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How to Stop Searching for the Perfect Parenting Formula

  • Cyndy Shearer Founder, Greenleaf Press
  • 2014 17 Sep
How to Stop Searching for the Perfect Parenting Formula

“I have no greater joy that to hear that my children walk in truth” (3 John 1:4) speaks to the heart of every Christian parent’s desire for their children. I’ve lost count of the number of parenting books and seminars I have seen that promise to tell how to make sure it happens: “You, too, can produce the godliest kid on the block!” Such programs usually come with a foolproof list of how-to’s. They tell us how to love them, feed them, teach them, and regulate them. If we do all these things faithfully, we are promised stars in our crowns and arrows in our quivers.

The problem is that we all know incredible people who have come out of the most perverse, horrific family backgrounds who love the Lord Jesus with every fiber of their being AND are a delight to be around. But we also know people who were bibled, catechized, churched, separated, shrink-wrapped in modest gingham, who have been kept caffeine-, gluten-, and sugar-free since before the foundation of the world, who nonetheless turned out to be mean-spirited, arrogant monsters.

All of this confirms to me that, while parenting may be about a lot of things, the one thing it is NOT about is formulas. And it’s not a new problem. Even a cursory look at the kings of Judah should show us that. Of the twenty-one kings of Judah, only eight were faithful.

More troubling, only four of the eight faithful kings of Judah fathered faithful sons. The other four fathered wicked sons: Jehoshaphat’s Jehoahaz murdered all his brothers. Jotham’s Ahaz led all of Judah back into idolatry. Hezekiah’s Manasseh went even further, out-sinning the previous inhabitants of the land of Israel—doing more evil than the Amorites had done, filling Jerusalem with innocent blood from one end to the other. And Josiah (child star of generations of four- and five-year old Sunday School take-home papers) fathered four child-sacrificing idolaters.

It is curious that the kings whose devotion to God was the most marked produced some of the most horrific kings. How do you start with Solomon and Jehoshaphat and Hezekiah and Josiah and end up with children who murder their brothers, sacrifice children to false gods, and kill the prophets of God?  

By the same token, how does an Amon father a Josiah?

No formula can explain this. The blessing is that it shows that there is no formula. The work of the Spirit in the human heart is nothing we can format, predict, or schedule. The Spirit moves as he will (John 3:8). The new birth is God’s doing alone—we can’t do anything to force it on either ourselves or our children (John 1:13). Knowing that ought to take the pressure off of us to find that perfect parenting method.  

While there are no formulas, there are lessons to be learned.

We do see eight faithful kings in Judah, but not one of them was perfect. In the lives of these kings we see some recurring struggles. There are those like Jehoshaphat whose courageous heart and absolute trust in God led him, in the face of overwhelming military attack, to pray, “we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” And he had seen God take their battle as his own and bring miraculous military deliverance. This was the same king who exterminated remaining male cult prostitutes associated with Baal worship. But in his later years, we continually find him in Ahab’s court and in Ahab’s business. Not only does he fight alongside Ahab and sit in council with him, Jehoshaphat eventually marries his son, Jehoram, to Ahab’s Baal-worshiping daughter, Athaliah. Jehoshaphat, for all his passion, appears to be more interested in Ahab’s approval than in God’s.

It’s not surprising that his oldest son took all of this to mean, “The Lord your God is one, but let’s not get too excited about it.” The end result: Athaliah would do for Jehoram what Solomon’s wives did for him—draw his heart away from truth. Jehoram and his son Ahaziah proved to have more in common with Ahab than Jehoshaphat. This convenient political alliance with the enemy eventually cost the lives of his sons and his grandsons.

And there are those like Hezekiah, who had demonstrated great passion for Truth, destroying Baal worship sites, killing Baal’s priests, and sending priests throughout Judah to make sure the people heard the Truth. He had seen the Lord of Hosts devastate the arrogant Assyrian king, Sennacherib. More personally, Hezekiah had experienced a more personal deliverance—God not only healed him of a fatal disease, but also confirmed that it was indeed his own doing by moving sun’s shadow backwards (2 Kings 20:10). Yet, when Hezekiah is whole and prosperous, he unabashedly takes credit for both his health and wealth (2 Chronicles 32:25-26). It makes me wonder what lessons Hezekiah passed on to Manasseh, the son born to him during his last fifteen prideful years. Arrogance is always an ugly thing, and nothing good ever comes of it. Proud religious people make lousy evangelists.

Writing about her father, Bertrand Russell, his daughter, Katharine Tait, describes Russell’s early religious experience:

“The religion my parents had grown up in was a dry morality without grace, a series of impossible demands that left them defeated and depressed. They escaped from it joyfully into a free life that affirmed their own goodness and expected their children’s.”

The frightening thing about parenting is that children do hear everything we say and watch everything we do. Worse, they expect the two to line up. If we say that we are saved by the glorious gift of grace but live under bondage to a list of unsatisfiable demands—we would be better off keeping our religion to ourselves.  

In Psalm 34:1-8, David writes:

“I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul shall make its boast in the LORD: the humble shall hear thereof, and be glad.
O magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together.
I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.
They looked unto him, and were radiant: and their faces were not ashamed.
This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps round about them that fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusts in him.”

This is what our children need from us: affirmation of the kindness, graciousness, and goodness of God and an invitation from us to them to taste and see for themselves the goodness of the Lord.

It is significant that David doesn’t say “hear that the Lord is good” or “see that the Lord is good.”  Of all the senses, taste is the most personal. No one can taste anything for someone else.  

Even if it were possible (and it’s not) to be the perfect Christian and parent perfectly, our children would still have to take what they hear and see and read and make it their own. This isn’t always pretty. Sometimes the process takes them down roads littered with bad decisions and heartache.  But how we respond to our kids during these times is crucial—both to our relationships with them and with their relationship to God, himself.  

In How to Be Your Own Selfish Pig, Susan Macaulay describes how she announced to her sisters that she didn’t believe in Christianity anymore. What had begun as a peevish desire to say the most shocking thing she could to her sisters quickly took her into her own crisis of faith, a realization that she did have real, honest doubt—what if it isn’t TRUE? When her sisters delighted to announce the news to the whole family, her father’s response was not to throw her from the house and chase her bellowing down the street, fearful that her unbelief would taint his godly house. He didn’t take it as an indictment of his patrimony. He responded with grace and with love.

He went to her privately and listened as she detailed her doubts.

“I still remember the quiet, friendly companionship in the atmosphere when my dad finally answered me. ‘Susan,’ he said, ‘those are good questions.  I’m glad you’ve asked them.’”

Susan goes on to describe the conversation:

“As we talked that night, I discovered that my dad had asked these same questions about God in his own search for answers. Dad opened the door for me into a new adventure. He said that I didn’t have to go through life with a blindfold on my mind to believe in God, merely clinging to hopes and feelings. Neither did I have to throw my beliefs out the window. If something is true, he explained, you can look at it hard and think about it, and compare it with other beliefs, and it will stand. It will be reliable.”

So many parenting “systems” would tell us that a questioning child is a rebellious child. They are quick to remind us that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft!” and rebellion must not be tolerated. They warn us that the loving parent will discipline the foolishness out of the errant ones and separate them from some previously unidentified corrupting influence. This response will be everything but quiet, friendly, and nurturing. It’s important to remember that children don’t become sex-crazed drug-runners overnight. How we deal with the early doubts and questions can make huge differences in a child’s life.

But even in those times where we do need to guard our kids from unwholesome relationships or influences, our kids need us to respond not in fear or anger or wounded pride, but in the power and love and reasonableness that comes from a confidence in the Truth of the Gospel and the Goodness of the God we claim to know and love.  

For it is, after all, “the goodness of God that leads [all of] us to repentance” (Romans 2:4). For without a confidence in the goodness of God, how does anyone trust, much less delight in his sovereignty?

This was in fact, what Katherine Tait says won her heart.  

“Before I started going to church, I had been running about the world, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, looking for a way to escape the burden of my sin, and neither my father nor psychiatry had been able to help me…I remained ‘weary of earth and laden with my sin,’ just like my father in his youth.

…as we went on going [to church], Sunday by Sunday, I listened attentively to the hymns, the prayer book, the words of the Bible, even the sermons…For me, the belief in forgiveness and grace was like sunshine after long days of rain. No matter what I did, no matter how low I fell, God would be there to forgive, to pick me up, and set me on my feet again. Though I could not earn his love, neither could I lose it. It was absolute, not conditional.”

We have to have an eye to the end result. When our kids go out into the world that God will call them into, we want them to be prepared to be passionate and compassionate ambassadors of reconciliation. What God never calls us to be is keepers of a list. Many of the people our children will meet will have much in common with Tait’s description of her father and his suspicion of all things Christian:

“I would have liked to convince my father that I had found what he had been looking for, the ineffable something he had longed for all his life. I would have liked to persuade him that the search for God does not have to be vain. But it was hopeless. He had known too many blind Christians, bleak moralists who sucked the joy from life and persecuted their opponents; he would never have been able to see the truth they were hiding…”

Please God, help us to give our children a heritage of truth and grace and joy and peace that leads to life and hope is anything but bleak and joyless!

I once saw an unfortunate church billboard that read: “Prodigal fathers make prodigal sons.” In their version of the story, the hero is the good son, the list enforcer. In the story Jesus tells, the one most concerned with his own righteousness is the one who has most obviously missed the whole point.

I’m thinking the billboard manager must have missed the part of the story where Jesus identifies the Father of the wandering son as God Almighty. And before we give parenting systems and formulas a whole lot of credence, we probably need to remember who we are, ourselves. For as Jesus interprets this parable for us—we are all prodigal sons and daughters of a loving and Holy Father who waits, watching and longing for our return.

Cyndy’s homeschooled since 1985--the last of her eleven children started ninth grade this fall. She and her husband, Rob, founded Greenleaf Press in 1989. She teaches literature and Bible at Schaeffer Study Center, a homeschool tutorial, and teaches junior high students at Charlotte Mason Elementary Tutorial. Cyndy has a B.A. in English from Queens University (Charlotte) and an M.A. in English from UVA. She enjoys drawing, painting, music, P.G. Wodehouse, and those loud indescribable (and too rare) occasions when all the kids and grandkids come home!

© 2013 by Home Educating Family Association. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published in 2013 Issue 1 of Home Educating Family Magazine, the publication with the most meaningful discussions taking place in the homeschooling community today. Visit hedua.com to read back issues and for more articles, product reviews, and media.

Publication date: September 17, 2014