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I’m not sure anything brings more fear into an adult’s heart like their children. I cannot explain what it is like to have kids, so I won’t bother. It reminds me of when the Lord said, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). It’s kind of like that. You have to experience children to understand what happens inside the hearts of parents after they have them.
I don’t proudly mean these thoughts at all, as though I’m dividing the haves from the have-nots. I’m not bragging about having kids, and I’m suggesting any sort of incompleteness if you don’t have any. It’s more about my inability to explain what it’s like to have kids and the accompanying anxiety, worry, and fear that a parent can have regarding children.
While having kids changes your life in inestimable, positive ways, children also confront you with some of your deepest insecurities, fears, and frustrations. Loving and concerned parents tend to worry about their children. We want them to turn out okay, and even after they leave the nest, that desire does not change—perhaps it heightens.
Having a parenting strategy is critical, and there is no better place to begin than prayer. Before we jump into parental responsibilities, methodologies, and goals for children, let’s start with the best parenting advice you’ll ever receive. It’s not original with me, though I concur wholeheartedly.
The best parenting strategy you’ll ever employ is to pray for your children. Nothing will top that parental nugget. I first heard this from Paul Miller in his book, A Praying Life. He’s right. The ultimate goal for a child is to love God with all of his or her heart, soul, mind, and strength. There is no higher goal, which is the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40).
If your kid enters God’s world as an adult, submitted to His authority while loving Him and others more than anything else, it will be parenting success. But here is the big caveat: you cannot parent that kind of worldview and outcome into your child. It is a gift from God. Holy obedience and righteous living come from the Lord.
Our benevolent Lord gives these grace gifts to humble children. A parent may beg, plead, cajole, curse, foist, manipulate, argue, appeal, yell, and even “cram God down his throat,” but it won’t work. Those tactics have never worked.
Righteousness comes from heaven by the generous hand of the Lord. After God opens the eyes of the blind and the Spirit of God illuminates the darkness with the truths of His Word, transformation happens. At that moment, God grants repentance, and the righteousness of Christ becomes the penitent’s gift. Paul said it this way:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
It behooves every parent to understand that they will do their best parenting from a heart of prayer that appeals to God on behalf of their child. Parents plead with God to do in their child’s heart what parenting can never accomplish. I call this “satellite praying.”
You get on your knees—though being on your knees is not necessary—and “beam” your prayers to God. You’re asking Him to do righteous work in your child’s heart. You see this idea in Proverbs 21:1: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”
I’m not speaking merely of the child’s salvation, which is a gift from the Lord, but his ongoing repentance. Perhaps you have heard the saying that the Christian life is repentance and ongoing repenting. It’s true. We repent and receive Christ as our regenerative Savior, and we repent daily, moment by moment, throughout our lives.
God’s gift to your child is repentance (2 Timothy 2:24-25), and your contribution is your prayers. I will speak more about additional responsibilities in a moment, but you never want to fall into the trap of thinking that something is more valuable to your child’s soul than your prayers.
You want to partner with God as He does His thing in the heart of your child. You have to know that you cannot make your child righteous, no matter how hard you try. The Father wants to release you from that futile work. There is a Savior, and He’s not you. His name is Jesus. Your job is to cooperate with Him, which you begin doing by praying.
God wants you to be careful about how you think about “helping your child change” because there is a fine line that you can cross without realizing it. Let me share with you a few personal indicators that remind me when I’m “over-parenting.” If you have similar temptations, you will recognize a few of these as part of your parenting practice.
Perhaps it would serve you well to think through each of these and maybe add a few that come to mind that are not on my list. If any of these belong to you, then you’re over-parenting, and you must stop it. You’re not trusting the Lord. Everyone one of these reactions to your child is sinful.
If you persist, you will not be cooperating with the Lord in the salvation and ongoing sanctification of your child, but you will get in the way. In counseling, we call that a complicating problem. Your child is not maturing in Christ as he or she should, which is the original problem, and you’re compounding the issue by modeling one or more of the characteristics in the list.
Don’t make things worse than what they are already by demonstrating a different version of immaturity as your child. In this case, you’re a stumbling block. He needs to see and experience your faith, not your fears or your frustration.
One of the cool things about John the Baptist was that he did not want to get in the way of the Savior’s work. He knew what his job was; it was to point to the One who was mightier than him. You could say that John was a signpost in the desert. Listen to how he talked about being a directional sign for others to observe.
You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, “I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28-30).
Unlike the over-parenting parent, John wanted it clear that he was not the Christ—the bridegroom. His job was to point to the only One who could save. His strategy was straightforward: “I must make myself small while making sure that Christ is prominent and easily identifiable.”
John’s strategy begs the question for all of us parents: Are you decreasing, as a parent, in proportion to Christ increasing in your life? Let’s get practical. If any of the sin patterns above are part of your parenting strategy, the Savior is not increasing in your home.
I must increase, and the Savior must decrease. —The Over-Parenter
The increasing parent and decreasing Savior do not propagate the righteousness of God. Whenever our strategies become the main thing, it points to the employment of fear or frustration (or both) from a self-reliant parent who is attempting to manipulate the child into living according to the parent’s expectations.
This approach to parenting kids will blow up in your face. Your child will not see the Savior but observe you, and in time he will resent you. Jesus must increase, and you must decrease, or said another way, your child must see Christ in you. The parent is the primary representative of the Savior in the home.
I’m assuming the parent is a Christian, which makes him Exhibit A of what the Savior is like to the child. This approach is how you increase the Savior to your child. Too many parents usher their kids off to Christian school, church meetings, and other social environments, hoping those contexts will be the means of grace to change them. Those venues can supplement, but nothing replaces practical Christian parenting.
God did not give your kids local churches and Christian schools as the primary means to teach them about Jesus. He gave your child you as the primary means of grace to teach your child, and your example is your most profound teaching tool. See Ephesians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 11:1; Philippians 4:9.
When I do consultancy work for local churches, one of the first questions that I ask a pastor or other Christian leader is, “What do you want your congregation to be?” I’m asking the pastor what he would like to see his congregation become. I have heard many answers to this question, all of which carry the same idea.
They want their congregation to be like Jesus. It can be said many ways, but the best summary is a local church acting like Christ. I then say, “You will have to become what you want them to be. If you don’t become an example of what you want them to be, don’t expect them to become it.” The congregation, as a whole, will not rise above its leadership.
If the leadership is not living out a humble, transparent, honest, vibrant, and authentic relationship with Christ personally and in their marriages, don’t expect the congregation to be any better. This same analysis applies to parents: What do you want your child to be? You must become that.
I have counseled scores of teenagers and young adults who are repulsed by Christianity. Their main argument is usually because of what they saw in their parents. I do not believe or teach that anyone has an excuse to reject God, but we can interfere with the message of Christ by our inadequate Christian example.
Paul reserved some of his sharpest criticisms for people who interfered with, tampered, or corrupted the gospel message. You can read some of his criticisms in Galatians and 2 Corinthians. Though you believe in the gospel and would not defile the purity of its truths, you can mar the gospel with a poor example. There is no greater context on earth to spoil the message of the gospel than in the home.
In the home is where you can relax and presume on each other. Few people are willing to show their rear ends at a church meeting or some other venue like they would in the home. Your home can be your most considerable redemptive context, or it can be the ball and chain that inspires your child to reject Christ and ultimately drags him to hell. Perhaps these statements will help to clarify my point.
Whatever it is that you want your child to become, show him the way by your example. After you fail, which you will, one of the most transformative leadership tidbits you will export to your child is how to repent, as he or she sees your active, practical contrition. If you’re not sure how to practically repent, please devour this article.