On Letting My Kids Go, and Realizing They Were Never Mine in the First Place

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As I write this, Patti and I are preparing for the day when we will launch our Abby, now a college senior, into independent adulthood. At the same time, we will also be launching Ellie, now a high school senior, into college. Very soon, both of our daughters will be out of the nest and taking primary responsibility for their own lives.

And then our nest will be two instead of four. Not an empty nest because Patti and I both love and like each other…but a nest that no longer houses its chicks, because the chicks will have become lovely birds with wings and nests of their own.

This new season starting Fall 2020 will represent a new milestone in which they will have fuller decision making responsibility—decisions about what they do with their time, where their money goes, how much or how little they sleep, what and when they eat, whether or not they exercise, who they choose to socialize with and be influenced by, the activities they get involved with, how much they do or do not study, and whether or not they become part of a church or a campus ministry or continue at all with the faith in which we raised them.

Sometimes this scares me. It feels vulnerable. And yet…

Abby is intelligent and an incredibly hard working student. Her GPA is nearly a 4.0 at the top college honors college in the country. She is independent and responsible and excellent with money and budgeting. She spent an entire summer in NYC for an internship, working among refugees seeking asylum, and figured out a way to fund the entire thing through proactivity, hustle, and smarts. She is part of the leadership for her campus ministry and faithfully worships and serves in the local church. She looks out for the underdog and is zealous about the Micah 6 mandate to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. She is a loyal and fun friend.

Abby is globally-minded, a product of her New York City upbringing, and values the image of God not merely in terms of her own culture or tribe or economic position or politics or nationality or skin color, but based on the Bible’s vision of one people under Christ from every nation, tribe and tongue. Whatever she does in the future, she hopes to help make the world a little more just and a little less mean.

Ellie, our high school senior, is one of the kindest people I have ever known. She is always looking out for others, is approachable and loving and kind. Like her sister, she is also a hardworking student who does well academically. She is playful and creative, a loyal friend, and a delight to be around. She serves alongside her mom among kids with disabilities and special needs, through our church. She has a lovely singing voice and hits a pretty good spike on the volleyball court also.

Both girls have great taste in boys. This is coming from a Dad who used to not love the idea of his daughters dating any boy ever. I actually made them commit to waiting until age forty before going on their first date. I’m glad they broke the commitment because they are both dating stellar guys who love Christ and help them both be even better versions of themselves.

I’m proud of Abby and Ellie, yet despite the hundreds of ways I can praise them, I struggle that I will soon be letting them both go, releasing them into the hands of God more than ever before.

My friend Mitch left Christianity when he left home for college. Mitch grew up in a home much like ours. Like our girls, he was a pastor’s kid, active in youth group and regular in his church attendance. But when Mitch went off to college, he distanced himself from the things his parents had taught him, distanced himself from the Bible, distanced himself from church, distanced himself from Christianity, and distanced himself from Jesus.

When asked about what he believed, there was a time when Mitch would respond, “I don’t know what I believe, but I do know one thing. I know that I hate Christianity.”

Years later, Mitch is now a pastor to college students. Eventually, he returned to the faith of his childhood, much more convinced about Jesus and the Scriptures than he had ever been before. But his path back to God and into the ministry included a prodigal season, one that no doubt had his parents up at night and on their knees regularly.

Once I asked Mitch why he thinks he strayed from his faith in the way that he did. His answer terrified me. He said, “I strayed because by the time I got out of high school, I was done with everything that looked, felt, or smelled like the world of growing up in a pastor’s shadow.”

Gulp. And yet, I understand.

When you are raised in a pastor’s home, even if your parents do everything they can to normalize your childhood, your childhood is not normal. You are never just “Mitch.” You are “Mitch, the pastor’s kid,” which means that almost every day of your life, you feel a disproportionate amount of pressure—whether other-imposed or self-imposed or both—to play the part of the “good kid” who is the example for everyone else’s kids.

Upon occasion, our kids have also felt this pressure. One time, an adult pulled one of them aside and told her that because she is “the pastor’s kid,” she should be a good example to the other kids, “because people are watching.” Though these words were well intended, they were not helpful. Such words communicate that a “pastor’s kid” is a different breed of human, and is not allowed to just be “a kid” like everybody else. It’s like Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which the town adulteress must wear the letter “A” on her chest whenever she goes out in public, as a reminder that she is the bad girl. Similarly, wearing the letters “PK” (Pastor’s Kid) whenever you go out in public, as a reminder that you are supposed to be the good boy or girl, can be a hard calling. Because just like Hester Prynne, you live a disproportionate amount of your life in a fishbowl.

I long for my daughters to spread their own wings and develop identities that are unique and less tied to me and especially to my job. I’m excited for them to be able to live their stories outside the shadow and the nest. I pray that outside the shadow and the nest, they will be able to pursue faith on their own terms and at their own pace, and as they do, grow to love Jesus more.

And yet, sometimes I wish that I, not God, got to decide how their future stories would unfold and how their love for Jesus would grow. I want my kids to experience the current chapter of Mitch’s story without having to go through the middle chapters. Honestly, there’s a part of me that wants to coach God on how to write each chapter of their stories.

Oh me of little faith…

Regarding those we love the most, people like me need to remember that we are terrible authors of other people’s stories. Only God is able to be the author and perfecter of their unique stories and their unique faith. He, not I, will complete the good work he has begun in them. And he will do this in his way, in his time, and through his chosen process for them. Their lives are in his hands, not mine. It is his sovereign care over the details and chapters of their stories that will get them where they need to be.

Their story is not mine to write.

It never has been.

I’m nervous about that, but I must surrender to it. It is hard for a controlling Type A to surrender anything, especially the author rights to his own children’s stories.

And yet, if their stories were to unfold in unexpected ways—having dreams go unfulfilled, experiencing loss, getting their hearts broken, enduring a spiritual crisis—hope would not be lost because God would still be in control of things. And it is always better for God to be in control of things than it is for us to be in control of things. Even for prodigals like Mitch, the prodigal experience became the trigger to resurrect in him an irrevocable, insatiable longing for Home.

How comforting it is to know that our children are just that—Abba’s children—dearly beloved daughters of the covenant, held and kept by the One who alone is Father of us all.


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3 responses to “On Letting My Kids Go, and Realizing They Were Never Mine in the First Place”

  1. Bonnie Jean says:

    I needed to hear this right now. I have two sons. One is working his way through college… angry at God for a variety of things… not the least of which is the cost of college. He used to be clearly on a godly path… very full of compassion for others and a sweet and joyful child and young teen. When he went to college, had a roommate who smoked pot and drank, to fit in he began to drink and drifted away from God and his faith. Now he considers himself an agnostic. He had a nervous breakdown a couple of years in and had to come home. Thankfully when he returned he had a roommate whose father had died of alcoholism and he stopped drinking as his friends didn’t. He still blamed God for many of life’s hardships and stopped counseling even though he still needed it. Eventually he started working more than going to college making things even harder. Then he decided to go to another less expensive college and start over. New major and extra years piled on. Again, thankfully, he went back to his first choice of major and is closer to the end now than he would be. God also gave him an amazing on campus job that he may want to pursue permanently. God has been good to him, but he is still the Prodigal Son. Thinking he doesn’t need God… with lots of doubts and anger. I pray often… and cry a lot for the mistakes I may have made that could have led him to this. We talk often, and I try to just listen and be there rather than preach. He also believes the Socialist lies that he can get everything for free, without understanding that he would lose all of his freedom. Then I have another son with some mild learning disabilities, who has always been more caring and compassionate and stayed home after high school hoping to get into trade school. He has waited patiently and we will be moving to MO soon so that he can go to one that we can afford for masonry. He is very creative and can create, build or repair just about everything. He works cleaning a Michael’s Arts and Crafts store and fixing things that they used to throw away (saving the store lots of money). He goes to an adult Bible study with me because there was nothing for his age group and we have other commitments on Sunday mornings. He is the youngest in the group. The bulk of the group are in their 80’s but we both fit in just fine and learn a lot from their experience. Some of them even visit him while he cleans the store which is nice for him. His brother would never take such a humble job. I love them both with all of my heart, but one breaks my heart almost daily just by the things he says and the choices he makes. The other has his moments, they are both in their mid to late 20’s and have their own ideas and thoughts…. but knowing that I am not the only parent who struggles with letting go and is concerned about the walk of their children and how their lives will go… particularly their walk with the Lord… is comforting. My sons don’t have the PK on their shirts… but they have the big D of Divorce which has also hurt them terribly. And often the church hurts us more with that label than others… not knowing any of the facts and brokenness. So thank you for your words. They mean a lot to me.

  2. Nilma Stewart says:

    Thank you, Scott. I am encouraged by your article, for 2 of my 3 daughters have walked away from their faith! It was especially devastating when my youngest did just after she graduated from a Christian college, because she was so very devoted to the Lord and quite insightful from a very young age. She recently told me she might still be a Christian if she hadn’t attended a Christian college! Perhaps my fear steered her there in the first place! She majored in graphic design and is now totally immersed in NYC art culture, Veganism, etc.

  3. […] On Letting My Kids Go, and Realizing They Were Never Mine in the First Place thank you, Scott Sauls […]

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