When Bad Kids Happen To Good Parents
Are you a good parent? No excuses for not being one. The online retail giant Amazon.com lists 40,000 parenting guides. 1 By comparison, they only list 16,000 books on dieting. It seems we are more concerned about how to raise our children than about our waistline. And the more parents take advantage of parent education programmes, the better parents they become. 2 But what happens when parents do their best and their children turn out bad? Most of us know of folks who are model Christian parents, folks who work hard at raising their kids, who end up having kids who break their hearts — children who reject God, kids who choose to live lives of evil. How are we to respond to situations like these?
There are no guarantees
First off, we need to free such parents from unnecessary guilt. The mystery of free will means that people, including the children of good parents, have the right to choose how they want to live and whether they want to follow Jesus. As R. Paul Stevens reminds us:
Can Christian parents guarantee that their children will become believers? No, not even by “doing it right” in all spheres of parenting . . . Good parenting can facilitate a child’s growing up to become whole and open to God but cannot guarantee faith. That is the result of a miraculous and mysterious cooperation of human and divine wills. 3
If it is of any comfort, even God could not guarantee that His own “children” turn out well. Look at the stories of Adam and Eve, and of Israel, His first-born son (Exodus 4:22). All went astray. The mystery of free will means that people can respond rightly or wrongly to the love they receive. And some, sadly, choose to respond wrongly.
The truth is, parenting is tough even at the best of times. Parents who have been blessed by “good” children, or those who have never been parents may not realise this. But Gary R. Collins is right when he says:
Parenting can be a difficult and sometimes overwhelming responsibility. On occasion almost all parents feel that they have failed, and most have periods of discouragement and confusion. 4
Perhaps it is good to remember that the Lord has called us to be faithful, not successful.
The call to be faithful
Next, Christian parents need to bear in mind that, for followers of Jesus, success is spelt “f-a-i-t-h-f-u-l”. As Christian parents we will do our best to nurture our children because this is a vocation from God, irrespective of how our children turn out. Paul tells Christian fathers (and mothers), “…do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” 5 And while the apostle Paul appears to have been single with no biological children of his own, he had many spiritual children and can guide us in the area of parenting. In the following passage Paul models good parenting for mothers and fathers:
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. 6
A recent article from the Scientific American Mind lists ten competencies for good parenting:
1. Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
2. Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child…and promote positive interpretations of events.
3. Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse…and model effective relationship skills with other people.
4. Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
5. Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
6. Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
7. Behaviour management. You make use of extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only when other methods of managing behavior have failed.
8. Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
9. Religion. You support spiritual development and participate in spiritual activities.
10. Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends. 7
Although not written from an explicitly Christian perspective, there is much wisdom here. Interestingly, even empirical research recognises the need for spiritual development as a key component of good parenting.
Our children are a trust to us. We are stewards of their lives and one day we will have to give an account to the Lord as to how we have discharged our duties. One day our children too will have to give an account of how they have lived their lives. They have their choices to make. Our choice as parents is to do our best, in His strength, to bring up our children “in the training and instruction of the Lord”. Indeed, as we try to be faithful, we may find that the Lord may yet surprise yet.
We may yet be surprised
When I talk to parents who have difficult children, I usually remind them of the parable of the gracious father (Luke 15:11-32).8 Here was a caring father who seems to have done all the right things. We can only imagine his heartache when his younger son demanded his share of the property while his father was still alive, took the money, and sent to a far country, far away from family and from God. We are not sure how long the prodigal son was away before he came to his senses. I can imagine a modern parent wondering what he or she had done wrong. Still the father respected his son’s decisions and kept on loving him.
But the prodigal son eventually came to his senses and came home. And so I tell parents of difficult children not to give up hope too early and to continue to pray for, and to love, any of their children who are in a dark place. Some, like the prodigal son, have to travel to a far country before they can appreciate home. Indeed, sometimes children of Christian parents have to take this difficult journey before they can claim the Christian faith for their own, and not just because it is Daddy’s and Mummy’s faith. The waiting is tough, but like Moses’ parents, we have to surrender our children to the care of God and see what happens.9 Again, there are no guarantees, but a choice to actively trust in a God who Himself is a loving, faithful, Father. We may have to surrender our children to the Lord and release them, to give them a chance to come home to the Lord and to us.
My first son was a tough child, and I had a bad temper - a potent combination. I recall with shame my anger and my overuse of corporal punishment in my early days as a father. It wasn’t until much later, in a period of my life when I was a single parent, that I grew up as a parent. Somewhere along the way no. 1 son changed. It was as though some switch had been turned on. Today he is a cell leader, utterly serious about his faith. What switch was turned on in his life? Who turned it on? I have no idea. I suspect it had something to do with a grandmother’s prayers but I cannot be sure. I only know it is all of grace. Which means there is hope for us all.
Rev Dr Tan Soo Inn is a director of Graceworks, a training and publishing consultancy committed to promoting spiritual friendship in church and society. Married to Bernice, they have four sons. You can reach him at email@example.com
1 Robert Epstein, “What Makes A Good Parent?”, Scientific American Mind November/December 2010, 46.
2 Ibid, 50.
3 R Paul Stevens, “Parenting”, The Complete Handbook of Everyday Christianity, Downers Grove, Eds. Robert Banks & R. Paul Stevens, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997,736.
4 Gary R Collins, Christian Counseling, Third Edition, Nashville, TX: Thomas Nelson, 2007, 231.
5 Ephesians 6:4, NIV
6 1 Thessalonians 2:7-12, NIV. Italics mine.
7 Epstein, 49.
8 I prefer the name “gracious father” rather than “prodigal son” because I think the father is the real hero in this story.
9 Exodus 2:1-10.