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Parenting Your Twenty-something

Isn't that an oxymoron? I mean the word “parenting” and a “twenty-something” in the same sentence? Here’s a myth: adulthood doesn’t magically happen at age 18 or 21. There are many tasks our children must master before they fully mature from getting their own housing to changing the oil in their car. One of the most important tasks is learning when and how to ask for help. It’s long been acknowledged by psychologists that the period they call “emerging adulthood” can extend from age 18 to 30.

At least 30% of American young people in this range are living with their parents for economic reasons. The majority of these parents find themselves providing both financial and emotional support for these offspring. This sets many families up for a cycle of frustration and dependence. Even though it is a normal part of human development, many fathers and mothers are unprepared for this last stage of parenting their emerging adult children.

Paul said to the Galatians, “Each will have to bear his own load.” (Ga 6:5) This is a north star for parents of emerging adults. Knowing when not to bear your child’s load is the difference between support and enabling. Support is the foundation for growth. Enabling shackles everyone in a cycle of dependence. Author and psychologist Mark McConville observes, “Whatever is required for your young adult to accomplish a task, limit your contribution to 49%. Once you get to 50%, you own it.” When you are parenting in this stage, financial and material support should be contingent on your offspring pulling their own weight: working more hours, going to class or paying a fair share of living expenses. If they aren’t meeting you half-way, you are not supporting them, you are enabling them.

Proverbs 1:5 says “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” But learning is short-circuited when well-meaning parents prevent their emerging adult offspring from experiencing the consequences of their choices. Parents often take an alarmist stance to justify their constant intervention into their kids’ lives, “If I don’t pay her traffic tickets she’ll lose her license, her job and ruin her future.” Or, “If I don’t wake him up in the morning, he’ll continue to be late and lose his job.” Anxious parents see nearly everything as a potential catastrophe, so they repeatedly intervene. The role of parents in this life stage is not to protect and prevent but to allow the consequences of poor choices to play out. And when they do, the right response is never “I told you so” but “how can I help?”

McConville once advised a father, “Think of yourself more as a consultant than a supervisor—ready with your wisdom and guidance but allowing your son/daughter space to wrestle with the key challenges of initiative and ownership.” Needless to say such parenting requires that we cultivate the spiritual fruit of patience, the courage to allow failure, the assertiveness to insist on them bearing their load, and the self-restraint in our speaking. The reward is in seeing our emerging adult children acquire wisdom and begin to parent themselves.

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