What is a Parent’s Role in the Spiritual Life of Adult Children?

Parents with adult children

Parents with adult children

A couple decades ago the miracle of birth ushered your child into the world. Perhaps you experienced that miracle more than once, and you have several children. You loved them and cared for them through infancy, childhood, and teenage years.

At every new stage of their lives, your relationship with them changed. But now comes the biggest change of all. They are on the cusp of adulthood, about to leave the nest. Your years of intensive parenting are over. For better or for worse, your child is now heading out into the world to make his or her own way as an adult. You’re excited, proud, and just a little bit nervous. And they’re probably experiencing some of the same emotions!

And you wonder: Have I done enough? Did I give them the foundation they need to make their way in the world?

If you search your soul, you may find an even deeper question: Have I given them the spiritual foundation they need to live for eternal life?

This was the question raised by a reader named Brian in a comment on my recently posted article, “How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?” I responded here.

It is an issue close to my heart. As I write this, my own daughter is 26, and well into living her adult life. My two sons, at 20 and 19, are just entering into adulthood. In this article I’ll offer a fuller and more general response to Brian’s question about parents’ relationship with their children who are now becoming adults, and especially their influence on their adult children’s spiritual life.

The way we parented our children is now a wrap

Some of us were religious when our children were young, attending a local congregation and bringing our children to religious education classes. Some of us provided a strong religious atmosphere at home, and inculcated our religious beliefs and values into our children.

Some of us, though, “got religion” only after our children were already in their teenage years and beyond. Now we look back and realize that our children did not have the benefit of a religious upbringing and spiritual guidance when they were young.

Some of us raised our children under difficult circumstances, with fraying or broken marriages, or on our own in single-parent households. We may not have raised them in the best neighborhood. Or even if we raised them in a “good” neighborhood, their childhood years may have been immersed largely in the external events and social activities of this world, without much of an inner, spiritual element.

No matter what the circumstances of their childhood, once they head into their adult years, our parenting of our children is now a wrap. Whatever it was, that’s what it was, and we can no longer change it. For better or for worse, what’s done is done.

And if our children’s upbringing wasn’t exactly what we now wish it were, or if they seem not to have any particular spiritual focus—no strong belief in God, no clear spiritual map and compass—we may feel that we have seriously dropped the ball. And even if we feel we did a fairly good job, we may worry: Was it enough? Is there more that I could have done?

Obviously, at this point there are no do-overs. So our next thought may be: Can I now fix what I may have broken when they were younger? Can I give them a quick course, and send them out into adulthood with a better spiritual foundation?

Of course, if they haven’t left the nest quite yet, we may be able to offer them some late-breaking words of wisdom, and sage instructions as they head out into the big, bad world. And depending on our relationship with them, we may even manage to avoid seeing them roll their eyes and shrug their shoulders as we attempt to cram them for the big “exam” of adult life that’s happening—Woah! Tomorrow!!!!!

But for the most part, the answer is:

No. Whatever is done, is done.

Once we’ve raised our children and they’re heading out into the adult world, our primary influence on them is over. Whatever we’ve given them up to this point, that’s the equipment they’ll have as they head out into the world to live their own life. Any last-minute pointers are likely to be drowned out and sidelined in their mind as they focus on the massive change they are now facing.

A new phase in your relationship with your children

But don’t despair. What you’ve given them during their childhood years is probably more than you realize.

Assuming their childhood wasn’t too bleak, and you’ve maintained a reasonably good relationship with them, they’re more likely to remember and hold onto the good times they had with you than the bad ones. Once they are past their difficult and sometimes cynical teenage years, young adults can be remarkably forgiving of their parents’ flaws and shortcomings. They are now realizing just how tough and challenging life as an adult can be—and they are beginning to see their parents in a whole new light, from an adult perspective

Even though your relationship with them is about to change radically in its intensity and its influence on them, you still do have a relationship with them. And you still can have a positive effect on their life—including their spiritual life. It’s just going to be a different type of relationship and a different type of influence than you had when you were still raising them.

Yes, it will be less direct and less intense. But now that your children are becoming adults themselves, you can start having conversations with them, and a type of relationship with them, that you couldn’t have when you were still the responsible adult, and they were still your dependents.

Yes, you will always be their mother or father. It will never quite be a relationship of equals. But you can now begin a relationship with them as an adult with another adult. Though the door of your parent-child relationship with them has now closed behind you, a new door is opening ahead of you, leading to a new phase in your relationship with your now adult children.

You’re no longer the boss

And the first thing to realize and take to heart is: You’re no longer the boss.

Perhaps “boss” is too strong a word for the parenting style of many parents these days. But the fact still remains even today that parents are responsible for their children right through their teenage years, until their children move out on their own and begin supporting themselves. And the reality is still that “the one who pays the piper calls the tune.”

In other words, as long as you’re supporting your children, you can tell them what they must and must not do in your home, and even out in the community. Though they may increasingly challenge your authority (especially if it is heavy) as they head through their teenage years, they can’t just ignore you if they want food to eat, clothes to wear, and a place to live. You’re still the boss of them, even if they may challenge your authority.

All of that changes when they become adults and begin supporting themselves.

Yes, there is often a gray area if they go to college and you are still partially or wholly supporting them while they pursue higher education.

And yes, some adult children come back and live at home for a while—which can be a real challenge as the boundary between dependence and independence is tested and defined.

But once they are out living on their own and supporting themselves, a clear line has been crossed. You’re no longer the boss. You can’t tell them what to do anymore. And if you try, they can simply ignore you. In fact, if you do try to run their lives once they’re self-supporting and self-responsible adults, the most likely—and probably the healthiest—response is that they’ll simply cut you out of their lives more and more.

So don’t even try.

Let them live their own lives, and make their own decisions. At this point, your opinion of what they should be doing is just that: your opinion. They are the ones who will make the major and minor decisions in their lives from now on.

Adulthood means being responsible for ourselves

And that’s as it should be.

After all, isn’t it one of the main goals of parenting to successfully raise our children to the point where they become adults in their own right, capable of making their own decisions and directing their own lives?

Yes, they’ll make mistakes. In fact, they’ll likely make some big mistakes! Some of their mistakes may have a profound influence on the rest of their lives.

And yet, that’s what adulthood is all about: making our own mistakes, and learning (or not) from them. It’s about making our own decisions, and either reaping the benefits or taking the consequences for those decisions.

Adulthood is all about being our own person, running our own lives, facing life as it comes to us, learning from our mistakes and our decisions, and building a life and a character for ourselves.

Yes, parents give their children the foundation on which they will build the rest of their lives. But once children reach adulthood, they, and not their parents, will be the one to build the superstructure upon the foundation they were given. And some of them may even rip out and replace parts of the foundation of the building that is their life.

Our first “responsibility” as parents of adult children is to cede responsibility for the lives of our grown children to them.

It is no longer our responsibility or our job to run their lives. They are now adults, and being adults means being responsible for themselves.

Perhaps this is an obvious point.

Unfortunately, far too many parents these days have serious trouble stepping back, cutting the apron strings, and letting their grown children live their own lives. If you are one of those parents, then you have work to do. Not work on your children. Work on yourself. You must realize that your job of parenting is now over, step back, and let your children be adults.

What if my children go bad?

This can be especially difficult if your child has “gone bad.”

It is excruciatingly painful for parents to watch their adult children descend into destructive habits and ways of living, and even become criminals. It is terribly tempting to intervene, to attempt to rescue them, to take them back under our wing and protect them from their own life, and the consequences of their own choices.

But doing so is usually a major mistake.

Yes, it’s hard to watch. But it is unlikely that you will be able to “fix” your adult child. More likely, you will simply delay the inevitable reckoning that they must face sooner or later. Most likely, you will only drag them back into a dependent state, and make it even harder for them to take responsibility for their own life.

It wracks the soul of parents to watch their adult children tear apart their own lives, destroy relationships, destroy their own mind and body, and even spend time behind bars as a result of their bad choices and destructive actions. Unfortunately, it is only through feeling the consequences of their choices and actions that our adult children—like all adults—may come to the point of making a different choice about the direction of their life.

Remember, you’re no longer the boss. You cannot make your adult children’s decisions for them. They must make those decisions for themselves, and experience the consequences, good or bad. That is the only way they can learn for themselves what their choices really mean.

It’s possible they will never change, and will never reform, and will keep going down, down, down until the day of their death. And let’s not sugar coat it. Seeing that happen to a child you have loved, cared for, and raised to adulthood through toil and struggle is one of the most painful, heart-wrenching things a parent can ever experience.

Unfortunately, if that is the life that your adult child is bent upon, there is nothing you can do to stop it. You can only endure the pain, and pray to God that one day the one you love will come to his or her senses, turn his or her life around, and with God’s help, begin to repair his or her broken life. For more on what must happen for that to happen, see: How Can a Criminal Get to Heaven?

One more thing: If you are one of the unfortunate parents whose adult child has gone bad, you need to understand that it’s not your fault.

Yes, you may have made serious mistakes in raising your children. And yes, that may have had some influence on what they did as adults. But once they reach adulthood, their life is in their own hands. Two siblings may grow up in the same environment, yet one may go down, and the other go up as an adult. Why? Yes, they may have had different experiences. But the biggest difference is their own choices in response to their experiences. And that’s not something you can control.

Even if you did make terrible mistakes as a parent, and gave your child a shoddy, crumbling foundation for adult life, there is one thing you must know: Even if bad parenting may do serious damage to your adult children here in this world, no one goes to hell due to the actions or inactions of anyone else, including their parents. No one suffers eternal death because of what their parents did or didn’t do.

If you find that hard to believe, please see these articles for a fuller explanation:

Now let’s turn to happier subjects.

Our role in the life of our adult children

Fortunately, most children turn out okay as adults. And if they do turn out okay, what is our role in their ongoing life as adults, and especially in their spiritual life?

In the earlier article, “How Can I Raise My Children from a Spiritual Perspective?” I spoke of three basics of parenting: example, instruction, and discipline. Of course, I was assuming that love would be at the top of any parent’s list!

When it comes to adult children:

  • Discipline is no longer the parent’s job. Adults must practice self-discipline. And if they don’t, and their actions become a danger to society, it becomes the job of the civil authorities, and of society in general, to impose discipline upon them.
  • Instruction is also no longer the parent’s job. Adults must take responsibility for their own continuing education and learning if they wish to advance in knowledge and understanding. However, parents of adult children can still be available to help and guide their children if asked.
  • Example continues to be a powerful, if not quite so present, way of influencing our adult children. They may not be under our authority anymore, but they’ll still pay attention to the way we live our lives, and that will still have an effect on how they live their lives.
  • And Love continues to be the most powerful way we can have a positive effect on the lives of our adult children—just as it is with everyone else we encounter in our everyday life.

Your adult children still need your love

Yes, they’re out on their own now, or will be soon. But stepping out into the world fresh out from under the ol’ parental roof is daunting for anyone—and it can be downright scary!

Some young adults step confidently out onto the world stage only to find that life doesn’t work quite the way they thought it was supposed to. Others struggle right from the start. All of a sudden their life is entirely in their own hands. And they don’t have the two or three decades of experience in adult living that you’ve amassed by now.

You can’t live their life for them, or experience their entry into adulthood for them. But don’t underestimate the power of your love in their lives as they take those early steps into the adult world.

The people they encounter in the working world and in the wider society don’t have any special love or respect for your precious child, nor do they owe them anything. Your child will have to earn the respect of those they work for, and with. And of course, they’ll have to earn the money to keep a roof over their head and food in their stomachs. And their employer won’t be particularly sympathetic to their excuses. Employers pay employees to get work done, not to attend adult onset therapy.

In other words, having grown up in an atmosphere in which they were special, all of a sudden your adult children are in an atmosphere where they’re not special. And that can be a rude awakening.

It is also a necessary awakening. To become a mature adult, we need to learn, if we haven’t already, that we’re not the center of the universe, and that we have to pull our own weight if we wish to become a responsible and respected member of society.

And yet, when our children take those first steps into the adult world, they still have some of the child’s need—of any human being’s need—to feel loved.

That’s where you, as a parent, come in. Yes, they’re stepping out on their own now. But if they know that you love them, that there’s somebody who cares about them, it can help them to have the sense of confidence they need to face that daunting task of becoming a hard-working member of adult society.

So make sure they know that you continue to love them. Keep in touch with them, and reach out to them from time to time if you don’t hear from them for a while. Remember their birthday—or send them a “Happy Late Birthday” card if you forget! Just knowing you’re still there for them and you still love them will give them strength as they face all the new challenges of their life.

Your example still matters

You may think that once your kids are out of the house, you can relax and live however you want. And it’s true. You can live however you want.

But if you have something wild and crazy in mind, keep in mind that your adult children still think of you and look to you as their parents. The example of how you live your life will still have an impact on theirs.

Okay, maybe you need to indulge yourself in a whopping midlife crisis—if you haven’t already! But once you’ve gotten that out of your system, it’s time to settle down and find a new, and perhaps more stable, pattern for your life now that your days of parenting are over.

For dedicated mothers, especially, it can be difficult to find meaning in life after the children are out of the nest. And these days, more and more full-time fathers have the same experience.

But it is essential that you do find a new and meaningful direction for your life after your children have flown the coop. Spending your days pining for the good old days of caring for your children does no good for you or for your children. They want to see you finding new things to accomplish and enjoying your life, not wasting away and wishing they were still children.

Now is not the time for you to look backward, but a time to look forward and take new steps in your life, and even in your career. If your adult children see you continuing to move forward with your life, it will be a help and inspiration for them to continue moving forward in their life.

And of course, your spiritual life also makes a difference.

In practical terms, this means the way you devote your life to making life better for others. If your children see you doing your job for the benefit of those you serve, perhaps volunteering in your community, and generally being a positive presence in your neighborhood, that will be a powerful example to them of what it means to become fully adult and fully human.

In short: Keep moving forward with your own life. Keep growing as a person. Keep developing your own spiritual life, and practicing it as you go about your everyday life in the world. This will be an inspiration for your children!

Though your children may be adults, they’re still your children. And though they may look to other role models and heroes, your example will still have perhaps the most profound influence on them of anyone that they may look to and compare themselves to. And if they can continue to not only love but respect you as a person, they’ll be all the more likely to turn to you when the going gets rough, and they need guidance and moral support from someone with more experience in life.

You can still be a source of inspiration and understanding

As I said earlier, your days of being able to sit your children down and teach them things are now over. They’re out on their own. Chances are they’re no longer in daily contact with you—or if they are, it’s limited to a brief chat or a few quick messages back and forth.

From now on, most of their learning will come from others—college professors, employers and fellow employees, and perhaps from various ministers or spiritual teachers, if they have joined a church or embarked upon a spiritual path for themselves.

And here is where we get more specifically to your influence on the spiritual life of your adult children.

As covered in the earlier article, you have already had your primary spiritual influence on your children through your example, instruction, and discipline of them during their growing-up years. And as I said earlier in this article, the way you raised them will form the foundation on which they build the rest of their lives.

If you did not manage to give them much spiritual instruction when they were young, and didn’t provide them with much of a spiritual compass by which to guide their lives, that may be a matter of concern for you as you move on in years, and start to think more about the ultimate things in life: what our life on earth is really all about, and what sort of eternal life (if any) it is all leading to. (For more on this, see: “Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth.”)

Young adults are—and should be—focused on this world

The reality is that most young adults are much more focused on getting along in this life than they are in preparing for the next life. The bulk of their energy is taken up just holding down a job and earning enough money to pay all the bills that keep coming in month after month. And if they start a family of their own, it may be a few years before they come up for air!

Even young people who are spiritually oriented often don’t do much about it until their own children get to be four or five, and start heading toward school. Parents may then start thinking about giving their children a spiritual foundation for their lives, and may head back to church, or get involved in some other type of spiritual community, for the sake of their children.

So if your young adult children don’t seem very religious—or even very interested in God and spirit—don’t get too worried about it. That’s a natural phase that most of us go through as young adults. Our task at that time of life is to establish ourselves as solid, self-responsible, and contributing members of this society here on earth.

That is not a mistake in God’s economy.

You see, heaven and eternal life are not about spending all eternity praising God and intensively studying the Scriptures. Heaven is not only about loving God, but also about loving our neighbor. And that means actively serving our fellow human beings in both practical and spiritual ways. For more on this, see: “Who Are the Angels and How Do They Live?

Our young adult years are—or should be—like a spiritual boot camp in which we get a crash course in how to focus our life on doing something that’s useful to the people around us, and in which we get used to serving other people.

Yes, we commonly do that simply because we have to do something useful in order to get a paycheck so that we can pay the rent, buy groceries, and so on. Even young people who head into adulthood with high ideals of how they’re going to change the world pretty quickly have to knuckle down and get a job, which may or may not involve doing something that meets their high ideals and satisfies their lofty goals in life.

And once again, in God’s economy, this is no mistake.

Young adults may be engaged primarily in this world. But in stepping out into the economy and the job market, they are actually taking their first steps toward spiritual life by learning how to live for others instead of having others (especially their parents) live for them.

So if it seems as though your recently emancipated children don’t have much of a spiritual life, not to worry. As long as they’re getting out there, holding down a job, and doing something useful with their life, they are on a spiritual path even if they don’t realize it.

Spiritual life comes in the course of daily life in the world

And it is precisely in their daily work and daily tasks that your adult children will begin to face some of the moral and even spiritual issues and dilemmas that will propel them farther along on their spiritual path—if they are willing to travel that path at all.

Anyone who takes the time to actually read the Bible will find that much of it is a story of how a whole lot of fairly ordinary, fallible human beings bumbled along in life, and stumbled against God’s messages and God’s commandments in the course of dealing with family, friends, neighbors, and enemies.

The spiritual laws and teachings embodied in the sacred literature of humanity did not appear in a vacuum. They came in the course of the lives of individuals, communities, and nations of people as they faced the challenges and struggles of life in this world.

The same will happen to your adult children as they move along in life.

As they do their jobs, raise their children, and get involved in the affairs of their neighborhood and their community (and for many people these days, this includes online virtual communities), they will come face to face with various interpersonal, social, and moral issues and questions that they must grapple with. They will have to make decisions about what to do, and what not to do, in many different situations.

Sometimes those situations will be complex, and there will be no clear answers. Sometimes they will learn only after they’ve made a decision, and taken action based on it, that they probably should have made a different decision, and taken a different action.

And that constantly whirling maelstrom of life is precisely the crucible in which our character is formed, and that pushes us toward thinking more deeply about the ultimate meaning of our life.

Your adult children may not be thinking much about God and spirit right now. And perhaps they never will. But if they do embark upon a more conscious spiritual path in life, it will be because the increasing complexities and challenges of their lives almost force them to think more deeply, and to face those ultimate questions about the meaning of our lives here on earth.

That’s precisely when you may still be able to have a positive spiritual influence on their life.

Your spiritual life is valuable to your children

Teenagers heading into adulthood commonly think they’ve got a leg up on their parents when it comes to getting things right about life. They see the mistakes of their parents, and figure that they are going to do a much better job of it!

Then the reality of how tough life is without mommy and daddy to pay all the bills hits them like a big ol’ bucket of cold water.

Perhaps our kids will do a better job of life than we did. Speaking for myself, I certainly hope my kids do! Isn’t it a parent’s dream and aspiration that their children, and the next generation as a whole, will accomplish greater things than their own generation did, and will move society to a higher level?

But the reality is that we, their parents, still have two or three decades of life experience on them. And the more years our adult children spend facing and dealing with some of the same tough issues we had to deal with in our younger years—plus a few new ones that we never had to deal with—the more valuable our experience starts to look to them.

No, we can’t step in for them, or sit them down and give them lessons on life—material or spiritual. But if we maintain a good relationship with them, it’s likely that the time will arrive when they will come to us, seeking to learn something from the wisdom that we have gained from those few extra decades of life experience.

Perhaps most of their questions will be about more practical matters of getting along in the world, dealing with issues on the job, and handling various social situations.

But if they’re at all open to the deeper issues of life, they will also begin to think more about God and spirit, and what this life is ultimately all about. And if they know that you have grappled with these issues too, and have come to a position of faith in God and of active devotion to living by higher spiritual values, they’ll naturally want to tap into your wisdom on these subjects as well.

Engaging in spiritual conversation with your adult children

Now, if they do have a spiritual question or two for you, don’t get too excited!

Remember, they still have to make up their own minds what to believe and how to live their own life. And they’re still quite a bit younger than you are, with a lot less life experience.

So don’t come in with engines roaring and sirens blazing, unspool your full array of spiritual fire hoses, and blast ’em with massive torrents of God stuff! If you do, you’ll only scare them away, and ensure that they never make that mistake again!

Instead, think about where they are in life, and what you were thinking about and concerned with when you were their age. Answer their questions as you are able. Share your experience with them. And if it’s appropriate, tell them what your faith and your beliefs mean to you, and how they have helped you. Keep it keyed to where they are in life, the questions and issues they are facing, and what, exactly, they are asking of you.

And then let them think it over for themselves, and make their own decision what to believe and how to live their life.

Yes, you can share your experience with them. You can now talk to them as one older and more experienced adult with another younger and less experienced adult.

But they’re still adults. Their lives are still in their own hands. You still can’t live their life for them, nor can you determine what they’ll do with anything you share with them.

What you say to them is up to you.

What they do with it is up to them.

And that, also, is as it should be.

Adults sharing the path to heaven

Isn’t that how it is in all of our relationships with other adults?

We can share our faith, our experience, our ideas, and our beliefs with others. And they will take what we share with them, sift through it, and pull out what is meaningful to them. And then, helped and informed by that, they will live their own unique life, in their own unique way.

That is both the challenge and the glory of being a parent of adult children. We can share our experience and wisdom with them when they ask. And then it’s time to step back and watch as they live their lives in a way that we may never have thought of.

And through it all, we can keep right on loving them, respecting them, and rejoicing that we had a hand in starting a new life that has more potential, and can do greater things, than we could ever have imagined when we held that tiny baby in our arms so many years ago.

And remember, God is a parent to us all, and is holding you, your adult children, and everyone else in those everlasting arms, leading and guiding all who are willing to be led to the eternal and very human community of heaven.

I leave you with this evocative song from Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young:

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in Sex Marriage Relationships, Spiritual Growth
2 comments on “What is a Parent’s Role in the Spiritual Life of Adult Children?
  1. Brian says:

    Lee,

    Thank you so much! This one truly means a lot to me. All of it well said. 🙂

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