The Struggles of Christian Parenting | Sojourners

The Struggles of Christian Parenting

Father and son, Rob Marmion /
Father and son, Rob Marmion /

Every mother and father know the struggles, frustrations, unrealistic expectations, horrific fears, and exhaustive drama associated with raising children, but let me just say this: Christianity adds an entirely new dimension to the chaos that is parenting.

Besides an assortment of play dates, sports activities, school classes, music events, and other social obligations, Christianity requires the additional burden of attending an endless array of church activities.

Mission trips, youth groups, service projects, summer camps, volunteer activities, Sunday school classes, Bible studies, evangelism outings, and church services require tons of time — it’s a huge commitment.

Christian culture goes out of its way to accommodate parents and their children, and while this is a good thing, it also adds social expectations that can often feel burdensome and frenetic — leading to burnout.

Additionally, whether they’re warranted or unwarranted, perceived or palpable, real or made up, Christian environments often cause parents to feel extra nervous, anxious, and stressed. Being invested within a spiritual community requires a deep relational investment, and by constantly hearing, discussing, and sharing various techniques related to how kids are supposed to eat, sleep, talk, socialize, play, exercise, learn, pray can often cause feelings of inadequacy, depression, hopelessness, fear, incompetency, anxiety, anger, and guilt.

We’re inundated with tactics and strategies on how to raise physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually healthy children, and we’re tempted to constantly compare ourselves — and our kids — to others.

When we — or our children — inevitably fail (it will happen), we blame ourselves, oftentimes to the point of extreme guilt.

Christian parents can easily become obsessed with sin and punishment, continuously blaming and penalizing themselves instead of accepting the grace and freedom of Jesus. Thus, we routinely beat ourselves up, unfairly seek unrealistic goals (like perfection), and become consumed with our mistakes.

If only we would’ve been less strict. If only we would’ve had them eat healthier. If only we had sent them to better schools. If only

To make matters worse, Christian pastors, teachers, speakers, authors, and others within the church throw around clichés like “if only children were disciplined better” and “kids just don’t work as hard as they used to” or “ this generation is morally bankrupt.” Although these catchphrases might be uttered with good intentions, they can actually be demoralizing and offensive to parents trying everything in their power to do the right thing.

In our endless effort to be good Christian parents, we attend special parenting conferences, buy parenting books, listen to parenting podcasts, visit parenting blogs, attend parenting breakout sessions, and dive headfirst into the educational tools that our churches provide — often with frustrating results.

We’re given a deluge of competing strategies, formulas, theories, and practices that often conflict with each other and are based on cultural fads.

Should we breastfeed or use formula? Should we purchase generic groceries or buy organic? Should we let babies cry themselves to sleep? How much TV should our kids watch? What type of vocabulary should know by now? Should we home school, invest in a private education, or send them to public school? Should we let them wear those clothes? Should we give them an allowance or require them to do chores? Should we enforce a curfew? At what age should they get a job?

There are an infinite number of questions, and everyone seems to have an opinion about what the right answer is.

The reality is there’s no perfect answer beyond trying our best to emulate Christ.

Dear parents, it’s not your fault, and even if you’ve made mistakes, forgive yourself and let it go — because we’ve all been there.

Each day requires parents to make hundreds of split-second decisions, and there’s a lot of pressure to succeed — and for our kids to succeed. But what does “success” actually look like?

This is probably the hardest thing about Christian parenting: wanting our kids to actually live like Christ.

Do I really want my child to be a peacemaker? Do I honestly want my kids to grow up and serve the poor, sacrificing their time, energy, and their chance to get ahead in life just so that some bum on the street can have a place to sleep at night?

Unfortunately, successful Christian parenting doesn’t look anything like “success.”

Typically, being a good parent means that your children are behaved, got good grades, went to a prestigious college, and landed a great career with a high-paying salary.

Realistically, I often want these things for my kids. The last thing I want for them is to become a pastor, or worse yet, a missionary!

It’s at this point where I rationalize. I tell myself that my children can be “good Christians” no matter what they do in life, that they’ll be “ missionaries” despite the vocation they go into. They can minister to their coworkers and glorify Christ in whatever they do!

This way, they’ll still be making lots of money, living in comfort, and enjoying life — all while still being a Christian!

Although this can — and does — happen, it can also be a spiritual disguise for maintaining society’s status quo. This is why Christian parenting is so atrocious: It requires being completely and utterly counter-cultural, requiring that we instill values that seem ridiculous and absurd according to everyone else’s standards.

Passionately following an unseen God? Believing in the supernatural? Reading an antiquated book called The Bible? Giving away your money to others? Interacting with the despised, outcast, and downtrodden? Being friends with them!? Taking time to help others at your own expense? Sacrificing your career, job, fortune, and reputation for the sake of a nutty religion — because of some might-not-even-be-real person named Jesus?!

Christian parenting scandalously goes against our instincts to safeguard our children from the evils of the world. We want to protect them, hoping that they’ll never have to face the grim reality that we’ve seen: the real world, full of pain, suffering, sickness, and depravity.

But Christianity isn’t meant to be a form of escapism. Rather, it’s embracing the truth. Realistically, God calls us to help a hurting world. As parents, are we willing to embrace this calling?

Christ-like parenting requires us to eagerly raise our children with the expectation that they might be viewed as subpar, unsuccessful, and complete failures according to worldly standards.

In the end, do I really want to raise my kids to be like Christ? Do I want them to devote themselves to loving others knowing that it might cause them stress, pain, and heartache? I hope I’m brave enough. Please God, give me — and my children — the strength and bravery to follow your will.

Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective,and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.

Image: Father and son, Rob Marmion /