We live in an age of overachievement. It affects adults and children alike. Alarming research shows that anxiety and depression in kids is at an all-time high. Teens report levels of stress higher than adults.
We push our children not just to do their best, but to be better than the best, to stand out above their peers. Children spend their days pursuing excellence in sports, academics, and myriad other activities—all with the expectation of getting into the best college, followed by the best job, and then, ultimately, a happy life.
We are worshiping the idol of parenting success. This idol tells us we must be perfect parents and place our hope in creating perfect children. Like many idols, though, the idol of parenting success can be difficult to identify, because it’s an idol crafted around something good.
Being a parent is an important job and one we should care about doing well.
We should strive to care for our children’s needs, to teach them, to discipline them, and to prepare them for life. We should want our children to do their best in school, to grow and thrive, to develop into people who can care for themselves. As Christian parents, we should seek to teach and disciple our kids in the faith so they would know and love the One who created them. These are all good things.
It’s also true that parenting well doesn’t happen accidentally; it takes intentionality and purpose. We have to learn what our children need and how to care for them. We must pursue wisdom in our parenting decisions. We may even need to use particular techniques or strategies.
But how do we know if our desire to be good parents has morphed into an idol that has gripped our heart? And where should we turn for hope instead?
Idol of Parenting Success
When we worship parenting success, we set our highest desires on particular outcomes for our children. At all costs, we want our children to be healthy, happy, and productive. We want them to have the best education. Play the right sports. Be the best dressed.
One sign of idolatry: We don’t rest until they’ve met our goals.
We so easily put our hope in results: our children’s behavior, achievements, and social acceptance. We stake our lives on the belief that if we parent well, our child will turn out well (however we define well). We often think this means if we follow the right parenting model—take your pick which one—our children will turn out how we imagine.
When success in parenting is our life’s great aim, we focus all our energies on fulfilling our desire. We want our child to be the best in the class, the top scorer on the team, and, yes, the one who knows all the catechism answers in Sunday school. So we push ourselves and our kids to hit the mark. We don’t rest until they’ve met our goals.
When we worship parenting success, our children become our trophies. We put them on display for all to see just how good a job we’ve done.
In the process, we exhaust ourselves trying to meet what our culture portrays as the image of a perfect parent. This is why, if our children fail, we take it personally. We get angry at them for embarrassing us. We feel let down. How did that happen? I did everything right. My child is supposed to fulfill my goals for her.
When we worship parenting success, our children become our trophies.
In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines the idol this way:
Personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. . . . One sign you have made success an idol is the false sense of security it brings. . . . The false sense of security comes from deifying our achievement and expecting it to keep us safe from the troubles of life in a way that only God can. (75)
When we worship the idol of parenting success and achievement, we trust in ourselves. We rest in our achievement rather than in God’s grace.
Worthy in Christ
Ultimately, when we worship parenting success and achievement, we find our worth in what we accomplish as parents and, subsequently, what our children accomplish. And the success idol is never satisfied, so we have to keep striving, keep working, keep reaching.
But the gospel tells us something different. God doesn’t love us because of anything we’ve done. Whether we are the best parent in the cul-de-sac or our child gets the highest GPA has no influence on what God thinks of us.
Ephesians tells us that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Before we attended our first PTA meeting or scheduled that first tutoring session, God created us in his image: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Ps. 139:14).
And while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). The Spirit awakened us from death and gave us new life. We were given the gift of faith and saved from the penalty of our sins (Rom. 6:23).
Regardless of whether our child makes all stars or sits the bench, the Holy Spirit lives in us, comforting, guiding, and changing us. Christ intercedes before the Father for us, covering us with his righteousness. He promises us eternal life in the presence of God. All of this comes to us by grace; we do nothing to earn or achieve any of it.
Moms and dads, we do have significant value and worth. But it’s not based on what we achieve. It’s not about our success as parents. It’s not about how well our children turn out. Our worth is grounded in who Christ is for us, and what he accomplished on our behalf.
Rest in that today.