How faith helps parents as children leave the nest
With his head and heart full of plans for the future, twenty-five-year-old Francis Asbury stood in his parents' tiny living room with something to tell them. He'd come to the modest home in working class West Bromwich, England straight from his first yearly conference with the Methodist preachers in Bristol. Young Francis had come home to say goodbye.
Days before, John Wesley selected him and another young Methodist named Richard Wright from a group of five who volunteered to go to America. After a few weeks at home, Asbury would board a ship bound for Philadelphia.
Joseph Asbury, Francis’s dad, seemed to understand the consequences of this call from the start. Asbury reports that his dad said through tears, “I shall never see him again.” Joseph was right. Asbury’s work as a preacher and then as bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church in America would keep him from ever returning to England.
Francis Asbury’s case is exceptional, but many moms and dads understand what Joseph and Elizabeth (Eliza) Asbury felt that day. After approximately two decades in their homes, their children are grown. The child is excited for new adventures. Mom and Dad, however, greet this new season with a mixture of pride and sadness.
A lifetime of transition
Parenting is a lifetime of transitions. “When we have an infant born into our lives they are totally in our care,” the Rev. Ron Greer, Director of the Pastor Counseling Service at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church in Atlanta, reminds parents. “We are taking care of them 24 hours a day.”
The infant stage soon gives way to the more independent toddler, then child, then adolescent. “Their need for our care is less and less as they are becoming increasingly self-sufficient,” Greer continues.
As children move into “emerging adulthood,” parents are wise to adapt again to another transition.
Greer, author of Now That They Are Grown: Successfully Parenting Your Adult Children, advises finding a “balance between being supportive and yet not being pushy, loving them without being intrusive.” Toward this end, he offers three goals for parents to keep in mind.
Goal 1: Support
Supporting children so they may thrive in their adult lives is a key goal. Greer stresses the importance “as parents of adults that we care for our children without taking care of our children.”
Greer explains that parents should not do that which their children can do, or can learn to do, for themselves. At the same time, parents want to remain available.
“We have retired from active duty status,” Greer says, describing the new role of parenting adult children, “but we’re still in the reserves ready to be called up at a moment’s notice.”
Goal 2: Relationship
Parents should also seek to develop good, loving relationships with their adult children that are more peer-like. Greer encourages parents to begin to relate to their child as a “profoundly loved adult.”
One of the biggest pitfalls that hinders development of such a relationship, according to Greer, is offering unsolicited advice. “I can’t tell my children how to run their lives,” Green teaches, “because I’m not living their lives.”
It can be difficult for a parent with years of life experience to watch their children misstep in their careers, relationships, or finances. The parent may be tempted to offer a warning or advice as they did when the child was in adolescence.
Greer advises parents of emerging adults to preface their suggestions with a respectful phrase or question before offering their wisdom. Simple phrases like, “Have you thought about…” and “May I make a suggestion?” can go a long way.
There are times when parents need to step in. “Things like addiction, alcoholism, spousal abuse, major depression, hints of suicide, any of that,” Greer says are times when a parent must get involved. “But again,” he continues, “I’m treating them as a profoundly loved adult.”
Goal 3: Self-care
Finally, parents are wise to embrace their new lives as “empty nesters.” This may begin with a season of grief.
“You are a professional at a role that is no longer needed, and I bet you were good at it,” Greer teaches parents. “There is a loss for you here. Don’t be shy about grieving.”
Then, Greer counsels, “look around and you see where you are now.” Evaluate opportunities God is opening up for you in this new season of life. Living life well is a great lesson we continue to model before our children.
All of this sounds wonderful, but it can be difficult to find that balance between being supportive, maintaining an adult relationship, and taking care of ourselves. Some want to do more.
“One of the ways that so many of us as persons of faith…continue to be very hands-on,” Greer recognizes, “is in prayer. We are in prayer for them daily and multiple times a day sometimes.”
Through prayer, we remember that God is with us as God is with them, and can bring something redemptive even from the hard times, when things are not going to go the way we would like. “That’s where I have to remind myself that God can use what he didn’t choose,” Greer recalls.
Away from home
Thirteen years after he left his childhood home, Asbury wrote Mom and Dad to tell them he intended to stay in America for life. As the years went by, he and his parents maintained a relationship despite their separation by the Atlantic Ocean.
In this season of graduations, many moms and dads can relate to Joseph and Elizabeth Asbury hearing their young adult son Francis share his dreams and God’s call on his life. Transitioning to a new stage of parenting can help make the season fruitful for both parent and child.
Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists. Oxford University Press.
Editorial note: This story was first published on May 15, 2017.