Scripture: Genesis 44:14 – 34.
The legendary “Beatles” rock group often sang words that were devastatingly incisive. One, recorded in 1967, went to the heart of this matter of young adults breaking free from their parents’ home. The lyrics described a young woman whose parents had held on too long, forcing her to steal away in the early morning hours. You feel the pain of her confused parents as they speak their thoughts as the story is told. Listen to the words to “She’s Leaving Home” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
“Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door,
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more,
She goes downstairs to the kitchen clutching her handkerchief
quietly turning the backdoor key,
Stepping outside, she is free.
She (‘We gave her most of our lives’)
Is leaving (‘Sacrificed most of our lives’)
Home (‘We gave her everything money could buy’).
She’s leaving home after living alone
for so many years. Bye-Bye.
Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that’s lying there,
Standing alone at the top of the stairs,
She breaks down and cries to her husband,
“Daddy, our baby’s gone!”
“Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
How could she do this to me?”
She (‘We never thought of ourselves’)
Is leaving (‘Never a thought for ourselves’)
Home (‘We struggled hard all our lives to get by’).
She’s leaving home after living alone
for so many years. Bye-Bye.
Friday morning at nine o’clock she is far away,
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the motor trade.
She (‘What did we do that was wrong?’)
Is having (‘We didn’t know it was wrong’)
Fun (‘Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy’).
Something inside that was always denied
for so many years. Bye-Bye.
She’s leaving home. Bye-Bye.”
It’s a sad time for some when they leave the nest. It can also be a sad time for some when there are grown children living at home. It has been observed that patterns of family life differ from age to age, and from culture to culture but in general Australian young people have left home when they finish their schooling.
In a number of European, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries it is the norm for the children to live at home until they marry, and not to leave at all if they do not ever marry. But in Britain, Western Europe, the USA and Australia, children have tended to claim their independence much earlier and set up their own homes by their early twenties.
However in the past decade or so it has been noted by the demographers that many children are not leaving home as early, or are leaving and coming back to live once again in their parental homes. This has led to a changed dynamic of growing up, especially for the parents who thought they were just about over the ‘empty nest syndrome’ and now have the kids back home again.
The experts suggest that in a time of economic insecurity people tend to band together, and children stay close to the fold, in order to save money. This pattern has been called “the boomerang kids”: they leave and come back, leave and come back, sometimes regularly over the years until they are capable of handling life on their own.
It can happen after finishing university when the young adults have huge debts to pay off, between jobs, or after a marriage fails. There are endless variations on the theme, of course.
A Harvard Centre for Housing Studies report found a direct correlation between rental prices and adult children’s decisions to live with their parents. Add to that the big increases in college tuition and fees, and the young adult may be saddled with huge debt before they have even earned their first pay. Typical Australian university students accumulate sizable debts, especially those pursuing medicine and law whose courses can add up to $100,000 and more.
Parents are usually happy to have the children back, too, especially if they see that they are actively saving money for their future, to save for a wedding, for a down payment on a home, or to start a business. A Sun Herald Family Survey in 2004 found that 83% of parents did not want their children to leave home before they were 21; about half the adult children living at home were students and the other half were working; 44% contributed to the household income; and 80% helped out with the housework. (Sunday Herald Sun, 27/6/04, p.14).
The New York based Families and Work Institute researchers were surprised to find that 25% of employed parents had children from 18 to 29 years old living at home with them at least half of the time. They also observed that families with middle and higher incomes were more likely to have children at home than were lower income households.
It appears that there is no longer an assumption about a clear-cut departure age. Demographers suggest that there needs to be a new life stage assigned to those between 18 to 25 who are past adolescence but not yet mature enough to be taking on the social and economic roles of adulthood. Many in this age group are delaying the usual stages of adulthood by going to university longer, marrying later, and having children later in life than earlier generations did.
This change of life pattern has affected the relationships between the parent and child generations, but researchers report that they get along very well. Today’s older adults are more accepting and more like friends than earlier generations were. In general it has been found that the parents liked having their adult children around. And, as one mother quipped, “They can live with me now, as long as I can live with them later!”
1. HOW PARENTS SHOULD ACT WITH A NEVER EMPTY NEST.
Long before the nest is empty, it is important to consider how parents and older children should relate when the nest is never empty. There is a stage in a family’s life when children dominate the household by their presence, their conversation, their music and with their friends. Many a time when our home was bursting at the seams and silence was a mystery yet to be discovered, I said to my wife: “Remember, these are the days we will say were the happiest of our lives!”
Those days of the never-empty nest, are days when many families fall apart, when strains are at their greatest and when tolerance gives way and something snaps. We really have to learn how to get on when the fledglings are crowding the nest, making a mess and always calling out to be fed. And the older the fledglings, frequently the greater the difficulty.
What has not been very much explored is how parents see their role in relation to older children living with them. What parts, if any, do they retain of “being a parent”? What happens to various elements of the parental role, such as support, guidance, control? How easy or difficult is it to shift to a non-parenting role while their offspring still live at home?
Answers to these questions depend on many factors, including the expectations of both parents and their offspring. A large proportion of the parents of today’s young adults married young, and left home to marry or for work or education; relatively few of them left to be independent; when they left school, they faced a relatively stable economy and most were assured of a job.
Most did not expect their young adult children to be living at home well into their twenties. Nor did they expect them to be facing a future where employment and the long-term stability of personal relationships are surrounded by uncertainty. Parents are having to adjust. Their own experience of growing up, and how their parents “parented” them as young adults is not always an appropriate guide.
Parents find it difficult to give up some aspects of being a parent and to their children are obsessive about the time they come home, for example. Young adulthood requires a substantial letting go of some aspects of being a parent. “Letting go” of the young adult means “rescuing him or her less often”. This doesn’t mean that you eventually reach the stage where you never rescue your children. I don’t think parents ever stop being parents, and you will probably go on rescuing your kids in some way for life, without causing any great problem. With young adults the amount of rescuing needs to be reduced quite drastically.
Letting go of your child means handing him or her full control of his or her life. This means handing over ownership of their problems, allowing them to solve their own problems, and take the consequences of their actions. You trust them to make responsible decisions. Every time you decide to stop rescuing, you are giving a vote of confidence.
Getting a vote of confidence from parents is a great builder of self-esteem for any young person and encourages responsible behaviour. The general guide to letting go is to take advantage of your knowledge of your child’s abilities and needs. Take note of their problem solving capacity for this is the start of responsible behaviour.
You are dealing with young people who want to get on with their own lives and be free to make their own mistakes. You may have to stand aside and watch as “mistakes” are made. Even mistakes can be positive if lessons are learned. Perhaps the easiest way to stop rescuing them is to stop paying their debts. The sooner a young adult learns to handle all their financial matters the sooner they handle other issues well. But many parents rush in with wallets at the ready whenever their children overspend, even then they are married and have their own families. Letting go starts with closing the wallet for their own good.
In Australia most males under 24 years and a little less than half females under 24 years still live with one or both of their parents. It is important that those parents continue to learn how to cope in the never empty nest, and use the time profitably to learn how to let go of their young by rescuing them less often and so encouraging them to adult responsibility.
The Bible honestly portraits every human characteristic, including the never empty nest.
Jacob was one of the great fathers of the Jewish nation and religion. He surrounded himself with his sons, and gave them herds and property to keep them close to himself. But the brothers had rid themself of young Joseph who was painful to them with his ideas of his superiority. Even though Joseph was removed from the family by being sold as a slave down in Egypt, under the hand of God, Joseph prospered.
Eventually because of his food policies, he became Prime Minister of Egypt under the Pharaoh. When a famine occurred in Palestine, his brothers came to Egypt to buy grain.
Joseph concealed his identity from his brothers, who had not seen him for decades and who would never have believed him to be Prime Minister anyway. Joseph asked them questions about their homeland and family and so discovered his old father was still alive and with his younger brother back home.
Joseph wanted to see his father and younger brother and so devised a plan to give them food if only the older brothers went home and brought the younger brother back with them. And as a guarantee demanded Benjamin be left as a hostage. But Judah knew that if the youngest boy would leave home it would break old Jacob’s heart, and if Benjamin was kept as a hostage it would also break old Jacob’s heart. Jacob wanted all of his sons about him. Judah asked Joseph not to persist with his request: (Gen 44:18-34 “Then Judah went up to him and said: “Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself. My lord asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ And we answered, ‘We have an aged father, and there is a young son born to him in his old age. His brother is dead, and he is the only one of his mother’s sons left, and his father loves him.’ “Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me so I can see him for myself.’ And we said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father; if he leaves him, his father will die.’ But you told your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you will not see my face again.’ When we went back to my father, we told him what you had said. “Then our father said, ‘Go back and buy a little more food.’ But we said, ‘We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother is with us will we go. “We cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ “Your servant my father said to us, “You know that my wife bore me two sons. One of them went away from me, and I said, “He has surely been torn to pieces.” And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in misery.” “So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. Your servants will bring the gray head of our father down to the grave in sorrow. Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’ “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father.” The elder brother Judah is arguing nobly to keep the younger children still at home with Jacob.”
Jacob was attached to his sons, so strongly did he grieve over Joseph’s death, he would not allow another of his sons to be separated from him. Jacob was binding up his whole life in his children. The separation would kill him. Let the parent beware who so loves a child! Many a father has tried to hang onto a child. Many a mother has declared her love for her child so great she cannot let him go. That is not mother-love, that is smother-love.
Do you restrict the freedom of your grown children? Sometimes we need them too much to let them go. We manipulate them to maintain our control. We use guilt, bribery, threats, intimidation, fear and anger to restrict their freedom. Others use their money, buying a share of their children’s home, or with loans to keep their children tied to them. And sadly, when we win at this game, we and our offspring are both losers.
One of the most important lessons of life is learning when to say “Hullo” and and when to say, “Goodbye”. “Hullo” to new ideas, concepts and challenges, and “Goodbye” to old ideas, outdated practises, and to children who need to leave the nest and start building their own future.
2. HOW CAN PARENTS ENJOY THEIR - AT LAST - EMPTY NEST?
For the day will come when the nest is empty. How then can parents enjoy the empty nest? Some years ago, social commentators referred to the “empty nest” syndrome, that period in parents’ lives immediately after grown children had left home. It was argued that with children gone, parents (particularly mothers) were left to face a role and identity crisis.
The alternative view was that, far from being an unhappy time, it was potentially a very positive period. Once children left home, parents were better off financially, had fewer calls on their time and energy and therefore had the opportunity to develop new interests and expand their lives.
The Bible makes such a move a normal expectation. In Genesis 2:24 it states “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” That message is repeated throughout the Bible. The time is to come when the nest is to empty. How can you enjoy most the empty nest?
Start by learning to enjoy each other’s company. Couples got married to be with each other, but almost from the time of marriage, couples are pulled apart by work obligations, career plans, educational programs, church and community involvements and children who are always there and perhaps for twenty or thirty years after getting married to enjoy each others company, a couple is rarely alone! Now the nest is empty and work and other involvements change. So enjoy the time together.
Unfortunately, the early love of being together often needs re-kindling. Many a woman has enjoyed the company of a husband so long as he was away at work all day every day, but cannot cope with his company twenty four hours a day when he retires! You have to re-kindle your interests in being together.
Then, when you are together, have some space which each of you can claim as your own. Often when one who has worked full-time eventually returns to the home there is no-where he can call his own. Make some space.
Then learn to use your home for God. Practise hospitality towards visitors. Invite others to meals, for fellowship groups, and a home Bible study program.
Perhaps you could make your home a hospitality centre where some of our travelling Christians can find some short term accommodation. The friendship rewards are great. We are always looking for a few days in a home somewhere for some of our visiting Christian guests. You will be creating a new international fluid family!
Perhaps you could fill a corner of your home permanently. I know of many widows who have taken into their home people who need some oversight. They have found a wonderful companionship and new sense of meaning in life. And there are plenty of older parents who still need care and companionship in their frailer days.
Then you can do the things you never previously had time to do. Go to concerts, listen to music, read, garden, entertain, learn new pursuits, join a choir together, support a mission caring centre, become part of our volunteer band, or take six months and strike a blow for independence from your kids and learn to work your video recorder! But do it together and rekindle the love that first attracted you to one another.
There are seasons of life. We grow and are nurtured. We start to venture from the nest and discover the world about us. We find out future in another person. We build our own nest and nurture our own fledglings. Then we release them and discover an empty nest! For many adults this is the start of a painful period of life. We have to learn to enjoy the empty nest and learn that there is still much more beyond!
When the children leave home, a new era of life begins and adults have to start learning all over again a new life style, to keep out of their young adults lives, to create new interests for themselves, and to learn to use their empty home creatively as they did when their children filled it.
Commitment to God and to the service of others provides wonderful opportunities of helping ourselves by serving others. Let God be the head of your home when it is filled with children, but also let God be head when the nest is empty.
REV THE HON DR GORDON MOYES AC MLC