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The Myth of “Successful Parenting”

No matter how skillful you are, only God is sovereign over your children.


by Leslie Leyland Fields

My husband, Duncan, and my son Noah were at the cannery store. Duncan had to get groceries from the cannery, and Noah, seven, had to get a present for his sister, who was turning nine. He had a little money in his pocket, money he’d earned from working in the fishing boat with us. Noah found something his sister would like—a set of colored erasers—and asked Duncan how much it was.

“It’s three dollars,” Duncan said after peering at the price tag. “Do you have three dollars?”

“Nope. I’ve only got two.” Noah stood for a moment fingering his money. Then suddenly he stuffed the money back into his pocket and began wiggling a loose tooth, his mouth cranked open, his eyes focused in concentration. In less than a minute he held the tooth in hand, bloody at one end, and extended it without a word to Duncan. An astonished Duncan (our family tooth fairy) took the tooth, fished out the last needed dollar from his own pocket, and the purchase was made.

When Duncan returned from the store with Noah’s tooth in his pocket and this story, I laughed. Another example of Noah’s determination and perseverance, traits we had worked hard to encourage. See what we’ve taught him? We must be doing something right! But then I frowned. Wait! He’s selling body parts, and his father’s buying them. Isn’t that just a little too stoic and intense for a seven-year-old? What have we done? Maybe we’re working him too hard. …

The inner courtroom

Even in the most innocuous of events with my children, I erect an internal courtroom almost instantly, complete with lawyers, a jury, and a judge. I haven’t yet reached a verdict in this instance, but I have on many other occasions.

Why do so many of us do this? Why are we poised over every event, ready to prophesy the future, ready to render judgment on our children’s performance—and on our own performance as a parent? How do we know if we are doing a good job?  

God’s spiritual heroes

We must turn to God’s Word. If we want to raise spiritual champions, we must ask ourselves what the Scriptures say about them.

Hebrews 11, the great Hall of Faith chapter, provides just such a list, where the author identifies men and women who through extraordinary faith, “conquered kingdoms, administered justice … shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames … whose weakness was turned to strength. … Others were tortured and refused to be released. … They were stoned; they were sawed in two. … They went about … destitute, persecuted, and mistreated.” In short, “The world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:32-38).

The immensity of their faith is so stunning: surely these individuals were raised by wise, God-fearing, faith-filled parents. Surely they were the same kind of parent to their own children. Yet as I consider the lives of these heroes, I am not sure I can reach that conclusion.

  • Abraham was impatient for the son God promised. Urged on by his wife, he sired a child by her maidservant, Hagar, and allowed this woman and his own son Ishmael to be banished to the desert.
  • Isaac and Rebekah were the parents of Jacob and Esau. Each openly favored one son over the other. Rebekah, lacking faith in God’s ability to overcome Isaac’s favoritism, instructed Jacob to commit an unthinkable travesty: to lie to his father and steal the blessing from Esau, which he did.
  • Jacob learned his lessons well from his mother and continued to deceive his way toward success—lying to Esau, lying to Laban, and treating his wives and his ten sons with inequity.
  • Moses was pulled from his basket on the Nile by the daughter of the pharaoh. God chose for him to be raised by a woman who worshiped many gods and who taught Moses to do the same.
  • Jephthah, a mighty warrior for God, was born to a prostitute. As a father, he killed his only daughter as a sacrifice to God because of an impetuous vow.

By our contemporary standards, most of these families were dismal failures. They include polygamous family groupings rife with division and jealousy, prostitute mothers, heathen mothers, families with rampant favoritism and fratricide. The only discernible patterns here seem to be those of human sin and error. Yet God transformed their weaknesses into a faith that accomplished his eternal purposes.

Here is what I learn from this: I am not sovereign over my children—God is. And God will use every aspect of my human parenting, even my sins and failures, to shape my children into who he desires them to be, for the sake of his kingdom.

Does God pass our parenting test?

The Old Testament provides a long and deep look into the heart of the only perfect parent—God himself. In the Bible, God identifies himself over and over as a Father. When we look at his children, however, the news is not good. Beginning with Adam and Eve and moving through history, the story doesn’t improve. By the days of Noah, God’s people had so polluted the world with their wickedness that God regretted having made them. He ended the lives of every man, woman, and child who was not faithful to him. God birthed another family later, the children of Israel, whom God called “my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22). We know the tortuous record of that relationship, involving children who rebelled against their Father grievously.

Our own record as God’s children is not much better. What shall we say for ourselves? Shall we point to our own pure hearts whose sole desire is to serve God with all of our being? No. If God’s success as a parent is to be judged by us, his children, what can we conclude? God himself does not pass our parenting test.

How can we know if we are parenting successfully?

We know by now that we are asking the wrong questions. We are so focused on ourselves—our own need for success and the success of our children—that we have come to view parenting as a performance or a test. We cannot pass the test, I’m afraid. If we’re graded on a curve, we will always find parents and children who are more obedient, more joyful, and more peaceful. If we are graded on an absolute scale, then we all fail. 

We must rethink our calling. We are not capable of producing perfect followers of Christ, as if we were perfect ourselves. Our work cannot purchase anyone else’s salvation or sanctification. Parents with unbelieving children, friends with children in jail, and the faith heroes in Hebrews 11 are all powerful reminders of this truth: Our children will make their choices, God will be sovereign, and God will advance his kingdom.

It is my earnest hope that these truths will move our parenting out of the courtroom that is always in session in our hearts. I have wasted so much time and emotion quaking before that inner judge and jury! Through God’s Word, I am freed to return to my first calling: to live out and speak the truths of God’s words wherever I am, especially before my children, regardless of their response. Now I can focus more on my obedience than on my children’s weaknesses. I am not as likely to give up when a child persists in willfulness. And I can continue trusting and relying upon God.

Who can I trust more than God? Before him, I can release my powerless clutch on my children and myself and return what has belonged to him all along. I can rest—we can all rest—secure in his hands. These are the hands of the One who has fearfully and wonderfully made every one of us. The hands of a judge who is perfect in justice and mercy. The hands of a Father who longs to lead his daughters and sons safely home to his side.

Excerpted from Parenting Is Your Highest Calling  by Leslie Leyland Fields Copyright © 2008 by Leslie Leyland Fields. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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