Brian and I recently led a parenting workshop at our church. I’d like to think we were asked to teach this course because our mad parenting skillz are off the chart, but it may have more to do with the fact that we’re the only ones who said yes. Also, we’re one of the only couples in our church whose kids are over the age of five, so there’s that. BUT ANYWAY. I digress.
We were given the freedom to choose from any parenting-related topic, and while it may have been easier to zero in on things like “Surviving on Little-to-No Sleep,” “How to Get Your Kids to Behave in Public,” or “How to Potty Train and Not Lose Your Mind,” we knew we wanted to zero in on the heart—and not so much our children’s hearts, but what parenting reveals about our hearts. We wanted to talk about idolatry.
Crowd pleaser, right?
I’ve quoted this before and I’ll say it a hundred more times: the most profound parenting quote I’ve ever heard is this statement from Dan Allender:
“One of the biggest sources of conflict between you and your kids is when they refuse to bow down to your idols.”
I dare you to cross stitch that and give it to a friend at her baby shower. DO IT.
When I had my first child, I was determined to knock this parenting thing out of the park. I read all the books, one in particular that was very A+B=C in nature. “If you do these things, your child will be on an excellent, predictable schedule and will sleep through the night by the time you come home from the hospital.” Except my son wouldn’t cooperate. He cried and he cried and he cried. He had trouble feeding and wouldn’t nap for longer than 20 minutes, and definitely not at the same time each day. He refused to fit into a nice, neat box.
Do you know what my predominant emotion was in the midst of all of this? Anger. At an infant. I threw pillows in the middle of the night and yelled at my husband and said not-so-kind words. To my infant. Now, I’m sure that hormones and sleep-deprivation played a role in my, ahem, intense response, but more than anything, I was upset because I had faithfully followed A and B and I was not getting C. I deserved a child who would cooperate. All the books told me he would cooperate if I did my part, and I did my part, dadgum it. I was worshipping at the altars of control, success, convenience, and let’s just say it—reputation, because we all know how moms talk—but my son refused to bow down. And I was furious.
He turned one, and the sun shone again. He became a different child. So sweet, so obedient, so easy. Even though I welcomed the reprieve, I hadn’t really clued into this idolatry situation yet, so instead of parenting out of humility, I parented out of pride. My idols were stroked. They grew bigger. “We’re such amazing parents! Our son is so obedient! If only people would follow our lead. They’d be so much happier.” And I continued to bow down to my idols: Control. Reputation. Success. Convenience. Rest.
And then God gave me exactly what I needed: a second child who refused to do a thing we said. We disciplined. He laughed, and then did it again. We were consistent with our discipline, thinking, “Surely this is going to take,” and it just wouldn’t. Nothing that worked with our oldest worked with this kid. He was an enigma, break dancing to the beat of his own drum, daring anyone to try to tell him what to do.
My predominent emotion? Can you guess? Anger. How dare he. I had created a system of order that I loved very much, and he pummeled right through it every single day. I had a picture of what my kids would be like, and my picture was certainly different than those other kids that seemed to be so out of control. Not my kid. Not on my watch. So I would tighten up, control even harder, increase the consequences and ramp up the Bible stories, all the while commanding him to bow down to my idol of a behaved, respectful child. I willed him to submit to my idols of control, of A+B=C, of my reputation as a godly parent who has it together.
He would not bow. And I was angry.
What is an idol?
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller says, “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’”
Idols are the things that rattle us when they’re threatened. Marriage has a way of revealing idols, but parenting takes it to a whole new level.
How can we identify our idols?
1. Pay attention to your negative emotional responses towards your kids.
Think of the times you get the most angry or frustrated with your child. More often than not, it’s not their behavior or attitude that is causing your emotional response – it’s the fact that one of your idols is being threatened. Trace your feelings back to the source. What’s in jeopardy? Your picture of how your child should behave? How they should interact with others? Your reputation? Your comfort? Sleep??
In Paul Tripp’s book Parenting he says, “We’re often mad at our children, not because they’ve broken God’s law, but because they have gotten in the way of the laws of our peace and comfort. There are moments when we are mad that our children need us to walk down the hall and parent them once more.”
Ouch. So true. Our reaction to our children’s behavior often has little to do with brokenness over their sin and a lot to do with how irritated we are that they are disrupting or threatening our own desires. Pay attention to this. Take the time to trace those strong, negative emotional responses back to the source. Imagine a rope connecting the two, and follow the rope until you land on what’s really being threatened, and repent.
2. Identify what you put your hope in when things go well.
When your child behaves, who do you give credit for that obedience? Your new behavior chart? That book you just read? Your faithfulness? Your ability to stay calm? If it’s anything other than the grace of God, you’re worshipping an idol.
3. Pay attention to when you fall into the comparison trap.
Whether you compare yourself and feel like a failure or you look around and think, “We are nailing this. People should take notes”, the root of any kind of comparison is idolatry. You feel like a failure because you worship performance and reputation, and you’re devastated that you don’t measure up. You feel superior because you worship performance and reputation and you think you’re scoring an A+ in (sleep training, discipline, manners, scripture memory, etc.) compared to those around you. When you catch yourself comparing yourself to other parents—and your child to other children—take note of what you’re putting your hope in other than Jesus.
4. Name the good things you have turned into ultimate things
What good desires have changed to demands, to the extent that you either try to force them, or are greatly affected when you don’t get them? Is it your kid being on a schedule? Potty training by 2 ½? Creating special memories and experiences? Your kids speaking respectfully to you? Your child’s academic or athletic success? Your kids being “good Christian kids”? Yes, even the desire for your kids to walk with God can get twisted, and you can try to force that to happen by putting your hope in family devotion plans and scripture memory drills instead of the work of Christ in their hearts. When good things become ultimate things, you’re in idol territory.
So, why is it so important to identify your parenting idols?
1. Brings humility to your parenting
“How could you?” changes to “Forgive me…we’re in this together.” Outrage and frustration transforms into repentance. Looking back, I can see how self-righteous I was in my early years of parenting. I worshipped my kids’ performance. I worshipped first-time obedience. I worshipped my reputation. And I couldn’t see it, so I thought I was right – in my parenting methods, and in my goals for them. I thought I was being faithful and consistent – isn’t that what all the books tell you to be? I was oblivious to what was ruling my heart.
One of the greatest gifts God gave me was a child who wouldn’t play by the rules, because He used it to reveal and smash my idols. When I see my desperate need for Jesus, I’m much more compassionate about my child’s desperate need for Jesus when their sin is on display. When I know how prone I am to worship things other than Jesus, I am much more gentle in my discipline – not slack or irresponsible, but gentle. Empathetic. Understanding. I’m not disciplining from a standpoint of, “I can’t believe you would do such a thing and boy, are you going to pay so you’ll never do that again,” but I’m disciplining from the perspective of, “We’re in this together. The same affection for sin that’s in your heart is in my heart. We’re in the battle together, on the same side.”
The most important parenting skill you can have is knowing how to repent. Repent deeply and repent often to your kids. Tell them, “You know how I yelled at you when you kept fighting with your brother? I was angry because I was loving time to myself more than you. Will you please forgive me?” Humble yourself—they will remember your repentance more than any family devotional you lead. Some of my most precious parenting moments have come after my failures, when one of my children and I are crying together over our sin. So often, my brokenness and repentance is what God uses to soften their hearts, as we both cry out to Jesus for rescue.
2. Helps you teach your kids to identify their idols
Our behavior is driven by what we worship. This is true for us and for our kids. If you can work to identify, in the big and small moments of life, what you’re worshipping other than God, then you can help your kids see what they’re worshipping. This leads to deeper repentance and hopefully, true heart change.
For example, when our kids are fighting over an object, we’ll say, “You’re loving the (iPad, book, toy) more than your sister,” or “Why do you think you just insulted your brother? It seems like it was because you wanted to make yourself look good. Do you think you might be worshipping your reputation?” Instead of just punishing the behavior, we want to reach their hearts. We want them to see why they’re doing what they’re doing, otherwise their sin will just manifest itself in different ways.
Our kids don’t always get this. They aren’t falling at our feet, thanking us for helping them to see their deep heart idols. But we pursue their hearts anyway. It’s worth it.
3. Changes your goals in parenting
I no longer want well-behaved kids. I mean, it would be nice, but that’s not the end goal for me. Repenting of my own idols and helping my kids repent of theirs causes me to desire not just well-behaved kids, but Christ-worshippers who know how to love and know how to repent. Christ-followers who run to Jesus when they fail. Only God can make that happen in their hearts—I can’t force it. But because this is the goal, I don’t sweat the small stuff as much anymore.
The great news: As we parent, God is parenting us.
It can feel pretty overwhelming to think about what parenting reveals in our hearts. You might have believed yourself to be a calm, loving person until you had kids. (This isn’t true, by the way…it’s more likely that you were never pushed to your limits as much as you have been since you’ve had kids.) It’s not fun to see all the yuck that’s there: the pride, the fear, idol upon idol. But here’s the great news, which just happens to be one of my favorite points from Paul Tripp’s book, Parenting:
As you parent your children, God is parenting you. And He’s committed to do so for a lifetime.
So when you’re in that standoff with your toddler at bedtime and you want to scream because all you want is your couch, a bowl of ice cream, and Netflix, God is there to parent you through that. He’s there to show you your selfishness, your idolatry, and then to draw you back to Him with His grace. He doesn’t leave you alone in the yuck. He’s right beside you, coaching you, loving you, and instructing you. You have a perfect, loving Father who doesn’t tire of you when you mess up, again. When you run to broken cisterns, again. He draws you back with His grace, and He changes you, little by little, to be more like Him. He parents you with grace so that you can parent your children with grace.
If that’s not the best news you’ll hear all day, I don’t know what is.
**Encouraged by this article? Don’t miss Part 2! “When Your Kids Won’t Bow to Your Idols: Part Two (What Do I Do Now?)**