Parenting Emerging Adults: Myths and Realities

 This is an assignment I had to do for my master’s program.  I’m certainly no expert in parenting young adults, but maybe someone will find this helpful.  So here ya go!

Parenting Emerging Adults: Myths and Realities

I’ve never parented anyone between the ages of 18 and 23. In fact, I’m an age that could still be considered an “emerging adult.”  Nonetheless, I’ve been convinced that there is a significant trend going on in both the lifestyle and the beliefs of young adults and people my age that ought to be addressed.  I think that bringing parents into the loop on this whole trend is critical as well.

Christian Smith is a renowned Notre Dame sociologist who recently conducted a massive study of young people.  His findings revealed many important insights into the psyche and spirituality of this generation of “emerging adults.”  Drawing largely from his work, I want to discuss not only the situation that many emerging adults find themselves in, but also how parents can continue to have a positive influence on them.  So if you’re the parent of an 18-23 year old, I hope that you’ll find these insights helpful.

First, I want to start out with some myths about parenting emerging adults.

Myth #1: Now that my child is 18, I’m no longer relevant to their lives.

Smith’s findings revealed that nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, parents continue to have a profound impact on their child in this stage of life.  Smith remarks that “if there is one overriding message from our entire research project…it’s that the most important factor in the religious lives of young people are their parents.

This must be held in tension with the fact that our culture tends to say otherwise.  The message that once a child moves out, it’s all about peer groups, culture, and media is just not true.  Parents remain a vital part of their child’s formation during these critical years.  So don’t give up or check out!  Your child still needs you to be a positive, stable influence in their lives.

Myth #2: My child probably has the same understanding of God and religion that I do.

Every generation tends to correct what they perceive to be the shortcomings of the generation that raised them.  For better or for worse, your child’s spirituality is going to look different than yours.  We’ll get into the specifics of how this generation views God a little later, but for now just understand that trying to force your child’s understanding of God into a mold that you created may not be helpful.  Rather, parents should be a witness of Christ to their children, pointing them to the person of Jesus at all times, but holding onto subjective religious expressions in such a way that recognizes your child’s need to experience Jesus for themselves.

Myth #3: My child will probably follow a similar path as me in terms of graduating, finding a job, and settling down.

This is just not the case anymore.  Call it “delayed adolescence,” call it “failure to launch,” call it whatever you will, but the truth is that this generation of young people are taking their time to “settle down” and move toward what you might consider the criteria of traditional adulthood like a spouse, kids, home and a career.  Rather, more and more emerging adults are viewing the period of time after they graduate high school as an opportunity to explore, experiment, get to know themselves, or travel.  This time period, used primarily to focus on oneself, often lasts up to a decade.

We could spend a long time speculating as to why this trend is occurring.  Perhaps it’s the result of a failing economy where job opportunities are scarce and prospects of a flourishing career are less likely than what they once were.  Or we could point to the fact that young people are paralyzed with the thousands of options they’re presented with once they step off the high school graduation platform.  They’ve been told they can accomplish their dreams, and yet hundreds of thousands of dollars of college debt has a way of disillusioning one from the big aspirations they once had.  And then there’s the fact that the world is shrinking and we’re becoming more globalized, so the prospect of staying in one place is just less likely.  Whatever the case may be, it’s a fact that today’s emerging adults aren’t drawn to the same patterns that their parents were.

Now let’s talk about the spiritual state of emerging adults.

Sociologist Christian Smith has coined a term that is gaining more and more popularity among those who are trying to define the spiritual state of emerging adults.  That phrase is moralistic therapeutic deism.  Moralistic therapeutic deism, or MTD as we might call it, accurately describes the theology of many in this age range.  It’s a phrase loaded with meaning, so let’s unpack it.


We say that this view of God is “moralistic” because there is a sense of right and wrong among those who espouse it.  In general, it can be summed up in the phrases, “good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell” or “people are basically good,” or “I’m a nice person, so I should be fine.”  The moral underpinnings of this view are evident, albeit a bit arbitrarily established.


Theologian Michael Horton helps us understand these terms from a theological angle.  He points out that for many, God exists essentially for their benefit and happiness.  Religion is a sort of therapy, which gives a person piece of mind and helps them get along better in life.  God is someone I can use to achieve what I want, and the central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.


“Deism” is the belief that God is real and may even be the creator of everything, but is largely uninterested and uninvolved in the lives of people or creation in general.  In this case, deism carries with it this sense that God is far away and removed, and therefore it doesn’t really matter what doctrine you adhere to.  One distinction between MTD and traditional deism is that MTD still insists that God is readily available when I need him, but in general, he is not in the picture.

So…what are you trying to say?  Let’s land this plane.

Indeed, for those of us adhering to historic orthodox Christianity, moralistic therapeutic deism sounds pretty bleak.  But we should also remember that the results of Smith’s study are just a generalization of what seems to be the trend.  No one is saying that this is what everyone believes.  In fact, Smith noticed a substantial minority – about 15% – of emerging adults who bucked this trend and sought a meaningful expression of faith within the church body.  But the point remains: we must find ways for parents to continue to nurture their children even after they are old enough to live on their own.

My suggestion is to have meaningful discussions with your son or daughter.  Chances are, issues of spirituality are some of the biggest things they are dealing with right now.  And nothing can take the place of making sure your own spiritual formation is on track.  You’ll have a hard time leading your child if you aren’t a disciple of Christ yourself.

As a resource, I’ve written some discussion questions that you might find helpful as you try to engage your son or daughter in meaningful discussion about God and faith.  I’d suggest that you each answer the question according to your view – but don’t try to argue over who is right or who is wrong.  Let it be the start of a healthy discussion.  Hopefully these will be helpful, but never forget the single greatest resource you have at your disposal: prayer.  There is no replacement for someone interceding on our behalf, so let us continue to get on our knees on behalf of our children!

Discussion questions for parents and young adults:

1.  How would you explain your view of God to someone who didn’t know about him?  How would you describe the Bible or Church?

2.  How important do you think it is to be a part of a local church family?

3.  What is your primary source of information regarding issues like God, faith, religion, or spirituality?  How do you know it’s reliable?

4.  What sorts of things to you think matter most to God?  How do you know?  How do you exhibit these things in your life?

5.  Is God someone that you can know personally?  If so, what does it look like to know God?

Further resources:

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