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The first stage is the “dependent stage.” The second is the “interdependent stage,” and the last one is the “independent stage.” The rule-of-thumb breakdown goes like this:
Each stage is a window of time that flexes depending on the child and the parents and the situations that reveal how a child is maturing through each stage.
For example, some children will be independent long before their twenty-second birthday. Others will live with their parents long after their twenty-second birthday. The stages are suggestive, not binary.
Also, the word independent is used in a limited sense, speaking only to a person’s ability to function well in the culture while providing a means for subsistence.
Self-reliance is a non-communicable attribute that belongs to God. Not even Jesus was self-reliant (John 5:30). The typical starting time for “limited” independence is when a child graduates college, hence the 22-year line for the transition.
From birth to the two-year mark, a child is dependent on his parents (or guardians). An infant can do little as far as taking care of himself. Even as early mobility begins, he does not have the mental or physical capacity to do it alone or well.
By the time a child is two years old, his ability to explore the world around him begins to surpass his mental and physical capacities. This combination of limited intelligence and ever-increasing independence converge to create a stage of life some parents call the terrible twos, which is a terrible name.
This stage is an opportunity for a parent to bring shape to a small soul, which makes it one of the most amazing times in a child’s life. He begins to learn valuable character traits that will shape his heart for the rest of his life.
Humility, honor, integrity, submission, obedience, honesty, discretion, love, serving, and self-control are a few of the “character seeds” that a parent can plant in a child’s heart. If done well, these seeds will more than likely manifest as good fruit in a young man’s or woman’s life.
A two-year-old’s boundless energy and capacity to learn provides the proactive parent a pliable student for learning, which can happen in every context and situation in his life.
As the child migrates out of the “dependent stage,” the parent works at redrawing and expanding the lines of responsibilities between what the child should be doing and what the parent should be doing. The child’s growing capacities enable him for new and increasing responsibilities.
This “line redrawing-expansion-process” continues to evolve throughout the child’s life. The objective is always to be moving responsibilities away from the parents while giving them to the child. Like a time-released capsule, the parent is incrementally releasing the child into God’s world.
Nearly all of the heavy parental lifting happens before the child is 12 years old. The teenage years are more about affirming (or adjusting) the prior parental work that the parents parented into the child during the previous decade.
Like slow setting cement, the teenage years are when the child becomes mostly set in his ways. His manner of living (Ephesians 4:22) is in place, as he experiences an inward and increasing compulsion to do life independently.
The interdependent years reveal the parent’s modeling and teaching during the dependent years.
Most of the time, it’s a combination of the two.
Regeneration is the parent’s secret weapon (John 3:7; Romans 10:9; Revelation 20:15). Regardless of the child’s shaping influences, if he is born again at any time during childhood, the grace of God transforms any bad parental practices or Adamic influences.
Redemption is the parent’s only real safety net. No matter how awful a parent is or how evil the child is, God’s grace can gather it all and nail it to the cross of Christ. The birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession of Christ can change any child.
The best and worst parents are hopeless outside of God’s grace-empowered regeneration of a child. This perspective is where good and bad parents—however you determine such things—must guard their hearts.
In this way, it is not about the parenting, but about the grace of God in a child’s life. Parenting can be an asset or a liability, but the critical matter is that every parent must anchor their hope in the transformation that God provides: for by grace a child will turn out well (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Let’s say your child has finished college and is back in the home, which does not have to be a bad thing. There does not have to be any shame in living with your parents. Lucia lived with her parents until she married me when she was 28 years old. She thought about living on her own but chose not to because for several compelling reasons.
She extended and enjoyed her relationship with her parents, which she knew would considerably diminish after she set up her autonomous domestic empire. She benefited from the best of both worlds: enjoying her parents while living independently in God’s world.
There are no biblical mandates about an adult child living with his parents. Each circumstance and context stand on its merit, as the parent and child determine the most practical benefit and God-glorifying solution. If you have an adult child considering living in the home, here are three suggestive tips for your consideration.
Observe His Practice – What you see in your child is what your child has become. Whether good or bad, what he is today is what he will be should he marry. His practice is his pattern.
Your accurate and discerning observations of him are essential. This need is the same for any parent, regardless of the child’s age. People do not change at the marriage altar. They continue to be who they have been.
Whether the child is 2, 12, or 22, it is important to discern your child, so you can help him become more like Jesus. His future bride will praise you if you have the insight to perceive how he is and the courage to speak into his life. As long as he is in your home, your goal is to help him become like Jesus.
Assess His Maturity – If the Lord gives you a few more years to help your child mature, it is a bonus. It would be marvelous if all children married after they were mature enough to marry, but that is not always the case.
A solid working definition for biblical maturity is to be like Jesus. For two sound and practical templates for what Jesus-like-maturity is, check out Galatians 5:22-23; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
If your child is increasingly approximating those character traits, you should feel great about releasing him into the culture as a man who can live well under God’s authority.
Measure His Autonomy – The few years you are given to parent your child should be years of guiding him out of the nest. You do this by observing his practices while motivating him to a maturity that looks like Jesus.
When he can be Christlike while living autonomously in God’s world, you’ve completed your job. This kind of child will not need your ongoing surveillance (or your intervention) because he knows how to walk humbly with Jesus.
Practice, maturity, and autonomy provide you a framework to think about your ongoing shepherding of your adult child’s heart. As you are implementing these concepts, continue to give thought to him leaving the nest.
Unless there are prohibiting circumstances, that should be your goal. These final three tips will also serve you well as you equip your child for the rest of his life.
Responsibility – By this time, he should have gainful employment, which is an excellent opportunity for him to practice living on his own, though he is interdependent. One of the benefits of being in the home is that his parents can be ad hoc life coaches.
I would have loved to have had parents who could release me into the world while continuing to tether me to their wisdom and care. This privilege was not the case. I was a survivalist: tossed in the pond of life at an early age and required to sink or swim.
If you are an adult child and if your situation is similar to mine, I recommend you find your Paul. Every Timothy needs one. If we can serve you that way, let us know.
One of the ways you can help your child to learn how to live well in God’s world is for him to have ever-increasing responsibilities. Think through how to grow his to-do list. Think about what he should be doing as a 45-year old man with a wife and children, and plot a plan to help him get there.
Rules – We cannot live without rules. There are rules for driving, buying, working, and relaxing. Standards are good. Without the reinforcing structure of rules, there would be chaos.
If your adult child lives with you, one of the most loving things you can do is clarify the rules in your home. It is your home, not his. Just like it is God’s world, not his, he needs to learn how to live as a man under authority–yours and God’s.
If he humbly obeys and follows your leadership, life for him will be good. If he does not, it is your job to bring the appropriate consequences for misbehavior.
Guard – One of your strongest temptations will be to become his mini-messiah. You cannot change your child. Over-worrying about his lack of change or trying to over-control his life will not help him. Typically there are two ways a parent becomes a mini-messiah:
Marriage and parenting are the two hardest things a person will ever do. To do it well is to do it with the Lord. So, let me leave you with the best parenting advice you will ever receive. I read this in Paul Miller’s book, A Praying Life:
Pray often for your child.
Our best hope is in the transforming gospel. Only the regenerated soul is truly safe in this world and the one to come. Pray to that end.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).