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This Parenting Thing

Posted by Michael Dunn on


As a father, I have been very intentional with my four children—especially when it comes to making a way for them.

This is the season when my relationship with them transitions from parent-child to adult-adult. I must admit, I miss them as children. In retrospect, those child-rearing years were so fleeting.

As I’ve thought about this transition, I’ve realized that our peer-to-peer relationship has moved us from directive interactions to collaboration.

Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo

This has created tension between my role as their parent and our new dynamic. My challenge is to push past my familiar functions as a father and press instead toward an enduring relationship.

This transition is scary in many ways because if I no longer function as a parent, do I still have value to them?  

Our culture emphasizes function over relationship. The question, “What do you do?” is the typical introduction in every Silicon Valley context. Many employers care only about contribution and what you have done lately. When an employer no longer values your functional role, it can lead quickly to a job loss. 

A simple story illustrates the challenge. I was once a core lay leader in a church with a large pastoral staff. Lay leaders were assigned a support pastor based on geography. This pastor and I met weekly and ate meals together. I could call him any time. I felt well supported and affirmed by my new friendship.

After several months, the church grew and, as a result, a different pastor was assigned to support me.

But what of that former pastor? I never shared another meal or phone call with him. He moved on to his new assignment. My relationship with him had been primarily functional.

As I think about my changing relationship with my adult children, I am forced to ask the questions: What is the goal of a relationship? How can I become more sensitive to the tension between function and bond?

The risk of emphasizing our roles is that a relationship may die when the purpose that fueled it no longer exists. The personhood of each individual has not been cultivated enough for the bond to continue.

This is the struggle that some parents have as their children enter adulthood. It is easy to tightly grip our parental function and never allow our relationship with our children to transition as they grow up.

In my observations, refusing to loosen our grip causes adult children to remain forever dependent or become estranged in an effort to break constraints that have outlived their usefulness. 

Adulthood in our culture does not happen all at once but emerges. The ramp for each child is different, but milestones like graduation, entering the workforce, and marriage mark the transition. Similarly, the path of our relationship with our children must be iterative, building on itself over time.

In their book, The Family: A Christian Perspective on Contemporary Home, Fuller Seminary professors Jack and Judith Balswick present a theology of relationships that includes the idea of nurturing reciprocity.

According to the Balswicks, nurturing reciprocity describes the ever-evolving, nonlinear stages of a relationship: covenant, grace, empowering, and intimacy.

As parents and children age together, the way forward is to nurture collaboration and reciprocity. The key aspect of our bond is our relationship to one another. As Jesus exhorts, “I give you a new commandment…that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34, NET). This exhortation applies not only to the family of God but to our own families as well.

Love is what pushes our family relationships toward reciprocity. It challenges me to respond to my family with humility and end manipulative or controlling behaviors. 

Just as I was a very intentional parent while my children were young, I must be intentional in un-parenting them. I hope to seek sustaining, reciprocal relationships with them that evolve as we journey forward through the life seasons ahead.


Michael Dunn became a Christian in 1975 during the sweet spot of the Jesus movement. His career has been in high tech, including tenures at Apple, Netscape, AOL, Palm, and a few startups. He and his wife, Kathy, raised four children and are learning to be grandparents. They currently live in Santa Cruz.

In previous years, Michael was involved with several church plants in San Francisco and Austin. In 2015, Michael completed a masters from the School of Theology at Fuller Seminary. He still works in high tech but is starting to work out his focus for this next season. Presently he is interested in serving boomers. He attended The River from 2012 to 2017.


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