Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Christian" Parenting? ...Why You Don't Need Any More "Should"(s) in Your Life

Parenting is really, really hard sometimes. I feel like all of my pre-parenting experiences with kids, which generally convinced me that I was going to be great at this, were the child-raising equivalent of a Junior High track meet. It wasn't until I showed up at the real-life parenting Olympics that I realized how far off my self-assuredness had been.

One thing I keep stewing on lately, though, is how Jesus actually asks very little of me when it comes to raising my children, compared to the standard many other believers would hold me to, or even compared to the standard of many unbelieving parents or other unbelieving adults with an interest in child welfare. It seems like everyone has some sort of high-reaching expectation or standard regarding parenting, with varying focuses and levels of detail depending on where they are approaching it from, each with their own hot-button issue when it comes to children. Yet what Jesus asks and expects of me is really very simple: Love them. Love them the same way I am responsible to love any other believer or "neighbor" in my life.

Sure, there are some specific admonitions to parents, such as the directive to avoid exasperating or embittering your children, not causing them to lose heart or crushing their spirits. We should certainly be mindful of these specific instructions. There are also broader instructions to take care of and provide for one's family, which we should heed. But on a basic level, we are to relate to our children in the same way we should to all other human beings -- with love, humility, and patience; striving for and placing value upon peace, forgiveness, and shared joy in the relationship.

There are not only books, but entire programs and courses devoted to how to be a "Christian" or "Biblical" parent. The simple fact is, being a Christian parent boils down to continuing to be a Christian within the relationships with our kids. There is no magic formula or rules you must follow or goals you must achieve that are separate from the directions to every Christian regarding the new life of love lived in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think we have missed the mark by attempting to define Biblical/Christian parenting as anything more. We have missed the mark when we have defined it by the degree of control or influence one is able to exercise over his or her young children. We have certainly missed it when we have defined it by whether or not a child decides to follow Christ as an adolescent, teen, or young adult; or even more problematically, by whether the child chooses to engage in some prominent sinful behavior during those years, after having professed belief or not.

Yesterday evening, we were sharing with a small group of friends some recent struggles we are going through with our children. I eventually concluded, "I'm just not the parent I thought I'd be." (Or perhaps I said, "I'm not the parent I wanted to be." Either is equally true.) Yet, in the midst of the knowledge that by any measure, I've not been the parent I thought I would be; in the midst of the struggle, frustration, and heartbreak of feeling not up to the task, a deeper knowledge is peeking through. It whispers that although this might be true, I am concerned about it for all the wrong reasons. I shouldn't be concerned so much about how I've failed at having nightly family meals together or limiting screen time. I should be concerned about the times I've failed to show love and engender peace.

The pressure on parents to do the right things for our children is immense. I understand Christians, especially, latching on to whatever is determined to be "best practices" for parenting, viewing it as the proper or ideal way to show love to their kids. It's not that these best practices should be abandoned or ignored. I assume many parents are able to fulfill some or all of these best practices in the midst of maintaining a Christ-like, loving relationship with their kids. The problem arises only when the pursuit of what we view as proper or Biblical parenting becomes such a great pressure that it keeps us from just loving our kids. In other words, we try so desperately to show our love and commitment to them by doing all the best things for them, that we pursue it at the expense of the relationship with them or of our own faith and relationship with God.

When my kids were toddler and preschool age, I felt a tremendous pressure from the Christian community not only to discipline them consistently, but also to demonstrate whenever I was around others that I had been doing so, via the unreliable and dubious test of their compliance in public. Many things I heard or read implied or outright said that if you discipline them properly, if you follow the right methods, then they will give in to it eventually. They will submit to your authority and follow your directions, no matter how much they disagree or don't understand your reasons.

If you don't already know, let me be the first to tell you: It isn't true. Don't believe the lie. Unfortunately, I did believe it, and I think I put my kids and myself through the wringer many times when it was unnecessary. As long as I could maintain peace and patience and love while trying to teach them discipline, that was great. I have no regrets for those times. But those times that it started to tear us all apart, but I thought I had to follow through, that everything depended on me "doing this right" -- that if I gave up on an individual battle, especially an intense, charged one, it was giving up on my pursuit of well-behaved kids in general, and it was a massive, disastrous failure and demonstration of my lack of commitment and love -- during those times, I often gave up true love and peace for pride.

Now, the tricky part of all this is that since we love our children and want what is best for them, we naturally want to follow best practices and provide consistency, discipline and an enriching, safe environment for them. There are reasons these things are considered best practices. If I totally gave up on the homework battle with my boys and allowed them to do poorly in school to the degree that it affected their opportunities for higher education and career opportunities someday, I think they would look back and say, "If you loved me, you would have told me I had to do my homework! You would have protected me from my own immaturity and lack of foresight!" Yet, when it comes down to this nightly battle, there is a point when it causes so much distress and chaos and pain that I'm not sure it's worth pressing the issue in every single instance.

Part of it is my own weakness, I admit. Sometimes I am able to remain calm and loving, sympathetic but firm, repeating a mantra, love-and-logic style: "You can watch play video games when your homework is done. [Child yells about wanting to play now, that he won't do homework, never ever] Oh, that's a bummer. But still, you can play video games when your homework is done." One can keep up a mantra like this for a while. It feels good to be sympathetic and a steady, strong presence in the midst of your child's breakdown. However, there are times when it lasts for hours, and more than one kid has joined in, and it's the third night in a row, and frankly, your mental health starts to suffer, and it's not such a terrible thing to compromise. To do something, anything, whether it's in the textbook or not, just to get out of the fit-throwing, discontented rut. "Hey, let's go get ice cream!" "Hey, it's family movie night!"

I don't know if realizing that love matters more in parenting than doing everything right actually makes it any easier to live through the experience. I'm still trying to figure it out as I attempt to apply it to the daily challenges we face. It's still miserable to live through your child making bad choices, refusing to follow the rules, or generally being irritable and combative. Applying the principle when dealing with sibling fighting is especially tricky. Letting something slide with one child when they are pushing back so hard you feel like you can't push back anymore and still remain Christ-like might mean leaving another child vulnerable, not protecting them like you are responsible to do. So, you are forced to continue to engage with the situation; it's not a fight you can abandon. I think this is often when I lose touch with thinking and acting like Christ -- when I'm in the middle of a situation like this, and stepping away to preserve the relationship doesn't seem like an option.

So, in conclusion: Yes, parenting is really hard. But it doesn't have to be that way because of expectations and lists of should-do's imposed from outside. I have a long way to go in the daily pursuit of living in Christ's presence and power and acting in the ways He would want me to, but I don't have to add another set of rigid expectations regarding child raising. I may try to follow best practices in my parenting, but my focus must first be on love, and not allow pursuit of best practices to dominate at the expense of loving my kids with patience, forgiveness, humility, peace, hope, joy (and whatever other adjectives you might glean from the New Testament) as is suitable for a follower of Christ.


  1. Super hard! And I've suspected that it's not going to get easier, but harder. Deep breaths and the Peace Prayer are my best allies. I like your thoughts about it.

  2. Thanks, Betsy! I don't know if it will get harder for you or not. The temperaments and age gaps between the children involved can make a big difference in how it plays out, I think; when the toughest times end up being and what they look like. What is the Peace Prayer, exactly? I find myself repeating what I think is called the Jesus prayer... "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Or just "Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord, have mercy," as in our call-and-respond prayers at church. It seems to help with maintaining focus and opening one's self to God's grace in the situation. I used to think it was shallow to come back to the same words of prayer frequently or repeatedly like that, but the thing is, I don't do it because I think God didn't hear me the first time. I do it because I need to be centered on it and reminded of what my heart truly wants. Hopefully that doesn't qualify as "babbling on like the pagans do." I like to think it's more like the meditations of David, or like Jesus himself participating in the Jewish exercise of reciting the Psalms in order, as some believe He was doing on the cross, culminating in some of His last recorded words.

  3. Well said. I would encourage you even further in shedding yourself of expectations we put upon ourselves or accept from others.