I’ll never forget the day my wife and I brought our oldest son home after his birth.
It was more than 16 years ago, and he was our first child. To that point in my life, I’m not sure I’d ever held a baby, much less provided daily acute care for one. I had certainly never changed a diaper. My wife didn’t have a long resume with children either. All of a sudden, I needed to be an expert in a subject I had never even studied, not for five seconds. What were we going to do? Would this child survive . . . us?
I remember the ride home from the hospital, him snugly buckled in his backward-facing pumpkin seat, us biting our nails more with each passing mile. I was a father. She was a mother. This child was entirely dependent on the care of two people who had barely ever touched a baby. Surely this wouldn’t turn out well. Part of me wanted to turn around and return to the hospital so this child would again be safe in the arms of professionals.
Those early days of parenting often involved paralyzing paranoia. Every time his pacifier hit the ground, we’d boil it for 30 minutes. Every time anyone even looked sick at church, we’d keep him home. The first time he projectile-vomited, I was certain he was dying. There were so many questions: Would he ever get over his deep anxiety at the very sight of bathwater? Was that our fault? Would he ever potty train? Did he suffer from numerous permanent phobias? Would his Christology be orthodox?
If you’ve been a parent for very long, you know of what I speak. There’s a lingering fear, a virtual psychosis, that we will permanently ruin our four children. As a father for 16 years now, I’ve come to realize that a germy pacifier or an irrational fear of thunderstorms are not signs of acute parental failure.
But there are ways you can ruin your children—subtle ways that tend to show up over time. As a parent, I’d grade myself at about a C-minus. (My wife is definitely the valedictorian between the two of us.) So here are six ways—all of which I have been guilty—that you could ruin those who bear your last name, who will someday appear on your auto insurance policy.
1. Don’t tell them you’re a sinner.
I am at my worst as a father when I assume the role of sinless savior. That place belongs to Christ alone. When I say things like, “I didn’t act that way when I was your age” (a lie if ever there was one), then I confuse them as to why they need the gospel in the first place. And I become a whitewashed tomb.
My children need to know that my heart was once captive to sin as well and that I remain in the middle of sanctification. They need to know that I still sin, but that I have forgiveness in the sinless Savior. They need to know their sinning is inherited from their federal head Adam, yes, but also from their earthly father.
2. Don’t ask them to forgive you for sinning against them.
I once had an older man in our church tell me I should never apologize to our children. To do so would show weakness, he reasoned. I am a five-star general; they are privates.
I have sinned against my family without admitting it to them far too many times to count. But there have been times I have gone to them and said something like, “Daddy has sinned against you (or your mother) and the Lord. I have asked the Lord to forgive me; now I need to ask you to forgive me. Jesus is my Savior, but he is still changing my heart.”
My family needs to see that I am weak, that my strength is in Christ alone.
The older man was actually correct about one thing: confession reveals weakness. But my family needs to see that I am weak, that my strength is in Christ alone (2 Cor. 12:10), and that repentance is a necessary part of both salvation and also sanctification. Such admission of sin shows them that Jesus—not Dad (or Mom)—is the one who kept God’s law to perfection.
I am convinced my children were born with built-in Pharisee detectors (most are). If I talk about the gospel all the time and talk about repentance, and yet seem to sin with impunity, they will unmask my hypocrisy pretty quickly. Or they’ll learn to imitate it. I can tell them that the gospel transforms sinners, but they won’t believe me. They might become atheists. They might become Pharisees.
3. Don’t pray with them.
We tend to pray zealously for our children, but do we often pray with them? Praying with our children at least daily in our homes teaches them two things: the invitation to come to God’s throne of grace is always open, and we are entirely dependent on the Lord.
By praying with them you also model for them how to pray biblically—as Jesus did for his followers—and show that when you taught them 1 Thessalonians 5:17 (“pray without ceasing”), you really meant it and they really need it.
4. Don’t do ‘nothing’ with them.
The longer I’ve parented, the more clearly I’ve come to see a fallacy in the popular distinction between “quality time” and “quantity time.” Every hour we spend with our children should be quality time—even when it seems like we’re doing nothing of consequence. Yes, we should spend ample time teaching them Bible and theology—that’s part of training them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But we can unwittingly communicate that the Christian life reaches its apex when it most closely resembles the seminary classroom.
The mundane moments are vitally important in building intimate relationships with our kids—because that’s where we spend most of our time with them. My teenage son recently helped me see this more clearly when he told me, “You know, Dad, my favorite time of the day is when you and I sit downstairs before bedtime watching the MLB Network and talking baseball. That’s really fun.” Not very spiritual, I realize, but I hope those conversations about curveballs and fantasy league trades will lead to more natural talks about the resurrection of Christ and the inspiration of Scripture.
5. Don’t love their mother (or father) well.
If you have sons, the way you treat your wife gives them a subtle education in how they should treat their future wives. If you have daughters, the way you treat your wife teaches them what kind of man they want to marry—or avoid marrying—someday. Failing to love their mother as Christ loves the church (Eph. 5:25) introduces a distorted picture of the gospel into your home. The same is true for mothers, only in reverse.
If you have sons, the way you treat your wife gives them a subtle education in how they should treat their future wives. If you have daughters, the way you treat your wife teaches them what kind of man they want to marry—or avoid marrying—someday.
Failing to love their mother as Christ loves the church could well undermine the orthodox expression of the gospel you work so hard to teach. Love their mother well, and don’t be afraid to show playful physical affection toward her in front of them.
Mothers can also distort the gospel-picturing function of the home by giving lip service to headship but living out a practical rejection of it. This teaches daughters by example to do the same and can drive sons toward sinful passivity or aggression. Faithfulness to Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 requires deep grace for both parents, particularly in a culture where the idea of gender, much less gender roles, is virulently contested.
6. Don’t continue family devotions if there are no immediate results.
It isn’t a mere cliché to say the Christian life is a marathon and not a sprint (Heb. 12:1–2). We plant the seed, but the Spirit of God grows it. In the parable of the growing seed (Mark 4:26–29), Jesus reminded hearers that a farmer sows seed and then goes to bed, only to eventually see it germinate and grow “he knows not how.” So it is with your children. So it is with every genuine Christian.
They will fidget. They will seem more interested in electronic devices or TV or Fortnite (send help please). But keep at it. God did not grow you into a mature Christian in a day, and he may not save and sanctify them at a particularly young age. Let the parable of the persistent widow serve as a refuge, that you may not lose heart (Luke 18:1–8).
And teach them God’s Word faithfully. Pray with them and for them. Write the words “patience” and “persistence” over the door of your heart. I’ve seen gospel seeds planted in a 4-year-old that suddenly bore fruit four decades later.
Relax and Trust
Whether you are a brand-new parent or have nearly grown children, you know that parenting is painfully difficult. Like marriage, it is a theater of sanctification. To my shame, I have repeatedly violated all six of these things—and many more. It sure is easier to write about parenting than to actually parent.
But I am grateful to know that I didn’t stunt their physical growth when I gave them coffee at age 5 (yep, I did), and that God gives grace for deeply flawed parents like me, and that he can lead kids to walk straight with him in spite of their parents’ clumsiness.