I love my kids.

Being a parent is a wonderful gift, even though I sometimes joke that I’m not ready for children. But ready or not, they’re here, all eight of them – from 21 years old down to 4.

I have often marveled at the mathematical improbability of having eight children who all seem to be polar opposites. But there they are – eight opposites, each one a unique individual, with his or her own personality, gifts, and challenges.

As the kids have grown, parenting has taken on new and unexpected complexities. The little ones continue to be filled with innocence, wonder, and a touch of mischief. They’re fun to be around, albeit physically exhausting.

The older children, if they can still be called that, are in the process of detaching from Kathi and me and becoming independent. It’s a natural and healthy process, but it demands a fundamentally different approach.

I had no idea, as a parent of youngsters, what I was in for. Here’s the critical distinction, at least as perceived through my business-trained lenses: young children need to be managed. Adult children must be led. Just like the qualities that get a politician elected often differ from those required for good governance, these are two completely different skill sets.

A while back, I was immersed in a metaphysical discussion with an older teen at the dinner table. Calmly, seamlessly, I excused myself momentarily and turned to one of the younger boys with a slightly annoyed tone and said, “Stop licking your sister’s arm!” before returning to the other discussion. Different age, different approach.

Here’s the challenge with the older teens and twenty-somethings. Not only does parenting them require love, patience and wisdom. It also demands an increasing – and profound – respect for their free will. Because they are adults, even though they’re my children.

This is how God treats us.

Young adults in our culture face deeply ingrained ways of thinking that often oppose parental wisdom. Even though there really aren’t any new vices (the deadly sins are still deadly), the proclamation and delivery of such vices sure is more efficient – and effective.

Many societal forces continue to march away from the Church, providing more opportunity for conflict. At the same time, there is great opportunity to share why we believe with our older kids. How our beliefs have caused us to change. Why society may not have all the answers.

Yet ultimately, they make their own decisions, ready or not.

So as I pray for my kids, the prayers for the older ones have taken on a particular intensity. I recognize the importance of their formation in using their free will. Their formation is my responsibility, and looking back, it’s easy to see my shortcomings in this area. It’s humbling, especially when they make mistakes along the way and I feel at least partially responsible – if only I would have, could have, done this or that differently. But as a friend says, “you can’t hope for a better past.”

On the bright side, coming to a deeper sense of my own sinfulness has provided motivation to improve. Personal sanctity is critical, and I have known that for years. Personal sanctity isn’t just personal – it impacts everything. For example, striving to be a better husband not only honors my beautiful wife, it provides an example for my children.

It would be difficult to put into words just how much I love each one of them, although I recognize that especially for the older ones, words aren’t very convincing anyway. I need to love them so much that I’m willing to change myself. With God’s grace, I’m tackling this challenge day by day, a little bit at a time.

In praying for my children, I am comforted by one thought. If I love my children this much, how much more does God love them? After all, as my wonderful OSV acquisition editor Bert Ghezzi says, “God has kids, but no grandkids.” After reaching the limits of my human parenting acumen, God takes it from there.

While I sometimes feel like a parental failure, like St. Paul, I recognize it’s not my call to make. Free will, after all, is itself a reflection of God’s love as our heavenly parent. I’m grateful to recognize that it’s only through the exercise of this gift that authentic conversion is possible.

My human, fallible love is only a shadow of the love God has for us. By His grace, the love of a parent is truly a wondrous thing.