Hope for when your child walks away
There’s an old story of a young man who insists upon taking his inheritance early so he can go live it up in the big city and do whatever the heck he wants. To him, that’s what freedom looks like: no accountability, no one checking up on him. For a little while, he has himself a good ol’ time.
Before long, the freedom-seeking son has burned through his money, burned through his friends, and has nowhere to go. He literally sleeps with livestock and hopes the pigs leave a little slop behind so he has something to eat. Because he has zero options, he returns home to beg mercy from his dad, hoping he might get lucky enough to work as a hired hand on the family farm.
Anyone who has read the Biblical story knows what happens when the prodigal son returns home, but let’s stop there a second. We tend to focus on the son’s side of things — but what about the dad? Although he has another son still at home, it hasn’t lessened the father’s feelings about the son who went his own way. All that time, dad was left with a wildly fluctuating array of emotions: anger, worry, hope, hurt, and sadness. Perhaps he questioned what he did to make this happen, and wondered where exactly he had failed as a parent.
Would we blame him if, when that son returned, he held back and waited to hear what the young man had to say for himself before he decided what to do? He’d spent so much time waiting, watching, worrying; would it have been wrong to make that boy work to earn back some money, and even more importantly, to earn back trust? This wasn’t merely a childhood foible, but a young adult making impulsive decisions; didn’t he need consequences?
I wouldn’t blame the father one bit.
I think, in the prodigal son story, that’s how we’re suppose to feel. It’s not human nature to act this way, which is why — when the father chooses to welcome the son back with open arms and throw a celebratory party — we are so touched imagining this is how God welcomes us.
When I was in that father’s shoes, bewildered and wondering what happened to make things go so wrong, I was NOT contemplating what kind of party I’d like to throw. I was angry. I worried. My gray hairs multiplied. My heart literally hurt. As an adoptive mom, there was an added element here and I wondered if I’d live this out on repeat when a younger child reached the age in which they could legally walk away. (Honestly, I still wonder about that.)
Somewhere along the way, I bought a book called Engaging Today’s Prodigal. Maybe I already even had it on the shelf; I honestly can’t remember how I found it, but it changed things. Slowly. Because it was a lot to wrap my heart around.
If you’re parenting a prodigal, there’s hope.
This little book addressed my fears and hang-ups, shed light on some of my own stubbornness, and gave me practical advice. All of that, in turn, gave me hope.
The first section of the book is all about debunking myths, especially for those of us who have spent much time in the Christian community. This was good and helpful, but I most appreciated the practical application of Part Two, which addressed the do’s and the do-not’s. For instance: focus on boundaries, not behavior. Also: offer advice, but don’t badger because you may win the argument but you won’t win the heart.
(Another great book on boundary-setting in all relationships, from work to personal: Boundaries by Henry Cloud. A must-read for anyone with people-pleasing tendencies like me.)
Reading this book paved the way for mending my relationship with my daughter. It wasn’t quick or painless, and we slowly tiptoed towards reconciliation over a period of a few years, with the occasional one-step-forward, two-steps-back thrown in because we’re both human.
I’m leaving out a lot, obviously, in the interest of boundaries on the interweb. But ironically, I did end up throwing a party to welcome my child back. For me it looked like a baby shower, and later, a wedding celebration. Now, she lives just up the road and I get to have this cutie in my life.
Engaging Today’s Prodigal does come from a Biblical perspective, but even if you are not Christian, if you have a child who has walked away from your family or your beliefs, you will find non-judgmental help and hope here. I hope you’ll find hope in our story as well.
*This post shared with approval from Lindsey.