By Terry Magee
When I walked my daughter down the aisle, I knew we had reached a transition point in our relationship: this was the declaration that a man other than her father was first in her life and would be for the remainder of her life. But this was merely the public announcement of relationship changes that had already been occurring for years.
How do we navigate the change from raising our children to walking alongside them? What can we do to support them as adults without intruding in their lives? Every parent addresses these questions as their children grow. We parents must embrace a new way of thinking to be a positive support to our adult children.
When my daughter was growing up, my wife and I were her caretakers. Initially we did everything for her, including feeding and dressing her. She quickly developed an independent streak, not just dressing herself but seeking to pick out her clothes. You have not lived until you have debated clothing choices with a 4-year-old!
But we encouraged her independence, gradually handing over more responsibility as she matured. The big change occurred when she went off to college. We were no longer present to monitor her daily schedule or bedtimes. When she came home on breaks, she had to readjust to having parents monitor her behavior.
When she returned home after college to live with us, could we still manage her schedule? Yes and no. Yes, we could control what occurs within our house, but no, we could not declare curfews or other limits. She had to be responsible for herself and receive any consequences for irresponsible behavior.
So we shifted from rules to communication. We no longer told her where she could go and when she had to be home. However we did reinforce a standard of respect that had always been present. Everyone in the house notified the others where they were going and offered a general idea of when they would return. It was not a matter of parental control but a mutual respect of all the adults informing each other of plans. We accepted the same responsibility for ourselves as we placed on her.
This principle of mutuality is also evident in fun activities. My wife and daughter have held a brunch prior to Christmas for the past 10 years. But it is not a parent-child activity so much as it is cohosting the brunch. Friends from both generations mingle together as a group of adults.
My role shifted from telling my daughter what to do to answering questions. It was a gradual shift, accelerating through the teenage years and completing the transition after she finished college. I could relate my experiences, provide counsel, and pray with her. But the decisions and resultant responsibility were hers.
Along with changing roles, we had to establish new boundaries and remind each other when those boundaries were being bumped against or pushed aside. During elementary school, our daughter would chronically struggle to get to the school bus on time. It was not from sleeping in but from doing too much in the morning. Between breakfast, devotions, and other activities, she could easily fill all the time she had allotted to get ready in the morning. She occasionally fell into that issue as an adult, but we no longer had the authority to remind her to get to work. That was her responsibility. So even gentle reminders of the clock were stepping across a boundary into an area of control.
Another new boundary was financial management. As long as we were providing her income through an allowance, we had the authority to help her manage her money. But once she was working and paying her own bills, we no longer controlled that area.
Related to financial management was my daughter’s decision to start her own business by opening a dance studio. We could pray with her and offer counsel when asked. What site to lease, what to charge students, and all other decisions were her business. It helped that we knew nothing about dance or running a studio. Our parenting involves prayer support and encouragement. We can celebrate the successes with her and walk alongside her during the difficult times, but because we are not business partners, we cannot step over the boundary and help her with business decisions. That is for her and her husband.
Boundaries continue to be important when an adult child gets married. Marriage is the start of a new union and a new family, as ordained in Genesis 2:24: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” We parents need to respect these boundaries to ensure that both leaving the family of their youth and successfully uniting to their new family can occur.
I have to keep reminding myself of areas that are not my span of control. It is not my business to drive by and see if both her and her husband’s cars are parked in front of their house on a Sunday morning. (We don’t.) It is not my business to snoop around their kitchen to see if they are eating healthy. (Confession: they eat healthier than I do.) I am not their boss, and they need to determine between themselves and God how following Christ will look in their lives.
Once your child reaches the stage of responsible adulthood, there is no returning to the old parent-child relationship. When you have worked through understanding your new roles and have established new boundaries, you can really enjoy the new normal for the rest of your lives.
My daughter and I have always had father-daughter dates, and we continue the practice today. It is often meeting for lunch, but every year we take a day to visit the Pennsylvania Farm Show during the first week in January. We push through the crowds to the food court to get the same food every year, including thick, chocolate milkshakes. We enjoy the team horse competition and browse through the various exhibits. We meander through the various animal sections, joking about chickens with wild feathers or sheep barely tolerating being prettied up for their judging. We talk the whole time, both catching up and dreaming about future plans.
Another regular activity is a random visit while bicycling. My regular route takes me by her house, and I will generally stop by and chat for a bit. This gives me a chance to rest while we catch up on the week’s activities. It’s not long but is another way to connect and stay close.
We connect on Facebook, posting weird or goofy pictures and bantering with each other, entertaining our friends and relatives. Our mutual sense of humor spills into all we do, to the delight (and dismay) of those around us. When she got married, we could not settle for the traditional father-daughter dance. So my daughter, using her dance training, choreographed a routine to “Sing, Sing, Sing” by Benny Goodman at her wedding reception. She danced wonderfully, and I did my best to keep up.
We both challenge and support each other, spurring each other on to be the best we can be in Christ. We discuss books and Bible passages and share how these impact our lives.
The glorious truth is that once a solid foundation is built, we can enjoy this relationship for the rest of our lives. I am still her father, and she will come to me for counsel. But we have shifted to more of a peer support relationship. While looking a lot like a friendship, it is so much more. The bond we built as she was growing up became the root of the relationship we have today.
Acknowledging that we both need space and putting new boundaries in place, we can go forward enjoying our time together, continually building new memories as we cherish the old. We can journey together through life, comfortable in our relationship. We often banter about me coming to live with them when I’m older or her picking out my retirement home. Even when joking, our play looks forward to a lifetime relationship. This is the reward of supporting her and her husband while not smothering her adulthood.
Terry Magee is a freelance writer in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.
SIDEBAR: Family Values
While American families are anything but homogeneous, parents choose many common principles as the basis for child-rearing practices.
According to Pew Research, being responsible is one of the highest values parents strive to teach their children: 94 percent of parents say it’s important; 54 percent say it’s most important. Parents’ views change as their children age. While 52 percent say responsibility is the most important value to teach children under 5, that number goes up to 59 percent for children ages 12 to 17.
Parents of faith are much like their peers in many of the values, but one stands apart: while 56 percent of parents say that teaching religious faith is important, only 31 percent of all parents list it as the most important value.