“Do you have any parenting advice?”
The young family sat across from us at one of those church potluck tables. The dad had his arm around the two-year-old perched on his knee while the mom poked a straw into the five-year-old’s juice box.
My husband and I looked uneasily at each other. True, we were farther along in parenting than this family. We have four kids, three of them currently teenagers. But did we have any advice?
When asked this question ten years ago, I gave confident answers. After all, my husband and I were experienced teachers and missionaries and had spent years in youth ministry. We knew all the right things to do: Eat dinner together every night. Play and pray with your kids. Read books together. Give them firm boundaries. Persistently guard screen time. Make friends with people of different ethnicities and incomes. Live life in community; surround your kids with role models.
We knew all the right things to do: Eat dinner together every night. Play and pray with your kids. Read books together.
But this time, I didn’t give any of these answers. Instead, when I heard the question, a recent scene flashed through my mind: My husband and I, a teenager in front of us, tears in our eyes, tension thick in the room. “Sweetheart, please, make wiser choices. The natural progression of your choices could eventually lead to prison. We are scared; we don’t want that to happen to you.”
I recalled my long conversation with a psychiatrist, the weekly trips to drive my child to a therapist. The emails I’ve written to principals and classmates’ parents, apologizing for a son or daughter’s actions. The school suspensions. The sleepless nights, imagining worst-case scenarios.
I felt like a failure. How could I feel qualified to give parenting advice? This wasn’t how I thought it would go.
Perfect parents are successful
How does our world measure our success as parents? The same way it measures success at anything: by the outcome of our efforts. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” right? Accomplished, well-behaved children must be the proof of good parenting.
Perhaps this is why parents take report cards so personally. Why kids are signed up for just one more activity. Why dads get bent out of shape when their sons don’t get enough playing time. Why moms jockey for college acceptances into the very best schools.
How does our world measure our success as parents? The same way it measures success at anything: by the outcome of our efforts.
Yes, we love our kids. But we also believe that what they do is a reflection of us.
I’m a success if my five-year-old recites the U.S. Presidents or if I post pictures of my daughter as Homecoming Queen or if I announce an Ivy League acceptance in my Christmas letter.
But what if a child is suspended, drops out of college or rejects my faith? We feel like failures.
Yes, we want to protect our child’s privacy. But we also take it personally. What happens to my ego if I invest 18 years into a person who rejects all I taught them? What about my dreams for my future – for grandchildren, for family vacations, for kids who become my best friends? How can I let that go? And when my child fails, what will other people think…about me?
I can’t help but wonder if this is biblical thinking. We must ask ourselves: when is parenting about our kids and when is it about us? Our love for our children can get so mixed up with our desire to be successful parents that it’s hard to separate the two. And that can be a pitfall.
We must ask ourselves: when is parenting about our kids and when is it about us?
The perfect behavior
Christian parenting books told me that if I raise my children in the way they should go, in the end they won’t depart from it (Prov 22:6). That if I discipline my children, they will bring me peace and delight (Prov 29:17). But are those promises to Christians, or like the rest of Proverbs, wise advice?
Of course, sometimes parents must take responsibility for their children’s destructive choices, trauma or pain. “I’m not perfect, but I’m trying” can be a cop-out for neglect or abuse.
Yet the other side of the pendulum is equally damaging. When we carry the weight of our children’s choices on our shoulders, we can find ourselves pushing for outward performance rather than inward transformation. We may unconsciously think, “I want you to act like a Christian; whether you are or not is secondary. I want you to behave so that I get the life I always wanted. I want you to be successful so that I feel validated.”
Parenting starts looking more like Skinner’s Behaviorism rather than gospel-centered discipleship.
What’s more important: that my kids make me feel proud or that they come to know God’s grace?
A perfect model
God is the perfect parent, yet His children are the ultimate rebels. That is not a reflection of Him but of our sinfulness. Yes, God disciplines those He loves, but like a lovesick Father, He never fails to chase us down. His love is relentless.
Daily, I cling to hope: My children’s stories are not over. But mine isn’t either. How is He molding me as I parent this child? How is my child’s story a part of God’s story for me? And how often do I turn away from my Father, only to have Him woo me back?
I only have one piece of parenting advice: Love your children the way God loves you.
I only have one piece of parenting advice: Love your children the way God loves you. Everything else will flow from this. Love them when they disappoint you, smash your dreams, even turn their backs on you. Judge your parenting success on this alone.
One of my kids is prone to rages and had a rough day last week. This child screamed, “I hate this family. I’m running away!” Which didn’t happen. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it did someday.
That night, I slid onto the child’s bed in the darkness. I punctured the silence. “If you run away, we will always come after you. Always. We will never stop loving you. We will be relentless in our pursuit of you. There is nothing you could ever do that would make us give up on you.”
Because that’s how God loves me.
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