The challenges of parenting continue after children leave home. With effective planning and good practices, the joy can continue as well.
We say it so often. We even post it on our refrigerators and announce it on our license-plate holders: “Families are forever.” As members of the Church of Jesus Christ, we believe that family relationships can continue beyond this life. Our whole concept of heaven is based on it. We even believe that the Church organization itself is temporary while the family is eternal. One implication of this concept is that parenting is also forever. We start our journey as parents here on this earth, but it never ends.
As we counsel with and write about families, we like to divide parenting into four phases: preschool, elementary, adolescence and teens, and empty nest. Of the four, the final stage lasts the longest. We will be our children’s parents after they leave our homes for many more years than they were under our roof. And our eternal parenting in the hereafter may be more akin to the empty-nest variety.
Children moving out of the home just changes the parenting venue—it becomes a road game instead of a home game. They’re still ours; our salvation is still linked; our stewardship is still intact. The challenges change but they don’t end. In fact, they often become bigger and more complex. But there is also good news: just as the worries, problems, and challenges of being a parent don’t end when our children leave, neither do the love, joy, and fulfillment have to end.
Ironically, many of us plan carefully for almost every aspect of retirement and life’s second half, but we think and plan relatively little for our most important stewardship and a key to our happiness—our families and ongoing relationships with our children. Given the family’s importance and our continued responsibility to nurture and direct our children, we should give great attention and priority to the kind of empty-nest parents we wish to be. As parents, we have found eight essential elements for developing and maintaining relationships with our children during the empty-nest years.
Clarity of Purpose
If you want your family relationships to continue to grow after the children leave home, a first step is to create some plans and ideas about what your family will do and how it will function in its new configuration.
You can initiate a conversation in which you ask each other and your children the basic question, “What is our family now, and how should it serve each of us?” Try to get everyone involved in creating a sort of “family mission statement.” Ask each family member to share ideas of what key principles are important for maintaining the family relationship; then incorporate the responses into the statement.
Commitment and Recommitment
After your children leave home, be proactive in reaffirming your relationship with them and recommitting yourself to them as a parent. In every letter, e-mail, phone call, and visit, you can include a recommitment to the relationship—a reminder that while so much has changed physically and logistically, nothing has changed emotionally. This can be as simple as saying, “I love you,” rather than just, “Goodbye.” You can tell them often that while you respect their independence and will try to be wise in how much guidance you give them, you will always be available for them and will always be their mom or dad.
You can also reaffirm this commitment by maintaining spiritual relationships with your children. For instance, a private family testimony meeting on a Sunday when you are together can strengthen family ties. Similarly, use of the priesthood in the home can deepen both gospel and family commitment. Priesthood holders can give father’s or grandfather’s blessings to children or grandchildren with health concerns or who are facing important decisions or difficult challenges. Families can gather together for important ordinances, such as blessings, baptisms and confirmations, and marriages. The commitment implied within these ordinances can remind us of our personal commitments to each other.
Communicating with grown children can be a great pleasure, one of the rewards of empty-nest parenting. We can now talk to them as adults, as friends, as interesting people who can expand us even as we expand them. We can ask questions out of genuine interest and enjoy them as we would a peer.
New technologies can be a powerful asset in communicating with our children as empty-nest parents. E-mail, instant messaging, and low-rate long-distance calling programs make it easy to communicate regularly and cheaply. You can also encourage your grown children to talk to you and each other by phone or through weekly e-mail updates. You might consider having a brief “online family home evening” once a week from your various locations through an easy-to-set-up Internet chat room.
Another good communication opportunity is to travel with your adult children. “Car time” almost always fosters open conversations.
Many young people continue to receive some financial help from their parents as they leave home and begin life on their own. We should discuss with our children their plans and goals and come to an agreement about how these will be financed. Children need to know what to expect and what not to expect in terms of financial help.
When creating a plan for the kind of financial support to offer children, our goal should be to help the child learn independence and self-reliance. With this in mind, we have found that loans (even with no interest) are usually better than gifts.
Traditions help hold families together, and the need for traditions is even greater when our children are living away from us. To keep traditions alive, it is a good idea to write them down or to have your children list the traditions they remember and cherish. Give a copy to each child who is away from home. Then try to build these traditions into family gatherings throughout the year. Make an effort to keep those traditions alive, even if you have to do them separately or save them for times when you are together.
Family History and Roots
Working together on the roots is often the best way to strengthen the branches. You can create and maintain family identity by sharing stories about your ancestors—particularly stories that illustrate an ancestor’s character or personality—with your children. Create a pedigree chart, if you don’t already have one, and make copies for the children. You can also team up with your children in doing genealogy work and performing temple ordinances for ancestors, or you can take a family vacation to the land of your ancestors.
Extended families need a place to gather and to communicate. Ideally, such a place is removed from the daily routine and the distractions of work, friends, media, and commitments. A setting like this offers more time to talk, listen, and enjoy each other. Find a setting where there is enough time and opportunity to discuss problems or choices and to help each other with solutions and decisions.
For some empty-nest parents, this place might be the family home, to which the children return. But the problem there, usually, is that you have a busy work life and social life revolving around your home, so you are not really “getting away” when your children visit. Having a second option—somewhere else to go where the dynamics and perspectives change a little—is worth its weight in gold. But it doesn’t need to cost very much gold. One family we know just uses their old Winnebago. Once they’re in it together, they start to talk and have fun on a different level. Another family has an inexpensive vacation rental that they go to in the off-season. Others just have a good tent and they get away to go camping.
For many people, the phrase family reunion conjures images of parks or beaches, barbecues, volleyball games, and tug-of-wars. Such nostalgic feelings ought to provide motivation enough for us to create the same kind of memories for our children and grandchildren. When children return with their spouses and their own children for reunions, there can be a magical merging of past, present, and future.
In our experience, successful family reunions ought to provide generous helpings of four things: food, fun, opportunities to teach the gospel, and discussion of family structure and goals (genealogy, mission statement, finances, and so on).
While these suggestions may provide a starting point for you as empty-nest parents, there’s no single set of right answers for the issues and challenges you face. We each have to find our own solutions to meet our families’ particular challenges. But there is one right attitude, and that is to make parenting and our children—even after they leave home—our highest priority. By creating a plan for our families and committing to a life of thoughtful parenting, we can build strong relationships that will continue into the eternities.
Richard and Linda Eyre received the BYU Service to Family Award in 2000. They are the parents of nine children, the founders of Joy Schools and valuesparenting.com, and the authors of more than 20 books, including Empty-Nest Parenting.