Staying Connected, Letting Go
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What’s the best way to nurture a healthy relationship with your grown children? Jim Burns encourages parents to continue to show their love and support to their grown children even if there have been years of distance between you.
Staying Connected, Letting Go
Bob: How connected are your adult children to you? Author and speaker, Jim Burns, says that may have something to do with how inviting you make it for them to be connected.
Jim: It’s like the movie—and I love this movie, Field of Dreams—you know, “If you build it, they’ll come,” to the baseball game. Well, if you build the right relationship with your kids, they will come back to you; and they will want your advice. You’ll turn to become that mentor and coach as opposed to the day-to-day parent that we were for those two decades.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, September 25th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. What does a healthy relationship between adult children and their parents look like? We’re going to spend time exploring that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember having a conversation with somebody recently, and they were telling me about connecting with one of their parents—this was a young adult, connecting with one of their parents—they said, “It’s the first time we’ve talked in five years.”
Bob: We’ve been talking this week about relating to our adult children. The reality is—there are some relationships that have gone wrong, where there’s estrangement, where there’s just a cut-off, where there’s no communication; there’s no relationship. I have to think, for both the parents and for the kids, that’s got to be a heartache. Even if you deny it’s a heartache, it’s got to be a heartache.
We’re talking with Jim Burns, again, this week, who joins us on FamilyLife Today. Jim, welcome back.
Jim: Great to be back!
Bob: Jim has written a book on doing life with your adult children. You shared with us earlier that you were speaking on this subject, and you actually heard the kind of visceral anguish that parents are going through. I know you’ve talked to parents, where there’s been estrangement from children, and they don’t know what to do; they’re longing to try to restore or reignite. What kind of counsel do you give them?
Jim: I tell them that they just have to share deep love; and if there’s anything that they’ve ever done in the conflict—which there always is—to ask for forgiveness. Then watch it eventually come back. I don’t think, sometimes, that adult child is going to come; but they want it. I think both want it—they both want the relationship.
Dave: Yes; when I was a young dad, you know—little boys, raising them—I would have heard your comment, Bob, and thought, “Oh, that’ll never happen!” You know, “That’s very rare.” And now, being older and having grandkids—my oldest [son] is 33; it hasn’t happened to us—but you can see: you can say things; you can do things that are so hurtful.
Dave: And you can fathom that it could be five years. It’s horrible; but man, that could be reality.
Bob: Yes; I should have mentioned: Jim has been with us, regularly, on FamilyLife Today. He gives leadership to HomeWord and speaks at conferences and camps. He’s connected with Azusa Pacific University.
The book we’re talking about is called Doing Life with Your Adult Children; and the subtitle is Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out. When there’s estrangement, it’s the welcome mat issue that’s the question: “Do you continue to pursue a child?” and “How regularly do you reach out?”
Jim: Well, I think each case is different. I don’t think you hound them; but, yes, I think you keep in front of them with love and care, and a Starbucks card here and there; not ever saying: “What’s going on?” “What happened?” “Why did you…?” “Why are you…?” I think, also, this is the time to share just pretty much love and support.
You know, sometimes, just like you would in most anything—the Bible’s pretty clear: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but with a multitude of counselors, there is safety.” I think this is where you get the wisdom and counsel of someone, especially when there’s been an estrangement for five years. Something went on: “What is that?” and “How do you get back to it?”
I say every parent can still have hope, but they may have to be doing it differently; because, for five years, it hasn’t worked. Don’t do the same thing, thinking it’s going to change; because that’s the definition of insanity.
Bob: I heard from a parent, who said: “I sent an email once a week—never got a response; never even knew whether it was read or opened; but I just kept sending those emails.” In this particular situation, they found out later, every one of those emails gets read; every one of those emails gets reflected on.
Bob: At some point, even if the child may initially be going, “Delete,” “Delete,” “Delete,”—not reading it—there’s a point in a child’s life, where they’re going to go, “I wonder what’s going on here?” and they’ll reopen to that, unless their heart is just completely hardened—and I know that happens. I think we have to just keep pursuing.
Jim: Right, and I don’t think that’s the norm. I think what your friend, who told you that story—it’s good. Now, we have to be careful; because sometimes we think we’re doing well by preaching to or at them every week—that’s not what they need.
Jim: What do they need? They need us to show love and care. If there are children in a relationship, then we’re going to send the baby gifts, if they won’t let us see them; we’re going to continue to do it that way, but in a positive way.
If we get preach-y, and lecture-y, or point a finger at them, we’ve got to just make sure we know, as we all say, those three fingers are pointing back at us. Don’t make it so dramatic; love on them! Be the person who cheers them on from afar.
Ann: This just happened to one of my friends, with her mom, where the parents kind of said, “We’re done.”
Ann: So there was silence for months. We were talking about it—I said, “Man, I would just shoot her a text,”—
Ann: —to say, “This is what’s going on.” You don’t have to get into the big issue.
Jim: Yes, yes.
Ann: But just kind of get into everyday life.
She didn’t respond for a while; but then, slowly, over time, just little texts would come back. Now, they’re totally restored; but I think it’s so good to continue the pursuit and not get into the big issue—just kind of love and encourage and say, “What’s going on?”
Jim: I totally agree with you, Ann. That’s the way to do it. Preaching isn’t going to help; advice isn’t going to help. Unsolicited advice is taken as criticism. Well, get out of the advice if they’ve been—especially, if the relationship is broken.
Bob: We really haven’t established this, as we’ve talked about this week, but one of the things we talk regularly about at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway is that, for marriages to thrive—
Bob: —the first step in a marriage thriving is for mom and dad to let the young person leave. The apron strings can get a little long sometimes, and you’re sabotaging your adult child’s relationship with their new spouse if you continue to have expectations or interference. If you care about your kids’ marriages, learning how to back off is essential; isn’t it?
Jim: It is. You know, Jesus said it—it was in the Old Testament— He was quoting the Old Testament when He said, “A man will leave his father and mother, be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” You know, united means bond. You can’t bond if you’re still too connected.
Well, that means, with the folks who are getting married, they need to leave and cleave, if you would; but the parents have to allow that to happen. Sometimes that’s really hard, because it goes back to what we talked about—enabling dependency. We like to enable dependency!
Jim: We’ve got to be careful there.
Dave: Bob, have you ever done this at a wedding? Have you looked at the parents—I’ve done this, as the pastor; maybe I should and maybe I shouldn’t have—but you know, you can sort of sense, “These parents are going to have a hard time letting go of their kids.”
Ann: Okay, you need to go ahead and share what you did.
Dave: Do I?
Ann: Yes! [Laughter]
Dave: No, seriously?
Dave: Well, we won’t use names.
Dave: At one wedding, there was very high dependence.
Bob: You could tell.
Dave: It was like, “You’ve got to let this son become his own man.”
Ann: —and daughter—both sets.
Dave: —and daughter-in-law.
I decided to go to Home Depot® and buy extension cords—two of them—and use a visual.
Ann: Orange; orange extension cords.
Dave: I thought it was going to be great!
I handed one to the parents of the groom; one to the parents of the bride. I handed the end of the extension cord to the groom and his [bride]. I said, “Now, here’s”—you know, I’m trying to teach the leave and cleave.
Dave: So I’m like, “Okay, what are you guys supposed to do?” I went over to the parents—I said, “So what are you supposed to do now?” They just looked at me; they’re holding this little thing.
Dave: I like: “Let go! You’ve got to let go. They’ve been plugged into you [their] whole life.” Now, I went back to the couple and said, “Now, what do you do?”—and they did it!—They went, “We plug into each other.” I said: “No! You don’t plug into each other! You plug into God!”—you know, the whole vertical thing; right?
Dave: So I thought it was this beautiful thing; right? It was trying to illustrate this principle. Trust me—it’s a hard thing to do. Parents have to do it; in-laws have to do it.
Bob: It’s hard because it’s contrary to what you’ve been doing every day—
Bob: —for the last 25 years with that child. They’ve been plugged into you; and you’ve been feeding, and nurturing, and protecting, and all of the things parents are supposed to do. Now, you’re supposed to flip a switch and say, “Okay, now we don’t do that anymore”?
Ann: Jim, is it harder for the parents or for the kids to let go?
Jim: I actually think it is hard for both. I honestly think that we both have to re-invent—parents and kids. I think it depends on whoever—and, by the way, I love that illustration!
Dave: Me, too! [Laughter]
Jim: Now, I wasn’t there; and you didn’t do it for my kids, but I think that’s an absolutely beautiful illustration of them becoming responsible adults.
Ann: It is.
Jim: Part of that was—as you just asked “Who’s it harder on?”—that was harder for the parents to take than for the kids; but I think in any relationship, if we can allow them to become their own responsible adult, they’re going to do better. They’re going to do better with their faith; they’re going to do better with decisions on money; they’re going to do better in terms of decisions about how they do marriage. So we let them do it; we don’t walk away from them!
Jim: We, then, become their cheerleader. We have to change that, if you would, job description.
Dave: What if you’re the son and daughter/daughter-in-law or daughter and son-in-law—and the in-laws are overly—too involved? Talk to that couple; what do they do?
Dave: We see this quite a bit.
Ann: What do the kids do, you mean?
Jim: Well, I have a phrase—it’s: “Protect your family, and do the right thing.” I think, what you’ve got to do to protect your family in that situation, I think you have to set some boundaries. The right thing is to honor your in-laws/to honor your family in the best way you can. I think you protect your own family first; sometimes, that means you have to have some of those harder conversations.
I find that principles help Cathy and me in our marriage; it helps us with our parenting—that principle: “Protect your family. Do the right thing.” That has meant we’ve had to have some hard conversations I didn’t want to have, because they weren’t going to go well; I knew they weren’t going to go well.
Jim: So: “Here’s the situation, and here’s how we’re going to play this out. We sure love you. We admire you and respect you, but here’s how we’re going to play this out.”
Honesty and integrity—you know: “The man”—or woman—“of integrity walks securely,” is what the Scriptures say. I think that their kids will walk securely, but I also think their in-laws will walk more securely when you do that. It’s not like they’re going to accept it, though.
Ann: Every time you’re talking about a conversation with your kids or other people, the tone and the way you have that—your words are very carefully placed.
Ann: I noticed that—in one of the parts of your book, I noticed—it says, “How to tell the difference between a conversation and a lecture.” You’re good at this! How do you do that?
Jim: It’s called experience. [Laughter] By lecturing, and going, “Well, that didn’t work real well!!” [Laughter]
I think—you know, I want to respect people; I want to respect my kids: “So how do I respect them?”—I respect them by having a conversation. Listening is the language of love. If I just power in—I mean, most of the time, I think I’m right. Cathy always goes, “You always say, ‘In your humble opinion’; and then, in your humble opinion, you always think you’re right!” [Laughter] Well, that’s kind of true!
But you know, the end is for them to become responsible adults/for us to have a good relationship; to do that, then it must be a two-way conversation when they’re adults. I mean, if you’ve got a four-year-old, it’s like: “You need to clean this up right now. Here you go!”—I get it. But with adults, it’s the conversation; in fact, you know, in a chapter, I mention this phrase: “Unsolicited advice is usually taken as criticism.”
I remember a time where Christy and Steve were in our house. They were discussing their move to Dallas; I mentioned they’re now moving back. I said, “I’ve got the answer!” They were arguing/kind of having an argument about how they were going to move. I thought both of them had a bad idea; so I simply said, “I’ve got the answer!” I said, “Can I give you the answer?” And Christy said, “Not now, Dad.”
About two weeks later—and I thought they made a horrible move—she said, “Hey, what were you going to advise?” I said, “This…” She goes: “Well, Dad! Why didn’t you tell me?!”—you know; that kind of thing. I did the right thing—I kept my mouth shut. I think there are times that, in conversations or lectures, the best thing to do is just keep our mouths shut.
It’s like the movie—and I love this movie, Field of Dreams—you know, “If you build it, they’ll come,” to the baseball game. Well, if you build the right relationship with your kids, they will come back to you; and they will want your advice. You will turn to become that mentor and coach as opposed to the day-to-day parent that we were for those two decades.
Bob: My daughter, not long ago, wrote a book. Before her book was published, she sent it to members of the family and said, “I would love feedback.” I read the book, and I took notes as I was reading the book. I wrote to her beforehand; I said: “I have read this book as I would read it from any author. I have not read it, thinking you’re my daughter; I’ve read it like, ‘This is an author expressing her views.’ My feedback will be like that with you.”
I said: “Now, I recognize you’re not any author, and I’m not any reviewer. I don’t want you to read something critical about what you’ve written here and have that sabotage our relationship.” I said, “So before I send this to you, do you think you can read the criticism and hear it, and not be—not have it affect our relationship?”
She wrote back and said, “Yes, I want to know what you’re thinking.” I said: “Great. I will send it. We can interact however you want. Just know that, at the end of the day, this—from my perspective—what you’ve written here doesn’t affect our relationship, even the things I don’t agree with. That’s not going to change our relationship, but I want to offer you the feedback the way any reviewer would offer it.”
It seems to have worked out okay; but I felt it was pretty important, before I just said, “Well, here’s what I think.”
Ann: That’s interesting, because that’s a tricky thing. I’ve read her book, and it’s amazing. She’s a great writer. What’s it called?
Bob: It’s called Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World.
Ann: Now, as a dad, you could have just said: “Wow, Amy! This is amazing.”
Ann: But you kind of went to, “Do you want my feedback?”—which was pretty brilliant of you. How did you decide to ask that question?
Bob: Well, you know, when the kids were growing up, and they were working on papers for school, they would always pull Dad in and say, “Would you proof my paper?”—right? I would proof their paper, so they were used to getting input. The fact that she asked for it in the first place—
Bob: —I just knew that, even if she had asked, I’m Dad; and how I respond to the book may not carry more weight than what her friend would, but it’s going to carry a different kind of weight. I just wanted to make sure that, if we’re going to have this conversation, we’re going to head into dangerous territory here; right?—[Laughter]
Bob: —the title of her book! [Laughter] If we’re going to head into this, we just need to head in and make sure that we’re not sabotaging the relationship as we have the conversation.
Jim, I think that kind of approach, when we’re talking with our kids about—whether it’s politics, or theology, or life choices—we need to be able to say, “I’ve got some thoughts on this; but before I share those thoughts, can we have this conversation without it getting personal or not?”
Jim: See, that’s a healthy, healthy thing! In fact, if I had a little pin that said, “Doing Life with Your Adult Children Star,” I’d pin it on your lapel right now! [Laughter]
All of us need to hear that, because that’s what we do!—we ask for permission with adults. We don't need to ask for permission with the six-year-old.
Jim: But that’s a beautiful thing that turned into a great conversation, but you honored her. You know, the Bible talks about “outdoing one another in honor.” I think that’s Romans 12:10. Well, you honored her by saying, “Your relationship is more important than my advice.”
Dave: I was just thinking, you know, in terms of the letting go—you know, Jim, your title of Doing Life With Your Adult Children—I know this—and I’m not even going to look over at her, because I don’t want to see her face—but I’m guessing that if one of our sons wanted to buy a house across the street, my wife would be ecstatic—
Dave: —like that would be exciting. I would be like: “Nooo!” I love them!—I do—but I don’t want them across the street, because I would lose my wife. They would be really involved in my life—more than I would want at this time. I think I would have/we would have too much influence; because we were so close, even though the grandkids would be, you know, ten steps away.
Bob: You’re saying it’s harder for a wife to unplug?
Dave: I’m just wondering? It could just be Ann; maybe she’s—I didn’t look at her to see if she would agree with that. She might be, “No, I wouldn’t want them across the street.” One of our sons is several miles away.
Ann: I think it would be hard for you and for me, with the grandkids—
Ann: —because I would want to help; I would want to be there. I think you would get jealous of that.
Dave: Yes, that’s what I’m asking. Do you see that?
Jim: I actually think that women have a harder time. I’m speaking so generally.
Jim: But, in my own personal experience, part of my identity is wrapped up in my ministry.
Ann: —what you do.
Jim: Cathy gave up her teaching career to manage the home and deal with our kids to help them graduate from high school. As they left, she lost her main job; so I think it was harder for her.
My experience, by speaking on this subject, is that it’s the moms who come in more, who just say: “Wow! This has been really hard—this transition.” Actually, that’s a great compliment to many of the women.
Jim: Now, I think, men have some of the same issues. I don’t think all women have as deep of that. Because Cathy became a stay-at-home mom, that was a huge thing for her. But my experience is that it’s oftentimes tougher on a woman; because she wakes up one day and kind of says, “What now?” It’s kind of like the empty nest thing.
Jim: You know: “Wow! I’ve put all of my energy into these kids, and I’ve paid attention to you [spouse]; but all of a sudden, you seem to be the only show in town tonight; all these kids used to be there.” That’s a harder thing, I think, sometimes.
Ann: I think it’s a real change in our identity; because as women, we can find our identity from our kids.
Ann: When our kids all left, and we were empty-nesters, I remember going to bed and saying to Dave: “I had a hard transition becoming a mom, but that really became my life. I felt like: ‘I was good at this.’ I knew what I was doing, and now I’m done.
Ann: “Now, who am I?”
Ann: I think that’s why it’s harder for us.
Dave: And I loved getting her back!—it was awesome! [Laughter] It was just awesome!!
Jim: You know, one of the things we talk about in this book—one of the principles—is that this is the time now to become as emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy as you possibly can.
Jim: So that’s when you jump back into—like my wife is in two Bible studies—and I think that’s maybe one too many, but that’s my humble opinion. [Laughter] She’s doing that, partly, because she’s doing everything she can to be as emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy [as possible]. This is the time for us to do that, so that when, and if, something crashes in our family, you know, she’ll be there for them.
Jim: But she’s had to find that in other relationships; in other ministries that she does; in other, you know, recreation-type things. It’s the mom or the dad who just settles into not working on their own life, you know? Somebody once said to me, “Untended fires soon become nothing but a pile of ashes.” I think, a lot of times, we have a lot of emotional wrecks because they’ve not been tending their own soul, and now their kids are gone.
Jim: So good!—here’s your chance to tend your own soul and actually work on the marriage. I mean, it’s funny—Dave, that you said, “I have her back!”—you know, she was never away.
Jim: But I totally understand it.
Jim: So now this is the time to work on your marriage/to work on your relationship with God in a different way than you did when you were in chaos with kids running around.
Ann: And that’s what I’ll tell women: “You’re about to enter this stage of life, where God has so much more for you.
Ann: “You’re going to grow deeper with Him; you’re going to have time that you’ve never had; and God has a lot in store.”
Ann: Because women feel hopeless—like, “Is there more?”—and there is!
Bob: Well, you have done all of us a great service by doing the focus groups that you did before you wrote this book; by spending time praying, and meditating, and looking at the Scriptures, and coaching us. This is a challenge! This is something that none of us is experienced in until it happens for the first time.
Bob: So to have the counsel of somebody, who has looked at how this gets done, lived through it himself—
Ann: This is a great book!
Bob: It really is!
Jim: Thank you.
Bob: And we’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Jim, thanks for being here again.
Jim: Well, thanks! And thank you so much for what FamilyLife® does, and just who you are and what you’re about—not just the great broadcasts and all the other things you do—but really, the integrity that comes from this place. I appreciate it so much!
Bob: Well, that is kind. Thank you, Jim.
Again, we do have copies of the book, Doing Life with Your Adult Children: Keep Your Mouth Shut and the Welcome Mat Out. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to order your copy; or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website is FamilyLifeToday.com; the number is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And the book, again, is Doing Life with Your Adult Children by Jim Burns.
You know, as we’ve talked about parenting adult children, we’ve been talking about it from our perspective as the parents of adult children; but we’ve got the president of FamilyLife here, David Robbins. You’re on the other side of this.
David: Right; I don’t have adult children, but I am one.
You know, one of the things I so love and respect about my mom and my dad, and what they’ve done really consistently, is they’ve re-invented the way they relate to me to continually pursue genuine relationship with me, just like Jim talked about today. In college, they kept the welcome mat out; but they gave me lots of flexibility to sleep a lot when I was home. There was no agenda; they just wanted to be with me.
When we lived overseas, they were willing to try this crazy new thing called “Skype,” and get internet so they could Skype with us and see us, face to face. In the busyness of when we had three kids, three and under, that really took over our world. They began to write physical notes to me—the words that began to speak life into me—in, really, a season when you feel like you’re drowning a bit.
And now, my mom has an Instagram® account, and really doesn’t post anything, but she sends personal messages to me as I post stuff about my family. Of course, those aren’t the only ways we relate and have genuine relationship—
David: —but it’s just an example of her adapting to persistently pursue me and real relationship with me.
Bob: —and respecting where you are in life and that your relationship is now an adult-to-adult relationship. They’re always your mom and dad, but the relationship has to shift. I think that’s a great perspective on this. Thank you for that, David.
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I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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