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What It Means To Raise Adults

I am so excited about this post. For as long as I can remember, my dad has talked about his parenting philosophy of "raising adults". Now I'm pretty biased, but I think my parents have been pretty spectacular parents. All three of us are now law abiding adults, who love Jesus with all our hearts, value the importance of family,  and are now seeking to instill the same truths in our kids that our parents taught us. I asked my dad if he would flex his writing muscles a little (ha... writing is like breathing to him!) and write out what it means to raise adults. Read and re-read this post, friends. Enjoy!

Seventh grade.  A new dimension of tribal behavior, hormones from hell, and drama.  Lots of drama.

And did I mention roller coasters?

Not the kind that make you scream bloody murder at Six Flags or Disney.  Not roller coaster emotions.  No, I’m referring to Mr. Chisholm’s annual roller coaster assignment in seventh grade science class.  The task: design a roller coaster that a marble can successfully careen down from beginning to end, and it had to last 60 seconds.

This was yet another of the typical assignments that evil, godless science teachers give their students to taunt their non-scientific parents. Just kidding about godless. Mr. Chisholm was/is a godly man I’m sure.

But I showed him. See, as a parent I had this crazy idea (brace yourself) that I had already done my homework and graduated. And if somebody gave one of my three kids homework, that it was actually homework for them to do, not for their mother or me.

So Joel was on his own.  With, of course, the advice and consent of the Senate. That would be his mom and me.

Did I mention we are not scientists?

He went to work solving the problem and assembled the thing out of cardboard and cut up aluminum cans.  I helped him haul it to school.

Ever get that sinking feeling you may have let your kid down? That maybe you just flunked the Parenting class?  I watch some pretty impressive monstrosities emerge from cars – stuff made out of wood, metal, and for all I knew, tungsten steel.

It was not a proud day for either of us.

But I had the high-horse satisfaction of knowing that at least my kid did his own work.

That… that is the stuff of raising adults.

I’ve said for years that as parents, God didn’t call us to raise kids. He called us to raise adults. People who could go into the world and make a difference, fend for themselves, and raise a new generation of adults to take my place.  Somehow in our culture we’ve gotten that backwards.  We’ve even coined new terms like “helicopter parents” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicopter_parent) to describe those parents who need to be needed by their offspring.

In the interest of the fact that those precious little babies of yours are going to eventually choose your nursing home, it may be a good idea to teach them to make good choices. Adult choices that they will bear the responsibility for, which may turn out well, or may not.  In the words of the Bible’s famous “love chapter,” it is vital to teach them to grow past “speaking like a child, thinking like a child, and reasoning like a child” and to learn to “put away childish things.”

So allowing for some age-appropriateness, what’s the difference between raising kids and raising adults?

1.  Talk to them as people, not playthings.

It’s cute when a toddler can learn a few words and say them over and over for approval or attention.  My grandson Archer has the cutest way of saying “No!” right now. And we all join in in mimicking him.  But as soon as he can put a sentence together, his parents will begin communicating with him the way they do with his three older siblings – as people.  Thoughtful, gifted, flawed, interesting, growing, frustrating responsible people.

The best way to communicate with kids as people is to give them opportunities to be part of adult conversations. If your child is sent to the “little kids table” every time the grown-ups are having a conversation, she will learn to fear adults and will ultimately become an age snob, caring only for her generation.

On the other hand, if you carry on conversations with her, first by listening, then by responding to her (again, age appropriately) as a human being, using the same kinds of tones and language you use with everybody else, you will help raise a new generation of grown-ups.

2. Teach them to entertain themselves.

I don’t mean with mindless hours of TV or video games. I’m referring to the ability to remove the word “bored” from their vocabulary.  Of course it’s a parent’s job to play with their kids, read to their kids, and provide a safe, fun environment for their kids. But it is NOT the parent’s job to the sole source of their entertainment – or for that matter, even the primary referee.

Let. Them. Play.  Play is the language of a child’s problem solving ability. Combined with fantasy, it is also a developing child and adolescent’s way of writing themselves into the epic stories unfolding around them at the speed of life.

3.  Carve out room for them to disagree with you.

I didn’t say defy or rebel. Disagree.

Case in point: I was raised by a long line of Auburn fans. My granddaddy went there and my uncle graduated from there. But when I was about 5 years old, for reasons that still make sense to me today, I announced I was an Alabama fan. (If you don’t understand that rivalry, just roll with it. It’s a big deal in the Heart of Dixie.) And over the years it turned into an annual family rivalry. Now my dad could have been heavy-handed about that.  After all except for 15 days a year it’s a trivial pursuit.
But that one choice led to quite a few arguments about recruiting and referees and great coaches and stupid plays and a whole lot of other stuff.  And in the process I learned to think for myself and defend my point.  To this day I will bait my kids into an argument just to exercise their ability to think for themselves before God.  It’s a lot of good, clean fun. And that ability – to think for ourselves and not just to go with the crowd – is the stuff of adulthood.

4.  Teach them to collaborate AND to stand alone.

Life is a team sport. So is work. And your precious baby needs to learn to hash it out, talk it out or yes, duke it out with other people to make things happen. They need to learn to negotiate, compromise, or speak up.  If blood is spilled or laws or bones are broken, it’s OK to intervene. Otherwise, let your little darling work it out.

That said, you’re raising adult individuals, not lemmings. And in every adult’s life, especially Christian adults, there comes a time when we have to have the courage to stand alone.  Usually this involves (or should involve) issues of truth, character, or lifestyle.

OK, so sometimes you go along and sometimes you stand alone.  Expect them to get this wrong before they get it right.  Discernment takes time to develop. Coach them. Converse with them. Don’t tell them what to think, but do give some boundaries and consequences for their choices. As they mature, they will learn when to agree and when to stand. Which leads to…

5.  Give them choices and let them live with the consequences of those choices.

One year we were on a tight Christmas budget, so we told our kids (preteens) that we had a certain amount to spend on each of them. That was the year Dr. Martens shoes were all the rage, and one of my daughters decided that even though this was more than 80% of her Christmas budget, that was what she wanted. So that’s what she got.

Who knew that whatever they tanned those sandals with was a tasty treat for one of our dogs?
Stupid dog.

She was heartbroken. Bitterly disappointed.  And the temptation was to try and find a way to replace the expensive shoes. But as disappointed as we were for her, we couldn’t, and probably wouldn’t have if we could have.

Lest you feel too sorry for her, she also decided at age 13 to raise support for a group mission trip to Russia and we let her go with people we trusted.

All this started at Christmas. Around age 4.  We give them a certain amount of money, took them to Dollar Tree, and let them shop for their siblings and grandparents. They made the choices. We just supplied the boundaries (money) and playing field (store).

As adults and parents themselves, they now make lots more choices for keeps. Sometimes they ask for advice; sometimes not. Sometimes they make choices we agree with; often they do things their own way. But any way you slice it, to be an adult is to live with a sense of responsibility for the choices you make, and I like what I see so far.

6. Demonstrate confession and forgiveness.

Lest I come across as an arrogant, I-can-do-no-wrong jackass, let me be clear: I have failed my children in epic and colossal ways, and they know it. They have also seen what confession and forgiveness looks like in the wake of those failures.  One of the greatest compliments ever paid to my children and their mother came from a child psychiatrist. She said, “Your children have a very sophisticated understanding that sometimes good people can do bad things.”

We have taught our children – sometimes by necessity – that life is an adventure in forgiving.  We continue to walk with them through their adult disappointments and hurts to this day, hopefully with the same message.

One of the little surprises of having adult children now is that all three of them are still vitally interested in us, their parents. They’re as much friends now as they are offspring, and our conversations, when not about their children, are usually about things that matter in the grander scheme of things.  I have learned that with a determined commitment to add three mature, spiritual, loving, healthy, tax-paying adults to the world, I can be forgiven for a lot of my own childish missteps along the way. 

I’m pretty excited and blessed by the results.  Hey, even the roller coaster got an A.

Andy is a husband, father, grandfather, consultant, teacher and writer. He has 36 years of experience in leading churches, owning businesses, and teaching on an undergraduate, graduate, and corporate level. All of this is a big deal, but my favorite credential is that he's my dad. You can read more from him at www.lifevesting.com

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  1. What fantastic advice for raising adults, not children, to be able to take on the world with maturity and grace. Thanks, Carrie, for featuring your awesome dad here!

  2. Wonderful. Loved reading this. Thank you!