a bit monkish.
A couple of weeks ago, our youngest child graduated from high school. If that's not tough enough for her parents, she's attending college 1000 miles away - and joining her brother there. It's tough to think of us being "empty nesters" because that means the nest is empty. The baby birds have flown away.
Many parents want to keep their grown children close. Giving them wings so they can fly away is the last thing they would ever want to do. Other parents give children wings to fly away from the nest, but only if there's a tether attached to their ankle.
In some ways, we wish our daughter would attend college closer to home. Perhaps that's just our desire to keep her close so we can protect her. Yet from birth until they're adults, we parents have a primary task: Building wings for our children, attaching those wings, and then allowing our children to fly away.
Parents build wings for their children from the foundation they give their children. Parents who are grounded in life know what tools to use to build those wings, and what needs to be used to build those wings. Wing-building tools may be life modeling, moral teaching, spiritual mentoring, and unconditional love. The materials used to build the wings consist of faith, morals, confidence, service, love, and other values. With these tools and materials, parents can make wings for their children that will last more than their lifetime, but for eternity.
As children grow, parents discover that it's time to slowly attach the wings they've constructed for them. We attach wings to our children when we teach them what the wings are for. As our children see us use our own wings, we show them how they can be used to fly through life. We also show them how to use the wings effectively - not as a means to fly wherever we want to go and whenever we want to fly, but to use them to fly to the heights of where God is calling them.
Sometimes we give our children test flights with their wings. This comes in the form of sleepovers, weeks away from home with friends or family, or time away at summer camp. They're able to see that they can venture away from the safety of the nest, yet they know they're still part of the nest.
As they grow older, the test flights become longer and more adventurous. They might get a driver's license, for example, meaning they have new freedoms to drive anywhere they desire. A part-time job gives them an identity that is separate from their parents. This only serves to prepare both parents and children for the final step: allowing them to fly away.
This is, perhaps, the most important task we have as parents, and the most difficult. Yet this is the goal of parenthood: to become empty nesters. God created our children not always to be our little children that are bound to the nest, but to live independently from us so they can build their own nests.
What's difficult for parents is that for eighteen or so years, our task has been to protect our children. Their safety is our greatest concern. It's difficult for us to switch suddenly and allow them to fly away from the nest, for we can't always know where their wings are taking them. However, if we've crafted the wings well and attached them securely, our children will know the responsible way to use them. Yes, we worry about them, but we don't need to.
In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about this when he says we shouldn't worry. "Look at the birds of the air," Jesus says. "They do not sow or reap or store away supplies in barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them (Mt. 6:26)." Did you catch that? It might be a twist in our traditional understanding of Jesus' teaching here, but he says that our Heavenly Father takes care of the birds. Our birds. The ones who have flown away from the nest. This is the same Heavenly Father who says that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (Is. 40:31).
We don't have to worry about our children when they fly away from the nest, because before they're our children, they're God's children - if they've given their lives to Christ (remember that introducing them to Jesus is part of the wing construction and attachment process).
Teaching our children to fly means they can always fly back, but they fly back on their own. If our relationship with our children has been positive, healthy, and grace-filled, they'll always know the home nest is open to them to visit.
The successful parent produces grown children who know how to fly on their own. When children don't want to fly away, or if we don't allow them to fly away, family trust may not be in God, but in the security of each other.
The greatest fear of being a parent is allowing our children to fly. Yet the greatest joy of being a parent is watching our children fly.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.