It’s one thing, however, to lose sleep over a crying baby; another to lose sleep over a wayward teenager. And when our children become tens, the areas of normal and expected vs. cause for concern often intensify.
Most new parents, of course, don’t plan to have wayward teens because they intend to do things right from the start. And who can argue with such a noble goal? Reality can!
One of my brothers was recently in a store with his three-year-old daughter. She wasn’t following his instructions so he snatched her up and put her in the cart. She quickly pointed her little finger at him and said, “Daddy, this is my life not yours.” Hearing this, I thought, “What will she say when she’s fourteen?”
It doesn’t take very long for the blissful naïveté of young parents to convert to the hard reality of life in a fallen world! Parenting is one of the most challenging assignments given to humans. When I asked my mother how she was able to have eleven children, she said, “Having them wasn’t the challenge; raising them was!”
After raising four children to adulthood, I understand some of what she means. But I can’t imagine raising seven more!
I am a firm believer in the importance of parenting. I realize that it’s possible to be a good parent or a bad one. But most of us mix some good parenting with some notable mistakes. And no parent gets it all “right.” So is it possible to expect too much from parenting?
Many parents mistakenly think that they’ll spare themselves and their children from future trouble if they just find the right formula for parenting. Christian parents tend believe this based on the biblical proverb that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV). Yet we must understand that proverbs are mostly generalized statements of wisdom, not ironclad promises. (see: “Does Proverbs promise too much?”)
While parenting matters greatly, there’s no method of parenting that will ensure unblemished futures for our children. If you don’t get this, it’s possible that you’ll expect more from parenting than it can deliver. You also might risk making parenting about you and how you appear than what is best for your children.
We don’t be like the parents who are broken-hearted over a wayward son because they thought they did everything “right” in raising him. Is it possible to do a good job parenting and end up with a wayward son? Yes. Does God have any wayward sons or daughters? Yes. Have you ever been one of them?
I approach this subject very differently from when we had small children. Raising four children to adulthood has given my wife and me much wider perspective. The goal of parenting is to raise our children to release them. This requires parents to move from parental control to parental influence. As our children grow older, we need to gradually release them by giving them increased responsibility. If we fail to do this, we’ll likely lose influence by trying to maintain control.
But the hard part comes when they believe they’re ready for freedoms earlier than we’re ready to give them. And they’re typically not hesitant to let us know or to go behind our backs if we try to stop them. We must teach them that freedom is directly related to responsibility and trust.
The terrain of parenting is even more challenging when you have more than one child. When you’re dealing with different ages, temperaments and issues, your formula will require adjustments for each one. There’s rarely a “one-size-fits-all approach. And your children will quickly notice what appears to them to be inequities in your parenting. You might need to remind them that each of you are different and at different stages of life.
Children and faith
Most Christian parents want their children to experience God’s grace in Jesus Christ. They also know that they can’t “parent” them into this experience. Entering the grace-story of God’s salvation happens when one truly owns the back-story of human sinfulness. But how do our children come to know that they’re sinners in need of salvation?
Parenting is our effort to teach them to be good. How can we lead them away from bad behavior and commend them for good behavior while teaching them how desperately they need God’s grace as sinners? We want them to do what is right and make wise choices without believing that any of this gives them salvation credit with God.
It might help for you as a parent to remind yourself of how we’re all born anchored to our heritage of sin. This doesn’t mean we always act as badly as possible but that (apart from God’s grace), we are as bad off as we can be no matter how good we think we’ve been. Teach this also to your children. Teach it often! When you discipline them for the wrongs they’ve done, point them to God’s ultimate solution. In all character training, we must help them see that only God can change their hearts.
Tell them your story in the context of the story of God’s grace in Christ. Start with God’s good creation. Tell them how and why it went bad. Be transparent about our common share in the back-story of sin. Lead them to understand the grace of God in Christ. They will take believing steps toward Christ but don’t overly rely on the idea of them accepting Jesus into their hearts at a young age. Be patient and teach your children to continue to respond to God as they grow up.
When our children do sinful things, we must never say, “I can’t believe you did that!” We could ask, “What were you thinking?” or say, “That was very wrong and unwise of you!” But to say, “I can’t believe you did that” minimizes what Scripture emphasizes about the depravity of our hearts (Jeremiah 17:9).
Never forget that the gospel is such good news because of the bad news of our sin. We all have the capacity to do very evil things. We all need God’s grace. Believe firmly in this gospel and teach it to your children (see: “Seven daily reminders of the gospel“).