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Growing Up Now: A Brief Guide for Emerging Adults and Their Parents

Kaye V. Cook


The search for faith is central to the period of emerging adulthood, although fraught with misdirection and confusion.

Professor and Chair of Psychology Department, Gordon College / Director of Center for Evangelicalism and Culture
July 14, 2014

Dallas Willard defines spiritual formation as “the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being.” For many, this process begins in early childhood, in the crucible of parent-child relationships. That means the process of becoming more Christ-like—more deeply transformed in our inmost being—isn’t entirely up to us. Parents who have faith are pivotal in the development both of their children’s formation and emerging adult trans-formation.

Emerging Adults: Who They Are

Emerging adults have more options―and more stress―than ever before. According to Jeffrey Arnett, pioneer in identifying the characteristics of “emerging adulthood” and giving this period of life its name, emerging adulthood is a distinctive life era that occurs between ages 19 and 29.

Emerging adults are often still pursuing education of some sort. They may live outside the home and are often not married and do not have children. Yet they often do not yet feel like adults. Nor do they feel like adolescents, who are generally in high school and experiencing significant biological changes that shape their experience.

Emerging adulthood is a distinctive cultural moment in the human life span. This period of life didn’t even exist 30 years ago, and it will not be the same 30 years from today. It is a function of cultural change, caused by increasing levels of expectations for higher education and by heightened beliefs in the values of individualism and mass consumerism.

The symbols of this generation are narcissistic consumer-oriented gender-bending individualists like Justin Bieber, the Kardashians, and Lady Gaga who have replaced the heroes of the past generation. Social media has taken the place of family meals in their socialization, and emerging adults have unprecedented freedom for exploration in identity and faith.

Emerging adults have so many options and transitions that mental health issues are considered virtually normative for emerging adults. On the flip side, even though they have many options and our culture tells them they have total choice, their choices are often constrained in ways that increase stress, for example, by guild expectations for more education or by financial limitations.

Their Parents Matter

Most emerging adults do well, settling down into faith, commitments, and meaningful work. But this is not an easy time, full as it is of transitions, challenges, and unknowns. Surprisingly enough, in contrast to their reputation as being highly independent of the family and enmeshed in peer relationships instead, parents are as important as peers for their well-being, particularly in the sample of emerging adults that I study (Christian college students).

There are all sorts of pragmatic ways that parents help their youth navigate emerging adulthood. Emerging adults may go to the same church as their parents, feeling satisfaction in shared experiences, or they may find comfort in talking with their parents about faith even if they and their parents don’t agree.

Parents may sometimes feel lost in the conversation or like they don’t know what to say, and are surprised to find that emerging adults can nevertheless feel greater clarity in their own thinking and social support. Parents are also pragmatically helpful: getting cars running again so their emerging adults can go to work, helping find a safe apartment on Craig’s List, visiting on a lonely holiday, or helping navigate the health care maze. In countless ways, both directly and indirectly, parents help their emerging adults do well. My own work, and that of my colleagues, shows that Christian parental contributions, far from being negligible, are profound for emerging adults.

God Is Their “Divine Butler/Cosmic Therapist”

The multitude of choices brings exploration in faith as well as in other areas of life. Sociologist Christian Smith, in a massive study exploring religious belief in emerging adulthood, shows the impact of individualism and consumerism on emerging adult faith. He believes that, in response, many emerging adults have formed a parasitic, watered-down faith in which God is viewed as “a Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of problems, professionally helps people feel better about themselves, and does not become too involved in the process.” He calls this weak faith “moralistic therapeutic deism” because these emerging adults see God as a source of moral rules (moralistic), a problem-solver (therapeutic), and distant (deistic), and not as redeemer and savior. Because of this, the challenges for spiritual formation are immense.

But Their Spirituality Matters

Many college students report interests in spirituality: 75% report searching for meaning in life and 80% report believing in God.[1] Despite a cultural message of individual sufficiency, and even though trusting in God is more complicated than ever before and receives less cultural support, many emerging adults recognize their need for God.

It is also comforting that the moralistic-therapeutic-deistic faith that Christian Smith talks about does not appear true of young people in Christian contexts. Despite extensive exploration in faith as well as other areas of their life, we are finding in studies carried out in two Christian colleges[2] that God, to them, is not distant but personal, and not moralistic but loving. Parents’ religiosity is important in shaping emerging adult’s understanding of God, and parental attachments help emerging adults to better navigate this decade of life. Even those emerging adults who ask a lot of questions about faith can be solidly grounded in faith despite their exploration.

It has been shown that those who have faith with questions did not differ from those who have faith and don’t ask questions, although those who ask questions experienced more stress and identity exploration.[3] Indeed, they often do not “choose” to ask the questions, but instead have questions imposed on them by instability and transitions in emerging adulthood. Surprisingly enough, many of these emerging adults who ask lots of questions settle down in faith after their 20s.

In the process of their spiritual formation, emerging adults need to become more agentic in their own faith—that is, they need to take intentional control and responsibility—and my research shows that often they do. For just one example, a comparison of first year and senior students at a Christian college shows that seniors trust God more and take greater responsibility for their faith than first year students.[4]

How Parents Can Help

Parents can help in this transition. In interviews with emerging adults sincerely seeking God, I heard again and again their aching desire that parents listen to them and accept their seeking for authenticity, even if it leads them to different denominations or beliefs than their parents have chosen.

This is their number one request: they ask their parents to listen to them and accept them.

Emerging adults have told me, for example, that they identify more with “Christian spirituality than institutionalized religion.” To me, they are saying that they are seeking and finding the heart of faith. Some feel called to convert to Eastern orthodoxy or more contemplative strains of Catholicism or more liturgical denominations within the evangelical church (also often a good thing). The search for authenticity seems to define emerging adult faith and to bring them in conflict with their parents but it can be an extremely positive search.

Parents can nurture their emerging adults in their search for an authentic faith, just as they can be helpful in their overall well-being (of which faith is a part).

Concrete Recommendations for Parents of Emerging Adults

In response to the changing qualities of their emerging adults, I recommend that parents:

1. Learn to listen well.

2. Show warmth and love.

3. Name their beliefs clearly and frame their position.

But do so without imposing on them, thereby helping emerging adults to sort through the cacophony of choices.

4. Keep humor and perspective.

Sometimes there is no other appropriate response.

Emerging adulthood is a life era that takes place at a unique point in time, and the exploration that is so common during this time is culturally shaped. The search for faith is central to this emerging adulthood, although fraught with misdirection and confusion.

Parents are pivotal in this search; yet emerging adults too often experience parents as not listening enough or validating their search for authenticity. Today’s parents of emerging adults did not have so many opportunities or so much stress, complicating their understanding of the needs of their emerging adults at this age. They worry that their emerging adults will not reach adulthood with faith and will not do well, making this time harder for them and for their emerging adults. With understanding, parents and emerging adults can together navigate this search, with emerging adults developing the qualities of faith that their parents desire.

About the Author

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