This week I’m so pleased to ask our dear FYI friend Dr. Steve Argue three questions. I’d really like to ask him about 20, but we’ll stick with three for now. Steve is a pastor and theologian in residence at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is a Sticky Faith speaker, trainer, and our Cohort Coaching Director. Together with his wife Jen, Steve is the parent of three adolescent and emerging adult daughters.
1. Steve, now that your second daughter is in college, what has surprised you about what your kids’ transitions out of high school have been like for your family?
I often hear parents who say they are surprised that their children are so different, even though they come from the same parents! I think we’ve realized that our kids don’t come from the same parents! The “parents” of our oldest daughter are perpetual rookies at each stage of the parenting experiment. The “parents” of our second daughter are a little more seasoned and, honestly, a little more chill! As a result, our two daughters’ transitions to college were different for all of us.
The transitions have also been different in that our two college daughters went to very different schools. Kara is an art major at a Midwest Big Ten University. Elise is a biology major at a Christian liberal arts college in southern California. When we dropped Kara off for the first time, we felt completely on our own moving her in, felt like we were throwing her into the deep end, and I think we held on a little bit tighter. When we dropped Elise off, there was a day of family activities with a sending ceremony, and by the time the day was done, I was ready to go!
There was one surprise we shared with both our girls: the goodbye. Both of them, in their own ways, made it very clear when it was time for us to go. I think we’ve learned to be sensitive to that and respect the “goodbye moment.” For both, it felt wonderful and terrible all at the same time! But, we realized at this moment that we were the guests of their new homes, and were aware enough to leave on their terms.
The best advice we received was from the college president at Elise’s school. He reminded us as parents that, during these highly crucial transition times, parents tend to default to logistics–Did you pack this? Did you get that? and on and on. He reminded us that the best thing parents can do is to let the logistics go and just speak encouraging words to your child. Let your parting words over dinner or in front of the dorm be, “We believe in you; We’re proud of you; We are excited for you; You can do this; God brought you here …” I have found this advice not only brilliant for saying goodbye, but helpful for every time I interact with my daughters now. The meaningful conversations happen when we make space for them to share about what they’re learning, discovering, doubting, or believing. When they are home on breaks, we make sure we work to make this space possible. For Kara, we find this space over really good coffee. For Elise, we find this space over an adventure run.
2. Your PhD research is focused on emerging adults. How has that research shaped your own parenting?
What’s been interesting is that as I have done my research, I’ve bounced my theories off my daughters, and they’ve been able to help me articulate what I have seen, and what I may have missed! Two things stand out. First, my own research and reports we have read in the media about sexual assault have been tremendously disturbing to me as a researcher, pastor, and father of daughters. This has led to us having some important talks about sexual assault on campus, drugs and alcohol, and relationships. These have not been fearful conversations, but ones where we have talked about what it means for them to be women in society, what empowerment looks like, and how to seek wisdom as they navigate non-structured college time (some call this “night campus” or the non-classroom time when college students are making choices about friends, relationships, and free time).
My wife, Jen, is especially great at asking our daughters about their friendships–who they’re hanging out with, where they are from, what they are like. This is not helicopter parenting, because we’re not trying to control their lives. Instead, we’ve reminded our daughters that we ask questions of them because we’reinterested in their lives! As our girls have realized this is true, I think they’ve become more comfortable with sharing with us. In fact, just this weekend, Jen got a text from Elise at 2:30AM saying, “This is the craziest concert I’ve ever been to!” This evokes a lot of emotions in her parents, but we’re choosing to take this as a compliment that Elise would choose to share it!
Second, I have become increasingly aware of the need for college students to “leave” as much as “connect” their faith journeys. My research has highlighted the need for college students to differentiate themselves from their familiar church experiences, parents, and adult relationships as they begin to form their own opinions about faith, life, and purpose. This does not mean they’re leaving church or foregoing the important relationships they’ve developed. It means they’re learning to relate to church, parents, and adults differently. Too often church and adults treat emerging adults at college as though they’ve never left for school, and I think this is discouraging to them. They want adults in their lives, but they don’t want to be treated like they’re still in high school. What was troubling in my research was the number of students who, therefore, had few adults to talk with about the things that were most important to them.
As a result, I’m less anxious about if my girls are connected to traditional forms of religious gatherings (church, parachurch groups) and more interested in how they are integrating their spirituality with their education, worldview, and relationships. I know that the process is important, and our role as parents is to journey close enough for them to access us along the way, but not to get in their way. When this happens, we short-circuit the process and we try to motivate our children through external influences rather than calling out their internal convictions. This is not easy! I have my own hopes, dreams, and opinions. But I’m realizing that my daughters’ journeys are helping me rethink my own assumptions.
Undergraduates whom I identified as having an “Integrating Perspective” learned to integrate their education, relationships, calling, and faith in a way that is mutually informing and holistic. Their faith is “self authored,” motivated by their own internal convictions rather than external expectations. Parents and churches have often misunderstood this process, but they must recognize that a maturing faith that lasts requires this important aspect in spiritual journey.
3. I know that one of your family mantras is “Tell me more.” Why is that so important to your family and how do you try to live that out?
Haha! Yes. We have an art piece in our family room that says that. We don’t have a TV in the family room. This is the space for conversation, not distraction (just to be clear, we have another place for the TV; we love movies). I think we need to remember as parents that the first question isn’t as important as the second or third question. A first question usually comes from our own agenda–we want information, clarity, or context. Second and third questions are responsive questions that emerge from the conversations. They show our kids how well we’re listening and really seeking to understand, rather than just interrogate.
I realized when our daughters went to college that I had to learn to talk with them differently. My job wasn’t to check up on them–Where were you last night? When did you get in? Did you finish your homework? My questions had to become ones of discovery–What was the best part of your week? What class is inspiring you? What do you like or not like about your professors?
Sometimes this happens through a phone call, FaceTime or face-to-face. Other times, it’s through text messages. I text my college daughters every day. I don’t expect them to text me back (we’ve talked about this). Sometimes they do. It doesn’t matter. I just want them to know that we’re out there, thinking of them, cheering for them. That small connection makes our longer conversations less dramatic and more conversational.
Maybe, for us, “Tell me more” is more of a posture than a solo question!