How should we parent as Christians in America?

Mar 18, 2019

Parenting isn’t for the faint of heart.

According to recent research studying the workload and rhythms of families, it would appear that even with a rise in moms working outside the home, the quantity of time spent tending to children has not decreased; rather, it’s increased. And not only has the quantity of time spent with children increased, but the type of time parents spend with their children has changed. According to a recent New York Times article, parents today spend more time doing hands-on childcare such as reading, crafts, taking children to lessons, and more than simply being with them or sending them outside to play.   

The Times labels this type of parenting as “intensive parenting” and defines it as an American phenomenon where parents are pouring a lot of time, resources, and effort to ensure that their children are given every opportunity to succeed in life. And although this phenomenon spans across varying socioeconomic and racial groups in America, the lower socioeconomic status parents are having a difficult time keeping up with the cost of extracurricular activities and limited social resources.

At the same time, there have been many studies that have shown that intensive parenting can be taken too far and have an adverse effect on a child. Andrea Peterson states in her article The Overprotected American Child, “Overzealous parenting can do real harm. Psychologists and educators see it as one factor fueling a surge in the number of children and young adults being diagnosed with anxiety disorders.” Their research is showing us that children in the U.S. have increasingly “high levels of stress and dependence on their parents.”

In contrast, the American Academy of Pediatrics is releasing new data and encouraging parents to better monitor, care for, and teach children—which is a good thing. However, many of their recommendations encourage intensive parenting practices that sometimes conflict with “free-range” parenting practices and what psychologists are recommending.

In an age of information overload, the balance between being an involved parent and being a helicopter parent is a difficult dance to master. What’s “best” for our kids seems like an idea that everyone is chasing, yet there isn’t a clear answer out there. So, in the 21st century, what is a Christian parent to do with all of this information? How do we parent our children with wisdom?

Here are three things to keep in mind when considering parenting strategies:

1. Success is not our goal.

We all want what’s best for our children, but it is important to remember that we shouldn’t let the things of this world motivate our parenting. Our goal isn’t for our children to grow up in a certain social circle or with particular socioeconomic privileges. Our goal is to raise children who see Jesus as greater than anything else on this earth. Our goal, as Christian parents, is to create healthy and loving homes where children are equipped with the knowledge that God loves them no matter what, and that he has a plan for their lives that is good and holy. And to be clear, good and holy might mean that our children forego the large house with the picket fence and trade it in for lives on mission serving and living amongst the poorest of the poor.

Sure, we train our children to be fiscally responsible and incredibly generous, but we do not allow financial and social success to be the driving force behind our parenting because it flies in the face of gospel teaching. Our goal as parents isn’t to help our kids build their own kingdoms; it’s to help them find their place serving an eternal one.

2. We parent the heart.

In the Old Testament, we see Yahweh giving the Israelites a lot of laws. One would think that God is really concerned about behavior, but when we look at the whole story, we see that God is actually after the Israelites’ hearts. The same can be said of parents. We concern ourselves with our children’s behavior because the choices they make and the words they say often display the condition of their heart. Sometimes, it is easy to get caught up in managing behavior because the work of the heart is more difficult to diagnose.

But as Christian parents, we discipline and disciple our children not simply because we want to manage behavior, but because we know that God is after their hearts. In Scripture, fathers are told to not exasperate their children, but to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). What is the way of the Lord? It’s to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). This is what we’re parenting toward.

3. We trust in a sovereign God.

Out of all the points made in this article, this one is the hardest for me to practice. Scripture tells us that before we were knit in our mother’s womb, the God of the universe knew us intimately (Jer. 1:5). Our good and sovereign God knew our children before they were in our arms, and he loves them so much that he sent his one and only son to die for them. So we trust him with our greatest earthly treasures, because they’re not only our children, they’re his.

A few years ago I wrote this blogpost for my children, and I find it true today. I’ve stopped praying that my kids would be spared from heartache and the brokenness of this world. Rather than praying for God to keep my children from pain and suffering, I now pray that God would soften their hearts toward him. I pray that my kids are never too comfortable so that they don’t think themselves without the need of a great Savior. I pray that when the realities of living in a broken world ring true in their lives, they would run to a Savior who promises to be near to the brokenhearted and one day right every wrong (Psa. 34:18; Rev. 21). I pray that my children would draw near to their Creator God—the one who knew them before they were in their mother’s womb—in their  highest of highs and lowest of lows

And as a parent, I not only proclaim this truth over my children, but I also preach this truth to myself. I am not my children’s god. I am not in control of every aspect of their lives, but I serve a God who is.

So when this world tells us that free-range parenting or intensive parenting is “best” for our kids, we don’t ignore it or apply it blindly. Instead, we look at the strengths and weaknesses of each approach in light of the wisdom found in Scripture. And ultimately, we don’t parent like Americans; we parent as followers of Christ living in America.

Brittany Salmon

Brittany Salmon is a freelance writer, an adjunct professor of Global Studies at Liberty University Online, and an editor for the ERLC. She is also an orphan care and prevention advocate, and a doctoral student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.... Read More