How Can We Best Love Our Adult Children?
By Sandy Feit
When it comes to relationships, Gary Chapman has earned the right to be heard. I can attest because back in the 80s, his groundbreaking work on the Five Love Languages—now a book series—dramatically changed the way my husband and I communicate. (Until attending his workshop, we’d both been expressing love in a “language” the other simply didn’t understand.) In addition, the pastor, author, and conference speaker has been on staff for 40 years at Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he maintains a practice in marriage and family counseling.
My recent interview with Dr. Chapman about How to Really Love Your Adult Child—a book he co-authored with Dr. Ross Campbell—had that déjà-vu feeling: I knew right away that communication in my family was about to be kicked up another notch.
IN TOUCH: Tell me your thoughts about independent young adults who revert to acting like teenagers when visiting their parents.
GARY CHAPMAN: All of us develop patterns of communication with our spouse, our children, and everybody else. It's not uncommon when grown children come home for a visit that we treat them differently than we do when we're talking with them on the telephone. It's almost as if both of us kind of revert. They come home, and they're ready for Momma to cook a meal. So they sit on the couch, watch television, and drink Pepsi, which is what they did when they were teenagers—but which they don't do in their [own] home.
IT: Is there hope for breaking the habit?
GC: (laughing) It's not necessarily bad. We all need a little respite, and that can be a respite for an adult child. Where it becomes a problem is if they move back home, and reverting becomes their lifestyle. But as a short break, it can be good.
IT: What about for Mom?
GC: It can be good for Mom too. Let's say she’s cooked meals all those years and found her value in that. To have her grown son come home and say, “Mom, I can't wait to have some of your green beans,” she feels good about that. A lot has to do with what your attitude is: if you see it as something positive, then it's good for the relationship.
IT: On a different topic, can you suggest guidelines about offering advice? Parents often have experience or information that would be helpful, but it isn’t always clear how to—or whether to—speak into a grown child’s life.
GC: First of all, I think we have to allow them to be individuals. Some of them are going to have a lifestyle and a thought style and decision-making patterns that we consider to be more mature than the others—that's just a part of the equation. I do think that because we're older, because we've had more experience, there's a good chance we have more wisdom than they do. But we have to be careful how we dispense that wisdom to adult children. Here’s one suggestion: Suppose your children are talking about a topic and you have an idea you think would be helpful. Rather than just telling them your thoughts, ask, “If I had an idea about that, would you want to hear it?”
IT: What if they say, “You may as well, since you’re going to tell me anyway”?
GC: Then you tell them, “The reason I say it that way is that I don't want to give advice unless you want my advice. And even if I give it, you don't have to follow it,” which acknowledges they are adults.
The way we share advice could also be important. Avoid saying, “The Bible says . . . ,” because if you share a word from God, they don't have any option—if they go against it, they're breaking a law. Instead, try something like, “One of the ways I’d look at that would be . . .” Then, you're acknowledging there are other ways to view it and you're just sharing your perspective.
IT: Is there a way that you can share something from Scripture?
GC: If they’re making a serious mistake that you think will have long-term detrimental results, I believe there’s a time to say, “You know, honey, I cannot tell you what to do, and obviously I don’t want to control your life. But I want to share this with you because to me, it's a really key insight that maybe you can wrestle with while you're making this decision.” Then you share a scriptural principal or verse or Bible illustration about the impact on somebody who did a similar thing. And say, “I just don't want this to happen to you, and I know you don't want it either. So, put this into the kettle while you're deciding what to do.”
IT: Speaking into anybody’s life—even a close friend—can be hard. But why, when it involves one’s child, do there seem to be extra layers of complication?
GC: I think one [factor] is that history from childhood, which typically is not there with a friend. Another difference is, there’s a bond in the family, so even though we have emotions and pain for a friend, we're more involved and deeply moved about our child. It may also be more difficult to communicate with adult children than adult friends because there are dynamics on their side as well as your side. And then, while you're trying to talk to them in order to help, they are hearing it as, “You’re trying to control my life.” They might even say those words, or something like, “Mom, I'm not a teenager anymore.” When you hear that kind of thing, you know that the way you're doing it isn’t working, because it's pushing them away; they hear you as a parent, not as adult to adult.
A lot of that has to do with developing our ability to listen to them. We have so much to say and all these ideas to make them better, but most of us aren't trained to listen. So I tell parents of adult children, “You want to listen at least twice as much as you talk. And listen before you talk” (James 1:19). The idea is to be able to tell them, “I think I hear what you're saying, and I can see some really positive things in that,” or “I see where you're coming from, and I can understand why you would feel that way.” You may not agree with their ideas, but because you've heard them and affirmed their thoughts, now they are more likely to hear your perspective.
IT: Is there a part of the book that you consider particularly helpful to parents of Millennials (a.k.a. “Generation Y,” born between 1980 and 1994)?
GC: I believe one of the book’s most helpful sections has to do with a parent’s struggle when adult children choose religious and moral practices that are different from what they were taught. I think the hardest thing for parents—and where they need the most help—is in not changing their moral or religious beliefs, but in giving their adult child the same freedom that God gives their adult child. And that is, the freedom to make wrong decisions, and to not ostracize them because they made that choice.
IT: Such situations often involve a third person—the child’s spouse or sweetheart. Are there some dos and don’ts, especially when that person is of a different faith?
GC: First of all, you want to show respect for your daughter-in-law or son-in-law, and show respect for their beliefs—because they likely picked up those beliefs as a child, just as you taught your children their religious beliefs. And they may well feel as strongly about their beliefs as your child or you feel about yours. Respecting their beliefs, though, doesn't mean you agree with them, but you respect their freedom to believe that way.
And when you discuss those religious issues, you ask a lot of questions. Find out what they believe and why. Where did the belief come from? How does it apply in daily life? Where does it lead—if everybody took that stance, would that be a good thing?
Do everything you can to understand their beliefs, looking for the things that are positive—because almost all religious beliefs have something that is positive—and [for the opportunity] to say, “I really admire this aspect of your faith.” When you listen to them and affirm some things about them, then you can share your faith, your perspective. They are more likely to listen to you because you listened to them.
You're not trying to preach to them. You're not trying even to convert them, recognizing that's the job of the Holy Spirit. But we're there to talk freely and openly about these things, knowing in our hearts that if our beliefs are true and theirs is false, there's going to come a time that they feel an emptiness in their faith. And your in-law's going to say to you, “I've always admired this about you, and I don't know where you get it. Where does it come from?” That may be way down the road. But then you can share your faith in Christ.
IT: Do you have suggestions for building bridges if, in this kind of situation, a parent has said or done things that proved hurtful?
GC: I would suggest that after a few months you say to them, “At the time, I thought that was the best decision. But now I regret having done that, because I think it communicated to you that I don't value you and that I don't love you—and I do. Obviously, we disagree on religious issues, but I love you as a person, and I love you for loving my son (or daughter), and I don't want our relationship to be tainted by what I did. I hope you can forgive me for that.”
IT: It takes a lot of maturity to be a human on this planet, doesn't it?
GC: It does. It does. And it takes a lot of courage to admit our failures—even when they’re not intentional.