The Modern Day Prodigal

I continue to receive emails from parents asking about modern day prodigal children. Whether the prodigal is defying family rules, living an undesirable life style, or leaving to who-knows-where, it’s a heart wrenching experience for any parent. Parents have poured so much energy, time and love into their son or daughters life. I was prompted to blog on this subject after receiving an email from a Mom who was complaining that her son was getting drunk, staying out late, waking up the family at all hours and smoking weed to boot! Now get this, she is planning on sending him away to a private University next fall. Let me get this straight, you are going to spend 40K to send this kid to a private school and he is drunk and smoking weed all the time? What is wrong with this picture?

Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way he should go” 

That does not mean train up a child in the way YOU think he should go. It speaks specifically to what way God would have your kid go (according to his bent). Let’s face it. Some kids learn the hard-way. Just like the true prodigal son in the Bible, he went to a far away land. Where no one would recognize him. After being gone for sometime he realized that his father’s farmhands were much better off than he.  He then returned to his home, and his father said,  “Oh, look what the cat dragged in, did you learn your lesson out there, big boy?”
No.That’s not what it says.  It says,  “The Father saw him from a far.  And ran towards him and  embraced him. He put a ring on his finger, and put a robe on him. And feasted on the fatten calf.”

I realize that the prodigal son story is one of salvation. It’s really not a study in family relationships. But it does prove a good point– and that is, some people have to hit bottom and be put on their own, to realize that a new direction or path must be taken.

Here are a few suggestions if you are dealing with a modern day prodigal:

  1. If he/she has left the family, make no attempt to contact them. No, not even a birthday card, and certainly not a birthday card with money  in it!  Let all contacts be initiated by your son or daughter.
  2. Exercise patience, you might have you wait a while!
  3. If you prodigal lives with you, you need to find of way of saying (if they are 18 or older) “This isn’t working. We as parents are holding you back. We are too old fashioned for you. You need to go live life the way you think it oughta be lived.”
What you are doing here is showing him/her the door with a smile on your face. I know you are saying to yourself right now, “Leman, where is he/she going to get the money to live by himself?” Well, I don’t have the foggiest idea, but it would be a great experience for him to get out, live with his buddy and try to make it financially. Would I continue to pay insurance on a car that he owns? No. I wouldn’t give him/her a dime. There are two approaches here. The slow leak theory is when you watch your kid spiral down week after week. The blow out theory is when you bring things to a head. Some kids grow up easy, and some with great difficulty. But becoming the enabler, and allowing your son/daughter to live under your roof, eat your food, then disrespect you repeatedly, doesn’t help your child and it certainly doesn’t help you.

If you are going through this heartache right now, know that you are not alone. Other parents have dealt effectively with their prodigal. Yes, continue to pray for your son or daughter. Remember that God sometimes puts us through trials to make us stronger. Realize that this tough time on you might be a necessary step in your child’s faith journey and coming to the truth of what life is all about.

As always your comments are welcome!  What say you?

21 Comments

  • Laurie says:

    Thank you Kevin for this…..I love you so much for helping everyone out…..we so need to hear this….thank you again….

    • Mirela says:

      This is helpful, encouraging, much needed advice! Very much appreciated!
      Is there a book on the subject of the modern day prodigal?
      I believe this subject should be very much addressed in this day and age.
      Thank you so much!

    • Marya says:

      Thank you for your insight. What would you recommend for us as parents of a 16 year old who is dealing with an eating disorder and pushing back at every turn? She is walking the prodigal path in that she is disrespectful, failing classes, not wanting to be involved in her youth group any more, smoking, showing disdain for anything to do with family time. We are having a hard time getting to the part about enjoying this child because there are so many issues in our face all the time. I have read your “Running the Rapids” book and “Have a New Kid by Friday” and we are trying hard to turn things around as far as our responses. We have tolerated way too much disrespectful behavior because she is dealing with the eating disorder but we realize we are not helping her in any way by letting her continue in that mode. We are looking at where to pull back and let go…and stop asking questions. It’s harder to do than I thought it would be.

  • Andrea says:

    I am not at this point with my children (they are only 9, 5, and 1) however I am seeing this happen with my youngest sister (we’ll call her Jane). She ran off 2 years ago and got married even though she was advised not to. Now 2 years later she is getting divorced, her husband has everything (house, car, money) and has left my sister with nothing. She decided to move into my other sister’s ( we’ll call her Lisa) apartment 6 months ago but she’s been living off of them, not pitching in around the house or even trying to get a job. “Lisa” called me to ask my advice and I told her the same thing you’ve said. She had to kick Jane out to get her motivated. Not sure what the outcome will be since she just got kicked out and she has a place to live for the next month but after that she’s not sure what she will do. Hoping it helps her mature a little bit. It is a hard thing to watch her go through , but it seems it’s the only way things will change. I know going through a divorce is hard and I’m not downplaying that at all but she still acts like a kid but has a lot of adult issues to deal with. I was married for 3 yrs and had my first child at her age! I’m happy to say for us it worked out well. 13 years and still going strong!
    I’m hoping she will be able to get her life together without too much struggle and can come out the other side a better person.

  • Melissa Z. says:

    You speak about the prodigals that are old enough to be let loose. How about the 14, 15, 16 year old that are doing some of these things with no remorse and disdain even for the consequences and don’t seem to even care. How do you help to turn them around while they are still under your roof and you are legally responsible to provide the basic necessities. Especially when they are constantly disrupting or undermining the rearing of younger siblings. I don’t want to isolate my teen from the family, but sometimes can’t stand their presence.

    • Mom to Two says:

      Melissa brings up a good point about how to handle when they are under 18. Seems to me if the child is drinking and smoking pot -yet allowed to drive, you say with a smile “we can’t have this type of liability, so when you’re old enough to get your own insurance, then you can drive a car. Or, you can choose to live responsibly and we’ll be glad to let you drive, insured on our plan.”

      After finally allowing our 17.5 year old the privilege of driving, we quickly figured out that we were creating a mess. Removed driving privilege. Gave us peace of mind. Six months later upon graduation from HS, our child decided it was best to move out on their own. We showed the door with a smile on our face as the Dr. says.

    • Melissa, I will be praying that God will give you wisdom on this. I am not quite at this point, but I can tell you what my husband and I did when we realized that our kids, ages 7, 9, 10 and 12, very rarely practiced first time obedience to us and started taking on disrespectful tones when we asked them to do something: We discussed what first time obedience involved (which theoretically should have been a review)–saying “ok” to acknowledge our request and their willingness to obey; doing it the first time it was requested, and no whining or arguing in the process of completing the request. We took away all video game, TV and computer privileges unless it involved school. We took a week to track down how many times they failed to achieve first time obedience (200 times because I homeschool and have them with me all the time). If they could cut that figure in half, they would get TV privileges back. If they could cut it in half again, they would get video game privileges back. If they can cut it down to 25 times, they get computer privileges back (email and computer games.) After two weeks, they improved enough to get back movie privileges. We are still working on the video game privileges and we are on week 4, but we have seen improvement in their listening skills and their attitude. BTW, as part of the “no video game” rule, we confiscated all MP3’s and iPod Touches, even though the kids spent their own money to buy these items. They are put away for safekeeping until privileges return. My goal is not 100% first time obedience, because that is too heavy a load for anyone, including me. I am also allowing them to ask clarifying questions or request alterations to the request after I hear them say “ok”. I have found good results by pulling them aside, complimenting them on what they do good and encouraging them to do better on their weak spots, cheering them when they overcome their bad habit. I also expect this is going to take a while to get them in this habit, because I have two kids who argue or whine but do the job right away and I have two kids who are great at saying “ok” but either stop in the middle or get distracted before they complete the job. I bet Dr. Lehman can figure out their birth order based on that last statement :-).

  • RiAnnon says:

    I agree on not become an enabler to adult children. I *completely* disagree that you shouldn’t send them a birthday card, or contact them in *any* way. There is no open door for them there, there is no relationship there at all. As a child that was a “prodigal” if you want to call it that, it was hurtful when my parents tried to take that approach, and it caused relational damage that has been *years* in trying to repair. Not just on my side of the issue, I don’t think, but also on theirs. Their idea that they were needing to teach their *adult* daughter some kind of lesson was not beneficial in their relating to me anymore than it was to my relating to them. There comes a point where you have to realize that, while you do not need to enable things you don’t agree with, you need to hand your children over to God (you know, the one that can actually save them and give them the heart and life he wants them to have), and know that you did what you knew to do in raising them, and it is their turn to find their way. As parents, you will have a LOT more influence if your child knows they can come to you for advice without the judgment and being shut out. FWIW, I’m not some 20 year old that just went through this, I’m in my mid-thirties with a kiddo of my own….I get my parents view on a lot of things and have been able to extend grace back to them for the things that used to make me angry….but I hate seeing this “shut them out” advice being handed out because it was far more harmful than it was helpful.

    • Surina says:

      I COMPLETELY AGREE!!!

    • Kathryn says:

      I agree with RiAnnon. I have walked this path as a parent and while my prodigal is home physically I am still waiting for his heart to be restored to his Heavenly Father. But during this dark night of the soul, when he moved out into an apartment, I was tasked by God to pray for “not my will, but God’s will to be done.” I had a lot of frank conversations with the Father, “Really? Is this your idea?” During that very long year that ended in the ER, I would not give my son money but I would buy him groceries and gift cards to eat. He was trying to work and go to school so there was a limit to what his budget could do even if he was wasting some of his money on unhealthy habits. He learned what it was like to try to support himself and the trap that comes with trying to escape. But more than what he learned, I learned so much more. “It is hard to love a porcupine but their tummy is soft.” I learned what the love of God looks like for “His love never changes although his approval does.” And the bitterness of consequences is the the fruit of sowing and reaping and for some those regrets will be a platform someday for them to stand on. (I am just thankful that the money ran for tatoos… finally.) And no matter how far you go, you can always come home. I will be waiting at the gate and will celebrate your return. I will listen to the lessons you learned. I will cry with you for your lost inheritance. I will stand with you to believe in the Redeemer for the blood of Jesus covers all sins…not just the ones I think it should or society thinks it should. I will not hold your past against you and let it define your future. I will sit with you at the banquet table of the Father to rejoice with you both. But I can honestly say, in the midst of my dark night, the starlight was the kind words and stories of other parents and prodigals that lived to tell their story of restoration and reconcilliation. It helped me to keep my eyes focused on the promises of God’s plan for my son’s life and not the reality of the day. It helped me understand that the picture that God was painting was probably going to be very different than the one I had imagined when I held that blue-eyed curly headed bundle of joy in my arms …. and I was okay with that. It was such a relief to finally let go of the reins and let God reign in his life.

      • Machelle says:

        Kathryn,
        Thank you for your perspective. It is exactly how I feel. We are in the midst of our dark night. I do need to find peace in completely releasing him to God. I love my son so much but his life choices are breaking my heart.

      • betteanne says:

        well that is wonderful you could do that. ..
        ~After 12 loooong years of hurt by our prodigal daughter and enabling and offering *unconditional* love thinking our loving kindness would lead her to repentance from 18 to 30 ….the heartache and wreckage left behind of her hurricane and even giving her the wedding of her dreams to a guy we KNEW was NOT the one …in order to show *unconditional* love and support… he left her within weeks after a 10 year tumultuous relationship and they are now divorced so after complaining and whining about him for 10 years …..married him and then STILL complaining ….the few weeks married and through the divorce STILL complaining about him from 18 until 30 years old still … brings back the raw emotions of a girl who went wild after being loved and coddled and grew up in a home of *almost* perfect homeschooled, 9we were a little overprotective) , but a VERY loving and merciful childhood filled with the kindness of GOD’S Loving WORD… she turned her back on all THAT when she went to college. Wanting to drink and stay out all night with her boyfriend, husband now divorced…
        We are done. I do not even like the person she is and I am refusing to allow her to affect me as I still have a 12 year old and 11 year old daughters. I am done crying over this wayward one! I can hardly remember the precious gift placed in my arms in 1983 that led me to THE LORD and HIS WORD because i knew I was so blessed to hold this baby in my arms. I picked up The Scriptures for the 1st time i know of in a mall with her in her stroller because I had so many questions about LIFE and death. THE LORD did and IS still answering all my questions by HIS Grace and Mercy. I devoured The Scriptures and was born again and raised her in The LOVING KINDNESS i had received from THE LORD.
        I wish I had read THIS from Dr. Leman about not sending cards and bailing out and to CUT off ties… it has been devastating and heart wrenching.
        I and my husband , (who I have been with since highschool 1976 ~it is a miracle our marriage survived our prodigal’s trying to divide and conquer us), we together have decided .. enough is enough. and we will wait until she comes to the end of herself and returns to THE LORD , WHO IS The only ONE WHO can save her. Our loving kindness can’t but HIS loving kindness can save her. ONLY HIS!
        I have no feelings left for her. I completely understand JESUS Saying… My mother and brothers and sisters are those who HEAR GOD’S WORD and obey IT.
        ~I understand that now more than ever.
        The last i saw my daughter scantily dressed at 30 with her big wine glass in hand and smoking and still not working…. we are done.
        I have become very cynical and i am trusting THE LORD that HE will help me with that. Everytime i see a new baby.. i think
        ===i hope that baby doesn’t turn out like my prodigal.=== 🙁
        The black cloud of her makes it hard for me to enjoy my other 4 children who are walking wihh THE LORD and who have tender hearts from HIM. 🙁
        but i am really going to try to enjoy them and not think about the 1 who has caused so much pain. 🙁

  • Heidi K. says:

    what about when siblings cut out their siblings?
    I have only one sibling, and they have cut me out of their kids’ and their life. I have searched my soul, and cannot find anything I did to deserve this treatment. Even my sibling says she has no clue why she is doing this.

  • wendy West says:

    I am curious too Dr. Lehman what your response is to the prodigal who is still young, not even old enough to drive yet. We’ve been struggling since she was 12 she will be 16 this summer. We’ve tried every avenue.

  • Holly says:

    I agree with RiAnnon. I’m a mom of 9 kids myself – ages 1 through 19. I watched my parents raise my brother in the way advised here – to disastrous effect. For certain personalities, to be completely disengaged from his/her foundational family would drive them to despair. Enable, no. Love? Desperately. Note that the father in the prodigal son story did not cut off the son. He actually even gave the boy money (something I would not be likely to do.) He didn’t practice tough love – he welcomed him home unequivocally. He stood watch daily – he had to in order to see him coming – waiting and expecting his son to come home. I am thinking that he would have sent him a birthday card, too. 🙂

  • Holly says:

    And of course – the Father in the story is God – and *we* are the son. It’s a story about amazing, redemptive love – how God stands watch and longs for us to come home.

  • Angel says:

    Since the story of the prodigal child is absolutely about God’s love for us, it too stands to reason that he would not extend a birthday card to a child who has turned away from him. The Father is watching and elated when the son comes back but he did NOT go out and search for him. It says nothing of him sending anything during the time the son was gone. Instead he calmly and prayerfully waited and celebrated in his child’s return. God does not bestow gifts on His wayward children in the hopes of bringing them back. It’s important that the child know that they are loved and can come home when they are ready to behave appropriately but that doesn’t mean providing in a way that they can continue to stay out of God’s will for their lives. As a mother, it is hard to cut that loose because we want to take care of our child. How much better would it be to call your child and say “I’m praying for you, Happy Birthday” than to send a card and money.

  • Linda says:

    I have to agree Holly. As a former prodigal, disconnecting me from the family entirely would have cemented my beliefs that all Christians were hypocritical. I understand a parent needs to ensure they aren’t enabling their child’s chosen lifestyle and that the child is well aware that they disapprove, but what happens to demonstrating Jesus in our own lives, where is the Agape love here? The unconditional love. No I will not pay for your lifestyle choices by insuring your car/paying for your university or subsidising your drug habit, but the door is always open to you to sit with us and receive a meal with the family, to belong to our family and to return to us repentant with open arms. The prodigal son in the bible knew that if he returned home at the very least his parents would accept him as a servant, he must have known they still loved him at least a little?? How would he have known that? No, there is no mention in the bible that the father tried to find him or go after him, but there is also no mention that he cut him off entirely, never to be spoken again to unless he initiated. I understand your position Dr Leman, but there is no grace applied to this situation at all and certainly no Agape love. Perhaps a little more thought or some definition to which situations this behaviour should apply is needed here?

  • Will says:

    My prodigal children are a little different, I am divorced with joint custody so my two oldest 20 & 16 have been coerced into turning their backs on me. I’m not sure if any of you have ever read “When you’ve been Wronged” by Erwin Litzer, a very good Christian book. As explained in the book, my ex wife is a spear thrower. Now the twist to my prodigals is when I cut them off as Dr. Leman suggests they receive rewards from their mother. It is a very difficult situation and I carry a lot of hurt on me every day. Birthdays & holidays are all difficult. There are many different twists to prodigal children, every day I endure the hurt and do my best to trust that God has a plan for my children and possibly others affected by this. I may never have my children back but the Lord has a plan.

    Will

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