High School Homeschooling, Christian Home Education

A Prodigal Speaks: When Your Kids Reject You

A Prodigal Speaks: When Your Kids Reject You

Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Learn more at www.HomeSchoolEnrichment.com 

“Don’t quote the Bible to me!” she says with annoyance. “I don’t believe it anymore.” Was that how your world changed? Or was it when your son moved in with a buddy, saying he wouldn’t be coming home anymore? Or when your child went to college and returned as someone you didn’t even know. Or maybe when you found a pregnancy test in your daughter’s bathroom, or some drugs under the seat of the car, or when the police showed up at your door. Where did this person who now stands in the body of your child come from? And what happened to the faith-filled child you once knew?

None of us can ever quite believe that the same child who once uttered the sweetest, oh-so-tender bedtime prayers could be the same child we see today struggling with his faith. And yet, according to the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life, 88 percent of children raised in an evangelical Christian home will leave the church by the age of eighteen. The numbers are certainly better for families who homeschool, but even here we’re seeing far too many children leaving the faith of their families when they reach adulthood.

I was a prodigal. Even though I was raised in a Christian home, I was out the door and living on my own as soon as I was able. Not only did I leave the church, but I became a card-carrying member of the American Atheist Association. I worked to “help” others drop the chains of organized religion from their lives and find the freedom that would come from adopting my “clear thinking.” In fact, I became the very person we in the homeschooling community fear our children may meet—an outspoken, biblically knowledgeable person bent on disarming others of their faith. I spent thirteen years of my adult life on this course. I cannot tell you that I gave God any good reasons to continue to pursue me, but He still did. And through His work in some dark places in my life, I finally found my way home.

I certainly regret the years I spent off the path of God’s plan for me. I know it brought heartache to both my heavenly Father and my earthly parents. But as is God’s custom, He can bring good of it. I learned a few things along the way that may be useful to families with the same concerns. If you are feeling the pain of a young adult child who is pulling away, there are some things you can do, some things you might do, and some things you shouldn’t do in an effort to bring some good change to the situation.

A Really Tough Truth

You’ve spent your children’s lifetime telling them how to behave. Don’t slouch. Look people in the eye. Take care of your things. Always do your best. No snacks before dinner. Choose your friends carefully. Don’t drive while talking on your cell phone. Close things you’ve opened. After all these years, there’s probably not much you could tell them about how to behave that would surprise them. They know what you expect. They know what you believe. They know what you think about right and wrong. Then why, you wonder, are they making so many poor choices?

Here’s a really tough truth. They know what you think...and they’ve rejected it. Telling them one more time isn’t going to help. It’s no longer a matter of training them up. They’ve gotten the training and have disagreed with your conclusions. My father, a pastor, realized this early on. He knew that repeating my childhood instructions was no longer productive. But my poor mother never gave up. And the result, during my tumultuous years, was some horrid, heated and damaging fights between us. 

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:

Late have I loved you, oh beauty so ancient and so new. You were within me while I was outside of myself, searching for you. You shone yourself upon me and drove away my blindness. You breathed your fragrance upon me...and in astonishment...I drew my first breath.

Your prodigal may also be looking for himself in all the wrong places. I hope your reunion with your loved one will be sooner rather than later. I add my prayers to your own, that your prodigal may come to the end of himself, find God who has been waiting patiently for him, and draw in that first breath of true understanding. During these years, when our influence over our children is lessened, the transition can be painful. But even when our parenting influence wanes, fortunately God—the only perfect parent—still pursues.  

Carol Barnier has so much more to say on this topic in her new book, Engaging Today’s Prodigal—Clear Thinking, New Approaches, and Reasons for Hope, where she provides numerous suggestions for preserving a relationship as well as encouragement for parents during these very challenging days. Using her own story as a pastor’s daughter turned atheist, she shares the lessons she learned on her way back to faith. You may have heard her recently on Gary Chapman’s popular marriage program, Focus on the Family’s Weekend Magazine, or Moody Radio. Visit her at www.carolbarnier.com.

Publication date: December 19, 2012