Relating to Your Adult Kids
About the Guest
When the kids leave home you become a new kind of parent. On today's broadcast, best-selling authors Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates discuss the challenges and benefits of relating in a new way to your adult sons and daughters.
Barbara RaineyAfter graduating from the University of Arkansas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, Barbara joined the staff of Cru® in 1971. With her husband Dennis, whom she married in 1972, the Rainey’s cofounded FamilyLife®, a ministry committed to helping marriages and families survive and thrive in our generation. Barbara is a frequent speaker and guest on FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s award-winning nationally-syndicated daily radio broadcast. She is the author or coauthor of...more
Susan YatesSusan Yates has written 15 books and speaks both nationally and internationally on the subjects of marriage, parenting, and faith issues. Her books include And Then I Had Kids: Encouragement for Mothers of Young Children; And Then I Had Teenagers: Encouragement for Parents of Teens and Preteens; Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest (with friend Barbara Rainey) and Raising Kids with Character That Lasts (With her husband John). Her two new books are...more
When the kids leave home you become a new kind of parent.
Relating to Your Adult Kids
Bob: For most teenagers, high school graduation is a milestone. It's the step toward the future, full of excitement and dreams. For moms and dads, it's a different kind of step.
Barbara: The dilemma for mothers is letting go and not trying to control it. Because we've invested so much in our kids' lives and we feel so tied to them and to their success, it's hard to let go and really let go and not want to rush after or be too involved. It's a difficult process. You do have to learn new skills in parenting.
Bob: Welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey; I'm Bob Lepine. Great song there by the Weepies.
I know this is a little unusual, but I would like to start off today's program by asking both our guests, “If you wouldn't mind, do you mind sticking out your tongues, please?”
She stuck—okay, you both stuck out your tongues. The reason I'm wondering if they would stick out their tongue—
Dennis: I am wondering that reason.
Barbara: Yes. That is an unusual request.
Susan: They're covered with chocolate, right?
Bob: No, it has nothing to do with the chocolate; and if it was TV, I wouldn't have asked them to stick out their tongues.
Barbara: Thank you.
Bob: I know that when—we've been talking, this week, about the empty nest and this season of life (particularly for women). We've been talking about it with two women who have written a new book on it, your wife, Barbara. Barbara Rainey, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Barbara: Thank you, Bob.
Bob: —and with Susan Yates, who is the co-author. You've written a number of books. You speak around the country. You and your husband, John, live in Washington, D.C. Back to the tongue thing—when you go into the empty nest period, as we've already said this week, you don't quit being a parent; but you become a new kind of parent, right?
Susan: A "bite your tongue" parent.
Bob: That's exactly what I was looking for.
Susan: Very good.
Bob: I wanted to see if there were teeth marks in the tongues.
Barbara: The answer is yes.
Bob: I saw them.
Dennis: No doubt about it.
Barbara: Definitely, teeth marks.
Dennis: In Psalm 127, verse 3, it compares children to being a heritage from God. It says the fruit of the womb is a reward. Now, we all agree with that, right?
Dennis: That's easy. It's a reward, our heritage; our hearts are knit to theirs. Then, verse 4 follows, "Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one's youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate." We all know that the arrows were never designed to stay in the quiver. The arrows were meant to be released. As they're released, that creates an empty quiver—
—an echoing quiver.
Bob: Did you even think about—Susan—
Barbara: No, we should have thought about that.
Bob: "Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Quiver."
Susan: I think that's the one the men will have to write.
Barbara: There you go.
Dennis: As you pull the arrows out and let them go, there can be some pain in the hands of the warrior as they're aiming their arrows. Now, Susan, you've let five arrows go, you've aimed them, you've launched them.
Susan: That’s right.
Dennis: There is pain in letting them go.
Susan: There is definitely pain in letting them go. It's a big part of your life that's over.
Bob: Barbara, for you, it was six arrows?
Barbara: That's correct.
Bob: Was it pain each time?
Dennis: Hold your hands out. Let's see where the scars are.
Barbara: The string has popped back and snapped me.
Bob: Did you feel like part of your heart was getting ripped out every time you released?
Barbara: Absolutely. I felt it most strongly with the first one. Dennis and I pulled away from that university campus with our daughter in the rearview mirror; and we were both just boo-hooing. I mean, I just didn't think I would ever recover from that loss because she had been a part of my life for so long. So, yes, there's a big feeling of loss when you launch your children into their adult lives.
Bob: It's not loss. I mean, they haven't died.
Barbara: That's right.
Dennis: They're becoming adults.
Bob: Right, so—
Barbara: They do come back home, but your relationship with them changes.
Bob: Okay, talk about that. Talk about the change in relationship that occurs as your children move into adulthood because it's a part of what redefines your job. You've said before, you feel like you get fired as a mom when you come to the empty nest. It's not really that you're fired. You're transferred to a new department of motherhood, and you better learn some new job skills in this new season of life; or it will go badly for you, right?
Barbara: That's right. It's just as we were talking about the arrow metaphor. Once you let it go, you don't have control over it anymore. The dilemma for mothers is letting go and not trying to chase after that arrow and still control it. Because we've invested so much in our kids' lives and we feel so tied to them and to their success, it's hard to let go, really let go, and not want to rush after or be too involved. It's a difficult process. You do have to learn new skills in parenting.
Dennis: Barbara, as you were talking, I was thinking about a group of executives that you and I were just speaking to and how many of the dinner table discussions were around these adults who are all in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and how they were relating to their mothers and their fathers. You can let go of the arrow; but, as you said, you can go out there and try to retrieve it, try to control it, or try to somehow protect it from experiencing any harm.
Not to mix metaphors here, Susan, but you call a style of a parent that is overly controlling by a certain name. I found it to be, frankly, very descriptive.
Susan: Well, you know, it's not my own description. The style of parent that you're talking about is what I would call a "helicopter" parent: a parent who hovers. A parent who wants to be on the phone at least once a day or several times a day with that missing child; a parent who is checking up on “did you get to class on time?” or “did you get to work on time?” A parent who expects to be consulted on every decision. A parent who quite honestly is having a hard time letting go.
I find it helpful, Dennis and Bob, to look at it in terms of a seesaw. On one end of the seesaw you have a helicopter parent, perhaps, one who hovers. On the other end of the seesaw, maybe, the spouse who is a hands-off parent and that would be just the opposite—
Susan: —disconnected, out of sight, out of mind. We want our child to be independent. We don't want to meddle; so, we pull back too much. The fun of a seesaw is to get two people on the seesaw. Then, you have to move up or backwards so that you can balance in midair. That means the heavier person on the seesaw has to move a little bit more towards the center whereas, the lighter person has to move back on the seesaw.
It's helpful in marriage; and also, as we release our adult children, to identify where are we in this seesaw?
Dennis: That's a good question, Susan. If we were to call your adult children right now—
Susan: Yes. What would they say?
Dennis: What would they say about you and John?
Susan: I don't know what they would say, quite honestly. Probably, I was more of a—I don't know. I really don't know.
Dennis: So, you're not sure if you're a helicopter?
Susan: I don't know the answer to that.
Bob: If we called your kids, what would they—
Dennis: No, no. We can't do that.
Bob: What would your kids say?
Barbara: Well, I think for—and I don't want to avoid the question—I do think that it depends on the child. I think that for our daughter who was the prodigal; I think I was probably too much of a helicopter parent because I saw these issues in her life that I was trying to help her with. My motives were good. I wanted to help her. I wanted to coach her. She needed assistance; and so, I probably was too much of a helicopter parent with her.
I think perhaps with some of my other kids, I may have been a little bit too hands off, especially my boys. I was really, quite honestly, afraid of being too closely involved with them because of the mother/son thing. I wanted to avoid that; so, in some situations I think I was too much of a hands-off parent with them. So, for me, I would have to say it would depend on which child.
Bob: Well, let me ask both of you. If you had to define a mother's role and responsibility during the empty nest period, does she have any responsibility before God to continue to be a mother during this period? If so, what she's supposed to do—
Dennis: That's a great question, Bob.
Bob: —and not do?
Dennis: That’s a great question.
Susan: That's a great question. Let me give it a stab.
Susan: I think one of the things that will help us balance between being the helicopter, or hovering parent, and being the hands-off parent would be a scenario like this: your freshman in college calls; she is miserable. She has not been accepted into the right group of girls; a certain boy broke up with her; she doesn't know how to make a decision about a class; she's in a tough place, for whatever reason.
What she needs to hear the mom or dad say is "Honey, I have confidence in you. You will make a great decision. I know this is really hard right now, but you're going to make a great decision."
What our kids need is to know that we have confidence in them even when they don't. They don't necessarily need us to fix it, to bail them out, or to go and intervene on their behalf. What happens when we go and intervene on their behalf or we say, "Okay, I'm so sorry you're so miserable, come home. You don't have to stay at that school." What we're really saying to them is "You can't handle it. You need me."
So, even though our intentions are right in that we want to be a good parent, we're undermining the very thing that we want to give them. We want to give them confidence. So, it is really best to do all that we can to have this balance of being interested, validating the feelings; but then, quickly saying, “You will make a great decision. You can stick this out,” because that builds their confidence when they may themselves be lacking in it.
Bob: Barbara, what if they're not calling? What if the kids aren't calling and asking, "Mom, what do I do in this situation?" Do you just presume that if they're not calling, I wait for them to call; and I don't really have any responsibility, as a mom, unless they call asking for something?
Barbara: Well, I think it depends on the kind of setup you have in college. Most college students are there because Mom and Dad are helping in some form or fashion. They may not be footing the entire bill, they may just be paying for part of it, or they may just be helping you with your car; but there is some involvement, usually, by parents in their lives.
I think if the parents have an involvement, if they are supporting the child, then you have some accountability. I would be calling and saying, "What's happening? How are you doing? How are classes?" I want to be involved at that level, but I wouldn't rush up there unless I knew that there was a real urgent situation.
Dennis: In college I think you have a certain responsibility because, as you said, Barbara, you're still supplying some of the financial support. It's a transition to adulthood at that point. After they get married, I think you've got to get off the teeter-totter.
Barbara: Well, even after they graduate from college and they have their own career or whatever, I think, again, that's another release point even if they're not married. If they're a single adult; they're living in an apartment, paying rent; they've got a job and their own income, that's another release.
Susan: The most awkward time is in the first launching of the empty nest, when they first leave—
Susan: —because that's when you're a little more involved than you are later. I think everything changes when your children get married. When your children get married, the priority relationship is no longer your relationship with them; but the priority relationship becomes their relationship with their spouse.
Susan: So, your daughter calls you. She's married, and she says, "Dad, what kind of car do you think we should buy?" Your response should be "What does your spouse think," so, that we are giving advice. Our first role is to turn them to each other not to make them dependent upon us.
Bob: Well, and I keep coming back to this: do you let them define what your mother role will be in their adult years, or do you define what that's going to be? They're married, they've got two kids, they're getting along with their husband. Do you define “here is what I am going to be as a mother? Or do you let them decide what that's going to look like?
Barbara: I think you let them decide what that's going to look like, for the most part. I think, as a mother, I have offered for all of my girls that I will come when they have their babies. I will stay for a week and do whatever.
If you have any questions you want to ask me, any time, about parenting or whatever, you call me. I'm available, but I am not going to insert myself into my kids' lives, especially when they're married. Even our daughter who has just graduated from college and is living alone, I don't insert myself into her life, either. I pretty much wait for her to call me. If I haven't heard from her in a week, I will call her.
Bob: You do send an e-mail from time to time to the girls and mentor them a little bit, don't you?
Barbara: Yes. I'm not doing that currently. I did do that for a while; but it was because one of my daughters-in-law to be asked me. She said, "I would love for you to give me some coaching on being a wife. Because she opened the door, I walked right through it. I would not have offered advice on how to be a wife to this new daughter-in-law if she had not asked me.
Bob: Susan, if a daughter or a son who has left home basically says, "You know, hey, thanks for everything. We're fine. We'll see you at Christmas every other year or Thanksgiving on the off years," but there's just not a lot of contact. Do you say, "Well, okay, that's sad, but that's how it is?"
Susan: I think that's a really hard place to be. It's going to depend on the relationship you have with them; it's going to depend on the relationship with the spouse. So, I think there's not one right pat answer to that because there's too many variables in the question.
One of the things that I think is really helpful, if you're talking about a married child, is to ask your child, "How can I love your spouse well?" We each have different love languages, and I may inadvertently be doing something that really ticks off my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law; and I don't even know it. There may be a way that I could bless them and communicate love to them, and I am unaware of it.
So, what I've learned to do is to go to my son and say, "Tell me how I can love your wife well in a way that communicates love to her. Don't make me guess, because I can't guess. I'm going to make a lot of mistakes.” So, I think we simply need to be honest and vulnerable with our children. They know we want to love their spouses, and we want to love them. Sometimes, we just have to let them grow up. We have to be willing to step back, just pray, and just continue to love them.
Barbara: Yes. I think we have to be patient.
Barbara: One of the things I've realized, now that we've had married children for close to 10 years now, is that I've had a lifelong relationship with my child; but I've only known this married child for a year, or two years, and we only see them on rare occasions. To expect to have a relationship with this child who married my son or daughter instantly is unrealistic; so, it's going to take a lifetime or even 10 or 20 years for us to get to know that child who married into our family and to not expect it to be something that's instantaneous.
Susan: I think it's so important, what Barbara just said—is that we do have to be patient. We have this, again, Hollywood—sometimes, it's a Christian vision of this perfect family that, all of a sudden, always just completely loves each other. You have to get to know one another.
Barbara: That’s right.
Susan: So, I think you've hit on something really important, and that is patience. We just have to be patient.
Barbara: Yes. Give them space to become who they are going to become as a couple. That may be different than what we envisioned as parents for our married kids. They may take a little bit different route.
Another thing that you and I have talked about, Susan, is how much our responsibility has switched from involvement to praying for them. That's one thing that we can continue to do and need to do more of as they become adults and start their own families and their own careers. We can be the kind of parent that is so for them because we're praying for them. Let them know that we're praying for them, that they're facing difficult things, and we're behind them all the way.
Bob: So, if you've been transferred to a new area of the company (again, it's not the same role you had; but it's a different kind of mothering), which one did you like better? What you're doing now or what you used to be doing? Do you wish you could go back and mother again?
Susan: No, I like it now much better.
Susan: I like having these adult children. I like having these grandchildren. I think this is fun, but I've liked every season, except the baby season, because all I can remember was a state of chronic exhaustion.
Bob: What about you?
Barbara: Well, I think I would have to agree with Susan, too. The only times that I have really missed (I mean had this intense sadness, and it's only momentary)—but the only times I've really missed those little children years is when I see a photograph of a particular child. I see that face, and I go, "Oh, I miss that—
Barbara: “—little girl that used to just run up and hug me all the time and just thought I was the greatest thing in the world or I miss that little boy who did this or did that. So, when I see some of these photographs or maybe a little video that we took, it makes me miss those moments that were so precious and so full of innocence and such fun times.
On the other hand, I'm with Susan. I was exhausted all the time. The responsibility of parenting can be so heavy at times and so discouraging. It is fun to relate to them as adults, and it is fun when they come visit. They go home; and Dennis and I look at each other, and we say, "Gosh, it's nice that we don't have to carry that responsibility anymore."
Barbara: It really is a relief.
Bob: See, I'll be at church, see the children's choir up there, and watch Mary Ann looking at the children's choir. I can just see in her eyes that she'd like to be dressing up a little girl again, or she'd like to be having a little boy that age around the house again. I tell her that's what grandchildren are for, and they'll be around one day.
Barbara: It really is true. It really is true. You can get that fix, so to speak, with your grandkids. It is nice not to be carrying the burden, the responsibility, and the pressure of it on a day in and day out basis.
Dennis: I think the reason why both Barbara and Susan are like the Proverbs 31 woman who looks at the future and smiles is because you both have sought God and interacted and processed with your husbands; so that, you've come through the launch of your children, and now you're in a new season of your lives where you have purpose, a noble calling, and you know why God's got you here.
Bob, that's why I'm excited about what they've written here—is we're really talking about women getting a fresh sense of mission and calling from God; then, sinking their lives into it and going for it—
Dennis: —and investing their lives for what God has for them for the rest of their lives.
Bob: Yes. In one sense, you could look at this book as Barbara and Susan's Guide to—I don't want to say—the purpose-driven empty nest, but that's really what you're talking about. It’s how to be purposeful, how to be intentional in this new season of life that God's got you in; rather than spinning out emotionally, how you can process those emotions that you're feeling and embrace the assignment that God has for you.
We've got copies of the book, Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com, and you can order a book from us. Again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-Today, 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1800- F as in “family”, L as in “life”, and then the word “TODAY.” Ask about getting a copy of Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest. We’ll make sure we get a copy sent out to you.
We hope that the conversation we’ve had on the subject of the empty nest this week has been a helpful one. In fact, we hope that every week when you tune in to listen to FamilyLife Today, and you hear the variety of subjects that we discuss; we hope you find those helpful as you seek to be the man or the woman that God has called you to be in your marriage and in raising your kids. That’s what FamilyLife Today is here for.
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We hope that you have a great weekend this weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together. I hope you can join us back on Monday when we’re going to talk about sin, but not the sins that you normally hear talked about. We’re going to talk about what Jerry Bridges calls the “respectable sins.” I hope you can join us for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back on Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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