Tips on Parenting a Child from Zero to Adulthood

Tips on Parenting a Child from Zero to Adulthood

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The goal of parenting is to rear a child to adulthood as a man or woman living under God’s authority. The hope-filled goal is for your child to step out into God’s world that final time, as they exit your home, as a person under His authority. The transition from when they once submitted and obeyed you, now they desire to submit to and obey God as an adult operating as missional agents in His world. This process of training a child to that future aspiration happens in three stages.

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Child Development

The first stage is the dependent stage, the second is the interdependent stage, and the final one is the independent stage. The rule-of-thumb breakdown is as follows:

  1. The dependent stage is from 0 to 2 years of age.
  2. The interdependent stage is from 2 to 22 years of age.
  3. The independent stage is from 22 years of age until death.

Each stage is a window of time that flexes depending on the child, the parents, and the situations that influence a child’s maturation through each stage. For example, some children will be independent long before their twenty-second birthday, and others will live with their parents long after. 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 their limited independence is when a child graduates college, hence the 22-year line for the transition.

Dependent Stage

From birth to the two-year mark, a child is dependent on his parents (or guardians). An infant can do little to take care of himself. Even as early mobility begins, he does not have the mental or physical capacity to live alone. By the time a child is two years old, his ambition to explore the world around him surpasses his mental and physical capacities to keep up with his desires. 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 not terrible but an opportunity for a parent to bring shape to a small soul that knows no bounds and will run as wild as the parent permits.

This age is 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 traits that a parent begins to seed into the child’s heart. Structure and compliance are the most essential things at this early stage. If done well, these seeds will manifest as good fruit in a young person’s life. I’m not discounting the grace of God, which transcends all our efforts, but speaking exclusively to the role of a parent to plant and water while trusting God for future growth. A two-year-old’s boundless energy and capacity to learn provide the proactive parent with a pliable student for learning in every context and situation in his life.

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Interdependent Stage

As the child migrates out of the dependent stage, the parent works at redrawing and expanding the lines of responsibility between what the child should be doing and what the parent should be doing. The child’s growing capacities enable him to take on new and increasing responsibilities, which he is eager to accept. This line redrawing-expansion process continues to evolve throughout the child’s young life. The child is malleable, and the stage is fluid. The parent operates in the Spirit, always adjusting according to progressive changes in the child. The objective is always to shift the 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 and adjusting the 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. When the parent comes to the counselor with a rebellious teen, in almost all cases, it’s too late. The cement is set, and it will only be the sledgehammer of God that breaks the young adult’s heart, reorienting him to the Lord.

The interdependent years reveal the parent’s modeling and teaching during the dependent years. I’m not suggesting that the parents are at fault primarily if they have a rebellious teen, but they will be the primary shaping influences for good or evil. The first half of the interdependent stage (2 to 12) is the parent’s primary work in the child’s heart. The last half of the interdependent stage (12 to 22) is when the parent motivates the child to continue as they are or to try to adjust any broken things. Most of the time, it’s a combination of the two. The child is mostly good, and the parent is spurring him on to maturity (Hebrews 10:24-25). Or, the child is mostly disobedient, and the parent is looking for reinforcement through intervention, hoping the child does not walk away from the faith of the parents.

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Regeneration is the parent’s secret weapon and only hope for the child’s transformation (John 3:7; Romans 10:9; Revelation 20:15). Everything else is window dressing, or as Jesus talked about in Matthew 23, it’s someone who may look good on the outside, but the inside is rotten to the core. If he is born again at any time during his childhood, the grace of God will transform any bad parental practices or Adamic influences. Redemption is the parent’s only genuine 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 their children. This theological and unbending truth is where good and bad parents—however you determine such things—must guard their hearts. A legalistic parent will think they made their child bad because of their personal failures. A different type of legalistic parent will think they made their child good because of their righteous deeds. Both of them err. It is not about parenting but about the grace of God in a child’s life. Parenting can be an asset or a liability—no doubt—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).

Independent Stage

Let’s say your child completes college and is back at home, which is not necessarily wrong. 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 of several compelling reasons. Lucia had a great relationship with her parents. She had no interest and saw no particular benefit in living on her own. She worked full-time and was fully providing for herself. She gave her parents a modest monthly rent payment as though she was living on her own. She saved her extra money for marriage. 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: being with her parents while living independently in God’s world.

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Adult Child at Home

There are no biblical mandates regarding adult children living with their parents. Each circumstance and context stand on its merit, as the parent and child determine the most practical benefit and God-glorifying solution, knowing the season is transitional. If you have an adult child 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. You must have an accurate understanding of who he is. All parents should practice objective discernment of their children, 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 was like, check out Galatians 5:22-23 and 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. If your child is increasingly approximating the character traits in these two passages, you should feel great about releasing him into the culture as a man who can live well under God’s authority.

Measure His Autonomy: Whatever years you have left with him should be spent guiding him out of the nest. You do this by observing his practices while motivating him to a maturity that looks like Jesus—per the two templates above. 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 intervention because he knows how to walk humbly with Jesus. I’m assuming he will permit you to speak into his life while realizing that many children are not humble or self-aware enough to ask for spiritual guidance.

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Three Adult Child Tips

Practice, maturity, and autonomy provide a framework for thinking about your ongoing shepherding of your adult child’s heart. As you implement these concepts, your goal is for him to leave the nest. Unless there are prohibiting circumstances, you want to release him into God’s world. These final three tips will 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 the 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. 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. One of the ways you can help your child 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, and neither can he. There are rules for driving, buying, working, and relaxing. Structure and standards are good concepts that teach us how to function well. 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 will be good for him. If he does not, it is your job to impose the appropriate consequences for his 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 manipulate his life will not work in the way you hope. Typically, there are two ways a parent becomes a mini-messiah. First, the parent will not correct or discipline the child because they want to protect him from pain. The parent does not understand how their lack of obedience by withholding discipline perpetuates the child’s lack of compliance. Secondly, the parent will not release the child into the culture. They overprotect him, trying to guard him from dumb mistakes and harsh consequences. Sometimes, it is the Lord’s discipline working through the silly errors that bring us to our senses (Luke 15:17).

Call to Action

Marriage and parenting are the two hardest things a person will ever do. To do them well, one must do them 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.

  1. How many children do you have, and how are they different from each other? Understanding their differences is essential in training them in the way that they should go.
  2. How would you characterize yourself? Are you too much of a disciplinarian, too permissive, or well-balanced in your parenting? Does your spouse or someone who knows you well agree with you?
  3. Do you tend to over-worry about your children? If so, how does it affect you and them? What is your plan to change?
  4. Do you have an adult child not walking with the Lord? If so, how much do you struggle with regret about the past or future fear? If either of these is true, what does that tell you about your theology, and what is your plan to change?

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