Letting Go of Being the Perfect Christian Parent
It started in those first playgroups.
“Buster has slept 10 hours every night since birth.” “Has Susie started to crawl?” “The twins just NEVER stop talking.”
It’s continued at the flagpole after school.
“Ralph Jr. stayed up til 10 pm finishing his science fair project.” “We’re having organic risotto with roasted root vegetables tonight. What are you cooking?”
It makes sitting on the bleachers at the JV basketball game doubly uncomfortable.
“So where is Rosie doing her PSAT prep?” “ …Johnny is SO tired after last weekend’s debate trip – I just hope he has the legs to play good D tonight…”
And it even echoes loud throughout the corridors of church on Sunday morning.
“Sarah is just thrilled to lead the small group! She got so much out of her summer in the Dominican last year, but the leader training at Young Life camp was even more fruitful. I just hope she can get to the Sunday night meeting on time – you know she’ll be running in from singing at the afternoon service!”
Somehow, somewhere, we have got the idea that teenagers raised in Christian homes never swear, fail physics, drink beer, sext suggestive selfies, cheat in school, or even – God forbid – talk back to their parents.
Guess what? Teens from Christian homes do all of the above, and more. They also suffer from eating disorders, suicidal ideations, anger management issues, lack of motivation, and a host of other issues – just like teens from non-Christian homes do.
Raising your kids in a Christian home does not inoculate them from sin. Neither your parenting nor mine can protect our children completely from the effects of living this side of Eden. The sooner we admit our vulnerability to ourselves, to our friends, and to our children, the sooner we can stop holding ourselves and our kids hostage to unattainable ideals, and lead them instead into the rest and freedom of life with Christ.
1. We need to stop comparing our family to other families.
If those scenarios above make you want to grind your teeth, then you know what I am talking about. Because we parents are constantly, as the saying goes, “comparing our insides to someone else’s outsides.” If I hear, in someone else’s remark, an indictment of my own parenting, I have likely read into their words some subtext of judgement that isn’t actually there. When I feel a flash of jealousy at another parent’s uber-exceptional twelve-year-old, then I have taken my eyes off Jesus and the children He has given me. My self-absorption and envy poison my friendships with other parents, and so I withdraw, nursing judgmental resentment rather than persisting in loving friendship with other parents.
There’s a helpful antidote for this temptation found in John 21. When the resurrected Jesus is cooking breakfast on the beach for His disciples, Peter wants to know what plans Jesus has in store for John: “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus replies, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is it to you? You follow Me!”
If it is God’s will that my neighbor’s child appears to achieve every kind of spiritual and worldly success while my own… doesn’t, what is that to me? My call is to follow Jesus, loving and leading the children He has so wonderfully given me.
2. Christian parents, we need to stop projecting an image of perfection, both inside and outside our homes.
Let me say first that you don’t need to air your child’s troubles at your book group in the interest of being honest and vulnerable. By all means, protect your child’s privacy, seeking help only from trustworthy sources at church and school. But if your child is going through a struggle, don’t pretend that he or she is on top of the world. Using discernment about how, when, and where, admit your parenting failures. Acknowledge your uncertainty, your frustration, your tendency to give in when you need to hold a boundary firm. You will give other parents the freedom to admit their own problems and find community in the struggle.
When we project perfection in our small groups and Bible studies, we make brothers and sisters in Christ feel more alone and more hopeless about their own parenting. When we project perfection to parents outside the Christian faith, we come across as self-righteous and annoying rather than humble and gentle.
Above all, we lay an unspoken burden of perfect performance on our already-struggling children, who are certainly sharp enough to understand when their parents are ashamed of their inability to measure up. Besides, our kids know better than anyone how imperfect we are, and teens are like bloodhounds on the trail of hypocrisy.
3. We need to stop chasing perfection, for ourselves and for our children.
Because there is no way to quantify the relative efficacy of our parenting, moms and dads often default to their kid’s worldly success (in school, on the track, on the stage), their spiritual success (think daily quiet times and youth group leadership), or their popularity to “measure” how well they have parented. Without visible signs of glory, a parent may feel they have failed, and push their child to achieve something, anything, to validate the long years of effort as a mom or dad.
Even more insidious, we as parents are prone to be proud of the compliant child when in fact compliance may simply be a personality trait rather than evidence of our own wise guidance. Sometimes the defiant kid has a deeper understanding of their parent’s unconditional love than the child who never dares to break a rule. Remember the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. The prodigal trusted the heart of his father. The outwardly compliant elder brother did everything right and completely missed his own need for grace.
4. We need to rest in the finished work of Jesus, for our children’s sake and for our own.
When I try to be supermom, I am believing, and modeling for my children, that salvation comes through attaining an ideal or putting on a great performance. This negates the very Gospel of Jesus’ love and mercy for sinners that I am hoping they will believe. In fact, pursuing perfect parenting makes me wonder how much I trust Jesus’ love for myself. We can pursue humility rather than perfection.
Apologize to your child. Ask forgiveness when you mess up.
Look for chances to give them grace, and tell them why: “Listen, honey, it’s my joy to give you
the grace God has given me.”
When your child does do something well, take the opportunity to thank God, enjoying success as a gift to your child and an occasion for gratitude to him. (The achievement is a gift, so you can’t take credit; it is your child’s gift from God, not a reflection on you.)
When another parent confesses they are struggling with their kids, you can say, “Yeah, me too.”
In the midst of a difficult season, when a trusted someone asks you how you are, tell them the truth. If things are hard, just say it. Ask for prayer. Give your friend the delightful privilege of encouraging you in the hope of the Gospel.
Talk to seasoned parents and get the benefit of their hard-earned wisdom. Your church and community are full of godly guides who have been there, done that.
I have been so guilty of thinking that if I could only be the perfect mom, I could raise flourishing, fulfilled children who lead easy, happy lives. But I can rest in the hands of my loving Father, who is also my children’s loving Father, because perfecting our family is not my job. It never has been. For “…I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you [and in me, and in the children we love so much] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6)
For further insight into the issues of performancism among parents and their teens, read our review of David Zahl’s Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It.