“Leaving Home for the First Time”
by Richard and Linda Eyre
Editor’s Note: Richard and Linda Eyre will be guest hosts along with Dr. Joseph Allen on a “Book of Mormon Symposium at Sea” leaving March 21. To learn more about this uplifting and exotic Caribbean cruise click here
In the previous four columns, we’ve tried to share a lot of perspectives and general suggestions about preparing for and dealing with the remarkable phenomenon of children growing up and leaving home.
NOW IT’S TIME TO GET SPECIFIC! (And a little more detailed. This is a long column, but it’s organized by questions so you can skip over the ones you don’t need.) There are four “peak emotion and peak need” times regarding a grown son or daughter. They come when:
1. He or she leaves home for the first time.
2. He or she begins a job or career.
3. He or she gets married.
4. He or she has a child (your grandchild).
There are some pretty interesting questions that we each ask ourselves at each of these times, and while the answers to these questions may be different for each of us, it always helps to see the answers of other empty nest parents. So for the next four columns we are going to look at the most common questions and concerns parents have at each of the four “stages” listed above. Here (after a little introductory comment) are the common questions for when a child first leaves home (with some sample responses from real parents with names changed to protect the innocent):
Introduction to “First Departure”
Remember that parents experience a whole gamut of new emotions when children leave home for the first time. We Eyres have felt it ourselves eight different times – felt the deeply intertwined pride and worry that attend a child’s striking out on his or her own. We’ve also sat down in discussion groups with dozens of other parents who have experienced it – and recorded their feelings and observations. We had two purposes in doing so: (1) To help you to know what you’ll face, how it will feel, and that you’re not the only one facing it or feeling it, and (2) to help you get in mind how you’ll respond to your feelings and the issues that arise – and to your children’s feelings and issues.
For some families this initial leaving is a celebration and a “mission accomplished” for the parents. For other moms and dads, that first departure for college or an apartment is a trauma and heartbreak. Whether your children are moving across town or across the country, emotions will run high for a while – many of them bitter-sweet emotions similar to those felt by your children.
Here are some of the most common questions Empty Nest Parents (ENPs) have about this first phase – each followed by some ideas and opinions from other parents who may be a lot like you and some answers and advice for Leaving The Nest kids (LTNs) who may be a lot like your children.
The ENP and LTN responses are labled so you’ll know which is which. We or Saren (our eldest daughter) will put our own thoughts and summary (labeled “L&R” or “Saren”) after the other responses to each question.
1. When should kids leave home? When should I push them out of the nest?
Bette (ENP): I think when they turn eighteen it’s really time to go – time to be independent and out in the world.
Winifred (ENP): Either when they get a full-time job or when they start college.
Carolyn (ENP): What’s the rush? Sometimes it makes so much more sense for them to keep living at home if there’s a good college close by. Or even if they’re working – they can pay a little rent and keep living at home. I want to keep mine around as long as possible. My mom lives with us too, and I love having the three generations under one roof. I actually like this “sandwich generation” thing. I don’t know where we get this idea that kids need to move out or that parents shouldn’t move in. If we love family, why not live together as much as we can – as many as the house can hold? Everyone says it takes away your freedom. On the contrary, Tom and I travel a lot, and it’s so great because my mom and our boys are there to watch the house. The place is way too big for just the two of us anyway. We’ve got three generations living here, and we each live our own lives. We just overlap where it’s advantageous.
Peter (ENP): We couldn’t seem to get our girls to move out. Then Bill decided to move back in because his job didn’t work out in California, and he brought a roommate with him. So guess what we did? We moved out. Now we’ve got a quiet little condo, and our kids have the house. It’s funny because we told Bill we didn’t want him to move back in because he’d lose his independence. But he was as independent as ever when he moved back in. We were the ones who were losing our independence. So we moved out.
Alice (LTN): I think kids should leave home when they’re ready. That means they should have learned how to handle money and make good decisions on their own. Hopefully this “readiness” should come about when they finish high school – but if not, I think parents should get their kids ready – take a few months, if necessary, and help them get ready to face the world before they leave.
Phil (LTN): I still live at home and I’m twenty-eight. I’m an only child, and my parents talked me into going to school near home. I ended up getting a job here since all the recruiting at my school was for jobs around here. My parents were always careful about not getting too involved in my life, so things worked out pretty well. My dad died last year, and now I feel like I can’t leave home because my mom depends on me. I can’t complain about free rent and great home-cooked meals. But I always have to wonder how it would be if I’d gone away to school. There are so many areas of the country I’d like to try out. I don’t know what will happen when I get married – my mom will probably want us to live with her! I don’t think it’s good for her to be so dependent on me, but I don’t know what to do about it.
R&L: As we see from these ENP and LTN comments, there is no right answer about when kids should leave. But it’s good for each family to think about the question and about the individual natures of their own kids. And whatever you conclude, set it up so that the rules and expectations are clear and agreed upon.
Saren: I have friends who are thirty-something and still live at home – just because it works well for them and their family. But I have other friends who still live at home and hate it. Still other friends felt “kicked out” by their parents too soon in their lives. Maybe one of the biggest issues to address with your kids is what you need from each other and how you can have a positive relationship regardless of whether you live with them, nearby, or far away. After hearing my friend Phil’s story as well as Peter J.’s story, I realized that the issue of leaving home doesn’t just have to do with your children’s independence, it has to do with yours as well. Some of my friends’ mothers are very dependent on their kids – their whole identity is wrapped up in being a mother, and they don’t know what they’d do with themselves if their kids left home. I think it’s so important to encourage your kids to get out on their own and not cling to them or make them feel guilty for leaving! If they want to stay and you can agree on how things should be together, great. But if either party feels at all resentful about the situation, you’re headed for trouble! Let your kids leave when they feel it’s time! Let them stay if they aren’t quite ready to leave, but help them plan when they’ll be leaving.
2. Is going on a mission the best way to leave home for the first time?
R&L: This is a very interesting sub-question. Our experience (both as parents and as mission president) is that missionaries usually start off stronger and are less homesick if it isn’t their first time away from home. Missionaries who have had a year of college or been away somewhere for a semester or a summer internship or a job are generally a little more mature and a bit more ready for their missions. This isn’t the right formula for everyone, but think about it!
3. What emotions will I feel when my child first leaves home?
Fred (ENP): For me it was bittersweet. I guess I knew I’d feel pretty emotional about seeing her go off to college. What surprised me was that it kind of felt like a celebration, too. I mean, it just seemed to occur to us that this was a happy time. I looked at how beautiful she was, and I could see that she was really ready for this new adventure and new independence. It was better than her high-school graduation. I was choking up, but I felt excited and happy at the same time.
Marilyn (ENP): It’s way harder for me when I see my boys go. The girls are my buddies, and we’ll just talk about everything on the phone and have a great shared experience. But my boys still need me to mother them and I won’t be there! I think it’s just the opposite with Fred. He gets more emotional when our daughters leave.
Marion (ENP): My daughter didn’t leave home until she got married (after her junior year of college), but it was still really hard for me to see her go! It’s at dinnertime that I miss Brianne most. That’s when we used to talk. She was always hanging out in the kitchen when she was home. Every time I walk in there I have a little pang of nostalgia and worry. I wonder how long this will last.
Jim R. (ENP): I’ll tell you, it was the weirdest combination of emotions I’ve ever felt – different feelings I didn’t know you could have at the same time. I felt a kind of elation, actually, but right along with it, I felt something really close to despair. This marvelous new young adult was going out into the world, and I had enormous confidence in her. I also felt happy and excited for her. But big pieces of me were going with her – had I done all I could for her and taught her what she’d need to know? And how could I stand it tomorrow when she didn’t come down to breakfast?
Shawni (LTN): In talking to my mother-in-law about this, she said it didn’t really hit her until after her second child left home how difficult it was to let a child go. With her first, it was a totally new experience, and she didn’t realize all that would change after he left. When he came home after being gone for quite some time, she realized how much he had changed – matured and grown up. She realized he would never be her little boy again. This made it a lot more difficult when she sent the second child off because she realized she was saying goodbye not only to her child being around the home all the time but also to the child she knew, and life would change forever. Not that this was a negative change – she was proud to have her children grow up and mature. But it was emotionally difficult to say goodbye to those teenage boys and realize that when they returned they would be adults.
Saren: I think my parents had a pretty hard time letting me go. I was their first, after all. But they set up expectations, and that really helped them as well as me. We knew when to expect to hear from each other and see each other. I also think that in my case, my parents missed all the babysitting and housecleaning I did when I was home. Since I was the oldest and took on lots of responsibility, I don’t think my leaving home was as much of a “relief” for them as it is for some parents!
R&L: You’ll feel a wide range of emotions when a child leaves. The important thing is to talk about what you feel – together with your child – face to face before he or she leaves and by phone afterward. Keep things positive and remind each other that what you’re both feeling is normal – and is evidence of your love and concern for each other.
4. What should I worry about when my child leaves? What shouldn’t I worry about?
Fred (ENP): The real question isn’t about our worries. It’s about the real dangers. And the biggest danger is that we’re not with them so we don’t see the warning signals. There are a million different problems they could have, and we’re not going to know enough to even know what to ask about, so the big thing is to have enough good and frequent communication that we know what’s going on!
Kate (LTN): I think the best way for you to deal with your worries is to talk to your kids about them. I know lots of friends’ parents that seem to worry, worry, worry – but they don’t seem to ask many questions, so they don’t know if their worries are founded on anything. Before worrying, ask questions. Keep that communication wide open and make sure you are really listening to your kids. If you’ve taught your kids to make good decisions, you shouldn’t have to worry.
R&L: There is a particular basketball coach we’ve long admired because of his uncommonly calm demeanor during games. No matter how good or bad things are going on the court for his team, he seems to be enjoying the game. We once had a chance to ask him about this, and his answer impressed me so much I can remember it almost verbatim: “Most of my coaching is done in practice, before the game begins. I teach them all I can, and we have a pre-game meeting to go over it all. Then when the game starts, I turn them loose. I hope one of the things I’ve taught them is to learn from their mistakes in a game, so I’m not going to take a kid out every time he screws up.”
This coach does call timeouts to apply what he has taught to specific situations in the game, but he doesn’t try to teach the players something different during the game than he’s taught them in practice.
Parenting is a lot the same. When children move out of the home and into the real game of life, parents have to mostly rely on what the kids have already learned. Some good “pre-departure” reviews are a good idea, and timeouts are the calls and letters and visits, but basically it’s a matter of having some confidence in what you’ve already taught.
Saren: A lot of your worries will go away once you’ve talked to your kids about the other questions in this chapter and established together some basic principles and agreements about how you want to communicate with each other and help each other as you move into a new phase of your relationship.
5. What if they’re really homesick? Or, what if they don’t seem to miss me at all?
Peter (ENP): One really important thing is to discuss what a good thing homesickness is. After all, it absolutely demonstrates how much we love those we miss.
Pam (ENP): On the other hand, if your departed child is relatively free from homesickness, take that as a positive, too. Praise him or her for his independence and at the same time prepare him for what might come by telling him that a little longing for him is not a bad thing.
Saren: Once they leave home, one of two things will typically happen to your kids: either they’ll have a pretty hard time for a while as they realize how good they had it when they were home with you, or they’ll have so much fun trying out their new wings, meeting new people, and living a new life that they won’t really seem to miss home at all. Either way, things will be fine. If your kids are super homesick and you call them a lot, send them packages, maybe even go visit them; they’ll feel secure about your support, and hopefully they’ll get used to their new situation with a little time. Perhaps if you ask your kids a lot about the things they really like about their new situation that will help them focus on the positive. But they also need you to take their concerns and hard times seriously. Sometimes I’d call my parents and complain and complain – and I really didn’t want them to give me an answer or tell me everything was okay. I guess I just needed them to commiserate with me. Sometimes your kids just need you to say, “Wow, that sounds really hard” or “I’m sorry your week has been so terrible. I’m so proud of you for making it through.” A lot of times, it was just annoying when my parents tried to reassure me that everything was okay. It didn’t feel okay to me, and it felt like they were discounting my worries. I think kids need parents to ask what they can do to help make things better, and sometimes they just need you to listen and agree when they tell you that things are hard.
If your kids are having a great time, be happy for them! Get excited about the things they’re excited about and call them to do quick check-ins. They’ll really appreciate calls, notes, e-mails, whatever – even if they don’t respond right away. Try not to send them on guilt trips about not calling you enough – you don’t want to play the role of the whiny parent! Given a little time and confidence, most kids settle into a pretty good pattern of talking to their parents and sharing what’s going on in their lives. And given a little time, they’ll doubtless hit some bumps and need a little advice, support, and TLC from you. Keep that door wide open so they’ll be able to come to you when they need to. You can keep the door open by keeping the calls and notes and packages coming no matter how unresponsive your kids may be at times.
R&L: Saren put it well. Put more mental effort into trying to empathize with what they feel than in trying to fix or correct it.
6. What do I want my kids to be to me as they take off on their own? An extension of myself? An accomplishment to be proud of? No longer a burden? A chance to do fun things vicariously through them?
Pam J.: What a child whose moved out should be, in our minds, is a successful apprentice in life – someone we’ve tried to teach and to train who is now out learning new things, trying his or her wings, and finding his or her own happiness. I don’t think I should live through them, but I love it when what they do broadens my own horizons. I love that with their increased independence and freedom, my own freedom has also increased – not that they were ever a burden, but they did tie me down!
Katherine P.: I think your kids should now be your friends! They couldn’t really be that in high school – you were too much of a disciplining parent. But now, with them a little more on their own, you can really feel like friends!
Jonah: Remember that your children will always be your children. The memories that you have made with them will always be far beyond any memories or relationships made with friends. Let your kids help keep you young by involving you in their lives. Advice will move in both directions if you ask for it, and that is what makes everyone feel good.
Jayne: My parents are wonderful about heaping praise on me. They think I’m the greatest – or so they say. Everything I do is wonderful, and they’re always bragging about me to everyone they know, which makes me feel great. But it also kind of bothers me. I feel a lot of pressure to always be doing something that they can brag about. I wish they’d get excited about some of their own talents and interests and get their own stuff to brag about! Sometimes I just feel bad for them – they’re both retired and don’t seem to have enough exciting stuff in their own lives, so they use my life as something to be involved in and talk about. It’s sort of like people who watch soap operates all the time – they talk about the characters on TV all the time and live vicariously through them, and it’s sort of pathetic. It’s not that my parents are pathetic at all. They’re wonderful, great people. I just wish they’d do more with their abilities and pay a little less attention to me!
Derek: When I left home, my mom totally redecorated the whole house, threw all my stuff out (pretty much), and made my room into a cozy little sitting room off the master bedroom. She took a full-time job that was really exciting for her, and I thought, “Go, Mom! Way to get on with your life!” But she seemed so caught up with all this new stuff – maybe this is selfish for me to feel this way – but it seemed like she was just glad to be done with me, like I was a project she’d successfully finished and now she could move on. She calls me every week , and we are together at the holidays, and she’s always so nice to me when I’m home – but I feel like it’s all a big duty for her, not something she really likes. My dad’s never been a very involved parent, so things didn’t change much when I left home. He asks me if I need money sometimes. That’s about it.
Saren: I’ve talked to a lot of people who seem to feel pressure from their parents in one way or another – to be what their parents want them to be, to give their parents something to brag about, and so on. Some people, like Derek, just want a little more assurance that they’re still an important priority to their parents. In general, we want to make our parents proud of us, but we need you to be proud of our happiness, not just the selected accomplishments that you feel are noteworthy or in line with your vision for us.
R&L: We agree! So we guess we’d better start acting like it. It really is important to let our children become who they really choose to be rather than some preconception we have of who we think they ought to be.
7. Should I push my kids to go to a Church-sponsored university? Will they be able to stay active in the Church if they don’t?
Charity Jade: It’s different for every kid, but I don’t think they have to go to BYU to stay active.
Kent E.: Well, Church universities are great, and they’re such a deal financially!
Pam J.: Hey, choosing the right college is hugely important! I think a lot of research should be done, by parent and child!
John: When I decided to go to Dartmouth, my parents (especially my mother) were concerned about whether I would “go inactive.” They’d heard stories about kids who go away to college and can’t find many Mormon friends and just drift away from church activity. They were also concerned about the peer pressure I might feel to drink or do other things against the teachings of the Church. I was a little offended that they were so worried about me. I felt like I had a good testimony and that their worries showed they didn’t have much faith in me. Since I’d spent most of my growing-up years in Utah, I really felt like it would be good for me to go to school where there weren’t so many Mormons – I thought it would help my testimony, not hinder it, if I was surrounded by non-Mormons. I would have opportunities to share the gospel and stand up for what I believed. I assured them that I’d be going to church every Sunday and that I would be living by all the standards I’d grown to respect through my upbringing and church teachings. I told them about my plans to be a wonderful example to the non-Mormons who’d surround me.
But I have to admit, things were harder than I’d expected. It was hard to say no when fun activities were happening on Sundays. I often felt sort of embarrassed to refuse alcoholic drinks, and when my dorm mates talked about their sexual experiences, I didn’t know whether to listen or lecture or what. I got a calling at church right away that helped me be sure to be at church every Sunday (I found out later that my mom had called the bishop to politely suggest that he give me such a calling!), and I was grateful for that. I had a small handful of Mormon friends, most of whom were very different from me, but I learned to really appreciate all of them. My testimony really grew as I had daily opportunities to explain my beliefs or the actions that were determined by my beliefs.
I really feel like it’s important to let your kids go to whatever university they want – and show faith in their ability to be strong members of the Church in any situation. After their initial worries turned out to be unfounded, my parents became strong proponents of Mormon kids going away to non-Mormon colleges. All of my siblings and many of my cousins and Mormon neighbors have had great experiences going away to school and being part of a Mormon minority rather than a Mormon majority. I do think, though, that it’s important that there be some Mormons at any school where your kids go – it’s so important to have at least a couple of Mormon friends.
Saren: I think every kid needs a different sort of educational experience. There’s no “one right place” for all kids to go to school, be they Mormon or not. I’m so glad my parents encouraged me to look at lots of different schools. Going to school in Boston, I had a strong student ward to attend, and that was really important to me. I don’t think I’d ever encourage my kids to go to a school where there wasn’t a good ward with quite a few single students in it. I spent most of my time with nonmembers, but I also had a tight-knit group of fun friends who wee members of the Church. I think parents ought to encourage their kids to explore all the options out there and help them find the place where their own unique abilities, talents, interests, and personality will be best situated.
R&L: We agree with Saren, although we all understand that cost is a factor, and we’re grateful that there are also lower-cost alternatives like local community colleges.
8. How often should I visit? How often should they visit me?
Charity Jade: It obviously depends on how far away they live and how much money you have. Not too often if they’re close. As often as you can if they’re far!
R&L: When both of our oldest girls were in Boston (one a frightened little freshman), we actually arranged our affairs so we could live at nearby Lake Winnipesauke for a few weeks in September, home-schooling the younger kids so we could be closer to our homesick-prone college kids. This was a rather extreme measure and one that wouldn’t be possible in most situations, but it did make their transition a little easier, and hopefully it demonstrated that we would do whatever we could. We also later found that they could endure fairly lengthy periods between our visits to them (or theirs to us) if they knew exactly when the next visit would be.
Irene: Visits home or visits from parents seem to be a great remedy for homesickness. But I think it’s all too easy if you’re going to college close to home to retreat there when things are tough. I would say that it’s important if you live close by to regulate the visits. Otherwise, how has any sort of independence been reached?
R&L: Maybe the simplest answer is, “As often as your children want you to visit or as often as you can afford to, whichever is less.” A few visits from parents (depending on how far away from home the child is) cannot only ease the transition but also give parents a clearer picture and perspective of where the child is and what he or she needs and doesn’t need.
Saren: Bottom line, all parents and all kids have different needs. It’s important to look at your own individual situations and talk about what’s feasible (based on the money and time available) and what everyone’s hopes and expectations are. Then work out a plan that feels good to everyone concerned. It may well be that visits will seem much more necessary during the first year than they will down the road. I think everyone concerned can benefit from visits that are as frequent as logically and logistically possible in the first year. Such visits can help ease your kids into becoming more independent. Gradually, visits will become less of an ached-for necessity and more of a nice, fun occasion that happens a few times a year.
9. How should I handle financial issues? How much support (if any) do I want to provide?
Marilyn M.: Basically, it’s simple. We support them completely until they are married. Then they’ve got their own family and they’re on their own.
Kent E.: Listen, I had to work my way through college, and I’m a better person for it. It made me self-reliant. I want my daughter to have that same experience. She’ll thank me for it one day.
Pam J.: I put my college kids on a strict budget. And since it’s my money, I get to make up the budget.
Lonnie P.: The last thing I want my son to worry about right now is money. He’ll worry enough about that later on. Right now I just want him worrying about grades. If he keeps his grades up, I’ll keep his bank account up.
Saren: Wow, there are lots of points of view on this one – and lots of ways of handling finances that seem to work. Parents have all kinds of different ideas, and I saw finances handled in a variety of good ways by the parents of my high-school and college friends. Different approaches seem to work well for different families – and the success of all approaches seems to be connected to the way kids are brought up all their lives and what their expectations are. I’d say the most important thing is to discuss financial support well in advance of your kids’ leaving for school. Help them work out how much college will cost and then work out, together, who will pay for what. Put expectations and commitments from both parties in writing.
R&L: We agree with Saren’s summary here. But there is more to it than that – much more. We’ll present a full-fledged financial strategy in the appendix.
10. How should I be involved in my kids’ dating lives? How much should I ask? When should I worry? What about their roommates or friends?
Kenneth W.: Again, give advice only if they ask.
Dick D.: Know all you can. Ask all you can. Just because they’re gone doesn’t mean you don’t still have responsibility for them! They’re in more danger now, and you’ve got less control. There are physical dangers and emotional ones. Be involved! Deep down, they’ll appreciate your concerns.
Shawni: I wish my parents had asked me more about the people I was dating back in high school and college. I’m not sure why they didn’t, but it seems to me the only thing they asked is whether I was kissing anyone too much. I welcomed even this much interest. I think because I was one of the first in the family to date, they didn’t really know how much to be involved. Now I think they are so great with the people my youngest siblings are dating. They know all about every date. I think the communication has just become much more open. Having said this, I definitely think there should be a balance. I had a lot of friends whose parents were much too involved in their relationships. But my parents just seemed to trust whatever I was doing and didn’t want to pry too much. As much as some kids may love this, I wished my parents would have been more interested in what I was thinking and feeling.
Saren: Your kids will have some interesting and tough issues related to dating once they leave home. They may be excited about all the new people to go out with. They may find themselves in a relationship that feels serious pretty quickly. I think it’s great for parents to be happy for their kids when they’re excited about their dating lives. As your kids get to know people of the opposite sex that they like a lot, they may face some difficult questions about spending a lot of time with one person, keeping standards regarding physical intimacy, and figuring out what sorts of relationships they want now and what they’ll want in the future.
Your children will probably be excited to tell you about the people they’re meeting – if you have a good relationship with them and if you don’t have a history of being judgmental about their friends. They’ll really want you to like their boyfriends and girlfriends. It seems like kids get confused and conflicted when their parents don’t like someone that they really like a lot. Sometimes parents’ disapproval makes kids want to do the opposite of whatever they advise – just to prove that their parents can’t tell them what to do. If you meet and like the people they go out with, tell them that you like them, and ask about them whenever you talk. If you’re worried about people they’re dating, be careful not to judge too soon. Get to know more about them before you decide what you think about them. Ask your kids questions in a genuinely interested way (they can see through you when you ask questions to which you think you already know the answers). When you’ve given someone a really fair chance, and you’re worried that the person isn’t good for your child, I think it’s good to express your thoughts — explain what you’re worried about and why. Your child will probably appreciate your honesty. But you need to recognize that who he or she spends time with is ultimately not your decision.
11. What should I do if I’m worried about some of the things my kids are doing or not doing?
Marilyn J.: Just quite worrying. You’ve done all you can to teach and train them. Now you just have to pull back and see what happens. Pray for them – that’s about all.
Winifred R.: Be open enough to talk about each other’s worries. You want to know their worries, so you should tell them your worries. The two go together. Don’t just tell them your worries about them; tell them your concerns about everything, and ask them to tell you theirs. Just try not to look too shocked if they tell you something shocking.
Saren: Sooner or later, kids are going to see things parents wish they wouldn’t. Sadly but realistically, kids will have some pretty negative experiences. But if parents can open the lines of communication and just listen to their kids – even if their kids tell them something that shocks them, they can help their kids so much. A child who confides in her parents – especially something that’s not admirable – is reaching out for help and needs understanding, not judgment. If you know your parents love you and trust you, you will tell them what you are up to. You’ll feel guilty if you do something they wouldn’t approve of, and you’ll want to improve if you don’t think you’re quite up to par with the good things they have taught you. But the relationship has to be good to begin with for this to work. I think parents need to still show their children they care just as much about them (if not more) even when they don’t live at home anymore. This includes phone calls, listening, letters, visits – as much contact as possible.
We like the model of the solar system. We’ve even nicknamed our nine kids after the nine planets (Venus always loved her nickname, but Earth and Uranus were never too fond of theirs). For us, the symbolism is that we want to spin each of our children off into their own successful and independent orbit, self-sufficient and with their own moons. But we still want our own gravity to hold all of us together as an extended solar system. We want each planet to have its own gravity but also to share a common gravity. We hope that we can all stay in the same moral and spiritual proximity within the larger universe, and that each of them can continue to be energized by our warmth.
This is a helpful way to conceptualize the departure of our children. We didn’t bring them into the world and raise them to live with us forever or to be appendages of ourselves. The goal of parenting is to gradually work your way out of a job – never to fully retire but to semi-retire – to spin your children off and then watch and enjoy their exciting new orbit. We need to relish that idea rather than resist it.
Keep holding and protecting your children with the gravity of your love. Keep lighting them with the brightness of your confidence and support. Keep warming them with the fire of your loyalty and commitment. But let them spin on their own axis and move out into their own orbit.
What an excellent parenting model we have in our Heavenly Father – particularly as we depart from our home with him for the first time. God taught and nurtured us closely in his home, but when we left, his was a plan of agency. He knew that our growth would be facilitated by making our own choices and even by our inevitable mistakes. Yet he is always available, always willing to listen and to guide. And he encourages our close contact and frequent communication. In fact, he repeatedly asks us to ask because when his advice or help comes at our initiative, it does not violate our agency. His response to us is always wise and measured. He allows us to work through many of our own difficulties and dilemmas rather than miraculously bailing us out. Yet he is always there when our own resources run out. His love is completely unconditional.
Beyond the example of God’s parenting and his plan of salvation, we are also blessed to have the practical, day-to-day help of an expanded family we call a ward, another set of teachers, counselors, and leaders to back us up and support us. And even beyond that, we have the seminary program and the institute program or even a Church university. And still beyond that, we have Church missions, which are the best transition imaginable between childhood and adulthood.
The Church also puts us in the powerful spiritual position that allows us to remind our recently departed children (and ourselves) of who they (and we) really are – part of the same divine family. We are spiritual siblings as well as parent and child, and we are here with reasons and priorities for living, eternally dependent on God and interdependent on each other.
Finally and most important, LDS parents have the overwhelming advantage of knowing who the real parent is and of being able to go to him in a kind of direct-stewardship prayer that essentially says, “Father, please help thy child whom thou has entrusted to my care. Thou knowest her far better than I. Inspire and guide me to be a wise steward and where her needs go beyond my capacities, please intervene.” Alma the elder prayed this way, and so can we.
Join us for column 6 where we’ll get into the most common questions about the period when your child starts a career
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1. What has been your hardest adjustment as your child (children) grew up and left home?
2. What’s the best idea you’ve had for communicating effectively with a child who has left home?
3. What questions or concerns would you like to see addressed by other empty nest parents?
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