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Podcast: Answering Your Questions about Parenting Adult Children (Gaye Clark)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

On Being a Parent of Adult Children

In this episode, Gaye Clark answers several listener-submitted questions about how we should handle the difficult dynamic of cultivating a relationship with our adult children. She offers advice and encouragement for parents wrestling with questions like, What do I do if my daughter is making unwise decisions? or How do I navigate the transition of my son getting married?, and she also addresses even more difficult topics like what to do if a child says they've left the faith.

Loving Your Adult Children

Gaye B. Clark

Loving Your Adult Children offers gospel hope to parents who struggle with pain in their relationships with their adult children. It reorients their focus—pointing to Christ as the only source of lasting peace and to his gospel as the only hope for lasting relationships.  

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:16 - “There’s no pain quite like parent pain.”

Matt Tully
Gaye, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast.

Gaye Clark
Thank you for having me, Matt.

Matt Tully
It’s great to talk with you today. I think it’s great to address an issue that feels like it’s universally relevant. All of us are growing up, and we’re all going to become adults, if we’re not already adults, and then if the Lord gives us children, we’re all going to experience that same process again with our own children as they grow older and then eventually become adults. I think parents wrestle with a lot of complex emotions when they see their children getting older, especially as they enter into adulthood and move out from under their roofs, get their own careers going, start their own families. It’s such a huge transition that neither party has probably experienced before. And so although it’s really exciting and rewarding, I think it can also be very difficult in many ways. So to start us off, I wonder if you could just share a little bit about your own family’s story and your own journey through those transitions, and if you can relate to the feeling that sometimes it can feel a little complicated and challenging at times.

Gaye Clark
Absolutely. What parent can’t? When my daughter was approaching her eighteenth birthday, she came to me in the kitchen, and I still remember where I was when she said, “Mom, for my eighteenth birthday . . .” But I can’t tell you the rest of the sentence. It had something to do with what she would like to do for her eighteenth birthday, but I was having heart palpitations because my daughter was turning eighteen. I knew that intellectually, but somehow her coming up and asking me this question that I only heard half of struck a chord of reality to me that my daughter is now on her way to adulthood, and I am not ready for that. And I think many parents feel that way. It’s a little different than sending your kindergartner off and your lamenting that window of opportunity of having him home full time is gone. When your child is growing to be an adult and you say I’m not ready for that, they’re going out the door and they’re not coming back home when the bell rings.

Matt Tully
My wife and I are parents of young kids, and so we’re in those early stages right now. I feel like we often hear this advice from older parents, just to cherish these years and to really not take for granted the time that we have because the time does go so fast. But I still wonder if there’s something to just needing to experience it, that even if we’ve heard that before, it’s still going to feel like the time flew by and that our kids are growing faster than we ever could have expected. Is that true?

Gaye Clark
It’s absolutely true. I’m not what you would consider a sentimental person. I’m not the person that got overly emotional when my kids went to school and different things like that. But yet, when they go through the different little milestones, you have a moment of warning, if you will, that the volcano is about to erupt, and you are not going to be ready. So you get the sparks when your child hits the kindergarten door, sparks again when they graduate from high school, and on and on it goes. You get these little warning signals that you’re not prepared for, that you’re on some kind of train that is going at a lightning speed that you have very little control over and that you can’t slow down or stop. You can’t make time stop. It’s very challenging in that regard.

Matt Tully
For me, nothing in life has had quite the same effect on helping me understand how quick our lives are, how short our lives are, and even our need to hope for something beyond this life than seeing my kids get older and just feeling that sadness of the passing of time and the change that I know we can never go back. It’s an interesting experience to even get a broader perspective on our lives and the shortness of our lives through our kids.

Gaye Clark
Yes. I remember when I worked for a cardiologist, and he who came in the door one day—your comment made me think of this—and his face was downcast, as we like to say. And I said, “What’s going on?” And he said, “She said ketchup today.” He had a little girl that looked like a little doll, and for years she always pronounced ketchup as “tetsup.” But when that door opened that she said ketchup, he was not ready for it. And I said, “This is the first of many heartaches, big guy.” And that little girl is now a young woman with kids of her own.

Matt Tully
It flies. In preparation for this interview, Gaye, we invited listeners to submit questions related to parenting adult children. And I have to say the response that we got to that call for questions was really amazing. We received nearly 400 questions from parents all around the world, from places like South Africa, the UK, Hong Kong, and all throughout the US. And so obviously, we don’t have enough time to go through all of those questions right now, even though I wish we could, but we here at Crossway were struck not just by how big the response was but by how personal and poignant some of the questions that we received were. But my guess is that that’s not a big surprise to you. Is that right?

Gaye Clark
Not a big surprise at all. There is no pain quite like a parent pain. And that can be in a myriad of ways, whether it be seeing our children suffer or their anger lashed out on us—any number of things. But when you’re a hurting parent you are truly, truly hurting.

Matt Tully
And we’re going to talk about some questions that are definitely in that category, questions related to the pain of parenting adult children and what that looks like. To start us off, one listener in Texas asks, “When should we stop acting like parents with our kids and start treating them more like adults and even as friends?” How would you begin to answer that question?

Gaye Clark
I would say it’s not a point in time exactly, but it’s a process. You didn’t really notice how you changed gears when you were parenting a one-year-old, and then they turned into a three-year-old, and then a five-year-old, and then a fifteen-year-old. But you are constantly changing how you parent your child as they grow older. And somewhere along the line in the high school years, you will be mentoring every bit as much as you are parenting. What does that look like? That looks like your children are picking up on one of the more glaring things, unfortunately, is our hypocrisy. They’re going to know if our faith matters, for example, because they see us on Monday morning, not just Sunday morning. So you’re mentoring, whether you are aware of it or not, when your kids are old enough to see what you’re doing and compare it to what you’re saying. And somewhere in those high school years and college years, they are seeing more and learning more from what they see than what they’re hearing. So you’re making a little bit of a transition. And that’s a transition that should happen. They should grow up. As Christian parents, our ultimate goal is that our kids let go of us and take hold of Christ. That’s the best goal we could ever have for our kids. And in taking hold of Christ, they need us less. Imagine that! That’s a job well done if they need us less. And our job at that point is to let go of them and, again, take hold of Christ ourselves.

Matt Tully
Help us understand as parents, though, Christian parents would probably agree with that. We would say, Yes, that’s right. They need Christ. They don’t need me. I don’t want them to need me. And yet it can be so hard for us to let go. Why is that? Why is it hard for us as parents to let go as our kids get older?

Gaye Clark
I think of the line in—and you are too young to remember this cheesy movie that Disney made called The Happiest Millionaire. Don’t Google it. Don’t watch it. But there’s a line in there: “When a man has a daughter, he wants her life to be as smooth as satin ribbons that she wears.” It’s cheesy (I promised you cheesy), but true. That’s what we want. We want our children to be void of suffering and frustration. We want to iron out everything. We want to go ahead of them. You’ve heard of helicopter parents. There is this thing, and I just learned it, called lawnmower parents. They’re going ahead of them with the lawnmower, mowing down the grass, lest one little blade touch their little shins. So we don’t want to see our children suffer or be even discomforted. And yet, we have to agree as believers that’s one of the primary vehicles God uses to refine us. Not that we want to see God bring it on, but nonetheless, sometimes we’re getting in the way of the Lord by trying to make sure our child has a carefree, smooth life continually.

Matt Tully
Well, and it seems like, too, at its worst that can even be us trying to take the role of God himself. We’re trying to sovereignly orchestrate every facet of our kids’ lives, ultimately for their good, we think, but we just can’t do that.

Gaye Clark
A good example of that would be I remember when my daughter was about fourteen or fifteen, confided in me that she’d really like to be a country music singer. And she had a pretty good voice. And my response to that was, Okay, I don’t know that you’re that good. But let’s get you a guitar and let you have some lessons. And so she started taking lessons that she struggled to stay with. And lo and behold, that dream died with the guitar. But I didn’t laugh at her. I didn’t tell her, No, you can’t do that. I didn’t fight her. I tried to promote her and let the experience itself teach her a thing or two about herself. Later, I was surprised when she said, I want to be a teacher. But the more I thought about it, I realized every night she’d have all those little stuffed animals on the bed and she’d be going over things with them like it was a little classroom. How could I not have seen it? How could she not have seen it? But that’s a good example of I could have tried to play God and say, Nashville is a sinful city, and you’re not going to do that. But instead I said, Okay, let’s see what it takes to be a country singer*.

11:56 - What should I do when I see my adult child making a foolish decision?

Matt Tully
That kind of relates then to a common question or a category of questions that we received a lot from a variety of listeners. One person in Australia wrote in, “What should I do, apart from praying, when I see my adult child making what I consider to be a foolish decision?” What advice would you offer to that parent?

Gaye Clark
I would say, first and foremost, I would challenge you to remove the phrase “apart from praying” because it can begin to feel like an afterthought: I’m only praying. We don’t pray for our kids enough. We don’t pray like St. Augustine’s mom, Monica, who mopped the floor with her tears day and night for years and years and years before he became a Christian classic. We don’t do that. So prayer is not just the thing we can do; it’s the essential thing we can do. The other thing we can do is be curious. Without giving our opinion, we can say to our son or daughter, Hey, tell me about this plan you have. Maybe your son wants to buy a house, and you just know he can’t afford it. Son, tell me about the house. How many bedrooms? And let him go on about that house. And then you could say something like, Well, it’s been a while since I’ve done all that. That’s a lot of paperwork and stuff. Is someone helping you with financing? What does that look like these days? Just be curious. Ask him, I don’t even know how you figure out how much house you can afford. Again, you’re giving him non-threatening ways to continue the conversation and keep that conversation going. And at some point, you might prayerfully say, Would you like to know my thoughts on this? And if he says no, then you go back to your prayer closet and maybe bring a couple of your buddies with you. Because you got parents that know what you’re going through. Don’t let them be ignorant. I know for a fact, because I’m on some of them, there are several great Facebook prayer groups for adult children if you don’t feel like you have someone like that. But get on your knees after you’ve had those conversations, but the important thing is to give advice judiciously and only after you’ve been given permission.

Matt Tully
I’m struck that that really shows so much respect for your adult child, and yet I can imagine it can be hard to make that transition when you’re coming out of the younger years, where you don’t have to ask for permission to give advice and to even give instruction. You just do that when you feel like you want to do it. It seems that to make that transition would be a whole mindset shift.

Gaye Clark
It is, but this is kind of a compromise. There’s a popular saying out there in dealing with your adult children: “Bite your tongue. Hold your nose and bite your tongue. Keep your mouth shut.” Your kids don’t want that. They don’t want that kind of parent. But they do want one that treats them as an adult who has intelligence. And so by asking questions and being interested in what they’re interested in, and caring about what they care about, and refraining from an opinion until they ask for one, you’re doing something that’s far more balanced, and it gets more toward that goal of mentoring and friendship that you so desperately crave.

15:16 - How do I navigate the pain and loss of children who renounce their faith?

Matt Tully
We received a lot of questions as well from parents struggling with the reality of a child who has walked away from the Lord, which has to be one of the most painful experiences a parent could face. One listener in Texas writes, “We raised our four daughters to love the lord, but one by one they have renounced their faith and left the church. And though I pray for them constantly, I find that I have little hope for their salvation. How do I navigate this pain and loss?”

Gaye Clark
First of all, I need to express my sorrow with you about your children in their spiritual state. I can’t imagine what that feels like, but I can also tell you that there are many, many moms and dads who do know what that feels like. You are not alone. There are a lot of folks that are in that situation, that are grieving daily, that are weeping daily. One of the first prayers I think you can pray with the Lord is, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. It’s human and understandable that you would be at a point where you doubt that they can be saved, but there is no human being on the planet that when God sets his sights on them, can escape the Holy Spirit. There is no one. And it may not be in your lifetime. That’s the hard thing. You may not, in your living years, see that. They may hear the gospel in a fresh, new way at your funeral and bow the knee to Christ. I know of a couple of children that that happened to. And I don’t have Scripture to prove it, but I have a sense that the Lord, in his mercy, since they’re with the Lord, has let those parents know that their kids are with him too, spiritually. So I say don’t stop praying. You don’t know God’s time frame. The thief on the cross, moments before he died, made a monumental decision, and I imagine his mama had no hope for him. Are you kidding me? No hope for that guy. No hope. Had no idea that there was a transformational conversation happening moments before his death. We don’t know all the ways that God is at work in our children’s lives. Who’s talking to them at work who may also be praying for their salvation? Who are they interacting with in all of their spheres of influence who you’ve not met that God could be using? Pray that God would raise up somebody at their job or some other place in addition to your voice. And finally, and I say this as carefully as I can, is there was a season where I think our group of believers stressed so fervently in the sovereignty of God and God’s wrath on sin that we were a little light on the fact that God had grace to cover our sin, and he loved us even while we were sinners. One of the things you can express to your adult child, if there’s any chance this is true in their lives, is that if I have reduced Christ to a list of rules, of do’s and don’ts, and a place that you ought to be from eleven to twelve on Sunday, if that’s what you saw from my life, then please forgive me. Please forgive me. And I hope one day you can see the majesty and the glory and the mercy and the vast depth, height, breadth of Christ’s love for you. There’s an example in my book where I walk through what that looks like. For some of us, that may be an appropriate thing to do.

19:03 - What should I do when my child wants to cut off contact with me?

Matt Tully
Another person in Ohio asks, “I have two adult children who do not follow Jesus. What should I do when my son says he doesn’t want me to contact him or have a relationship with him or his family anymore because of this disagreement over faith?” How would you respond in a situation like that?

Gaye Clark
First of all, I would grieve with them, and I would get someone to pray with me about your response. Somebody who knows you and that son. Perhaps you might respond with a letter because those are fairly non-threatening. They can, as cruel as it sounds, go in the garbage, but he’ll read it. Most kids will before they toss it, if for no other reason than to critique it. But what should be in that letter? That’s the big thing, right? What should you say? You should say something like this: if there’s any reason, regardless of the exponential list of sins he has against you that he owes you an apology for, if there’s any reason that the Lord would bring to your mind and heart where you have sinned against this child, bring it up, own it, and say that you are sorry that you did that. Whatever it is, the Lord will bring it to mind. Somebody might help you bring it to mind. Say that you’re sorry that your behavior and that your words have caused him pain and that he no longer wants a relationship with you. You will, with great grief, abide by his wishes, but let him know that that door is open 24/7 for him to come through. Let him know that you’re willing to go to family therapy—the three of you or four of you or however many are involved—if that would be something he desires at some point. A lot of times when a child comes to an adult parent and says, I don’t want anything to do with you, it can feel like forever. It’s only in rare cases it’s forever. That should be an encouragement. Take a deep breath. This feels like torment and forever, and it could go on for years. But in a lot of cases, it won’t go on for years. What you do in the interim, again, is pray. If you have something you can ask forgiveness for, a letter would be okay. It depends on the circumstances about how much do you abide by their wishes. You’ve got the kid who might scorn you if you abide by their wishes with, See? He doesn’t really care. And then you have the child who would be incensed if you dared to put another letter in the mailbox after that first one went out or the second one. They would reiterate their “boundary,” and you would be working against progress and not for it.

21:51 - What can I do now to build a strong relationship with my daughter-in-law?

Matt Tully
Such a hard situation to be in, but I know that parents do sometimes face that. I think that’s such helpful advice. So one of the most exciting but maybe also sometimes most complicated and challenging things that a young adult or an adult can experience is getting married. And, of course, we received a lot of questions about how parents of adult children should think about an adult child getting married and navigating those new relationships and boundaries. One listener from North Carolina writes, “I desire to have a strong relationship with my future daughter-in-law and my son, and I want to encourage their marriage covenant. What can I do now before the wedding to build into that relationship?”

Gaye Clark
Well, maybe you can learn from my mistake. And I do have my daughter-in-law’s permission to share this. When my son got engaged, he was dating a girl and living in Nashville, so he was six hours away from me, and I hadn’t met her. So naturally, I’m curious, right? So that first meeting was very important. And I could tell, even though he hadn’t proposed to her, I could tell by the tone, his face, all of it, that this is the girl. So we meet and the three of us have a weekend together. And then they go off back to Nashville, and I got up the nerve a couple days later to ask my son, “How did that go?” Not well. And I was a little taken aback. I thought at least he’d say okay, because I was a good girl and I took advice from my friends and I kept my mouth shut, which my friends will tell you it’s very hard for me to do. So I kept my mouth shut all weekend, and that was not just hard. It was a miracle for me. So I said, “Well, where did I go wrong, Nathan?” There’s an example. Ask your kids. Don’t assume. Don’t get defensive. Ask. And he said, “Well, you didn’t ask her any questions. She wasn’t sure if you were interested in her at all.” And this whole idea of asking questions, people say, Where did you get that from? It’s such a contrast to what’s going on in our culture. I got it from Hannah. What a wonderful way to have a conversation. Be curious. Ask people questions. Get to know them. Be interested in that other person. We are all bent to be very self-focused. And now that she was six hours away, I thought, Well, it’s going to be a bit before I see her again to fix this. We didn’t maintain it for very long, but we did start a brief letter writing campaign, where I wrote her a letter and would ask her a question, and she would reply with the answer, and vice versa. So we got to know each other that way. So asking questions of your perspective in law would be a good beginning. Just make sure they’re non-threatening, not like, So you’re a Baptist. What’s the problem with not being a Presbyterian? That wouldn’t be a good way to begin. Make sure they’re non-threatening questions like, What interested you to go into social work? That’s a question I asked my daughter-in-law—Why social work?—so she could tell me a little bit about that passion and such.

Matt Tully
It strikes me that, when you take a step back, it’s so obvious that that’s how we build relationships all the time, but for some reason, it feels different when it comes to our adult children and then their significant others. It could feel like there’s a different category there. What do you think’s going on? Why do we think that way sometimes?

Gaye Clark
Again, I think there’s a self-focus bit going on, a self-consciousness, and I also think there’s an anxiety of this is a relationship you don’t get to choose. You get to choose your spouse, but you don’t get to choose your daughter- and son-in-law, more or less; your children do. And you want that relationship to be good, so there’s a lot riding on that relationship. So there’s a lot of pressure and anxiety there, and then coupled with our natural sinful self-focus bent, the potential to mess that up is huge. It’s just huge.

26:00 - How do I give my adult children enough space when we live close to each other?

Matt Tully
So here’s another really insightful question from a listener in Minnesota: "Our young son and his wife are moving back to the area. How do we enjoy being close to them, and being nearer to them even geographically, but also know how to give them the space that they need as a family?

Gaye Clark
Well, my daughter lives ten minutes from me, and in fact, she asked me to move to Tennessee. I was living in Augusta for many years, and when she became pregnant she asked for me to consider moving to Nashville or to Chattanooga. I wound up here in Chattanooga. And when we found the house that I’m now living in, it was ten minutes from her house, and she saw that as a plus. I asked her honestly, “Is this too close, because there are a lot of houses for sale.” And she said, “No, if we could find something closer, that’d be great.” Now, honestly, something closer might be too close for me. So ten minutes, but even with that, even though we’re in the same town and even though she kind of knows my schedule, she doesn’t show up unannounced for any length of period of time and expect to get undivided attention from me. She calls or texts and says, “I’m on my way. Can we come over?” I’m the same way. I might drop something off at their house, but if I haven’t called first, I’m dropping it off and I’m not even knocking on the door because that’s their sacred family time. They could have a lot of things going on. And some people say that’s silly, but it reminds me of the verses in Scripture that talk about the big party and the person taking the seat in the front row and then having to be asked to move back. He says take the seat in the back row and have them say Friend, move up front. It’s the same kind of principle. Be overzealous to protect your children’s privacy. That’s a way to invest in their marriage, for one thing. Or even if they’re single, their privacy in their life apart from you is important for you to protect, as your life should also be. While we’re talking about life, another thing is that as adult parents we ought to get a life. Now that our kids are grown and we’re not daily responsible for their impending disasters, like running out in the street and we’re not keeping them from doing that or we’re not wiping vomit off of our clothes every day, we should get a life. We should be about the Lord’s business. What are ways that we can serve the kingdom of God that we’re free to do now that we haven’t been prior to being 24/7 about our kids. That will enhance your relationship with your adult children in ways you can’t imagine. It seems counterintuitive, but I love the look on my kids’ faces when I say, “No, not that night. I’ve got plans.” And they know I’m doing other things too. That helps their heart as much as anything.

29:01 - What advice would you give to adult children as they leave their parent’s supervision?

Matt Tully
Absolutely. Maybe a couple of final questions, Gaye, and this time from the perspective of the adult child. We’ve been giving a lot of advice to parents, but I wonder if you could speak to adult children right now who might be listening in. So someone from Oregon asks, “What advice would you give to adult children regarding making these transitions from being under their parents supervision and guardianship and instruction within a biblical home to then going out into the world and creating their own home, their own families?” How should they navigate that transition and seek to continue to respect and honor their parents through that?

Gaye Clark
I think one of the biggest things you can do as the child is communicate your love to them, even as you’re transitioning to your own space as a fully functioning adult. Particularly if you’re married, you want to get with your spouse and say, What is this going to look like for us as a couple to be both loving to our parents but independent of them? And come up with a plan or a strategy, if you will, for what that looks like as a couple. And if you’re single, what does that look like as a single person? I know I am grateful for clarity and feedback from my adult kids. And they say, “We love it when you come over once a week. That’s just the right amount of time for us.” Or I’ve told them, “Hey, I am not going to be forthcoming with advice, but you know I’ve got lots of opinions. So if you need my opinion, don’t hesitate to ask.” The flip side of that might be, “Mom, I want you to know we do love you and we respect you. And since you raised me, there’s a host of things I know what you would say. In fact, when I’m tackling a problem, I’ve thought, Hey, what would my mom or dad say about this? If we don’t come to you for advice, please don’t see that as a lack of respect.” Say something of that nature while you’re giving their hand a big squeeze. Tell them respect comes in a lot of different ways. I hope we respect you by seeing you often, calling you often, interacting with you. Those are ways you can love and honor and respect. But be clear. Hey mom, we love you. We care for you. And we want to be ready to give you our undivided attention. So we’d appreciate it if you give us a call before you come over.

31:35 - How do I honor my parents if we don’t share the same spiritual beliefs and values?

Matt Tully
Maybe one final question from the perspective of the adult child. And this would be from somebody who maybe their parents aren’t believers. Either they seemingly were at one point and have fallen away, or maybe they never were. What does it look like to honor your parents and respect them but navigate maybe very different beliefs or priorities or values or opinions when it comes to spiritual things?

Gaye Clark
That is so hard. I know a number of kids that are walking through this now. I think it comes down to, again, you can ask some questions and have conversations with them, but if you see the conversation getting tense and it’s no longer about content, it’s about emotion, you are not moving the conversation forward. I know I came home—like many college kids did—I came home burdened to share the gospel with my Southern Baptist parents, and I tore them apart. That did more damage to our relationship than anything I ever did. Whereas the things I have done without grumbling and caring for them in ways that are without words, that has spoken volumes to them. I know that you feel the burden to share the gospel with your parents when they’re not saved, just as parents do with their kids when they’re not saved. The parents have the advantage that they probably have shared the gospel, at some point in time, over and over again with their children growing up. Maybe adult children don’t feel they had that same advantage. But the best way you can approach that is to demonstrate and ask the Lord to show you what this looks like for your context. How is loving Christ made me a better daughter to these parents in particular? They should see that God is, from the inside out, constantly transforming you into a new creature, and that should whittle down into just the little things. And as they see that, they’re going to be curious. If the Lord is going to work in their hearts, they’re going to be curious about your behavior.

Matt Tully
Gaye, thank you so much for taking time today to talk through so many of these great questions that we received from listeners. There’s so much wisdom in what you shared and so much experience in what you shared, and we so appreciate it.

Gaye Clark
Thank you, Matt. I enjoyed being here.


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