Abby’s entering kindergarten next year. Maybe I was just oblivious to it up until now (highly likely – I’m the clueless type), but the intensity I see in her peers’ parents now that their kids are on the cusp of school age is extreme. Until recently, I was completely unworried about where she’d go to school, thinking our neighborhood school was perfectly fine, until I accompanied Abby to one of her preschool classmates’ birthday parties, and not a single parent there planned to send their kids to that school (her preschool meets on the same grounds as the elementary school she would attend) because the class size next year for K will be 30 students, and they all think that’s insane.
Parents express their intensity in different ways, but I feel like the basic attitude behind it is the same – the decisions we make will have permanent effects on our children. In some sense, our actions determine the types of people they will be.
Which is weird, because most research nowadays indicates the opposite, that to a surprising extent, parenting doesn’t have much effect on the outcomes of their children. In the end, nature trumps nurture. That idea is expressed in this Freaonomics post. And the idea isn’t limited to the secular world. There was a really interesting (and controversial) Christianity Today article some time back that argued much the same thing.
As the CT article points out, Christian parents today tend toward the anxiety side, that how we parent forms our children, and that if we parent “right,” our children will turn out to be good Christians. The thought that this might not be true, I think, doesn’t sit right with most Christian parents. For a couple reasons. One, it seems to be contrary to certain parts of Scripture. The majority of children’s ministries I’ve been involved with have made Proverbs 22:6 their motto: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” It suggests that how we parent has a big influence on how our children turn out. And when listing qualifications for church overseers in 1 Timothy 3, Paul says “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)” That also suggests that parents’ character affects how their children turn out, and that we have a responsibility to raise them well.
I think the idea that parenting doesn’t determine kids’ outcomes as much as we think also feels wrong because it doesn’t jive with our personal experience. We can all think of numerous ways in which the things our parents did formed us, for good and bad. I don’t think I’m the only one that has wished that my parents did certain things with me differently, thinking that if they had, I’d a better person. There’s some part of us that attributes how we are to what our parents did. If we believe that, we have to believe that the same must be true for us with our children.
I don’t believe that anymore. I believe the research. I think a lot of the specific experiences in our childhood that we believe indelibly formed us were actually incidental things that moved us along a path we were already on. I don’t think parents have as much control over their children’s outcomes as we believe. I also don’t think that idea is scriptural.
I was reminded of this while doing our church’s reading through Chronicles and Kings. For whatever reason, godly men frequently (even usually) made piss-poor parents, if that’s based on how their kids turned out. Most of the kings of Israel and Judah sucked. Every once in a while, you’ll get a good king, and think the tide has turned. But no, their kids end up sucking too. I would wager that if you listed all the godly parents in the Bible, you’d find that most of their kids ended up not so well. Solomon’s kids weren’t great. Eli’s sons weren’t great, so Samuel succeeded him. Then 1 Sam. 8 tells us that Samuel’s sons were bad also. I can’t see any reliable pattern at all of godly men producing godly children.
I think this jives with what we see in real life also. The truth is, godly people often produce screwed up children. It’s well known that Billy Graham was pretty bad father, and his son went through quite a wandering phase. He ended up great, but it would be hard to say it was because of Graham’s parenting. And maybe this is only when I was growing up, but in general, there was a perception that many pastor’s kids had issues. Obviously not universal. But common enough that there was a negative connotation with PKs.
I buy the conclusions of the CT article. The problem with thinking that we determine our children’s outcomes is twofold. One, it perverts our understanding of who is in control of our children. We don’t own their outcomes; God does. We are called to be faithful, not determine how they turn out. We can’t. Our responsibility is in the process, not the outcome, and judging either ourselves or others based on the latter is misguided. Two, it causes us to equate how our children are with how we are as parents, making it about us, not them, and becoming fuel for judging others.
Ever since reading that article, I’ve been reminding myself from time to time: be faithful, but God owns the outcome. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the Freakonomics post as well. Instead of trying to push them toward something, the most valuable thing we can do for our kids is enjoy our time together.
As always, I’m still thinking things through. But that’s kind of how I’ve been thinking about parenting lately.