Your Boy (In College) Wants You To Talk

A week ago I was on a retreat with 16 college-aged men. I knew some of them well, but others were new faces. I listened carefully as these young men shared their personal stories. Some battled with addiction, others with self-righteousness. Some grew up in the church, others did not. Some just began a relationship with Christ, others knew him for years. Despite these superficial differences, I noticed one deep, shared longing: affirming, loving parental relationships.

I’m not a parent, so I’ll try to avoid parenting advice. Instead, I want to describe what I’ve seen after serving college-aged men for several years. First, I can say with little hesitation that no relationship is more important to a college male than that with his father and mother. Second, most guys’ insecurities, fears, doubts, weaknesses, and pains come from past hurts (often accidental) inflicted by a parent.

I remember one young guy sharing that his father discovered his regular use of pornography. Yet, he never asked him about it. My friend desperately wanted his father to say something, because he intuitively knew that some response, even discipline, showed love. No response felt like rejection. A different student described a moment when he felt scared and shared it with his father. He wanted nothing more than a hug, but a found cold shoulder instead. He left desperately insecure. One guy shared the pain he felt simply because his Dad never shared how he met his mother. He felt like an uninvited intruder into his Dad’s life.

Each of these moments are insignificant and significant all at once. They reflect the deep pain young men experience when they feel a relational rift with their parents. No parent is perfect. Even the best moms and dads let their kids down. No one should burden themselves with the idea of perfection, because, thankfully, God forgives and heals our failures both large and small.

Nonetheless, the lack of questions, the lack of I love you’s, the lack of sharing, and the lack of affirmation hurts even adult children. I hear some parents express a fear that it’s too late to retrieve a meaningful relationship with their son. A father gives up, because he thinks his son is disinterested. Yes, he probably appears disinterested, but that’s a way of protecting himself. I assure you he’s not.

Every young man I spend time with, despite past hurts and relational distance, longs for his dad to take him to breakfast and ask him about his life. He longs for his dad to share about his own spiritual experiences and struggles. He longs for his mom to ask about whom he’s dating. He longs for his mom to share her thoughts on his friends.

God designed families to function as small microcosms of the heavenly family. We call God a father and Jesus a son for a reason. In some fashion their love for one another, their desire to know one another, spend time together, and make much of one another is exactly what earthly sons and fathers were meant to do. A child’s desire to be engaged, to experience love, to be asked questions, to share, to and to open up never changes with age.

Too many young men bear the burden of reconciliation with their parents, because their parents are too scared to seek it. These young guys make excuses for their fathers and mothers, because they do understand. Yet, when many of them finally gather the courage to repair a relationship they get stonewalled. My favorite stories are rare: when fathers step up the plate and make things right with their sons, when dads take initiative.

It can be difficult to ask forgiveness for past hurts, but your college-aged kid needs it. It can feel impossible to open up a deep conversation or ask a tough question, but (despite any initial awkwardness) your kid desperately desires it. It may feel forced to share about your life, but your son’s ears itch for it.

Jesus said, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift”(Matt 5:23-24). If that’s true of your friends, how much truer of your children? Do you need to reconcile a relationship? If your child “has something against you,” drop the offering and run to him.

Paul wrote, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal 6:2). If you’re called to bear your friend’s burden, how much more should you bear the burdens of your child? No, not just financial burdens. Those aren’t heavy enough. Relational burdens. The burden of listening, caring, and asking questions.

In countless places, the Bible challenges fathers to “bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; see also Gen 18:19; Deut 4:9, 6:7, 11:19; Ps 78:4; Prov 19:18, 22:6, 29:17). This does not mean, “Teach your child moral lessons.” It means following up after your son stumbles with pornography. It means sharing your personal spiritual experiences and struggles. It means asking your son about his relationship with God, his doubts, his struggles. It means showing him the grace and understanding. It means careful, loving discipline. It means sharing your life, your failures, and your successes, so he has a real life picture of what it looks like to follow Jesus as a man.

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “Walk in the light while there is light.” That’s great advice. There is still time for your relationship with your son. The sun has not set. No matter where your relationships is, I believe that few things could be more healing for most college guys than hearing a father say, “I love you. I want to be closer. I would love to hear about your life right now. I’m sorry for any time I ever hurt you, but I just want to be with you now and start over.”

It costs to engage and ask questions. It’s terribly frightening. But by God’s grace, we can ante up and start healing.

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