Parent Game: Playing for Keeps
The following is an interview between Randy Alcorn and a representative of Multnomah Bible College, originally appearing in the Multnomah Message.
What is the greatest challenge parents of young people face?
I would say balance. Parents have to balance their responsibility to govern their children’s lives with their teenagers’ need to develop independence and freedom. Parents have to maintain that tension.
Is it an issue of hanging on too much or letting go too soon?
I think both happen. Some parents let go too soon and feel like they’ve lost control. They feel like everything is their kid’s decision. For example, I’ve heard parents say, “I wish my kids wouldn’t play that terrible rock music.” Well, what are parents for? That’s like saying, “I wish my kids wouldn’t play on the freeway. Every day they go and play on the freeway and I just feel sick about it.”
You’re exaggerating a bit, aren’t you?
Sure. But my point is, parents say the moral equivalent of that. It’s frightening to hear how little control parents feel they have. It creates anxiety.
Without control, what can you do?
When you sense there’s low control, it’s likely you can do something about it. With every responsibility, God also gives us authority. Parents are responsible for their kids, which puts them in authority. They don’t have to apologize for it. Of course, they can go to the other extreme and smother their kids. But once the child is out of their environment, he’ll go nuts because he hasn’t developed any wisdom. Proverbs is a key book for parents. It shows that children need to learn first-hand the consequences of sin and the reward of wisdom. Unfortunately, many parents try to gain control too late. They can still redeem their relationship, but they have to do it carefully. Children have learned certain levels of freedom. For a parent to suddenly come home after reading one article or going to one seminar and say, “From this moment forward there will be no rock music”—when you’ve let them listen to rock music for eight years—is not going to work without some confession of your failure and some heart-felt communication. It would be better to come home and say, “I want to apologize to you for not parenting you the way I need to. I feel a new conviction and I’m going to pray about some areas where I can exercise more responsibility in your life, to encourage and protect you. You may not like some of it, but I want you to know I love you.”
That’s humbling. It’s also time-consuming.
Yes, that’s the other problem: mother ends up doing all the work with the kids while father stays at a distance. It comes back to who reads Christian books. Of those sold in Christian bookstores, 80 percent are bought by women. Then you have radio. Who listens to “Focus on the Family”? Or “Family Life Today”? It’s great that women get all this input, but sometimes they end up having to run the family. A woman trying to always keep teenage boys in check is in a tough situation. Many Christian women are really burned out. When I was pastor of counseling, my typical week would consist of 25 counseling appointments, many of those with women who had very high expectations for themselves-and sometimes, very high expectations of their families. Both were unrealistic.
You’re saying stress differs between the sexes?
Both men and women experience stress, but there are some distinctive stresses on each gender. Nanci and I have both overextended ourselves in the past and have learned some things about pacing ourselves. God calls us not first to excellence, but to faithfulness. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:2 that it’s required of a steward to be found faithful, not that he be found excellent. Jesus said at the end of his life, “I have finished the work that you gave me to do.” He didn’t do any less than that, but he didn’t do any more.
So, what does that mean in terms of parenting?
The ideal is prevention. Parents need to develop their relationship with their child and build the level of intimacy that gives them the right to come down hard in certain areas. Too often the relationship is typified by Mt. Olympus. Parents come down like lightning bolts to their kids, then return to the top of their mountain. The relationship is confrontational, when what they need is a consistent, loving relationship in which 90 percent of what is done is affirming. Criticism should be the exception instead of the rule. Jesus came down to us in the incarnation and we need to come down from our adult world and enter our children’s lives. Only then can we help pull them up into maturity.
You raised two daughters. What patterns did you establish with them?
We talked a lot. When the girls were young, we sat down and read Bible stories and talked about principles, trying to plug those into their current situation—whether it be kindergarten or sixth grade or high school, the principle is the same. We tried to spend the time with them that allowed us to see their lives as they happened. That was a big thing to us.
You sound like you’ve thought this through.
If we don’t think strategically about parenting, then we’ve made a statement: our children aren’t important, or parenting comes so naturally that it happens without our attention. If we’re going to influence our children, we need to strategize—regrouping and reevaluating along the way.
Can the church help with that?
Yes. We can educate and encourage parents to be involved in issues that may affect their children. But godly living begins at home, in our own lives before God. If we as parents cultivate our inner person and develop our character, we give our children footsteps to follow. The most important part of our lives is the part that only God sees. We need to be concerned with the inner realities rather than protecting an image. In terms of parenting, the best thing we can do is be sure our relationship with God is in order, then our relationship with each other. The greatest gift we can give our children is to love God and our spouse with all our hearts.