Two Non-negotiables for Every Parent of an Adult Child

Right Sizing Expectations for Relating to Adult Children.

By Dennis Rainey


One of our daughters, Deborah and her family

Hey, thanks for reading all four blog posts in this series and passing on my missives to others about relating to your adult children. Over the past three weeks I’ve heard from a lot of parents of adult children.

While I was working on this last installment, a lifelong friend from California texted me. He’s a father of four daughters and his wife is 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. The statement above is 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 shared 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 remain 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 told me 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 expressing that 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.”

And many more who are dealing with the heartache of a prodigal or, even worse, the suicide of an adult child. In fact, at the end of this blog post I’ll pass on a story that was shared with me by my mentor … a story I will never forget.

A recent hunting trip with one of my sons

The hard stuff of discipleship

I’ve been reflecting on these conversations and asking some hard questions about what God expects of us? What follows is the grit and grind of hard stuff, of discipleship. Strap on your seat belts … this last post on “Right-Sizing Relationships with Your Adult Children” could be hard to read.

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.

And just when I thought we were done, it dawned on me that this last season of life is yet another opportunity for a growth spurt!

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 [grew up], 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, asking Him to teach us how to love. It drives us to make Jesus our refuge, our strength, our confidant, and our shock absorber when (not if) 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 giving grace and forgiving.

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. Each of his children spoke of his 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 in North Carolina. Months passed and finally she decided to go home.

When she rounded the last bend in her parents’ driveway, “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.

Our son Samuel and his family

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

I recently asked my mentor and spiritual coach of over 50 years for his best advice on relating to our adult children. What he shared 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, HD, 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 HD’s third birthday his mom told him to go outside and tell his father that dinner was ready. HD told me the last thing his father told him was a lie, saying, “Tell your mom I’ll be there in a minute.”

HD went on to recall a flurry of activity and people showing up around their garage. As a little boy 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 HD’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 … and much, much more.

Barbara and I were two of those students HD discipled over 50 years ago.

So I decided to call HD 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, HD 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).

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

He paused and added a story that initially seemed like a bunny trail. He 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. HD grieved about Satan’s power over his son 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 HD said, “God answered my prayer and saved him.”

With great conviction HD finished answering my question about what God expects of us. He shared that as parents of adult children we must be sharing with them our experiences with Jesus … how wonderful He is to us … and how He is at work in our lives. He then added, “I fear parents are not being specific enough with their adult children and grandchildren of how Jesus is working in their lives.”

HD is spot on.

I recently had some time with one of our adult children and I asked him, “What is Jesus teaching you recently?” He said, “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 gotten on to us for not sharing our challenges, weaknesses, and failures with them.

I went on to describe how the last three 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?

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?

My dad was called home, died of a heart attack not long after his 66th birthday. He was a very private man, but I would love to have dinner with him where I could ask him some of those questions.

So what’s your action point from this fourth post on right-sizing expectations of relationships with your adult children?

Thanks for spending these moments and allowing God to invade your relationships.

Dennis Rainey

Psalm 112:1-2



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