AM I A BAD PARENT?
Written by Doug Ponder on May 16, 2013
As a parent and a pastor, I’m concerned about the rise of parenting books and blogs that only further confuse, frustrate, and complicate things. “Mommy wars,” “the bottle battle,” and the ever present debates about homeschooling and discipline come to mind. Some say, “Do it this way,” while others say, “No, don’t do it like that. Do it like this.” People take sides, usually picking whichever side they like, whichever they prefer. (It’s almost like parenting choices are seen on the same level as what we choose to wear for the day.) That is why the most popular blogs are the ones that say, “Neither side is right. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Just do what works for you.”
Yet when discussion about serious matters, like parenting, has sunk to the level of mere preferences, the battle is already lost. You see, the whatever-works-for-you-is-right mentality doesn’t come from the Scriptures; it comes from postmodern relativism, which denies universal truths and says whatever works is “true for you.” God never says anything remotely like that. Of course, neither does God say, “Thou must breastfeed thy children,” as if it were the eleventh commandment or something.
So where does this leave us?
Principles and Practices
We have to understand the difference between principles and practices. A ‘principle’ is a general rule that is based on truth. A ‘practice’ is the application of that general rule. The Bible doesn’t give us specific instructions for every parenting practice (though it does give us some), but the Bible does give us parenting principles that we need to raise our children in a way that honors God.
Principles are a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. God has given them to us, so they are binding upon us all—whether we like them or not. But we should like them, for God is a heck of a lot smarter than we are, and he loves us and gives us commands for our good (as well as the good of our children).
Practices, on the other hand, can change a little with time and circumstances. That doesn’t mean that all practices are created equal, however. Something is obviously a bad practice if it violates a biblical principle. You can’t honor your spouse (a principle) by cheating on him or her sexually (a practice). Additionally, some practices uphold a principle better than others. Eating junk food 24/7, for example, does not fulfill the principle of stewarding all things for the glory of God—including my body—nearly as well as eating well-balanced meals with the occasional treat or festive celebration.
All this means that we must be principled parents. We must seek to uphold God’s principles for parenting (in addition to whatever practices he directly prescribes), to the very best of our knowledge and ability. Sometimes this means we might stop one practice and start a different one, if we become convinced that a certain practice better upholds the biblical principle that we aim for.
If you focus only on the practice while forgetting the principle, however, you will become like those moms and dads who argue stringently for their practice, as if it’s the only way for the biblical principle to be upheld.
At the same time, if you focus only on the principle without considering the outcome of a practice, you might go around thinking that you uphold the biblical principle while failing to do what God actually requires. (Can you really say they’re upholding the principle of stewarding their bodies if they eat only ice cream for every meal of the day?)
What we need is commitment to obey God and humility to receive correction from wherever it comes (the Scriptures, wise counsel from parents or friends, or biblically-informed books and articles). That means we shouldn’t run from every form of confrontation. Of course, we are all guilty of this to some degree. We have put up signs in certain areas of our lives that say, “No trespassing,” so that no one is allowed to speak to what we do. And because parenting is such a tremendous blessing and sobering responsibility, most of us are doubly wary of letting other people speak into our lives.
That’s why we read blogs that “affirm us” by saying “there is no right way to parent,” which isn’t true from a principled standpoint, and “you can’t judge me,” which isn’t true from a community standpoint, and “just do what works for you,” which isn’t right either if God has anything to say about it.
Comfort and Truth
Just to be clear: I’m not trying to offend; I am trying to help. (Though, often the truth hurts before it heals.) I’m weary of seeing people whom I love cling to destructive lies about parenting because of their longing to be comforted and affirmed.
To paraphrase one of C. S. Lewis’ warnings, ‘If you go looking for comfort in things like affirmation, you’ll get neither comfort nor truth. You’ll get only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with, and in the end, you’ll have despair. But if you go looking for truth, you’ll find comfort in the end.’
So it is with parenting. If you go looking for truth—the truth of what God says about parents and about raising children—you will find both comfort and confrontation. Confrontation isn’t comfortable, but it’s necessary for everyone who isn’t perfect. (That includes you and me.) But if you go looking for comfort without confrontation, you will have no real comfort in the end, only a heart full of grief and despair in the form of poorly raised children and a disorderly household.
Responsibility: The Basic Principle of Parenthood
If you could sum up the basic principle of parenthood in a single word it would be responsibility. Parents are responsible for raising children to know God, love God, and obey God.
Parents are held responsible for how they raise their children, because they are “managers” (stewards) of God’s image-bearers when they are at their most fragile and impressionable state. Our children are “on loan” from God, so to speak. They have been given to us, but they still belong to him. We are responsible for parenting them accordingly.
Parents Are Responsible for Their Children’s Well-Being
You are responsible for your child’s health and safety. The practices you adopt, therefore, should uphold that principle to the best of your knowledge and ability. A child’s health and safety are obviously important, and not a few blog wars have been started over these issues.
Consider the debate between breast milk and formula. Those who debate over practices without considering the principle simply take sides (usually whatever they have already chosen to do), and then defend their positions. If you recall the principle of responsibility for the child’s health and safety, however, you are better able to make wise and informed decisions.
For example, formula is a blessing of modern science that enables moms to have children who might not be able to breastfeed them for medical reasons. That is a wonderful thing. The formula isn’t harmful to the child. It is nourishing and sustaining. In fact, if it weren’t for the invention of formula, some moms would not be able to feed their children (which obviously harms their health and safety!). So, if you are a mom who is forced to use formula, you should thank God for this gift and not feel guilty about it.
On the other hand, some might choose to use formula for reasons other than the child’s health and safety. Let’s say, for example, a mom thinks breastfeeding is “icky,” even though her body was made to do this. Her decision has nothing to do with the child’s well-being, but has everything to do with her own skewed view. The principle of the child’s health (not to mention the principle of being a good steward of your money) suggests that the practice of using formula is wrong in this specific case.
Now suppose that a mom has been told by several doctors that she can’t produce enough milk to keep a child healthy. She is a staunch opponent of formula, however, and she loves the thought of participating in breastfeeding “sit ins,” where all the moms whip out their equipment in local restaurants to do the “natural thing.” Even though the doctors have warned her about the health of her child, she stubbornly refuses to use formula because of her own pride. In this case, using formula would be the right thing to do.
The principle also applies to what your toddlers eat for breakfast. Obviously, the principle isn’t violated if you enjoy donuts with them once in a while. In fact, to refuse your kids certain foods seems to violate another principle in Scripture, namely, that God wants us to enjoy his creation. (After all, what do you make of God’s occasional commands for his people to enjoy the rich and fatty foods as a sign of his blessing?) But that doesn’t mean that letting your kid eat Cheetos for breakfast every day is smart, economical, or healthy for the child. The principle rules that practice out because, as everyone knows, Cheetos are anything but healthy eating. (And before you think I’m getting legalistic about Cheetos, I think they’re completely fine as a side item to a sandwich or some other item. I’m just pointing out that while eating cereal for three meals a day might be a little strange, eating Cheetos for three meals a day might be borderline neglectful. The difference is clear, and everyone knows it.)
Parents Are Responsible for Their Children’s Education
Just as parents are responsible for a child’s physical well-being, so they are responsible their spiritual and mental well-being. Parents are routinely told in the Scriptures that they must instruct, teach, and train their children. Parents are responsible for their child’s education. That’s the principle.
Now, a parent shouldn’t make the mistake of equating “education” with schooling. Children learn in school, but their education doesn’t start or stop there. A child’s primary education always begins and ends in the home. They learn so much more from mom and dad than subjects like math and English and science. So when we say that parents are responsible for their child’s education, we mean their total education, from what they think about God, to how they think about themselves, and even how they think about the place and importance of schooling in the life that God has given them.
But a parent is responsible for a child’s schooling, too. That is part of their education, even though it isn’t all of it. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you must choose homeschooling. But it does mean that regardless of what form of schooling your child receives, you (the parent) are responsible for overseeing and directing their learning.
For example, let’s say that a single dad who works two jobs to care for his three kids has to send them to public school. Is he forfeiting his responsibility over his children’s education? Not necessarily. He could talk with his children about what they are learning, and he could supplement what is lacking or correct what is wrong in what they are being taught.
Let’s say that another family has chosen to homeschool their kids because they believe that “it’s the only way to educate your children.” The agree with the principle of overseeing a child’s education, but they confuse the principle with the practice of homeschooling itself. As a result, they are likely to think that by homeschooling their children they automatically fulfill the principle to oversee their child’s education. But they’re wrong. Bad homeschooling is just as irresponsible as bad public education. Simply schooling at home doesn’t fulfill the principle of directing your child’s education.
Whether you homeschool your kids or you send them to private or public schools, you are responsible for what they are learning because you are responsible for their total education. If that sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is! A child’s education shapes them, for better or for worse, in significant ways. But a parent doesn’t get off the hook by neglecting their responsibility.
So Many Issues, So Little Time
There are so many other “hot button” issues that we could address. But we can’t address them all here. What we must avoid at all costs, however, is the lie that parents simply choose “what works for them” without considering the principles that God has given us. For example, how might the principle that fruitful discipline should be painful (Heb. 12:11) inform the practice of spanking? How might the primacy of the marital relationship (between husband and wife) affect whether or not co-sleeping with your children is an acceptable practice? All these are worth considering, but they can’t be answered without knowing the principles and truths of the Scripture. Otherwise we are left to mere opinions of what seems to work for us, without consideration for how we might be violate the principles God has given us.
Am I a Bad Parent?
The message of the gospel is not, “You’re good just the way you are.” Rather, the good news is that, despite our many flaws and failures, God has chosen to make us good through the love of Jesus. Admitting that we are not good is the starting place for receiving grace, and it should be the starting place for thinking about whether or not we are good parents. All of us have “room to improve.” All of us have things we could do better, and we know we should. We don’t help ourselves when we deny these errors or faults. That only makes things worse. We have to own up to our errors before they can be made better. We have to say, “I haven’t done a good job of parenting in this area,” before we can receive the loving correction of God’s grace.
But if you’re asking, “Am I bad parent?” as a way to wonder whether or not God loves you and is pleased with you, then you are asking the wrong question. God loves even bad parents because of Jesus. The difference is that bad parents who know the grace of Jesus won’t want to stay that way. They’ll want to change whatever they can to improve how they shepherd, care for, protect, lead, and love the children that God has entrusted to them.
The really good news is that you don’t have to do this on your own. God’s grace toward us doesn’t leave us in our backwardness and error-laden ways. His grace comes into our lives to change us. It humbles us, it corrects us, and it teaches us (Titus 2:11-12). All of this is grace from God, who wants us to shepherd our children (his image-bearers) to the best of our ability. He will do this in you, if you continue to humble yourself, listen to what he has said, and seek wisdom from godly parents in your community. The community part isn’t optional, either. For we all have hearts that pollute our thoughts and lead us astray, but God says that wisdom is found through many advisers (cf. Prov. 11:14; 15:22), and “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.