It was a Sunday before Christmas, many years ago. Michele was sick, so I had all 6 kids with me in church, doing my best to keep everyone still and quiet. The older two were fine, but #5 (Sarah, my then 2-year-old) was unpredictable. Never was she truer to form than that Sunday. I had turned away, engaged in conversation with the person on my right. When I returned my gaze to the front, I saw out of the corner of my eye a flash of white-lace sweater, knee-length pink dress, white tights, and black shoes heading down the sloped aisle on my left. I instantaneously recognized Sarah. To my horror, she was hurtling at high speed toward the stage…but not just running…she was somersaulting. I got up, raced down the aisle, scooped Sarah in my arms, and headed nonchalantly back to our seat, acting like nothing unusual had happened. Beads of sweat were forming on my forehead and my cheeks and earlobes were flushed. I was thoroughly humiliated as I looked upon on the sea of faces staring back at me, grinning.
Any parent would have felt some embarrassment in that predicament. But I have a problem. I’m pretty good at a lot of things, but I’m not very good at parenting. Furthermore, I have insecurity, a need for validation, reminders that I am valuable. One way I have sought that reinforcement is through my kids. Sometimes I parent my kids not for their benefit, but for mine. I want well-behaved children because I believe their good behavior validates me.
I subconsciously parented this way for years, not recognizing it nor admitting it. But now I see it more clearly and can address it. Like Jesus’ “bad eye” principle (Matthew 6:22-23), such self-serving and egotistical motives negatively affect everything I do. When I parent to validate myself, it corrupts even the best instruction and teaching. And my kids see right through the facade.
I may be the only one who struggles with this. Secretly, I’m hoping some of you parents can relate. God has a message for people like me, who sometimes allow their need for validation dictate the way they parent.
In ancient Israel, there was a popular belief that children bore the punishment of their father’s sins. This belief was so popular, they made it into a proverb:
“The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18:2)
People believed in such cross-generational punishment even in Jesus’ day. Once when walking with Jesus, His disciples saw a blind man. They gestured to him and asked Jesus, “who sinned–this man or his parents?” Jesus dismissed this question because neither answer was true (John 9:1-3). God likewise dismissed the “sour grapes” proverb because it was not true. In fact, He hated it so much He told the Israelites, “…you are surely not going to use this proverb in Israel anymore!” (Ezekiel 18:3).
In God’s eyes, there is no such thing as cross-generational punishment. Children do not bear the punishment for their parents’ sins, and parents are not invalidated by wayward children. As God says…
“Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4)
God owns every soul, and every soul is accountable only to itself. This is a very important and relevant truth for parents, because it means the health of our soul is never dependent on the behavior of someone else. Not even our children.
In a world consumed with humanistic thinking, the notion that God owns souls seems archaic. Many people deny it, much less apply it to parenting. But like a child ignoring his parent’s instruction to avoid the street, ignoring God’s timeless principles is never a good idea. Jesus likened hearing God’s word but ignoring it to a foolish man who labored to construct a beautiful home on a foundation of sand, only to see it wash away at the first heavy rain (Matthew 7:26-27). Problems always come when we ignore God’s word.
This lesson will look at four bad behaviors of parents (like me) who disregard God’s “soul” principle from time to time, who seek validation through parenting. If you do so, here’s what can happen…
- You will take on guilt unnecessarily when your child misbehaves.
- You will place heavy expectations on your child.
- You will believe you can change the soul of your child.
- You will wrongfully judge other parents based on the behavior of their child.
Let’s take a look at each of these behaviors in turn.
Taking on guilt unnecessarily when your child misbehaves
I love my kids and am very proud of them. But like everyone, they trip up from time to time. My reaction to those trip-ups is the real problem. Toddlers’ mistakes are embarrassing but they are usually explainable and sometimes comical. Teenagers’ mistakes can be humiliating, especially for parents like me who tend to validate themselves based on their children’s behavior. Nothing exposes that more than a teenager who acts like…well, a teenager. I internalize their mistakes. I blame myself for their faults. Judging from confessions of other parents, this is a common problem.
I think mothers are especially susceptible to this temptation. Fathers like me can compartmentalize–acknowledging our wayward children but able somehow to go on with our work. Having watched my wife for over 25 years, I would say mothers don’t compartmentalize like this. They internalize their children’s failures to a far greater degree. Especially homeschooling mothers. I think it is tempting for homeschoolers to believe that keeping a child at home, sheltering them from bad influences and peer pressure in the public school will automatically result in their good behavior. But this is a false hope. There is no guarantee. When a sheltered child goes astray, it can be especially devastating for the sheltering parent. They will be susceptible to overwhelming guilt and doubt. They will question God and ruefully ask, “…after all I’ve done, why do you allow this?”
This is the destination for those who base their righteousness on their child’s behavior. If you are on that path, then stop, look up, and take refuge in God’s truth. The parent who internalizes their children’s misdeeds must find comfort in God’s words in Ezekiel 18:19-20:
“…the son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself.” (Ezekiel 18:19-20)
Just because the child is acting up doesn’t mean you’re a bad person! God does not withdraw from your spiritual bank account when your child misbehaves. Every soul is accountable for his or her own deeds, and only those deeds. The righteousness of your soul is only dependent on your deeds, not your child’s. The child must account for his or her own actions. That’s the way it works in God’s kingdom.
Our minds must be shaped by this truth. When we internalize our children’s faults, it’s like jumping into a swampy marsh of despondency. We become self-absorbed, constrained, unable to look outside ourselves. God’s truth in Ezekiel 18 delivers us from this despondency, and frees us to love freely, passionately, and without condition. God uses our children to test us–to see how we will respond to their behavior. We should want to pass the test. When our children act up, the health of our soul is at stake. We can give in to temptation, internalize their sin, and be consumed with guilt, or we can be confident in God’s acceptance of us in spite of our children’s moral failure, and ask for His strength to love our children regardless of their behavior. This is the behavior that God will use to judge the health of our soul…our behavior, not our child’s!
I’m not saying our children’s bad behavior will not make us anxious or sorrowful. Those feelings are natural and expected. They are not inherently bad feelings as long as we respond to them appropriately, taking them to the Lord in prayer. As we do so, we must hold fast to the truth that God bases our righteousness on our own actions, not the actions of our child. Since this is true, we should do the right thing–confess any wrongdoing on our behalf, accept His validation…and love our kids like never before.
Placing heavy expectations on your child
When I believe that my righteousness is based on my children’s behavior, not only do I set myself up for overwhelming guilt and doubt, but I also place heavy burdens on my children that can damage their spiritual health. When I am parenting out of a need for validation, I place sky-high expectations on my child. I imagine them doing great acts of kindness, voluntary service to others, giving sacrificially, being piously devoted to God, etc., etc.–expectations that are unattainable even for myself. When they don’t meet those expectations, disappointment creeps in.
I’m certain that God has given my kids special X-ray vision with a direct circuit to their internal psyche. Somehow they see my disappointment, and immediately interpret that disappointment as their failure. A friend of mine with a wayward son confided in me not long ago. Referring to his son’s immoral lifestyle, my friend told his son he was “…sorry for not teaching him rightly”. It was meant to be an apology, but the son took it differently. To him, the “apology” was an accusation. The son knew he was a tremendous disappointment to his father.
Maybe you’ve had a boss or a parent that is impossible to please, where the atmosphere is filled with a sense that nothing I do is good enough. In that environment, it is easy to just give up and acquiesce. This is the lot of the child with overbearing parental expectations. When a child senses disappointment in the parents, they will stop trying to please, and it becomes a vicious cycle. The more the child’s behavior goes awry, the more frustrated and insecure the parents become.
Parents with high expectations need to revisit their approach. Consider Paul’s instruction to fathers in Ephesians 6:4:
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4)
This verse may be familiar-sounding, but its application needs some discussion. The way we apply this verse should flex as your children grow. When the kids are young, teach them. Read the Bible to them before bed. Ask them questions. Pray together. Attend church functions together. Encourage memorization–the mind of a child is an amazing sponge (I still remember verses I had to memorize in AWANA!) But as children become teens, parents need to adjust, because their job description transitions from regulator to encourager.
Parents, beware of laying heavy expectations on your teens. A sports dad is tempted to relive fantasies of athletic greatness through his kids. Christian parents are equally susceptible to imposing fantasies of spiritual greatness on their kids, expecting them to consistently be kind, thankful, sensitive, faithful church attenders, unselfish, considerate, and obedient. A parent may successfully threaten, persuade, or manipulate their teens to do all these things, but I suggest those kids may not be the “worshipers in spirit and truth” that God is really looking for (John 4:24). I have had to learn this the hard way. Some kids take their parents’ religion and easily run with it as they grow. Some don’t. For the latter, a sure-fire way to provoke your teens to anger is to levy high expectations on them, requiring them to drop everything at your command, to instinctively do chores without asking, or to attend church with you.
Like I said earlier, I love my kids and an extremely proud of them. Joel is my senior. He’s a delight, very pleasant, smart, and respectful. The other day I was shovelling my driveway. I’m getting old, and the snow was particularly wet and heavy. I texted Joel and asked him if he’d like a “good workout” and proposed he come out and help me. He couldn’t because he had to run an errand. I could not help but feel disappointed. I would love for my kids to just do what I ask, every time, without question. When they don’t, what is the right way for me to respond? Do I force it, or do I let it go?
I know so many other dads my age who have complete command of their children. When they give an instruction, their kids jump to obey. I am envious of this kind of arrangement, secretly craving it in my heart. But it’s not that way. I am not a man who expects people to listen to me. I do not naturally know how to assert authority. I have sometimes tried to adopt that aura, but it has never gone well. Pretty much every occasion was littered with embarrassing stories of temper tantrums over unheeded instruction, leading to immature behavior (on my part!), and kids’ spirits deflating.
As a parent of teens, I know I must continue to prepare my children for life, to give them essential advice they will need as they get older. Though it is tempting to give up when I feel my word is unheeded, I must stay the course. And I must learn to adapt my technique. Gone are the days of heavy-handed discipline. They are not employees, they are my family. Now is the time for gentle course corrections, calm words, and careful articulation of expectations. Now is the time for affirmation, praise, and love. Kids must know they are loved no matter what, must believe that even if they try and fail, they will still be loved. I have to be careful to watch my expectations. I cannot demand them to do what I want at this stage of life. If my children disregard me, I will not hold that against them. Mature love loves even when disregarded.
When I went to college and started my career, I structured my life around things my family always did. I found a church and attended every Sunday. I served in their AWANA program Wednesday nights. I conformed to my parents’ way of doing things–partly out of love for them, partly out of ritual, partly out of just wanting to keep the peace. Don’t ruffle feathers. It’s adorable when toddlers do things just to make their parents happy, right? But what if that kid grows older and continues to do things–going to church for example–simply because “it’s what my family always did” or because it’s “the right thing to do”? Is that what Jesus wants?
God says we must be transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2). Sometimes we must unlearn things our parents taught us and stop doing things out of obligation or habit. As our children transition from parental guidance to adulthood, they need to become more dependent on God and less dependent on parents. As a parent, this can be incredibly difficult. We like to hold the reigns of our children’s’ spiritual well-being. But that is not our job, and having such an attitude can lead to the next bad behavior.
Believing that you can change the soul of your child
God owns all souls. That means He owns the soul of your child. He knows how to change that soul, how to inject new life into it. He’s got this, parent. Do your best to train up your child, but give God the freedom to do as He pleases with your child’s soul.
Over 15 years ago, my wife and I attended a Homeschoolers’ conference in Des Moines, Iowa. The main speaker was a man named Norm Wakefield, a notable and respected Christian man. He spoke on the topic of children and their salvation. I was tracking with him, impressed by his knowledge and wisdom. About halfway through his speech, Norm spoke of a conversation he had with his eldest son, a teenager. The teen was frustrated. He had heard all the Bible stories, knew all about sin and Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death. Yet, something was missing. All of the information made sense, but it did not mean anything to him. He confided in his father that he just didn’t believe.
I thought to myself, “Oh, that’s bad!” In my immature, critical mind, I thought to myself, “just share the gospel with him, Norm! That’s all this wayward teen needs!” Fear and incredulity welled up within me as I imagined myself in Norm’s shoes–how could this hard-hearted teenager not just accept all the teaching his father had given him so many years?
Norm proceeded to share how he answered his beleaguered teen. What he said next shocked me. Norm’s reaction to his son’s confession was this: “That’s OK, son. Don’t worry about it. God has not given you faith to believe yet. He will do it, in His time. Just wait for Him to give you faith.”
I sat there, blindsided, my mind furiously processing this information. I had to agree with Norm–God owns the soul of the child, not me. I realized I cannot presuppose that I have the power to give my children new life in Christ. To do so is presumptuous. To do so is to put myself in the place of God, to imagine myself with powers that only God possesses. To put myself there is dangerous ground. As helpless as it sounds, parents must place themselves at the feet of the God who owns the souls of our children. Our job is to teach, not to convert. Parents do not own the souls of their children. Only God does.
I have been in many fellowship circles, listening as godly parents pour their hearts out in sadness as they describe their wayward children’s rejection of all they hold dear. I have sensed that same helplessness myself. We need to grasp that God loves our kids more than we do. He has plans for them we can never imagine, plans that are purer and nobler than anything we can muster. He wants to show Himself to be the most gracious, powerful, and loving God ever, so His plans may involve taking your child through a circuitous course before He miraculously rescues them in a way only He can. We just have to wait for His timing. Ooh–there’s that word again…wait. We hate doing that, but faith is nothing without waiting. We have to wait.
The sad truth is that salvation is not automatic. When it comes to the soul, there is no “Easy” button. If it were so, this blog would be totally wrong and not worth the bytes it’s consuming. For some, faith is elusive in spite of our prayers. But we can’t lose hope. Our job is simply to be faithful, pray, and speak the love and truth of the gospel. As Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth” (I Corinthians 3:6). Never give up. Do the work you are called to do and love your kids.
Judging other parents
All this talk about wayward kids leads me to this last point. We need to avoid judging other parents based on their children’s behavior. Just because your neighbor’s kids are unruly doesn’t necessarily mean your neighbor is a spiritual wreck.
My wife and I were youth sponsors years ago, before we had kids. As I look back, I regret how naive I was about parenting, and how much I presumed to know about parenting even though I had zero experience. In that role, I would see teens at their worst. In my judgmental and immature mind, I sometimes transferred the bad behavior of kids onto the parents. Now that I have my own teens, I don’t do this. I am no longer the “expert” I thought I was! As the old adage goes–“Before kids, I had six theories of parenting. Now I have six kids, and no theories!”
Even the most spiritual guys in scripture weren’t very good parents. Samuel’s kids were losers. Adam and David both shared the inglorious experience of having one of their sons murder another. Abraham’s sons constantly fought (and still do today). Jacob played a massive deception on his father Isaac that cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright. Yet, in spite of their children’s horrible behavior, we still look at Samuel, Adam, David, Abraham, and Isaac as pillars of faith. So let’s stop judging each other based on the behavior of kids.
Freedom for the Parent
God gives us children not just so we can raise kids, but so we can be better people–people who love deeply and richly without expectation of receiving anything in return. Parents who grasp and apply the principle that God owns every soul are freed up to be the kind of parent He desires, one that…
- has confidence even when the child goes through a period of rebellion,
- more perfectly and maturely loves even the most rebellious child,
- has a healthy respect for God’s sovereignty over all things, and
- is a compassionate friend to weary parental peers rather than a judgmental snob.
Parents, you are responsible for your actions, not your child’s. Your righteousness has nothing to do with how they behave and everything to do with how you respond to them. Adopt that mentality, so you can be free to love your children more perfectly even when they don’t listen, even when they ignore you, or go astray. Don’t feel guilty or somehow less than worthy for mistakes made in the past. You’re doing your best. Ask forgiveness, and move on to righteousness. God gave you children to perfect your love. So, go love them.