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Showing “Grown-Up Love” to Your Adult Children

By Dennis Rainey

Whenever I write or speak about “Right-Sizing Relationships With Your Adult Children,” I can tell I’m touching a nerve. This is a big need for parents of older kids.

A lifelong friend in California texted me; he’s a father of four daughters and his wife was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He gave me permission to pass this on …

“Through tears I’ve just read over coffee your recent blog of letting go of our children. Our daughters are really pulling away. They are very unsure how to deal with the many changes to their mom and even their dad (me!). Of course I’m tempted to try and fix things! But I’m not going there. It’s very difficult.”

I called him. He text was only the tip of the iceberg in the story of his relationships with his girls.

Feeling like failures

Another pair of friends from the East Coast told me how their son and daughter-in-law won’t allow them to see their granddaughter who was born five years ago! The parents were cussed out and declared off limits. They were in a state of confusion about the situation.

This is not as rare as you might think. I’ve heard from others whose families are broken apart by internal strife. A father said he fears that the only time his family will get together is at the funerals for him and his wife. He concluded, “The refusal of our family to all get together is not what my wife and I envisioned for our family.”

Parents repeatedly say they feel like failures, asking, “What did we do so wrong with our children for them to reject us and God?”

And statements that point to the messiness of life, like:

“The abundant life doesn’t come from adult children.”

“The safest thing to do with adult children is NOTHING!”

“Our daughter is engaged to a guy who just confessed he is attracted to men.”

“Our newly married daughter just called and was hysterical … her husband had just beaten the tar out of her.”

“Our son has moved in with a young lady who has seduced him.”

“Our daughter has asked that I walk her down the aisle and give her hand in marriage to her lesbian lover.”

“Our son is like an ox to the slaughter with a woman who is seducing him away from his faith and us.”

Others said they were dealing with the heartache of a prodigal or, even worse, the suicide of an adult child. In fact, at the end of this article I’ll pass on a story that was shared with me by my mentor … a story I will never forget.

I’ve been reflecting on these conversations and asking some hard questions about what God expects of us. I’ve come up with two additional conclusions about loving adult children. Look through these and pick the one God is impressing you to apply in the near term:

1. Loving your adult child may be the last chance God gives you to grow up!

I have said many times that initially I thought that God gave us six children so we could help them grow up. But after a decade of child rearing I realized that God gave us our children to help us grow up.

In his famous chapter about love, the apostle Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a

child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11).

Read that again. God invites us to turn our backs on childish ways and step up to mature love.

Love for an imperfect person challenges us to pursue Jesus and ask Him to teach us how to love.

It drives us to make Jesus our refuge, our strength, our confidant, and our shock absorber when expectations continue to go unmet.

Love doesn’t manipulate or try to get its own way. It shoots straight.

Love views our adult children through the eyes and heart of God … they are broken people just like us who need redeeming love.

Love doesn’t play games; it does the hard work of forgiving and showing grace.

Love doesn’t always rescue, but seeks the best for our adult children. And that may mean letting them hit bottom. Read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. The father didn’t rush in and deliver his son from wanting to eat slop with the hogs! The Scriptures are very instructive in just a few words: “… no one gave him [the prodigal son] anything” (italics mine).

In early March of 2018 I had the privilege of attending the memorial service for Billy Graham. His children spoke of their love for them, but his daughter, Ruth, told a story that brought all of us to tears. She had been a prodigal and she said, “I married a man on New Year’s Eve and within 24 hours I knew I had made a mistake. After five weeks I fled.”

In shame, she moved to California to get away from her family back in North Carolina. Months passed and finally she decided to go home.

When she rounded the last bend in her parents’ driveway, she recalled, “My father was standing there waiting for me. As I got out of the car, he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘Welcome home, welcome home.’ There was no shame, no blame, no condemnation, only unconditional love. My father was not God, but he showed me what God was like that day.”

Anyone who has had a prodigal knows that this is a picture of “grown up” love.

2. Passing on your love and experience of Jesus Christ is the most important gift you give them.

I recently asked a mentor and spiritual coach of over 50 years for his best advice on relating to our adult children. What he said was stated so beautifully, I asked “The Rabbi” (my nickname for him, which means teacher) if I could share it with you.

But first a little context.

Harvey Dwight (H.D.) grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area during the Great Depression. His father suffered from a debilitating illness that resulted in incredible pain. The pain and crushing weight of providing financially for his small family became unbearable.

One evening shortly before H.D.’s third birthday his mom told him to go outside and tell his father that dinner was ready. H.D. told me the last thing his father told him was a lie, saying,

“Tell your mom I’ll be there in a minute.”

H.D. recalled a flurry of activity and people showing up around their garage. He walked outside to the garage and found his father lying on the ground with a bullet hole in his forehead. He had committed suicide.

There’s quite a story about the rest of H.D.’s remarkable life. He became a fighter pilot and a chaplain in the Air Force. He gave his life to Christ and married Shirley over 60 years ago and they had a son and a daughter. Against his mom’s advice he went to seminary and ultimately became a pastor of University Baptist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, one of the most influential churches in America. He also earned the rank of brigadier general as head of the Air National Guard Chaplaincy. His ministry of preaching, teaching, and training impacted tens of thousands of college students for Jesus Christ … including Barbara and I.

So I decided to call H.D. last week and ask him a question I had been chewing on over the past month: What do you think is God’s primary assignment for parents of adult children?

A week shy of his 88th birthday and mentally sharp as a tack, H.D. nailed it!

He immediately quoted John 14:21, where Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest disclose Myself to him” (NASB).

H.D. said, “A parent needs to carry a burden to pass on Jesus to his children and make Him real to them.”

He paused and shared how his son Kevin, who was a believer, had been a prodigal well into his adulthood. One Christmas Eve he prayed for Kevin because he was under the grip of drugs which were burning out his brain. H.D. grieved about Satan’s power over Kevin and his powerlessness to rescue his son. He prayed, “Lord God, save Kevin from this hell he is living in.”

That night, God called Kevin home.

And H.D. said, “God answered my prayer and saved him.”

With great conviction H.D. finished answering my question about what God expects of us. He described how, as parents of adult children, we must be telling them about our experiences with Jesus. He added, “I fear parents are not being specific enough with their adult children and grandchildren of how Jesus is working in their lives.”

H.D. is spot on.

A couple years ago I had some time with one of our adult children and I asked him, “What is Jesus teaching you recently?” He replied, “That’s a good question,” and he later talked about some of what’s been going on in his life.

I shared how Jesus has been gently teaching me in recent weeks to be content with this new season in my life, having transitioned out of leadership of FamilyLife. Our kids have appropriately criticized us for not sharing our challenges, weaknesses, and failures with them.

I went on to describe how the last few years have been some of the most challenging of my life. Dark, very lonely times. And how Jesus has been and is present. Comforting, guiding, correcting, encouraging, and teaching me.

Making it practical

So here are some questions if you are a parent of an adult child or an uncle or niece:

What specifically is Jesus up to in your life?

How has He been at work?

What is something that He is burdening you with?

What is He teaching you?

Specifically, how has He spoken to you through Scriptures in the last week or so?

These are things you should share with your kids.

And if you are an adult child and your parents are still living, how about taking one or both of them out for a cup of coffee and dinner (you buy!) and asking them a couple of those questions?

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