Now that our son is past eighteen, should he still obey us? The Bible says that children should "obey" and "submit to" their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20), but he says that because he's an adult, this commandment no longer applies to him. How do you feel about this? At what point does an adult child become fully independent of his parents' control?
There comes a time in every child's life when he or she crosses the threshold into adulthood. In some ways this moment is culturally defined. In the Jewish tradition, for instance, a boy is considered a man at age 13. In contemporary America a young person comes of age and is empowered to vote at 18. The precise line of demarcation differs from society to society, and obviously an individual's level of maturity plays an important role in this journey. But the basic idea remains the same, and in every case the principle involved is fundamentally biblical (see 1 Corinthians 13:11).
Once this line is crossed, the parent-child relationship is supposed to change in some basic ways. Your child is then on the road to becoming your peer and equal rather than a dependent minor. He will be graduating into a position of self-responsibility, in which he becomes accountable to a higher authority – the authority of God Himself. In His eyes and under His jurisdiction, your child is transitioning into a separate and self-determining entity. Whether or not he takes immediate advantage of the opportunity, he has the right to leave home and make his own way in the world.
Very soon, if not already, his personal decisions will have to be something more than a matter of simple "submission" to Mom's and Dad's injunctions. He will have to choose to act on the basis of the wisdom you've attempted to instill in him over the years and out of an awareness of his personal responsibility toward his Creator. If he attends church, it should be because he has a heartfelt desire to serve Christ and connect with His people – not because you "make him go." If he avoids drugs and alcohol, it should be because he understands the negative consequences of substance abuse and wishes to honor his own body as the temple of the Holy Spirit – not because he's trying to "obey" his parents' commands. If he makes a point of getting to bed at a decent hour on weeknights, it should be because he wants to be at the top of his form at school or work the next morning – not because he's adhering to a curfew.
Does this mean that he has the prerogative to adopt a dismissive attitude toward you or to disparage your values and opinions? Absolutely not. As Christians, we know that there is never any justification for treating another person with disrespect. What's more, as your peer and equal, your child remains under an obligation to "submit" to you not as his parents but as fellow human beings and as his brother and sister in Christ (Ephesians 5:21; Philippians 2:3; I Peter 5:5). That's not to mention that there is no time- or age-limit attached to the biblical command to honor one's parents; as Paul writes (quoting Exodus 20:12), "'Honor your father and mother,' which is the first commandment with a promise: 'that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth'" (Ephesians 6:2).
On the other hand, we want to qualify this last point by reminding you that "honor" does not necessarily imply that an adult child must do whatever his parents want him to do. For instance, a parent may wish that an adult child would accept every piece of advice the parent offers – plainly an unrealistic desire. He or she may also ask the adult child to behave in ways that are unhealthy, inadvisable, or downright damaging – for example, by requiring the child to have Sunday dinner at the parents' house every week in spite of potential conflict with the child's spouse. In cases like these, we believe it's important for adult children stand their ground firmly but lovingly.
If you're finding this transitional phase in the parent-child relationship a bit rocky or bumpy, you may need to step back and reassess your approach. It might be a good idea to sit down with your child and talk openly about your mutual expectations. Sometimes a "ceremony" or "rite of passage" of some kind (on the analogy of the Jewish Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah) can be helpful in redefining roles and establishing new parameters. If your child is still living at home, it's particularly important to spell things out as clearly as possible. You need to be able to say, "As you approach adulthood, here's what changes and here's what stays the same." Above all, resist the temptation to manipulate or control. You're free to make as many rules as you like, but make sure they are reasonable and deal with significant issues.
Speaking of control, it seems significant that you gave this word such a prominent place in your question. Where there's a struggle for control between parents and adult children, there are usually deeper issues lurking beneath the surface – issues having to do with respect and personal boundaries. Naturally, we'd be in a much better position to comment if we had some more detailed information about your family. We'd like to know, for instance, how far "past 18" your daughter is and whether she's living at home or on her own. If you think it might be helpful to discuss these issues at greater length with a member of our staff, we'd like to invite you to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department. Our counselors would be happy to come alongside you in any way they can. They can also provide referrals to Christian family counselors practicing in your local area.
In the meantime, if you believe that our observations on the subject of control may be relevant to your situation, it might be worth your while to procure a copy of the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Ken Sande's book The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict also offers a great deal of useful advice in the area of maintaining healthy relationships. Both of these resources can be ordered by calling our offices or visiting our Online Store.
Parenting Adult Children