If you are a Christian parent of a child ranging from 16 to 23, I have at least one idea of what might make you anxious almost on a daily basis. You might be turning two questions around repeatedly in your head: “Will my child navigate the dangers of post-high school and make a successful transition into adulthood? When my child gets to the other side of college or into the job market, will he or she still be following Christ?”
At the core of your anxiety is your changing relationship with your child. While your child is navigating his or her most turbulent, life-defining season, you feel ill-equipped to help. Worse yet, you feel your own sense of power to guide your child shrinking at an accelerated rate.
In fact, according to popular culture, your time of influence is past, and your child’s peers are far more important than you are.
You might even think of yourself as in a dead zone. When your child was a toddler, you had some control; when he or she was in elementary school, you were perceived to know everything. Now that your child is 16 to 23, you know nothing and are relegated to the role of observer, financier, and prayer warrior. Your child might eventually come to value your opinion again, but by then it may be too late. For now, you’re in an anxiety-inducing dead zone. You may fear your best efforts haven’t been enough or your failures have far overshadowed your successes. In many cases, you have to watch your child in transition from a geographical distance as the behavior boundaries of a kid living at home are dissolved.
In Scripture, God never directly addresses the question, “How do I get my 16-year-old to engage in conversation at the dinner table (or at least use polysyllabic words)?” Jesus didn’t tell a parable on the issue of kids home from college and curfews. Even so, the Bible is overflowing with wisdom for parents, much of it fitting for the emerging adult transition. I did my best to dig into biblical teachings about parenting, influence and wisdom.
While I was digging, I held focus groups composed of parents, the vast majority of whom were raising adolescents and young adults. Sixty-seven parents participated in nine different group interview sessions over a five-month period. The results were amazing. The focus groups revealed information I might expect, but they also revealed surprises that revolutionized my thinking. For example, I learned that although parents relentlessly seek to shield their children from suffering, difficulties and trials can be experiences that positively shape a child’s faith. These struggles can create opportunities for a child to connect with God in a personally relevant way.
From the synergy of both Scripture and focus group research, among others, I learned one resounding truth: the whole idea of a dead zone of parental influence is malarkey, perpetuated by secular society and a number of myths that even Christian parents typically fail to question. It turns out that Christian parents have more influence on their kids than anyone else does.
Christian parents can and must reclaim a healthy place of influence in the lives of their young adult children. If you are a less-than-perfect parent (as we all are), if you do your parenting in less-than-ideal circumstances, or if you feel you are stumbling blindly along, it’s okay. You still have the opportunity to influence your child positively for Christ under an umbrella of grace.
It’s not too late.
Dan Dupee is the former Chairman of the Board for the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a Pittsburgh-based campus ministry working annually with over 32,000 students on over 115 campuses. He brings together biblical truth, sociological research, college transition findings, and focus group work with parents of adolescents to develop principles that are fresh, clarifying additions to a growing body of research on teen faith development. Dan and his wife, Carol, are the parents of four children. They live in the northern suburbs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. More information about his book It’s Not Too Late can be found online here.