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Parenting: A lifetime commitment for our adult children who still need love and guidance

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A family prays together after arriving for Sunday Mass in 2011 at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va. Parenthood always is a work in process. There always seems to be something more and something genuinely important for parents to consider in raising children. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

Parenthood always is a work in process. There always seems to be something more and something genuinely important for parents to consider in raising children.

Repeatedly, a parent quietly asks: “What am I? Who is this child of mine?”

I have been a parent for only 48 years. Do I still have lots to learn? Absolutely.

Just as parents of little children continue year by year to reassess their role and its scope, their own parents wrestle with similar challenges. Real life’s unique complications leave parents of adult children, who often are grandparents too, asking what it truly means to take parenthood seriously at this point in life.

Long ago, these older parents were their children’s first teachers, role models, companions, authority figures, decision-makers. Their children counted on them for so much!

Now they are parents of adult children, who may be parents themselves. How cautious are they about rushing in where angels fear to tread when witnessing an adult child’s problems and major challenges?

Of course, many parents of adult children may be more than happy to exchange their long-ago roles for new roles that call for serving as models of support, encouragement and, certainly, commitment and love.

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My conversations with other older parents indicate that their relationships with adult children vary across the board. Their interactions reflect their unique personalities and backgrounds.

That means suggestions about how they might interact are only that, suggestions. Notably, however, Pope Francis has made quite a few suggestions for family members to draw upon in their relationships.

Older parents wondering how to keep faith alive in their relationships with adult children may derive inspiration from something Pope Francis wrote in 2016. “It is a profound spiritual experience to contemplate our loved ones with the eyes of God and to see Christ in them,” he advised in the apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia,” No. 323). He added:

“This demands a freedom and openness which enable us to appreciate their dignity.”

Does seeing others through God’s eyes sound nearly impossible? Still, attempting to see others through God’s eyes might jump-start an awareness that faith is meant not only to be heard but to be seen.

How will our faith become visible to others if our actions do not show that we respect them and recognize their dignity?

I ought to mention listening. Done well, listening to someone’s most pressing concerns is a way to make faith visible.

Listening differs greatly from talking. Good listeners demonstrate that what others have to say should be heard.

Listening is “an act of love,” Pope Francis said in 2019. “We are called to encounter others and to listen to their life stories, their cry for help.”

But is listening a form of action or of passivity? Pope Francis commented:

“Having time for others, to enter into dialogue, recognizing with a contemplative gaze the presence and action of God in their lives, to bear witness with actions more than with words to the new life of the Gospel is truly a service of love that changes reality.”

It can be assumed that neither today’s older parents nor their adult children possess immunity to life’s difficulties, to times when health issues, financial difficulties or a big job change drain strength from their family.

Several of Pope Francis’ observations in the 2018 apostolic exhortation “Rejoice and Be Glad” (“Gaudete et Exsultate”) seem pertinent here. “Those who put their faith in God … do not desert others in bad times; they accompany them in their anxiety and distress, even though doing so may not bring immediate satisfaction,” he said (No. 112).

The pope remarked, too, that “it is not good when we look down on others like heartless judges, lording it over them and always trying to teach them lessons.” He recommended following this advice of St. John of the Cross: “Rejoice in the good of others as if it were your own” (No. 117).

Remember, Pope Francis urged, that “Christian joy is usually accompanied by a sense of humor.” Furthermore, “ill humor is no sign of holiness” (No. 126).

I mentioned attentive listening as a skill for parents of adult children to consider keeping close at hand. Life experience can serve as an invaluable resource too.

If parents of adult children learned from experience that life can be hard, did they also experience tough time periods that turned out surprisingly well? Sharing such memories with adult children can be a way to bring the virtue of hope’s strength into the real-life mix of family life.

If the adult children also are parents, this may be particularly valuable to them as they encounter each new and possibly turbulent stage of life that rises to the surface as their children explore what “growing up” means.

When shared honestly and with a dose of humility, the long view of life’s nerve-wracking moments can be a gift worth sharing with younger family members, one of many ways to allow faith to become visible in interactions across the generations.

Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.