Jordan Peterson says, “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” It has a nice ring to it, and on the whole, Peterson makes some sense in this chapter—if you are talking about young children.
Mind you, what Peterson writes irks me sometimes. I don’t like what he says about hitting kids. He’s generally not for it, but makes exceptions. I disagree. I don’t like what he says about single parents—he thinks it’s a bad idea, while I think it’s a different idea with its own unique challenges and rewards.
But Peterson is writing about parenting little kids, and when I was done the chapter, as a father of adult children myself, and as the son of an elderly parent, I wondered, sure—but how does one parent adult children?
You know. These older kids are in their thirties or fifties. They are still tied to you by cords of love and affection, but those cords can fray and strain under pressure. You know what I mean.
For example. Let’s say Peter and Joyce love their son Joe. What is more, the three of them share great memories together of Joe’s early years—memories of camping trips and dinner discussions, of hockey tournaments and family Christmases. Peter and Joyce gave Joe a close to ideal childhood.
But then Joe grows up, goes to university, gets married—very happily—and he and his wife take a very different approach to dealing with life than Joe’s parents, Peter and Joyce. Joe lets his kids stay up all hours without supervision, until they fall in their tracks, exhausted. Joe and his wife don’t cook and feed the kids mostly pizza and McDonalds and Chinese take-out. Joe uses physical punishment on his children that he himself never experienced. Joe also turns out to be a poor money manager, and so he and his family have to live in a small apartment while juggling huge consumer debts. And yet Joe and his wife somehow find the money to drive a new Audi and take annual vacations in Italy or the Caribbean. Joe, unlike his dad, doesn’t dress for success, doesn’t go to his parents’ church or gym or barber anymore, and forgets his parents’ birthdays.
Joe is a dramatic case, but he’s also a good example for how love does not solve every practical issue or potential arena for disagreement facing parents and their adult kids. And while Joe is a sort of bumbling example of how children can choose a very different path than their parents did, it is also true that there actually are lots of potential areas of disagreement between older parents and their adult children. They can disagree about things like personal loans and their repayment, or not; different ideas about estate planning or charity; health and mental competency issues; how-close-to-live-to-each-other decisions; and even about the level of honest, emotional disclosure and sharing between older parents and their adult children.
As I thought about this large reality, I also realized that there is very, very little—perhaps nothing—in the Bible about how parents should treat their adult children. There are some stories that involve the two. King David’s adult son Absalom staged a military coup against his father, and when Absalom died, David was so heartbroken and paralyzed over his rebellious son’s death that his loyal supporters were angered. An old prophet and priest named Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who stole from the tabernacle offerings. Eli didn’t know how to handle it so God took the priesthood away from Eli’s family and made little Samuel his next great prophet. King Solomon once threw a spear at his son Jonathan, in anger. Not a great role model.
The story that seems the most likely candidate for addressing the relationship between parents and their adult children is the parable of the prodigal son. The barely-adult child, here, asked for his inheritance and wasted it. When he came home a pauper, his older father received the foolish son back with open arms. We’re going to hear that parable sung soon.
But honestly, this parable is not about parents and adult children. This parable is about the shocking quality of God’s love. Because, you see, no parent of adult children would ever be as gracious as the divine father. That’ the whole point of the parable. Beyond this, there isn’t anything in the Bible meant as instruction for parents on how to parent adult children.
In a way, this isn’t a surprise. During the Roman Empire era, it is estimated by demographers that of children alive at age ten, half would die by the age of fifty. There were many, many fewer older adults with adult children in Bible times than now; and even those elderly parents lived, on average, much shorter lives than we do. We sometimes forget what a profound impact modern medicine has had on our lifespans.
So, how do we do it? Or better yet, since every situation is different and unique, are there at least some principles that we can use as guidelines for how we should parent adult children? I think there are—at least two of them. My Peterson-type rule would be “Let Go but Don’t Withdraw.”
First, let go. Do not pursue your children. At marriage, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” Parents must let go of their children, whether into marriage or into coupledom of another kind, or into adult singleness—children must be allowed to leave.
And once they are gone, let them go. You raised them to become independent, you must risk letting them be so. Don’t pursue them. Don’t hover over them as if you were quarterbacking a powerplay. Don’t offer unsolicited advice about finances, about when to have children, about where to live, about how to treat siblings, or about how often to visit. Don’t nag your kids to get the results you want—don’t nag them about vacation locations or visit frequency or what they feed their kids or how late they stay up. Don’t compare how well you did at their age to how they’re doing—by any measure: financial, number of children, happiness, marital age. Don’t make snarky ironic or sarcastic remarks about their dress or jobs or cars or bank account. In our text Paul says, to church members—the family of God, and so somewhat applicable to biological families too, “Don’t bite and devour one another. Take care that you are not consumed by one another.” Let them go.
This means, by the way, that you must also let go of the inevitable discomfort and even anger you will feel as your children reflect on whether or not you were a good parent in your day (and believe me, you were not perfect). Kids of all ages always judge their parents. Wise parents, in response, let it go . . . they don’t get angry or defensive; they apologize if apologies are asked for; and they continue trying to be good parents.
In our scripture reading, Paul adds that we are “called to freedom.” Paul is referencing, here, the freedom we have in our hearts to follow Jesus no matter what governments or friends or employers or emperors or parents might say. This is the same freedom belongs to your children. Don’t pursue them beyond what their freedom to let you in invites.
So, don’t pursue your children, but second, don’t withdraw, either. Love one another, says Paul, applying what Jesus said about how we should treat all people to how we should treat people who sit in the pews with us, and what certainly applies to how we should treat our adult children, too. Don’t use the letting go, the freedom, as an excuse to indulge yourself by letting go so completely that the love is no longer tangible. Let go, but don’t withdraw.
Withdrawal is a refusal to nurture your relationship with adult children, and in extreme cases a decision to sever the relationship, to wash your hands of them. What does withdrawal look like? It is not inviting your kids into your life socially. It is a refusal to be there—as you are able—to help with things like doing renovations or a short-term loan or celebrating a promotion. Withdrawal is making shared arrangements for babysitting or visiting or birthday gatherings so difficult and opaque for your adult children to arrange so as to suggest you are really not interested. It is to keep secrets about your finances or wills or power of attorney wishes so that your children do not know your intentions and are forced to live in the dark, where mistakes are made and things go bump in the night. Withdrawal is to evince a total lack of curiosity about your children’s lives, their hopes, and dreams. It is to refuse to answer the phone; it is to go away without telling the kids where; it is to keep secrets about your health, or your relationships, or your problems, or your depression, so that kids who would help if asked, are never asked.
Listen—letting go while not withdrawing requires older parents of adult children to walk a fine line. I do not want to suggest for even one moment that knowing my two principles are a cure all for all the practical problems that older parents face with their adult children. And I have said nothing at all about the adult children’s responsibility in these relationships. Some adult children withdraw, or cling unhealthily, no matter what their older parents try. But that is another sermon for another time.
So finally, if you are in doubt about the fine line between letting go but not withdrawing, consider trying, at least, to talk to your children about it. Tell them you want to let go but stay in close touch. Sit and listen carefully as you give your children time to reflect on what you are saying, and respond. But as an older parent, be up front. Be open. Talk about it together, if you can. You are, after all, all adults.