We’re going to screw up our kids (and we need to be OK with that)

When I announced my book presenting the gospel for kids, I said we need to do a better job introducing them to our faith. I said the prevailing method of passing down our faith — getting kids to make some kind of decision before they’re old enough to question or doubt — isn’t right and it isn’t working.

I’m writing this book to give parents (including myself) another way of taking about faith with our kids. A way of telling the story of our faith, instead of just issuing them a checklist of beliefs. A way of honoring our kids’ natural curiosity, instead of (to paraphrase Rachel Held Evans) giving them answers before they’ve even had time to wrestle with the questions.

I wish I could say this alternative way is guaranteed to work. That I could promise your kids will grow up to be lifelong, committed Christians.

But I can’t. There are no guarantees. There are no perfect ways of doing this. Our kids have wills and minds of their own. They’re not ours to control. We can either choose to accept this while they’re young, or we can be forced to accept it when they’re older, when any illusions of control have long since evaporated.

Trischa Goodwin wrote a beautifully honest piece expressing the doubt that lurks in the heart of every parent who’s trying to do right by their kids…

What if… I’m just screwing my kids up in a different way than the way I was screwed up?

What if embracing their questions and not forcing them to accept my answers leaves them wishy-washy and completely unsure of anything?

What if not insisting they attend church with me every Sunday leaves them without a love for the Body of Christ?

What if allowing for discussion and not expecting immediate, unquestioning obedience undermines their respect for authority?

What if teaching them to respect other religions leads them away from Christianity?

What if I’m doing it all wrong?

My wife and I have asked these same questions. Sometimes it feels like it’s not a matter of whether we’ll screw our kids up, but how we’ll screw them up. And how hard they’ll have to work at disentangling the mess we’ve made of their lives.

I think each generation tries to parent a little differently than the one before. We hold on to things from our upbringing that were good, and we leave behind (or try to, anyway) those that weren’t. That’s why, thankfully, corporal punishment was an almost nonexistent part of my childhood. (And why it won’t have any part of my daughter’s upbringing.)

The truth is, there are no true “parenting experts” out there. We’re all just trying to figure things out as we go. The “what if” questions that Trischa asked are important, because they reflect an awareness that we can’t make our kids turn out a certain way. We can’t write the ending for them.

As Trischa suggests near the end of her post, maybe the best a parent can do is:

Keep raising them in the most loving way I know how and continue to confess Christ and Incarnation and Resurrection and all the other mysteries in my daily life.

I think she’s onto something powerful. I would add just one thing: we also need to be willing to tell our kids we’re sorry when we do screw up.

A few weeks ago, my three-year-old threw a tantrum over something I had asked her to do (or stop doing). So I gave her a choice: start listening or sit on the step for a few minutes.

She declined both options and chose instead to escalate said tantrum. Which caused me to lose my patience as well.

I hate shouting, even brief outbursts, whether I’m on the giving or receiving end. So the minute I lost my cool, I regretted it. What most likely started as a three-year-old’s simple frustration at the difficulty of expressing herself, I had now blown out of proportion.

So I got down to Elizabeth’s eye level and told her I was sorry. I asked her to forgive me for losing my cool and raising my voice. I suggested maybe we both ought to sit on the step for a bit. I tried to show her that I was not “above the law,” so to speak.

The funny thing is, what was meant to be a time-out (now for both of us) turned into one of those cherished moments of conversation with my daughter.

It may seem trivial, but I tell my daughter I’m sorry because I want her to know that it’s safe to come to me when I’ve let her down. I want her to know she doesn’t have to fear the counterattack, that I’m not going to come roaring back at her with a laundry list of grievances which I’ve been storing up for just such an occasion. I want her to know she can tell me when I’ve screwed up.

Because I will screw up. I may try hard not to make the mistakes of others, but I’ll end up making mistakes of my own. Whether it’s in how I try to nurture my daughter’s faith or in some of the more mundane, everyday aspects of parenting, I will screw up.

I believe one of the most important things I can do for my daughter is being OK with that — and letting her know it’s OK to tell me when I’ve failed.

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