In 2017, a California news channel ran a short documentary on a 12-year-old receiving an implant to block the flow of estrogen, in order to facilitate a potential gender transition down the road. There is something surreal and eerie about watching a team of five adults—including a mother and a father—huddling around a preteen to assist in a procedure that stops a natural process. The room was filled with smiles, support, and celebration for the child, who has made a major medical determination before reaching the teenage threshold.
I write not to pass judgment on a child living with a great deal of confusion or parents navigating a situation for which they never asked. Instead, it’s worth looking at how this situation sheds light on the child-centric mentality of modern-day parenting. A growing number of parents believe we must honor children’s wishes, at all costs. The world insists it’s our responsibility, as parents and as society, to bless and honor a child’s autonomy.
For example, the prevailing ethos in secular sex education enables children to determine—on their own—when they will become sexually active. Contraception and protection are encouraged, but otherwise the wisdom of the age is clear: “You [14- or 16- or 18-year-old], discern for yourself when you are ready.” In other words, society leaves children to their own devices with no real hint of standards. The fear is that if we don’t grant and support all of our children’s desires, then they won’t flourish or may be damaged in some way.
In short, the goal is to enable children to be true to themselves.
Problem of Child-Centric Self-Rule
In the garden, God gave Adam and Eve one stipulation: don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Under this prohibition resided a principle: don’t forget that God is the Creator; you are a creature. He alone is all-wise, knowing perfectly each person and detail of existence. You are made to depend on him. If you forget this, you will die.
Adam and Eve forgot, and they died.
Often, we think about the wrath of God as fire falling from the sky. Certainly, there is the active judgment of the Lord, seen throughout the Old Testament and foretold in the second coming of Christ. But there is also the passive judgment described in Romans 1: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!”
In other words, God’s judgment came not in the form of fire from heaven, but in the natural consequences of people being left to their own devices. They resisted him so persistently that he withdrew his mercy and allowed them to self-destruct as they lived on their own terms.
Moses portrayed the harrowing trajectory of human autonomy in Genesis 4–9. Starting with Cain and Abel and ending with the flood, the human condition grew increasingly dark. Before God’s active wrath appeared in the flood, humanity was self-destructing by living according to their own devices.
Fallen humanity’s self-destructive impulse emanates from the desire to live independently. We want to be the lord of our lives. All sinful behavior flows out of this self-rule.
While gender-transition surgery is a somewhat extreme example of self-rule, in a more subtle manner, many American families succumb to child-centric pressure. The standard of “good parenting” involves ascertaining a child’s talents, preferences, and affinities—and then dedicating all energy and time to meet those desires, even if it harms the child or the family.
I know it’s a bad idea, but Johnny wants to practice seven days per week.
It’s too much, but Sally feels like she has to take that sixth AP class.
I want my teenagers in church, but they just don’t want to go, so we leave them at home.
Most parents are trying their best and want what’s best for their children. This child-centric current, however, represents society enabling and facilitating self-rule, the very thing Scripture says is the essence of sin. The tail is wagging the dog in a manner that often leads to self-destruction.
A critical ingredient in growing up healthy and wise is learning to live life on other people’s terms. The school hands you a schedule. Mom and Dad serve you broccoli. The teacher makes a test and grades it. There are curfews and tardy bells and workouts and chores and driving ages. All of these challenges, which frustrate young people to no end, communicate the most valuable lesson in life: you are not the center of the world.
Such practices can implicitly lead children in the direction of God’s rule in their lives. And living life under his rule leads a child into the ultimate form of human flourishing and satisfaction.
The Book of Proverbs was originally written as a tool for older people to train children in the way of wisdom. The central verse, from which all the others flow, comes in Proverbs 1:6: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Learning the critical delineation that God is God and you are not is the starting point to a wise and fruitful life. Living under the authority of his Word and depending on him for direction is the most significant ingredient that children need to flourish.
Institutions, churches, coaches, and parents can play a valuable role in leading kids in a positive direction. In fact, part of the value of teams, classes, groups, and community is portraying to kids that they will fall apart and fail if they desire to be a lone ranger or renegade.
All of this to say, the best thing we can do as parents is let the Lord lead the family. Too often it feels as if the kids and their aspirations dictate the direction of a family. Turning away from that mentality means seeking the Lord’s will with children in what they pursue. It also means that parents, using their God-given wisdom and considering the overall welfare of the family, have the authority to say, “No.” Such parental leadership models for kids how to live under the rule of God.
Let’s love children enough not to let them live on their own terms.