Last week I shared reasons that your adult child may have left your faith. Today, some coping skills for you. My journey to understand my adult children’s defection from our church begins with “The tale of two sons.”
I first met “Georgia” when we were room mothers in kindergarten. Our boys were friends and we bonded over field trips and class projects. Georgia and her family belonged to a Christian church and she fairly glowed from her commitment to it and to God. I once ran into her at the grocery store and her cart was full enough to feed an army. She had taken in refugees from Hurricane Katrina and was still sheltering them weeks after the storm. It was all in a day’s work for her. We didn’t share the same faith, but each of us respected that the other was deeply involved in her own church.
Our boys grew up and we lost track of each other. One morning as I was working in the yard, Georgia came by. “What’s Michael up to?” I asked. Her son who had been salutatorian of his graduating class was now training for the ministry. He was a regular on mission trips to serve in third-world countries, and was interning as a preacher at the church he grew up in. Her older son and daughter-in-law were visiting before they left on an extended mission trip to Africa.
And what about my son? I told her he was taking some time off from college after a difficult freshman year. What I didn’t tell her was that he was also taking time off from our church. As I am prone to do, I overanalyzed the encounter. Why was my son among the more than 50 percent of Christian children who bail from their church after leaving the nest? What did her church do that mine did not? What did she do that I did not? What if I had taken in refugees?
I’ve learned some coping skills in the years since that encounter, and share them here.
• Stop comparing your children to someone else’s. (See my previous blog “Apples and Oranges: The Envy Trap.”) This is easier said than done. But remember that such comparisons are demoralizing to your children and to you.
• Be honest with yourself in your assessment of why your child left the church. (See last week’s blog, “Leaving the Faith” for a list of possible reasons.) Remember that their reasons could be profound and well-considered. But their defection is more likely a result of boredom, lack of understanding, immaturity or peer pressure.
• If you want them to see religion as something more than just a set of arbitrary rules, keep showing them the things about it that enrich your life. Tell them about your weekend cleaning the homeless shelter. Explain what you learned at the couples’ religious retreat. Share something from a sermon that reminded you of them. Invite them to hear you sing in the church choir. Continue to make Christmas Mass, baptisms, christenings or Bar Mitzvahs a family affair. If the invitations are unwelcome, they will let you know. It is more likely that they will wonder what happened if you suddenly clam up about your religious life. Being heavy handed or anxious in your communication about religion will not help. Just be you. In the words of psychologist Jeffrey Arnett (author of When Will My Grown Kid Grow Up?) “The best way to persuade children of the value of your faith is to show the fruits of it in your life…”
• Look for the good in your children and remember that much of it comes from the church-based values you taught them when they were young. They may have tossed out the bath water, but your baby remains. Find natural ways to remind them of how they came to be who they are today. If they are raising children of their own, and they solicit your advice about a problem, share examples of how you handled similar problems when they were young, within the context of your belief system and practices: “When you were that age it helped if we taught the Golden Rule;” “Remember the Secret Santa project the church did for the poor every Christmas? It really took the focus off your own presents.” The point is not to lure them back, but to help them move forward by remembering who they are and where they came from.
• If your child joins another church, look at it realistically. Is it a dangerous cult that tries to isolate your child or just a group of nice folks trying to do their best? Most likely it’s the latter so don’t overreact. Do your homework and be grateful that your child has found a supportive spiritual community.
• Love your child as you always have. Treat them as though nothing had changed. Your child is not dead, unless you are foolish enough to make them dead to you.
• Ask your children why they feel the way they do, and listen sincerely without correction. It’s a grossly underused technique of communication. When they were 5 you let them talk and then told them to do it your way. Now they’re 25, it’s time to hear them.
• Has your child abandoned your traditional beliefs about marriage? Don’t let your house rules trump your love of your child. Ask yourself, “Is it illegal, dangerous or harmful to others?” If not, then let it go. Do you really need to bar your adult child from sharing a bedroom with their live-in partner when they visit you? That is the family they have formed, albeit without benefit of marriage license. Acknowledge their choice, welcome their partner and treat them like the adults they are. The alternative is to lose them.
• Stop treating your adult child as your project. It is not our job to offer them up to God as a fait accompli. Your children haven’t really grown up if they are just living out your plans and your values. They can’t inherit your faith, and they may have to leave it in order to find it. You may feel that you are accountable to God for the way they turn out. If so, consider this video version of what a parent’s interview with God might look like.
• Stop nagging. Susan Vogt, author of Parenting Your Adult Child: Keeping the Faith and your Sanity, suggests an economy of words. “Talk shorter,” she says. Ask yourself, “Have I said this before? If it didn’t make a difference then, what makes me think repeating it will change things?” Also, “Can she get the same message from my actions without my having to put it into words?” “Is there someone else who can convey this message in a fresher way?”
• Worst-case scenario: Your adult children are openly hostile to the church of their childhood, or organized religion in general. They post diatribes on social media. They display anger over perceived wrongs. They taint your relationship with your grandchildren. They attack you directly in debates that escalate. This is the time to set boundaries. Let them know in the kindest terms you can muster that they are tampering with something sacred to you. They have abandoned simple courtesy and respect for those they are supposed to love the most. They are hurting you. Also, be honest with yourself. If you have similarly hurt your children, then apologize. Tell them you will always love them, even when you disagree. Help them to see that this topic will always be personal for you as it is for them. Set some mutual boundaries, and you honor them even if your child doesn’t.
That’s just a partial list of how to interact with your child. But what about you? Some tips about how to take care of yourself will follow in a future blog. Stay tuned!
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