Letting Go: 5 Lessons For Parents Facing An Empty Nest

Soon my wife and I will celebrate our 29th wedding anniversary. We have four kids. We don’t have a perfect family; we have our share of strife. But we are happy, especially whenever all the kids can come home, like at Christmas or Thanksgiving. Nowadays, it seems like those special holidays are the only times all six of us can be together.

My wife and I are facing something we’ve never faced before … the empty nest. Two of our three boys are off on their own pursuing their careers. One son still lives with us, but he is rarely home (he’s busy either at his full-time job or at the gym or with his friends). He has plans to soon be on his own too. Our daughter is graduating from high school and will be heading off to follow her chosen career.

The house is quiet.

The greatest joys I have experienced in this life have been as a husband and father. I just love being Daddy. Wrestling with three little boys and playing tea party with my little girl long ago were so much fun. Now, it is gone. Well, instead of moping and sadly remembering days gone by, I’ve been thinking about how to respond to this day that I thought would never come. Now that our children have left or are soon leaving, what are the things I have learned and hopefully will continue to learn in this new chapter of our life?

1. Thank God for the past.

My wife and I believed in the old saying, “give them roots, then give them wings.” I think we gave them roots. I think they learned what it means to be honest, to have a good work ethic and be dependable, not to whine and complain, to look on the bright side of things, and to plan for the future. We took them to worship services, Sunday School and VBS, and Youth Group meetings.

As we taught them at home we looked for opportunities to teach them values that we thought would hold them up in tough times. We told them early on that life is not fair, it is very tough and disappointing at times, but we as a family are committed to each other, and with the help of the Lord we’ll get through whatever issue we are facing.

The memories were not always pleasant. We had our failures and fights. At least one son scared us to death: he joined the Marines as an infantryman and he and his company left for Afghanistan on our wedding anniversary! That was an anniversary like no other — we watched our 18-year-old son shoulder his rifle and get on a bus to go to the airport and fly to a faraway battlefield. (Six months later everyone in his company came home alive and well, thank God!)

As our children got their driver’s licenses and cars and jobs and started thinking about careers, we realized that we had to let go and let them launch out on their own. They each chose different paths after high school: college or the military or the workforce. We respected their decisions and let them go.

2. Recognize your changing role.

I look at my role now and it has slowly dawned on me that I am really no longer the “commander” or the “teacher” or “chief of operations.” I’m pretty sure my kids still look up to me … well, they still give me presents on Father’s Day and my birthday so I guess they do! But I no longer “tell” them what to do. I do not give them orders.

Yes, I still remind the youngest ones now and then about something they need to take care of (like paying a bill or making a phone call), but my wife and I no longer plan out their lives like a cruise director. They are adults. They know what they want to do. Now I see myself more as observer and supporter. We’re here when they need us.

My wife and I also let them fail. Pain can teach very good lessons. More than once we’ve listened on the phone while they told us what they were going to do. We sometimes said, “I don’t think that’s such a hot idea.” When the great idea turned out to be a flop, they sheepishly admitted that maybe Mom and Dad were right all along (well, SOMETIMES we are right).

But they would not have learned any other way. Sometimes ya just gotta bite your lip, take your hands off, pray the stars down, and let your kid fail. We can’t fix all their problems, and we shouldn’t rush in and try. They have to learn on their own … as painful as it is for the parents at times. Hopefully, the kids will learn through the tears and disappointment, and become stronger adults.

3. Keep in contact.

My oldest boys live far away, but we still talk to each other at least once a week. It’s important, I think, to really cultivate a friendship with your adult children. Of course, it begins with the earliest days. FIRST you have to be their parent. That is, when they are little, YOU are the boss. You do all the guiding and directing.

But later, as you let them break free from certain restrictions and start doing more and more on their own, I think they need to see us more as friends. As they shoulder additional responsibility, you should show them the respect you would want from others.

I’ll always be Daddy. But I’m also their friend, and my kids know that they can call us anytime of day or night, ask for advice or help, and Mom and Dad will be there.

4. Encourage the kids to be independent.

My wife and I have tried to encourage our children to be independent. They are not carbon copies of us, and they do not have to agree with us on everything (they don’t!). The kids should not feel bad about leaving (guilt is such a lousy motivator!). Leaving the home and starting their own life is what adults do!

We don’t want our kids to be dependent on us forever! This moment is what Mom and Dad have been preparing them for, for quite a long time. It’s sad, I guess, but it’s happy too. I feel like we’ve accomplished something really good.

5. Use your free time wisely.

So what will we do? I am eager about the future! There are opportunities for ministry everywhere you look. Just open your eyes! Now that we are “retired” homeschooling parents, my wife and I are going to find a new mission.

Home will still be here for the kids to come back whenever they want. But Mom and Dad are now going to look at new adventures to help out others. We are seriously looking at some charity organizations that help the poor and needy. Other organizations (like Samaritan’s Purse) need volunteers to help with disaster relief. (And yes, I hope to keep on writing for PJ Media as long as they’ll have me.)

I will still continue to pastor for many more years, but I know that the two of us will have some additional free time on our hands. We have our health (thank God), so we don’t want to spend our time at the mall or on the beach.

Instead we want to fill our empty nest and this new chapter God had given us with ministry for the next half of our lives!