Why is this such a difficult conversation to start? Have? Get specific with?
Because the life if your child is so broad and complex, and your role in that adult child’s life is too.
There is no creature more complex in the universe that we know than a human being and the process of all of this is not only mysterious to us because of the complexity but also because of our closeness to it. We can’t talk about our children without engaging in the complexity of ourselves.
Who is this class for?
Anyone but it will be focused towards parents whose children are now adults. Part of the struggle here is naming. If your “child” is over 18 or 21 or 35 or 50, it feels wrong to call them a “child” even if they are behaving like one. It feels less wrong to call yourself a “parent” even if your offspring is financially independent or even estranged from you. “Offspring” has its own complexities because it’s rather biological and for some of you your children are adopted which means they have more than 2 parents to whatever degree they are in an active relationship with however many of them. So I’ll own at the beginning that parenting your adult children has issues but at this point, until we come up with something better we’ll live with it. We might also call it “parenting through adulthood” which is really what we’re going to focus on. This casts a broader scope but I do want to respect the fact that the issues are different and the complexities greater as your children develop and engage the larger world more broadly.
“Parenting through adulthood” also has the added double meaning of understanding that we all must model adulthood, which should be somewhat synonymous with maturity. In other words what we are doing is helping our children grow into adulthood by being adults with them and towards them.
I want to also posture myself not necessarily as an expert. My 5 children are at this moment between the ages of 17 and 26 and there are stages of life that some of you have experiential wisdom in that I do not. For this course I’m mostly going to try to set the table for conversation and process rather than give you a lot of specific application. I will try to offer some theological perspective and leave it to you all to find or discover or share the wisdom that you’ve gained through your own journeys.
Part of what impedes us is a history of reductionistic Christian theology. As Christians who believe and have concerns about concrete realities such as the resurrection and the afterlife it is common and easy to bottom line our assessment, explicit or implicit based on our evaluation of their Christian life. While we’re going to have to get into the subject there is a reason your concerns and interests are instinctively broader than just this issue. Our Christianity should enable us to be more expansive in our concerns rather than reductionistic. To see this and to do this we need to do some theology of the human person. CS Lewis notes I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.
When we feel concern about our children of any age, but especially as adults, we are implicitly asking “what does it mean to be fully thriving human being?” the definition broadest of “sin” is to “miss the mark”, not just to violate God’s law. With an adult human being because they are so much more powerful and consequential than a child these issues are far broader and your influence with that person both more narrow and ironically more foundational from the past making their issues more integral to your own. You look back with regret, wonderings, guilt perhaps. This is why this issues is so complicated.
The breadth of these issues makes all of this very difficult to talk about so we need to do some work on vocabulary and theology to get started.
I’d suggest that you’ve got interest in this course because you’re concerned whether or not one or more of your children are “flourishing”.
To use this term is to borrow an image from the natural world. If you have a plant you try to do what is necessary for that plant to flourish. You are concerned about watering, sunlight, the fertility of the soil. You do what you can to give it optimal conditions and you expect if you do so the plant will grow, bear fruit perhaps, and flourish.
A human being is way more complex than a plant but the image is the same. As a parent you try to create optimal conditions for the child to grow and what you wish is for that child to achieve their potential within the limitations of the child. Part of what is difficult in this though is that like the plant illustration, your expectations are a part of the equation. The range of expectations for a plant are far more narrow, and often the consequences less dramatic, so at some point an evaluation we will need to own and evaluate our own expectations of our children and the capacity of our relationship with them. We’re going to use “flourishing” as the entry into this conversation.
God creates order out of chaos and creates by his word a functioning universe for flourishing. The role of the man and the woman in that is creative (image bearing) and like the role that God played in it already. “Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth” making it your own and making it flourish just as the creator has done. A lot of his is also speaking order into chaos. In agriculture we take plants, domesticate them and make them flourish so that the entire effort can flourish more.
You can see that these ideas create the expansive framework through which we can bring some order to the chaos of our evaluative feelings about our children’s lives and our expectations for them. These will include their spiritual lives In the appropriate relationship with the complexity of the rest of their lives not simply overshadow it.
The story also gives us a window into how we engage positively moving forward. While our words don’t have the creative power and purity of the words of our creator our words and actions will work the same way in terms of speaking order into chaos to the degree that our children can or will listen to us. As we proceed we will see how it will be actions and words that make up the potential of our relationships moving forward in order to hopefully participate in the flourishing of our children’s lives moving forward.
Expectations of Process
Each class will have a homework component for you to take home to do your own reflection or reflections with your co-parent/spouse. Another element that makes this so complex is that every person in this world has at least 2 parents, sometimes more. If you are taking the time to do a class like this it likely means that there are some unresolved issues you’re experiencing that you need to work through even for your own emotional reasons.
A word about emotions.
Emotions are signals to us from our subconscious. They are a type of feedback from the mysterious portions of our brains that are not under the direct control of our conscious minds. This means that if you are being troubled by your emotions you can’t just silence them by turning off a switch. You have to work through it less directly usually by exploring the roots of these feelings. It’s also important to note that feelings are just signals. They are not God, even though God can communicate to you through them. They are not your master. Making your feelings your master is a foolish way to go through life, as foolish as deciding to never listen to them. They are signals and input that you need to engage with, sometimes with help from someone else, to figure out what you can learn from them. They might be deceiving, for example if you are burdened with guilt over something that you really don’t need to feel guilty about. Experiencing false guilt is usually an indication that you are holding some unwarranted assumptions or expectations about something. At other times, however, the guilt might be real and appropriate, and in instances like that you may need to figure out how to make amends. This is an example how feelings are not sacred or always true but are signals that you’ll need to work through, to evaluate, and to address.
Some of your homework may involve prayer.
By prayer we enter into communion with God and develop our relationship with God. Through prayer we do a variety of things. We process our feelings, evaluate them, and learn from them. Prayer helps us do some of the self-work we need to do. In prayer we also engage our heavenly Father as a partner in our relationship with our adult offspring. A lot of the issues you’re likely struggling with involve the fact that you are not in control of your adult offspring. They are making decisions out there in the world that you may see as wrong, sinful, foolish, self-destructive or that fall short of your expectations for their flourishing. By prayer you reach out to our heavenly Father to ask that he may, according to his own will, act in their circumstances, hearts and lives towards their flourishing. If you are not a Christian this may seem like a strange or inappropriate thing to do. Prayer in fact is a very healthy thing to do even from an agnostic level because it affords you an active outlet for your desires without the risk of being controlling or manipulative towards your adult offspring. You can pour out your feelings, needs, desires, and hopes to God in the quiet of your heart without burdening your child with the need to manage your emotional work. As Christians we believe that prayer is effective and also safer than if the world were simply subject to our desires. We trust that God will act, or not act, according to his will taking far more into account in both time and scope and even when we don’t see the outcomes we desire we can trust God with them.
The group will have time for discussion but we won’t expect or demand that everyone share. Part of the reason for this is that we must respect the privacy of our adult children. In a group like this we have a matrix of relationships and as parents you might have access to private issues and struggles of your adult children. It may be inappropriate for you to share something with other members of the group because it would violate a trust and damage your relationship with your child. Each of us will have to exercise wisdom in this. Generally speaking we should agree that things shares within the group stay within the group but this may not be enough for some circumstances. For this reason no one should feel compelled to share something they think it unwise to share or they’re not ready to share.
At the same time discussion is important for processing our emotions and gaining wisdom for action or patient waiting. We need each other. So we’ll have time for discussion in the group.
As we share we should be sensitive whether a person’s contribution to the discussion is an asking for advice, a venting of emotion or something in between. They themselves might not even know why they are sharing and what they want out of it but they are just feel that need. We’ll try to give space for all to share but not have one or two people dominate the sharing. Please be sensitive to people’s feelings and be cautious about advice giving.
It may be that this class prompts you to do some discussion outside the group with a friend, a pastor, a counselor, your child or alone with God. All are appropriate and it will be up to you to figure out what mix is best for you and your situation.
Questions for Session 1 (for verbal answering, private work or contemplation)
- Why did you come to this group or seek out this process? Something is likely bothering your and it will be important to figure out what and do some evaluation.
- In what ways is your adult child/offspring not flourishing or living up to their capacity? Are there roadblocks, stumbling blocks, hinderances that are keeping them from flourishing?
- The 12 step community has a saying “expectations are pre-conceived resentments”. What are your expectations for your children’s flourishing? You should own them. Are they reasonable? Have you processed these expectations with your co-parent(s)? With God? Do you need to work on them?
- Are your faithfully praying for your children’s full flourishing? Why or why not? How is that going? Is there someone you can talk to about it?
- How can we find rest and flourishing for ourselves? Part of what you will deal with in this process will be grief and resignation. This is not the kind of project that success is necessarily within your control. All shortcomings in this world are opportunities for God to grow our faith and learn to rest finally in Him and His sufficiency. Part of what it means to live in a fallen, broken world is to trust finally in God’s redemptive plan for his entire creation of which you and your adult offspring are a part. We do not know how he will bring all of history to a glorious and just resolution but this is His promise to us and for us. Part of where we must go in all of this is to find our rest in Him and in his capacity to finally do right with all things. Hopefully this class will have a part to play in this.