Parenting those outside our families

Dr. Robert Ritzema

April 16, 2023

What does it mean to be a parent? In the narrow sense of the word, a parent is a biological father or mother. The term can be used more broadly, though. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “parent” as “a mother or father of a person or animal, or someone who looks after a person in the same way that a parent does.” Many of us have experienced a parental sense of being looked after by an older person who wasn’t a relative. Many have provided that sort of parental care to someone who wasn’t related to us. Those of us in later adulthood can benefit teens and younger adults by serving a parental role in their lives, especially if we take cues from such examples as the Apostle Paul’s relationship with his young colleague Timothy.

A biblical example

Paul first encountered Timothy in Lystra, near the beginning of his second missionary journey (Acts 16:1). He decided to have Timothy accompany him, and, from that time on, the younger man was a faithful and consistent companion and assistant. Two of our New Testament books are letters from Paul written to Timothy while the latter was leading the church in Ephesus. Their relationship was definitely like that of a father and son. Paul addresses the first letter “To Timothy, my true son in the faith” (I Tim. 1:2a), and in the second refers to him as “my dear son” (1:2). The letters contain quite a bit of instruction about how to lead the congregation, but the tone throughout is personal in nature. Much of what Paul writes has a parental feel. 

Here are some elements gleaned from these letters to Timothy that can guide us in relationships where we take something of a parental role:

Honest about struggles

Paul was honest about his shortcomings. He confesses that he “was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” (1 Tim. 1:13). A few verses later, he calls himself “the worst of sinners.” Hiding faults and pretending to be someone other than who we are won’t draw anyone to us; if anything, it will repel them. A parent or parent-substitute needs first of all to be genuine.

Establish identity

Paul helped ground Timothy in his identity. He reminds Timothy of important aspects of his history, such as the faith he shares with his mother and grandmother (2 Tim. 1:5) and the prophecies that were made about him (1 Tim. 1:18). He gives Timothy an identifying label, calling him “man of God.” (1 Tim. 6:11) Teens and young adults often don’t have much sense of who they are. Caring older adults who know them well--parents and parental figures--can help tremendously with this process of self-discovery by pointing them to salient things about their history, character, and goals, all material useful for defining themselves.

Strengthen and encourage

Paul strengthened Timothy in areas of potential struggle. Some commenters suggest that Timothy was somewhat timid and lacking in confidence, perhaps because he was a young person in a culture that respected age, not youth. Paul repeatedly encouraged Timothy in this area. “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,” (1 Tim. 4:12) he writes. “Don’t neglect your gift” (1 Tim. 4:14). Further, “do not be ashamed,” (2 Tim. 1:8), and “be strong.” (2 Tim. 2:1) Effective parents are often attuned to their children’s weaknesses and provide encouragement, support, and affirmation in those areas. When we notice such areas of struggle in teens and young adults of our acquaintance, we can offer similar assistance.

Offering caring and connection

Paul showed caring and a desire for closeness. A key concern—often the key concern that many teens and young adults have—is to be cared for. Are they all alone in an indifferent world, or is there someone who truly values them enough to convey their value in both words and deeds? This is often a particular issue for those whose original caregivers didn’t show much care. Paul’s caring for Timothy was evident in his selecting Timothy as his companion and in all the personal touches in the letter, such as the address to “my dear son.” He shows a yearning for Timothy’s company: “I long to see you,” he says near the start of his second letter (1:4), and later asks Timothy twice to do his best to visit soon (4:9, 4:21). This is not caring at a distance, but a deep desire for connection. Many of the young people we encounter need to know that someone older truly cares for them, treasures the relationship, and is eager for connection.

It is useful, then, for those of us who have reached mid-life to think of the relationships we have with teens and young adults outside the parameters of our biological families. On occasion, we will be seen by those younger people as serving as a substitute parent. We can be a blessing to those young people if we keep in mind the lessons about such relationships that we can glean from reflecting on the way Paul acted towards Timothy.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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