The most profound parenting quote I’ve ever heard is 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.

Angry Mommy

When I had my first child, I was determined to knock this parenting thing out of the park. I read all the books. “If you do these things,” they promised, “your child will be on a predictable schedule and will sleep through the night by the time you come home from the hospital.” Or something like that. Except my son wouldn’t cooperate. He cried endlessly. He had trouble feeding and wouldn’t nap for longer than 20 minutes.

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 response, but more than anything I was upset because I had faithfully followed A and B and I wasn’t getting C. I deserved a child who would cooperate. All the books told me he would if I did my part, and I did my part. I was worshiping at the altars of control, success, convenience, and let’s just say it—reputation. But my son refused to bow down. And I was furious.

He turned 1 and became an easier child. I parented out of pride: “We’re such amazing parents! If only people would follow our lead.” I continued to bow down to my idols: Control. Reputation. Success. Convenience.

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. He was an enigma, breakdancing to the beat of his own drum, daring anyone to try and tell him what to do.

My predominant emotion? Can you guess? Anger. How dare he. I had created a system of order I loved, and he pummeled through it every single day. So I controlled even more, commanding him to bow to my idol of a compliant, respectful child.

He wouldn’t bow. And I was angry.

Identify Your Idols

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.

How can you identify your idols? Here are four ways.

1. Pay attention to your negative emotional responses to your kids.

Think of the times you get the most frustrated with your child. More often than not, it’s not their behavior that’s causing your response—it’s 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? Your reputation? Your comfort? 

Our reaction to our kids’ behavior often has little to do with brokenness over their sin and a lot to do with how irritated we are that they’re threatening our own desires. Take the time to follow those strong responses back to the source, and repent.

2. Identify what you put your hope in when things go well.

When your child obeys, whom or what do you credit? Your new behavior chart? That book you just read? Your faithfulness? If it’s anything other than the grace of God, you could be worshiping an idol.

3. Watch the comparison trap.

The root of comparison is idolatry. You might feel like a failure because you worship performance and reputation, and you’re devastated you don’t measure up. Or perhaps you feel superior because you worship performance and reputation, and you think you’re scoring an A+ 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’ve turned into ultimate things.

What good desires have morphed into demands, to the extent you either try to force them or are greatly affected when you don’t get them? Is it your baby being on a schedule? Your kids speaking respectfully to you? Your child’s academic or athletic success? When good things become ultimate things, you’re in idol territory.

Why This Matters

It’s so important to identify your idols—not in order to feel bad about yourself (“I’m so sinful”) or good about yourself (“I’m so spiritual”), but to discover how to replace them with grace and truth. Discerning your idols accomplishes at least three things.

1. It brings humility to your parenting.

One of the greatest gifts God gave me was a child who wouldn’t play by the rules, because God used him to reveal and smash my idols. When I see how prone I am to worship things other than Jesus, I’m much more gentle in my discipline—not slack or irresponsible, but gentle. Empathetic. “How could you?” becomes “Forgive me . . . the same affection for sin that’s in your heart is in mine, too. We’re in the battle together, on the same side.”

One of the most important parenting skills is knowing how to repent. Humble yourself—your kids will remember your repentance as much as any family devotional you led.

2. It helps you teach your kids to identify their own idols.

Our behavior is driven by what we worship. If you can work to identify what you’re worshiping besides God, then you can help your kids see what they’re worshiping, too. This leads to deeper repentance and, hopefully, true heart change.

3. It changes your parenting goals.

I no longer want well-behaved kids. That’s not the end goal for me. I want Christ-worshipers who know how to love and repent. Who run to him when they fail. Only God can make this 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.

God Is Parenting You

In his book Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family [interview | workshop], Paul Tripp observes, “As we seek to parent our children, the heavenly Father is parenting everyone in the room.” As you parent your children, God is parenting you. And he’s committed to doing so for a lifetime.

So when you’re in that bedtime standoff with your child and you want to scream because all you want is a bowl of ice cream and Netflix, God is there to parent you through it. He’s there to show you your selfishness, your idolatry—and to meet you with his love and grace. You have a perfect Father who doesn’t tire of you when you return to broken cisterns. He draws you back and changes you, little by little, to be more like him. He parents you with grace so you can parent your own children with grace.

If that’s not the best news you’ll hear all day, I don’t know what is.