Hanna and I have been praying for a child lately, which has led me to this reflection on parenting, but I must begin this post with a disclaimer that I am childless and have zero parenting experience. Now that I have destroyed my credibility, I humbly submit to you my thoughts on parenting after observing many parents (including mine) as a youth and now as a youth pastor. I have supplemented my observations with insights from Madeline Levine, who distills decades of research on parental involvement by clinical and developmental psychologists in Teach Your Children Well. In her book, she concludes that optimal parenting is neither permissive nor controlling, but involved and responsive (you can also read her NY Times article “Raising Successful Children”).
In a culture of “tiger moms” and “helicopter parents,” it may be news to some that over-parenting is often counterproductive. Helping your child unnecessarily or prematurely increases dependency and reduces motivation, while encouraging the child’s autonomy by limiting interference promotes creativity and increases motivation. Thus an important, albeit difficult, task of parenting is not doing for children what they are almost capable of doing, or, in other words, facilitating “successful failures.” Children perform better academically, psychologically, and socially if their parents set high expectations while respecting their autonomy.
What, then, should be the parents’ role in children’s spiritual upbringing? The most important thing parents can do, of course, is to model the pursuit of God in their own lives before demanding it from their children. Sometimes parents impose their dreams of successful parenting on their children and emphasize the outward form (e.g. respectful manners, well-groomed appearance, academic achievement, etc.) rather than inward transformation. Their children become their “projects,” thus alienating the children from their parents. The “image” of the perfect family becomes an idol, thus alienating the whole family from God. This does not mean that parents should never enforce certain non-negotiable standards. But even then, there is a world of difference between insisting that your children attend church on Sunday because you need them to be “model” Christians in front of others and insisting that they do so because they need to learn the fundamentals of the faith. Children can distinguish exhortation from intimidation, and authentic admonishment from angry scolding. When we demand things of our children to indulge our pride rather than for their spiritual formation, we prevent them from owning their faith.
The Barna Research Group has found that 61% of today’s twentysomethings in America were churched as teenagers but now spiritually disengaged. Perhaps the reason for this fallout is that we have not enabled our children to own their faith? How do we, then, encourage the children’s spiritual autonomy? What are some spiritual “risks” that we should tolerate? We need to encourage our children to ask questions about our faith, rather than discouraging doubt as sinful (Jude 22). And yes, we need to steward how and when our children are exposed to the sinful elements in the world, but we also need to recognize that sheltering is temporary. At some point, children will have to face temptations and evaluate the world’s messages on their own. For this reason, we need to instill not merely a code of Christian conduct but a Christian worldview from which children can discern what is true, honorable, just, pure, and beautiful from what is false, shameful, unjust, sinful, and ugly. Coaching children to ask the right questions about what they see and hear is even more important than controlling what they see and hear.
All of this should not come as a surprise to Christians, since Jesus’ death on the cross juxtaposed the heinous violence and injustice of the world with the perfect love and justice of God. Likewise, we need to teach our children to grasp both the horror of human sin (in themselves and in the world) and the glory of divine grace in their fullness. The goal of parenting is not innocence, but repentance (Luke 15). This emphasis on the Gospel should lead children to be confident not in what they have done (or haven’t done) and can do but in what God has already accomplished in Jesus Christ and will do through the Holy Spirit.
Ironically, research has shown that applauding children as “smart,” “athletic,” or “fill-in-your-blank” actually diminishes their confidence and entrepreneurship, because the possibility of losing their newfound status as “smart,” “athletic,” etc. encumbers them. They will either crumble under their insecurity or camouflage their insecurity in their perceived successes until exposed. Parents must not be foolish builders who build up their children’s identity on their words of approval rather than on the words of Christ (Mt. 7:24-29). Christ teaches us that “[we are] so flawed that [He] had to die for [us], yet [we are] so loved and valued that [He] was glad to die for [us]. This leads us to deep humility and deep confidence at the same time” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p. 179). Our children must stand on Christ the solid Rock, for all other ground is sinking sand.
As a childless youth pastor, I am sure that parenting is much harder in practice than in theory, so let me end with this point: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Prov. 22:6) is a truism and not a promise. It is what generally happens, not what God assures will happen. So then, good parents might raise disobedient and unspiritual children, while bad parents might raise children who are obedient and deeply spiritual. All parenting success is God’s grace and should be credited to Him as such. This fact should drive us to our knees all the more.