One of the most painful things in life is dealing with wayward children. Although this is not unique to religious types, it is particularly difficult for those who hold strong religious convictions. One of the characteristics of those who hold strong religious convictions is that they are to pass their strong religious convictions on to their children.
As I said, this is not unique to those with strong religious convictions. Even those strong religious convictions have hopes and dreams for their children and are often dismayed when their children fall short of their hopes and dreams. And even when kids aren't falling short of specific parental hopes and dreams, the pains and agonies of the kids become the pains and agonies of the parents. And these pains and agonies of the parents are multiplied because said parents have often taken great pains and agonies to protect their kids from and educate them against these pains and agonies.
But this situation is especially acute for parents with religious convictions. Those without strong religious convictions may lament the prodigality of their children and may wonder where they went wrong, or how it could be that their kids didn't learn any better; in short they may feel that there has been some sort of failure on their part or the kids part. But with religious parents this is compounded because they carry the added weight of feeling that they have let God down too.
I speak from my own experience as a Christian. The most important thing to me in regards to my kids is that they embrace the faith that I am trying to pass on. I think this is true of most Christian parents. I have served as a youth minister for five years and have served as a senior pastor for five more years. Thus I have had a front row seat to myriads of modern adaptations of the story of the prodigal son.
I got to thinking about this recently when I read Michael Spencer's post A Prayer for Alex: what do do when your child says he doesn't believe anymore. Michael really hits a home run with this post. I strongly recommend that you read his post because he talks about what it is like to be a kid and he talks about all of the influences that pull kids away from the faith of their fathers. He shows that we shouldn't be surprised when kids wander away from the faith and that a time of wandering doesn't equal permanent desertion.
As I read Michael's piece I echoed his sentiment to the effect of "why should we be surprised when kids reject the faith?" The only thing I can add to this is that the bible is full of such instances. In fact, it seems to be the norm in Scripture that most of the characters in the bible have a period of wandering from the faith. Think of Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, Samson and think of all of those kings of Israel and Judah. Think of Peter and the other disciples who deserted Jesus in His hour of trial. It seems that almost no one, no matter how close they are to Jesus, lives a life without some kind of wandering.
Parents today are bombarded with books, tapes, cd's and seminars full of helpful material on parenting. This goes for religious and non-religious parents. Again, in my context as a Christian, I can rattle off the top of my head many names of authors and titles of books that are specifically devoted to helping you raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord and keep them walking with Christ.
We read all of these things and think that there is some guarantee in reading them and applying their principles that, if we read and apply these principles, our kids are going to turn out perfect, or if not perfect, at least pretty good. Yet in the Bible you've got people like David, a man after God's own heart, who commits adultery and murder. The disciples themselves had three years of training at the feet of Jesus yet they deserted him. And we don't even need to mention Peter.
So the question again is, why do we think our kids won't rebel? Michael Spencer does a good job of showing that a period of rebellion can actually be the catalyst of a renewed commitment to Christ.
The problem I have seen with so many Christian families is the sense of doom and gloom when there is a period of rebellion. Parents act as if it is the end of the world. I don't mean to minimize the fact that these can be periods of great pain. As I said, the pains and agonies of the kids become the pains and agonies of the parents. Yet, if we could maintain a sense of perspective, it would help us and our kids.
When kids start to wander parents tend to either go into panic mode or crackdown mode. This is harmful to both the parent and the kid. It robs the parent of any sense of peace and joy and it further alienates the kids.
I have asked several parents, whose kids are in a state of wandering if they ever had a period of wandering themselves. The answer is always yes. Then I ask them if God brought them back to Himself? The answer is always yes. My next statement is always "then can't you trust God to do the same thing in your child's life that He did in yours?" And the reply I get from that is always the same - "yes, but I have worked so hard to do all I can to see to it that they don't wander."
I often find that these parents don't understand grace. In their heart of hearts they don't truly believe that they have been forgiven for their own transgressions, so they are seeking atonement through their kids. If they can raise kids who didn't do the wrong things they did, this will become a way of atoning for their own sins.
For these parents, they have a blemished track record. It is not enough for them that their kids get back on track later, albeit with a few blemishes on their track record. For these parents, their own blemishes can be atoned for by their kids having a perfect track record.
But again, this is expecting too much. If the disciples of Jesus wandered, why do we think our disciples, i.e. kids, won't? Don't forget that in the story of the prodigal son, the father of the prodigal represents God Himself.
This goes hand in hand with the sense of finality. We tend to forget that adolescence and early adulthood are two of the most changeable periods of life. What kids are and do when they are young are not what they will be and do when they grow older. Yet, we often respond with a sense of dread permanence when the kids wander. We are sure that the fact that little Billy heisted a candy bar from the 7-11 means that he is doomed to a life of crime. Now of coure little Billy needs to face some stern consequences for this, but in most cases the consequences are going to have the desired effect and little Billy is going to turn out just fine.
It is true that sometimes little Billy doesn't turn out fine. Sometimes little Alex announces that he doesn't believe in God when he is in sixth grade and he never comes back to the faith.
Sometimes these things happen because little Billy or Alex had lousy parents. On the other hand, there are scores of people who had really lousy parents who turned out just great.
The point is that we have to come to the place in our spiritual lives where we understand that we don't control our kids destinies. We certainly influence their destinies and MIchael Spencer gives some wonderful examples of things you can do to exert a positive influence on your kids lives. And the fact that we don't control their destinies does not relieve us of our responsibilities.
But having said all of that we must remember that we don't control our kids destinies. And maybe therein lies a part of the problem. The harder we try to control the destinies of our kids the more they resist. Although I wouldn't build a whole parenting philosophy on the parable of the prodigal son, it is useful to remember that when the prodigal wanted to run the father let him go instead of clamping down.
If we want our kids to follow in our footsteps of faith, the best thing we can do is model a life of faith that is so winsome and compelling that it is the kind of life they want to return to once the pig's food has lost its taste.
I heard John Rosemond speak at seminar a little over a year ago and he talked about the different stages of a kid's life. I can't remember all of them, but basically he said that there are distinct seasons in the raising of a child. The first season is a season of service where the parents lives orbit around the child's, they live to serve the child. This is from birth to three years old. The second season is the season of leadership and authority which lasts from three to thirteen years old. In this season the child is expected to orbit around the parents and learn from the parents and submit to the parent's authority. The season of mentoring begins at the age of thirteen which is a time when the parents aren't governing the child quite so tightly, but are instead, preparing them for their emancipation (by the way, you can find an article on this on his website, but you have to sign up for a fee).
So I asked him what happens if the child is in the season of mentoring but you realize that you failed during the season of leadership and authority. It is during the season of leadership and authority that the chid is to learn self-control and self-government. John's answer is that you can't go back to a previous parenting style. In other words, if the kid is 13 or older and has not learned self-government, clamping down harder isn't going to teach this. Instead, you have to mentor the kid toward self-government.
Similarly, after their teenage years, the next season is that of friendship. This is in the early twenties.
What I have seen most often is that most rebellion occurs in the teens and early twenties. And when it occurs, the parents address it through an authority/leadership style. This leads to greater frustration for the parents and greater anger on the part of the kids.
So, I go back to the whole principle that we do not control the destinies of our kids and it is a mistake to try to do so. God is more loving and wise than we are and He can handle our kids when we can't. When they rebel as teens, we influence them through mentoring. When they rebel as twenty-somethings, we influence them through friendship.
But in every case we shouldn't see rebellion as something unusual. It is something that God has dealt with millions of times before and He knows how to handle it in the case of your child and mine.