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Affection by generation

Parents and adult children love each other in different ways


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Scan your three-generations holiday photo of arms around shoulders at the dining room table and you don’t get the whole picture. On the surface it looks like “love is love” (as my neighbor’s lawn sign cloyingly says), but the reality is not so simple. What’s going on inside adult children is very different from what’s going on in their moms and dads. You know this if you have been on both sides.

By and large, parents are uncomplicated: They love their children unconditionally. They will root even for a rotten offspring. They are always seeing the positives, hoping the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, pleading mitigating circumstances when neighbors think their son is just a ne’er-do-well. The typical parent “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” with respect to his kids (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Adult children’s thoughts about their parents—to the extent that they think of them at all, which is much less than their parents imagine—tend to be ambivalent. Adult children are constantly reevaluating their childhoods, and their parents’ job in raising them. This can become a lifelong bondage they best emancipate themselves of by making up their minds to forgive the flawed persons who did the raising—as they will want to be forgiven when their turn comes. (The Bible teaches measure for measure—Matthew 7:2.)

We parents of adult children are the first generation that has known the experience of communicating primarily through texting. This is uncharted territory, and “here be dragons.” I have more than once lightheartedly piled onto a hilarious text thread that was picking up steam, only to have the levity come to a screeching halt the minute I joined it. Crickets. Mom left twisting in the wind.

It is well to remember at such times Ecclesiastes 7:21-22: “Do not take to heart all the things that people say. … Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.” By extrapolation: I have committed analogous boorishness toward my parents back in the day.

Other anthropological trivia gleaned through family texting: Siblings are loath to hurt each other’s feelings but don’t mind hurting their parents’ feelings. They will bend over backward not to injure a brother’s or sister’s pride; hasten to applaud a joke; overlook a political incorrectness. But the parents are on a very short length of slack.

Having boasted overmuch about parents’ unconditional love as opposed to offspring’s more complicated loves, I must now qualify: The end times will expose the limits of this most biologically hard-wired of the loves. Jesus says, “You will be delivered up even by parents” (Luke 21:16). Even in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, societal love running cold (Matthew 24:12) didn’t go that far. The Parsons’ kids betrayed their parents, but not vice versa.

Still and all, the love of parents has an unconditional quality not found elsewhere. One cannot imagine the Prodigal Son story with the roles reversed and the son running down the road to forgive a prodigal father.

God’s love is the ultimate template of parental love. Our love for Him cannot compare: “We love [him] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). You want to talk heartbreak? There is nothing like the heartbreak of God for His wayward children: “I spread out my hands all the day to a rebellious people” (Isaiah 65:2).

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away” (Hosea 11:1-2). “What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early” (Hosea 6:4).

Such is the difference between fathers and sons.

But not so many of each as before: Americans aren’t bothering to have babies the way we used to. Economist Nicholas Eberstadt sees it as a slow train coming named Time-bomb Depopulation. Good for us that God hasn’t taken that view. So many times He could have said enough is enough, and hung up the phone.


Andrée Seu Peterson

Andrée is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. Her columns have been compiled into three books including Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me. Andrée resides near Philadelphia.

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