How Children leave Home makes all the Difference
James P. Trotzen, Danville, Illinois, USA
There are more stories about young adults in the Bible than any other stage of family life.
The Old Testament is replete with accounts of the trials associated with making transitions from one generation to the next. From the patriarchs, to the judges, to the kings of Israel and Judah, including David and his young adult children, numerous examples provide us with a wealth of knowledge about this crucial stage of family life. The study of the Old Testament provides clear indicators to effective parenting and warns of strategies that lead to hurt, pain, disappointment and failure.
The New Testament continues the emphasis on young adulthood. From the call of the disciples in Mark chapter 1 verses 16 to 20, to the Lord’s ministry as a young adult in the company of His family, to the well-known parable of a young adult prodigal in Luke chapter 15 verses 11-32, the pitfalls and pinnacles of parenting, and being a young adult, are portrayed.
From a family perspective no more critical stage of family life exists because the impact of what happens at this stage establishes the personality patterns that will likely influence the family and its members long into the future. No stage is as full of excitement and energy, hope and vulnerability as the young adult stage. As young adults launch out to find their life path, they disconnect from parents and family and connect with a whole range of different experiences. They reconnect with their family on the basis of their new way of life. Each ‘connection’ presents obstacles and potential, but more than anything the most critical aspect is associated with how a child leaves home.
Traits of the young adult family
The young adult stage of family life extends from the first child leaving home to the last child leaving home. Consequently, this stage is often referred to as the launching phase. The leaving process, however, may not be clear cut and may involve the ‘revolving door syndrome’ where children leave but come back one or more times before leaving permanently. Typically, this pattern occurs when a child goes to college and returns home for vacations and summers bringing their ‘new’ ways with them. Other factors such as high living costs, job loss or a failed relationship may also prompt young adult children to return to their parents’ home, sometimes bringing their children with them. All this creates turmoil in the family.
Ultimately though, as young adult children leave, contraction is introduced and parents must learn to live with decreasing numbers until they end up only with each other. The most important task of young adult life is ‘differentiation,’ which refers to not only solidifying an individual identity but also establishing that identity inside and outside the family.
The parents’ task is to encourage the individuality of their young adult child. To do this, most parents must also express what they can ‘live with’ in the same house. Note, however, that what parents can live with is generally not what they prefer. When clear stipulations are made, parents find they can live with a lot more than they initially thought, and young adult children find they can respect their parents’ ‘life style’ without losing control of their own.
Biblically, one clear marker of a child’s differentiation is marriage. ‘A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh’, Gen. 2. 24 NIV. In this context, each partner is viewed as a new and separate entity under God’s authority, separate from his or her family of origin. In addition, respect for parents is another key indicator of successful differentiation, Eph. 6. 2. Beyond these two markers, the road to differentiation takes many paths. Let’s take a look at some examples from scripture.
Leaving parents intact
The cost of differentiation (raising children to young adults) is continuing to rise in our contemporary society. One financial expert noted that financing a child’s college and career training now must be considered the child’s inheritance rather than a head start in life. The U.S. Bureau of Census tells us that 75% of 18 to 24-year-olds live at home and more single 24 to 30- year-olds are living with their parents than ever before. Such statistics validate the importance of a home-leaving process that does not break the parents physically, financially, psychologically or emotionally. The case of James and John is a good example of a departure from home that is marked with children’s concern for their parents’ well being, and parents’ encouragement of their children’s differentiation, Mark 1. 16-20.
Consider for a moment the impact of the Lord Jesus calling James and John to be His disciples. Zebedee had trained his sons to be fishermen, with an eye to financial security for himself and his wife. The Lord essentially divested Zebedee of his retirement plan. Imagine how he explained to his wife that his sons were leaving the family business to enter the travelling rabbinical school of a not-toowell- accepted teacher named Jesus? The phrase ‘with the hired men’ however, indicates that James and John did not enter their new career path before their father had the hired men to continue the business. Evidence that their parents agreed is supported by the fact that later their mother was active in supporting them, Matt. 20. 20-21. The young adult family principle gleaned from this example is that the Lord makes sure the needs of the parents are fulfilled while their children’s future is being secured.
The master’s touch: the mark of maturity
The healing of the man born blind in John chapter 9 provides a startling example of the Lord’s powerful influence in a young adult’s family. We know that this person was a young adult because when the Pharisees questioned his parents about his miraculous healing, they declared, ‘He is of age; ask him: he shall speak for himself’, John 9. 21. Before he met the Lord he certainly was dependent on his parents for his care. However, afterwards he was changed in more ways than just having his sight restored. He acquired unexpected independence and autonomy. He had the character to speak up to the most powerful religious authorities in Jerusalem and did not back down even when challenged. He demonstrated a maturity that refused to succumb to the pressure of his detractors to say things that were not consistent with his experience. Finally, he reveals himself to be a seeker, a common trait of young adults. When he meets the Lord Jesus again he responds to His question with a reply that again denotes his maturity. He was able to make a connection with the Son of Man that would sustain him throughout his life regardless of circumstances. So it will be for all young adults who seek the Lord as their Mentor in their search for their life’s work, mate and ministry.
A wrong and right way to rebel
Many young adults differentiate from their families by rebelling. Two wellknown examples, demonstrate the impact of the rebellious pathway to differentiation, Samson, revered as a judge of Israel, Judges chapters 13 to 16, and the prodigal son of Luke chapter 15. Both were willful, lust-driven, selfcentered young men who were loved deeply by their families. Both eventually came to their senses, but only one had the opportunity to make something of his life after realizing the error of his ways. The reason for this is embedded in how each left home. The distinct difference in the rebellion of these two young men is related to their respect for their parents. And that makes all the difference.
Samson’s willfulness manifested itself in his lust for a Philistine woman. At this point in his life he acted like a spoiled child and demanded that his parents get her for him. Think of the brashness of his directive to his parents and yet despite protestations, they heed his impudent request and go with him to seek out his desire. Imagine the shame and turmoil these parents felt in catering to Samson’s young adult whims. The point is Samson did not respect his parents’ values, beliefs or lifestyle, but rather used them to get his own way.
The prodigal son did things differently. He was equally spoiled, self-centered and lustful, but he chose to conduct his ‘wild living’ and ‘squander his wealth’ in a distant country. In other words, he did not enlist his father in his debauchery nor shame him by bringing his lifestyle into his father’s home. At a very basic level he retained respect for his father even though he took his wealth and engaged in activities he fully knew his family did not agree with. Consequently, ‘when he came to his senses’ the door was open to reconnect with his father and family.
No doubt both of these families experienced anguish, anger and pain as they tried to make sense of their sons’ actions. Yet, in the prodigal’s case there were resources left in reserve. So that when he returned the father could reach out in love and the son could respond in like manner. There was also enough love in the father’s heart to assure his other son that the good route he had taken to adulthood was equally valued thus affirming the identities of both even though each took a different route to adulthood.
The keys to transition
So what are the guideposts for effective transitions in families of young adults? First is the resource of mutual respect where parents support their child’s individuality and the child honours the parents. Second, the young adult who makes the Lord Jesus his Saviour and model will acquire all the resources necessary for a life of blessing and fulfillment. Third, the resiliency of family ties, though stretched by differentiation, will always be sufficient to overcome the wounds of leaving when the source of that resilience is God, whose heart of love and forgiveness knows no bounds.
Finally, Christian families have in the Lord Jesus One who is fully aware of and responsive to the trials associated with becoming a young adult, because He was a young adult. For that reason young adults and their parents can ‘approach the throne of grace with confidence’ to obtain help in ‘time of need’, Heb. 4. 15-16. The Lord Himself becomes all the guide young adults and their families will need through the transitions and into the next stage of family life.
Reprinted from Grace and Truth Magazine, (Vol 69, July/August 2002), Danville, IL, USA. Used with permission.