The Bible may be the unexpected solution for parents striving to raise children to be functioning, contributing adults.
The titles of some recent books say it all: The Collapse of Parenting, Toxic Childhood and Spoonfed Generation. In spite of our all-consuming desire to give our children the perfect childhood, we seem to be raising a generation that is, in many respects, ill-equipped for life in the real world.
The problem is not that we lack information, but that parents today have lost sight of the big picture. We could happily tell you our views on childcare, smacking, screen time or sugar. But very few of us could tell you exactly what we are aiming for or how we plan to get there. We can become so preoccupied with the daily details and dilemmas that we get out of tune with the bigger purpose of parenting.
At a time when I was a particularly anxious, aimless parent, I turned to the Bible. Its ancient wisdom turned out to be the perfect antidote to the problems that plagued me. When we step back to see the Bible’s big vision for parents and children, we can get our parenting back into harmony with our God-given purpose. But the Bible also confronts us with some hard truths.
We are responsible for our children’s moral education.
When our second son had just started preschool, I got chatting to the mother of one of his classmates. She said the preschool had raised concerns about her son’s “antisocial” behaviour. Towards the end of the year, I asked how things were going; she told me her son’s behaviour had not improved. What surprised me was what the boy’s mother said next. She blamed the preschool teachers for this and wondered “What have they been doing about it all year?”
In today’s world, parents are taking less and less responsibility for their children’s moral education. In our busy lives, we struggle to commit the time and energy that the task demands. Modern parents have a growing expectation that other people—such as teachers—will pick up the slack.
In a recent American study called “The Children We Mean to Raise”, 80 per cent of the young people surveyed said they valued their personal achievement or happiness above showing concern for others. This came as a complete shock to their parents, who believed the opposite. It is one thing to hold certain values yourself, but quite another to pass them on to your children.
The Bible describes children as those “who do not yet know good from bad”. It is parents—not anybody else, including teachers—who bear the primary responsibility for teaching them. But what are the key morals or values we ought to pass on? According to the Bible, the most important thing to teach our children is to love God and to love (that is, do good to) other people.
But how do we teach our children to do these things? How do we pass on our values? The Bible encourages us to do it through:
- our example
- our words: we teach, encourage and correct them
- training: we give them opportunities to practise doing good
- setting boundaries: we clearly explain our expectations ahead of time
- discipline: sometimes we let our children experience negative consequences for doing the wrong thing
This kind of moral education is not something that can be rushed. It requires the most precious thing that modern parents have to give: our unhurried time and attention. And of course, our motivation is love: we love our children so much we want them to mature into adults who know right from wrong.
We are not responsible for our children’s perpetual comfort.
I know all too well that it’s easier to buy a cheap toy than to endure the tantrum of a child who is disappointed; it’s easier to switch on a flashing screen than to listen to the whining of a child who is bored; it’s easier to hand out another snack than to put up with the complaints of a child who is hungry.
But trying to shield our children from every unpleasant situation results in anxious parents and children who lack resilience. When we overprescribe the drug of instant comfort, we deny our children the chance to strengthen their immunity to hardship.
By contrast, the Bible prioritises the development of a godly character and godly values over comfort. The whole project of passing on our values—teaching our children to love God and love others—is summarised by the word discipline:
“[Our fathers] disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10, 11).
Putting our children “second” . . . will actually benefit them in the long run.
Hardship can be a powerful tool in our children’s moral education. Some values, such as patience and perseverance, can only be learnt the hard way. Our job is not to steer our children around the difficulties of life, but to walk alongside them through it all. When we purposely allow our children to experience small doses of hard things—disappointment, frustration, boredom or delay—we are helping them to develop their resilience to these things in later life.
Putting our children’s desires first is bad for everyone.
Modern parents tend to put their children’s desires before anything else, including their marriage. When we expend all of our time and energy trying to please our children, we have nothing left to give our spouse at the end of the day. We talk to one another as “mum and dad”, exchanging information about the kids, but we don’t take the time to talk as husband and wife, sharing our joys and burdens.
But putting our children before our marriage results in parents who feel disconnected and taken for granted, and children who always expect to be the centre of attention.
Of course, very small children have legitimate needs that require our attention throughout the day. But as children grow, they need to start seeing themselves as part of a bigger community, in which their needs and desires must be balanced with those of the people around them.
The Bible teaches that the surest foundation for family life is a healthy marriage. In psychologist and parenting expert Steve Biddulph’s book, The Making of Love, researcher Moira Eastman observes:
“The parents are the architects of the family system. Their relationship is the foundation stone of the whole family’s wellbeing. In the happiest families, researchers found a unique bond of love between the spouses—a relationship of equals who genuinely respected each other. The marital relationship was the strongest bond in the family.”
If our marriage is to survive—and thrive—once we become parents, we need to give it the attention it deserves. This means spending time together, working hard at communication and conflict resolution, and making sure that we are parenting as a team.
Building a strong marriage sometimes means putting our children’s desires second. It means saying “No” to children who want to interrupt our adult conversation. It means saying “No” to children who want to stay up late when we had planned some couple time. It means saying “No” to that extra kids’ activity if it puts too much strain on our family.
Putting our children “second” in this way will actually benefit them in the long run. They will grow up seeing what a healthy marriage looks like, secure in the knowledge that their parents are committed to one another for the long haul.
Don’t forget the Good News!
Parenting is a weighty task: we bear the primary responsibility for our children’s moral education. This sometimes involves letting them experience difficulties; it sometimes requires us to put their desires second to our marriage.
We will never do any of this perfectly—we can only ever hope to be “good enough” parents, who keep striving to live in harmony with our God-given purpose. When we fail, we can run like little children into the arms of our loving Heavenly Father, God, and rest in His inexhaustible forgiveness and strength. And we don’t have to do any of this alone. We are part of God’s big family of faith—a whole community longing to see the next generation loving others for the love of God.