Guest Post: Empty Nesting – Hoping to Avoid More Bad Assumptions

by Brent Winn

My parents are from SLC. My mother joined the church when she married my father, basically to please him. Mom served in the Church for several years and, ironically, Dad stopped going to church. After figuring out what was wrong with that picture, Mom joined the Unitarian Universalists. Soon after that, the family relocated to California and Dad started back to church since nobody else was going to take the kids (myself, older brother, younger sister). Dad never did become terribly active (he was painfully shy), but he kept taking us to church. Dad never “pushed” us to go to church – as far as I can remember, we just went along willingly.

When I was about age 10, we moved to a new city (still in California) and I fell in with a great group of friends in the church. My LDS peers were exceptional – we basically had an unspoken covenant with each other that we would all go on missions and get married in the temple. I have mixed emotions about the fact that, in my teenage years, Church seemed more like “home” than my family did. Long story short, my folks eventually divorced and Dad left the house. By that time (about age 15), I was already converted to the Gospel, so my dad’s sudden absence did not affect my church attendance. An example of how the church was my other “family” is that when our ward split, I attended meetings in both wards so I could still be with all of my church friends.

Along with all my friends, I fulfilled a mission (Switzerland) and married in the temple. Life was good for about 15 years. Then, in the course of about a year, my wife had an affair, stopped going to church, and filed for divorce.

Of course I was personally devastated, but one of my biggest concerns in the divorce was that our four children be able to stay active in the church. Unlike most non-custodial dads who see their children every other weekend, I arranged to have the kids every weekend so that the children could go to church regularly.

Over the years, my children have had an experience similar to mine, where Dad took them to church and their Mom wasn’t really supportive but didn’t oppose it. Because of my own childhood experience, I made the assumption (or mistake ?) that, if I kept the kids going long enough, they would develop strong relationships in the Church and be converted and active in the gospel in spite of their mom’s “other” example.

Ironically, only one of the children (my oldest daughter) ever bonded closely with any LDS friends and that “bonding” was not strong enough to influence her to stay active. My three oldest are now in college. Apparently these three took their mom seriously when she would say “You have to go to church with your dad at least until you are 18”, because so far they have all stopped going when they went away to college.

I am now nearly an “empty nester” with my youngest child at age 16. Facing this “empty nest” is hard for me as I am still trying to figure out what my role is now with respect to my older children. My first question has been “How can I still be a positive influence for my children when they are away at school ?” But, another part of me says that maybe I am done “raising” my children now — that I should just love and support them and enjoy what time I have with them and quit stressing about how I can still influence them towards gospel activity.

Looking back, I know what I should have done differently with my children when they were younger and deeply regret that I didn’t know what was needed when it was needed. I really, really do not want to keep making bad assumptions in the future. For sure, I don’t want to look back 10 years from now and have even more the same kinds of regrets.

I’m hoping to hear from some who have already lived the next 10 years of my life. Or, maybe you are the child or friend of someone who has already lived the next 10 years of my life.

What works best for “empty nesters” with wandering children?

Brent Winn lives in Southern California and works as an Environmental Engineer. He has a BS in Mechanical Engineering. Brent is an active High Priest, father of 2 sons, 2 daughters, ages 16 to 23. He has recently remarried and has a wonderful wife and three new (step) children.

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22 thoughts on “Guest Post: Empty Nesting – Hoping to Avoid More Bad Assumptions

  1. Love is all you need.


    While my family situation is not truly analagous to yours, I have sister who wandered far, far from the church. My parents made the decision (as have the rest of us siblings) that all we can do is love her and be there for her. Hopefully, the principle behind the proverb about training a child in the way to go and when old he/she will not depart from it will eventually kick in.

    She seems to be getting better. She started going back to church for a bit, but has recently stopped attending. It’s back and forth with her, but at least she knows her family loves her, even if they don’t approve of her behavior all the time.

  2. I am younger with small children who seem to be growing up way faster than should be possible. I wonder what you would have done differently when they were younger to make them stronger in the faith now. Can you elaborate?

  3. I think that you can encourage Church activity still when they are in college by an occassional mention. Of course, you do not want to push or harp in a way that will make them turn the other way.

    Also, tell them that even if they are not attending Church that you hope they are living high standards and seeking good friends. I know for myself that I was able to know a lot of good people from different faiths through the years.

    I believe that continuing to pray and fast for your children can help lead them back some day.

  4. You can’t guarantee your children won’t go astray, but the most important thing is to teach them correct principles and love them. Consistency is also important. My parents were both active and faithful in the Church while we were growing (my mother still is), but only myself and my youngest sister (2 out of 7) are active in the Church. We had sporadic FHE, sporadic Family prayer but we did go to Church each week and were all active. My dad is Borderline Personality Disorder and my mother had a martyr complex, so this wasn’t great for raising, even with testimonies.

    So my advice is consistency as best you can and let your children know what the Gospel means to do. You did your very best, and that truly is the important thing.

    Oh and having friends in the Church doesn’t guarantee strong testimonies either. It can help, certainly, but it isn’t a shoe-in. I think helping your children understand the importance of a personal relationship with the Saviour is more helpful.

    We have a 6 yr old and a 4 yr old and right now the main important issue is to teach the Gospel to them (which we are doing) and the importance of following the commandments and keeping our home a haven of spirituality (usually this works! 🙂 ) Both Kim and I saw the downfalls of mediocrity in our homes growing up, as far as following the Gospel (not in all areas of course. Our parents did the best they knew how), but your example is more of a lesson than anything you can say, as they get older, especially into the teenage years.

  5. I must say that my problem is not that they are going away, but that I can’t get rid of them. I worry more about my kids now than I did when they were home (they are 28, 26, and an engaged 19 year old).

    The two oldest children are my husband’s from a former marriage, we had custody. I think that despite the kids’ decision to turn from the teachings of their youth, they always turn to their dad, they respect that he honors his priesthood and that he loves them. We are hoping in the end they will turn around.

    I was just so looking forward to a rest. Whine.

  6. Eric asked:

    “I am younger with small children…I wonder what you would have done differently when they were younger to make them stronger in the faith now. Can you elaborate?”

    What I wish I had understood better when my children were younger was that “being active in the gospel” is more a reflection of what a person does in his private religious observance(s) rather than what he does at church. One of my “bad assumptions” was that, like me, my children would have good friends in the church who would help them gain the desire for a testimony, which would motivate them to establish a prayer relationship with their Heavenly Father. It just didn’t happen the same way with my kids.

    If I had it to do over again, our FHE’s and my conversations with my children would have been focused more often on the importance of private spiritual observances (i.e. seeking solutions to personal problems through personal prayer and scripture study, learning to understand and follow the voice of the Spirit, resisting temptation, believing in the power of repentance and forgiveness, etc.) I would have shared more of my own personal experiences (as appropriate) in these areas.

    Then, also, I would have sought out more opportunities to have one-on-one conversations (as informal as possible) where I could get a sense of where each child stood in their relationship with Heavenly Father. Perhaps a big factor was that I seldom had time with the kids during the week – it was mostly on weekends when they had friends spending the night, etc., so we had very little private (e.g. bedtime) interaction. It also didn’t help that for several years, after paying child support I only had $800 per month left over and I couldn’t afford a decent place to live unless I had roomies. Although the roomies were for the most part LDS, this still put a damper our family privacy.

  7. Mary – you have the insight that I wish I’d had when my kids were the same age as yours. I for sure have learned the lesson that having good friends in the church does not guarantee a strong testimony. Problem is, I learned the lesson ten years too late.

    It’s such a blessing that your children have both parents active in the gospel and that you have this wisdom now when you need it !!

  8. Brent, I come from an LDS family but was never baptized and had very little church exposure until I was 35 years old. But over time, my father and stepmother fasted and prayed for me and my sister for year after year after year. In addition, they were never judgmental and just accepted me for who I was (with many, many warts) and offered unfeigned love. The result was that when I was ready, the Holy Ghost confirmed the truth of the church and I have been active since (six years). My sister was also baptized. I’m now the HPGL of my ward and very involved in Church public affairs, was married in the temple and regularly attend the temple. I also have two kids from a previous marriage whom I love and want to be active. The lesson for me is 1)be as righteous as possible in your personal life and keep your covenants 2)keep temple worthy and go to the temple 3)Perform your church callings and other service as much as possible 4)show unfeigned love for your children despite their inactivity and accept them especially when they make bad choices 5)create a loving home environment where the spirit is present so they will feel comfortable when they visit 6)love your wife so they see an example of how a good marriage should be. On a practical level, call the bishops in the wards where your children are living to make sure he is aware of them and can send home/visiting teachers and the missionaries to visit them. Once you have done these things, recognize that it is their agency and their choice and have faith that everything will work out OK in the end. God loves you and will bless you if you keep your covenants. I know it.

  9. But, another part of me says that maybe I am done “raising” my children now — that I should just love and support them and enjoy what time I have with them and quit stressing about how I can still influence them towards gospel activity.

    You are never done “raising” your children. But at this stage, you do that by loving and supporting them and enjoying what time you have with them and not stressing about how you can still influence them towards gospel activity.

  10. Last Lemming, you’re right. Absolutely. It’s hard, but imperative, to let go.

    Eric, I learned the hard way that love is the most important thing. Parents can be disciplinarians, or lenient, and kids will turn out okay if the kids know they are loved beyond measure. Harshness is the killer.

  11. My parents were very active and did everything “right” (as best they could). However, I have sisters who are completely inactive. They seek approval for their poor chosen lifestyles, which my parents can’t really give.
    What I think works best is when my parents show their unconditional love. No child can truly be perfect! I am sure even in my “active” LDS state, they can’t possibly agree with EVERY decision I make, or think the same way about everything, or approach life the same way I do.
    What I appreciate is that they support me, have confidence in me, etc. When I was 7 or 15 or 30, of course they knew more than me! But at every age they have tried to let me learn things for myself. They don’t say I told you so when I make a mistake. They don’t tell me I’m making a mistake in my marriage or my parenting.
    They listen to me. They listen to my thoughts and feelings and let me discuss my opinions. They share there own thoughts and feelings.
    You’ll be walking a fine line. YOu need to get emotionally close to share your testimony. But you need to make it clear that your love is not based on their church activity.

  12. JKS, your last sentence, right on. I drove my son away with my emphasis on religion.

    I always agree with you. But if I don’t, I’d tell you.

  13. Thanks annegb. But I think you are too hard on yourself to blame yourself.
    Parenting is difficult, and impossible to do without mistakes. My kids are still young, but I am scared to death. Already, I realize that I make mistakes that affect my children. It is scary.
    I am grateful that my parents were good parents, yet they had kids who “went astray.” I watched them struggle with their own guilt. Yet, I know they did their best.
    I am grateful for the Atonement for my children’s sake. Whatever mistakes I make, the Lord knew I would. He knew it, yet he gave me my children anyway. And the Atonement can help them with whatever hurts are caused by my mistakes.
    I hope.

  14. My wife’s father passed away last week, and we just got back from the funeral. He was a returned missionary, and tried to set a good example. Her mother was more….mercurial. Only two of the six children are still active, not including my wife, and one of those is wavering.

    I have been thinking of my own father, who passed away three years ago. Even though I struggle with the local church members who have made it clear we are not welcome in the branch we live in, and the branch where are records are has done little to support us in our challenges (for example, it has been over two years without visting teachers, in spite of our begging for someone to come), I keep being drawn back. Why? Because many of my most vivid memories of my dad are of my walking in on him when he was down on his knees in prayer. He really did teach the Gospel by example.

  15. Brent,

    That sounds rough. Good luck with that. I know that without good friends in the Church, my life would be a great deal more difficult. Mostly, it’s people that I knew before I converted. I’d bet that your willingness to work hard for them will pay dividends. What are they saying to you about the gospel/the Church/spiritual matters now?

  16. Brent,

    Elder Boyd K. Packer gave a talk in General Conference (I believe it was Oct. 1993) where he talked about the principle the Prophet Joseph taught; and the point was that when parents remain true to their covenants, they have the power to become saviours in Zion, and somehow, somewhere, their children will be brought home to dwell with them in the celestial kingdom.
    There is power in the atonement, and I believe as time goes on, the new revelations we receive, will be on the nature and power of the atonement. The greatest work in the universe is the saving of families, and I don’t think we have an inkling, yet, of what power comes from righteous living.

    My heart goes out to you and the pain you feel, but I do not believe that your efforts will go unrewarded, in the eternal sense, as it relates to your children.

    There is sufficient commentary by the Prophet Joseph, Orson F. Whitney, Brother Packer, and others, to justify this belief.
    In fact, I am just remembering an article by Katherine Thomas, who taught at BYU, which addressed this issue. I can’t put my finger on it right now, but if anyone knows where we can find it, it would be appreciated.

  17. Brent,
    I too am a divorced father of 6 and have had the same concerns you have. I know the feelings well.

  18. D-train:

    Of course, we have to add to the mix the challenge of my college-age children being exposed almost daily to “the philosophies of men” with their college professors and fellow students. This interaction lends support to the world view that their mother gave them, which is “to each his own” with respect to religious beliefs.

    My daughter who is attending UC San Diego says she is trying to find her own path, searching for a religion that is in keeping with her personal set of values and “does not discriminate against gays”.

    My oldest son (age 23), attending San Francisco State, talks about checking out his local ward but it hasn’t happened yet. The LDS population density isn’t very high in the Haight-Ashbury district !! His current situation at first glance doesn’t appear to be very favorable gospel-wise, but compared to where he was 3 years ago, he is way better off. This son has been through some very rough times but he has at least had the “rock bottom” experience where he has pleaded with the Lord for help. It’s really nice to hear him say things like “I’m glad I got past that stage”….

    About a year ago, my younger son (age 18) struggled with the expectation of going on a mission. I counseled him to at least consider getting his Patriarchal blessing so he might know what the Lord sees in his future, but he has not chosen to do that. I think he prefers to remain ignorant in that area so he is more free to choose what he feels like doing. So far, he has chosen to attend Grossmont JC in San Diego and work full time, not allowing any time in his schedule for church.

    With all that, my children are all very pleasant and, when they are with me on a weekend, they have no problem going to church with me. I’m grateful for whatever I can get !! I’m planning on having them all together again at church when their cousin returns from his mission (Brazil) in November.

  19. annegb said:

    I drove my son away with my emphasis on religion.

    I would definitely like to have more insight in this area. My ex-spouse has at times in the past accused me of doing this even though I do not insist that my children attend church or harp about things. However, it is often pretty clear that I don’t approve of some of their choices. Is it just me, or is it hard to separate love and approval ? Even if I see these two things in my mind as separate, I feel at a loss when my children can’t separate the two.

  20. Brent,

    I came across your article tonight… I was surprised to hear what has happened since I knew you a few years ago. However, I believe that your children will remember your example and come back to you. You have a very strong influence, as I well know!

  21. Brent,

    I don’t think you have to chose between love and encouraging them to attend church. The most important thing is to find the tactful and loving way to let them know your honest desires. One of the best ways is to pray for Charity and remember you are responsible for being a righteous influence throughout your life. Your parental responsibility doesn’t end. That certainly doesn’t mean you make choices for them, but that your encourage them and share your feelings. Tell them your spiritual goals as a family are eternal. Maybe you can share with them your fears about the family in general, or maybe they’re willing to go with you to the visitors center for a movie or like was mentioned above calling the ward to ensure home teachers are assigned. Maybe you should ask them if they would want home teachers.

    I know my family members know I love them and when I discuss their relationship with god or the gospel they share concerns and I make sure not to become defensive about the church. Their views and experiences are different than mine.

    Like you I fell into the group of young men who all went on missions and didn’t have drug problems, married in the temple, and so on. But the next younger group my brother was in didn’t share our conviction. In fact my brother was discouraged from coming to church because our clothing was not up to par and it took a year of his inactivity for me to get this out of him as a teen. Teenagers can be merciless and not realize that their actions can have eternal consequences on others.

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