If we find a prodigal emerging in our children, we need to own the fact that the time for instruction has passed. In fact, telling them the same things over and over is no longer about instruction. It’s badgering. 

It’s time to change the dance. 

Accept that for this period of time they are going to do things that you know are wrong. Accept that they have made some decisions that are not what you would have made for them. Accept that they are going to go places and do things that are not what you had hoped for them. Just like the prodigal father of the New Testament, let them follow their path. At this point, the only way they will find the emptiness of their chosen philosophy is to follow it to its natural conclusion. You have to give them the same respectful distance that you would a neighbor who makes similar poor choices. You can share your thoughts about life choices with a neighbor once, maybe twice, but beyond that, it’s up to the neighbor. 

It’s time to focus on boundaries, not behaviors. You wouldn’t badger your neighbor about smoking, but neither would you let him smoke in your house. You wouldn’t follow your neighbor home from work to make sure he avoided the bars he too often frequents. But neither would you let him drive your children anywhere with his history of driving under the influence. It’s about your boundaries. Not his behaviors. Adults—even if they are our children—are responsible for their own behaviors. We are only responsible for how we allow those behaviors to impact our own lives. 

Create a Safety Zone

At the same time that you are letting go, in another sense, hold on. Create a relational safety zone. Find an activity you can still do with your prodigal child. Maybe it’s playing tennis, going out for lunch, watching a movie. Make it a safe place to simply be together. Protect it vigorously. Don’t allow the current disagreements to intrude. Let this child have a place where he knows he can connect with you without experiencing your disapproval. Give him a place to simply enjoy your company. This connection may be extremely vital on the day he reaches the end of his philosophy. It may be the portal through which prodigals return to the full embrace of their family.

Carry Only Your Own Luggage

Chances are you’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering what you’ve done wrong. That is not unreasonable. All of us are imperfect parents and would do well to evaluate our actions. In fact, you probably know of one or two families where the parenting methods practically guaranteed that a prodigal would emerge somewhere down the road. When evaluating your parenting, if you determine that you have made some serious errors, then these wrongs, like any other, must be dealt with, admitted, and repented of, with forgiveness sought and the wrong made right. The rules on wrongs haven’t changed.

But I also know that some of you are attempting to take on blame when in fact, free will may be the only real culprit. By God’s design, these children of ours have free will. And as such, even with good parenting, they can make poor choices. It is a myth that perfect parenting will necessarily result in perfect children. After all, if that were the case, then Adam and Eve should have been flawless. We need to understand that we do not have the ability to remove free will and its repercussions from the lives of our adult children. We aren’t that powerful. And God, who is that powerful, chose not to. Free will is a part of the equation. Don’t carry unnecessary guilt as your luggage accessory. Make right your wrongs, allow your prodigals their own path, and understand that they too must carry their own luggage.

My struggle found me wandering around various philosophies for years trying to find truth. Coming to faith was a late happening for me, but a happening nonetheless. My favorite quote, which beautifully captures my own experience, is a rendition of some words by St. Augustine: