Part Two of this series on “Right-Sizing Relationships With Your Adult Children.”

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