There are some families who just exude sweetness and light, aren’t there? These families walk into church with smiling faces, neatly dressed, and on time. The children are polite, respectful, and articulate with adults. Those of us who struggle with our children can be tempted to feel guilty, condemned, and incompetent in the presence of such success.

When we see families like these, we wonder what they’re doing right and we’re doing wrong. We wonder what books they’ve read or what seminars they’ve attended. In fact, if you ask these parents the secret of their success, they’ll usually tell you that if you would just follow the right formula (the one they follow), your kids would be just like theirs.

Are there “right” parenting formulas that guarantee you’ll have godly children? For instance, some parents prefer a particular method of discipline. Others insist that a certain type of education is the key, while still others promote a particular curriculum that is guaranteed to instill godly character into children. These parents all believe that by carefully following a prescribed system, they will be assured of success.

Does the Bible promise success?

But are there really any fail-safe methods of child-rearing? Does the Bible prescribe specific methods of parenting that promise success every time? The biblical answer to this question is No, there are no foolproof methods of parenting. That’s because there are other factors at work in our children’s lives, and because none of us ever perfectly parents our children.

What we need to realize is that there are no promises that God will always and in every case save our children, no matter how diligent we are in directing them to the Lord we love. Take a moment now to breathe in the freedom and peace this truth brings you. Perhaps you have trained up your children in the way that they should go, and yet they’re departing from it. Don’t automatically assume that their rebellion is your fault. Consider instead the fact that the Bible teaches there are three factors, not just one, that determine how a child turns out:

  • Parents are responsible to humbly honor the Lord and faithfully obey His Word in training their children.
  • Children are responsible to humbly honor their parents and the Lord by responding in faithful obedience.
  • The Lord is ruling sovereignly over the lives of both parents and children, directing them according to His good purposes.

Parents are responsible to humbly honor and obey

Although it is true that God doesn’t absolutely guarantee success in response to our faithful parenting, the Bible does make it very clear that parents are responsible to train their children according to God’s principles. We are to diligently discipline our kids in the hope that God will work through our discipline and nurture to draw our children to Himself, as these Proverbs teach:

Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart (Proverbs 29:17). Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol (Proverbs 23:13-14).

We parents have an awesome responsibility, don’t we? In fact, these verses make it clear that our parenting is so important it’s a matter of life and death. The Lord encourages us to train our children because we might be the very means He will use to rescue our children from destruction and protect them from the foolishness that resides in their hearts.

Children are responsible for their decisions

Godly parenting does not guarantee great kids because children make choices that are outside of our ability to control. Children are not merely robots or computers, but are human beings, created in the image of God with a heart and a soul. They can choose to follow or reject our ways because God created them with the ability to do so.

When our children were very young, we might have enjoyed the illusion of control. We were so much bigger, stronger, and smarter than they were that perhaps we foolishly thought that we could, with enough effort, compel them to follow our ways. But as they got older, they began to think for themselves and question whether or not they would embrace our choices. Then they gained more freedom and their sphere of relationships grew while our influence over them diminished. Although we were able to exercise some authority over their behavior when they were young, the truth is that their hearts have always been outside of our control.

The entire book of Proverbs is an appeal to a child to choose wisdom over folly. Even though the parent is telling him exactly what he needs to know (and doing so perfectly!), the child still must choose to respond in humble obedience. Having a wise father does not guarantee a wise son or daughter because a child can choose to reject the ways of wisdom and live foolishly.

Where do they dine?

In Proverbs, wisdom and folly are portrayed as women who are trying to entice a young man to eat at their respective banquets (see Proverbs 9). The young person must choose where he will dine. His parent can counsel him but can’t force him to dine at Wisdom’s Table. And although he is young, his choices are very important. In fact, his reputation is based on his decisions, as Proverbs 20:11 teaches: “Even a child makes himself known by his acts, by whether his conduct is pure and upright.”

At whose table do your children usually dine? If you’ve been faithful to tell them about the delight of feasting with Wisdom, then their choice to eat the harmful fast food Folly offers is just that—their choice. Where they choose to dine has more to do with what they are hungry for than with how you’ve described what’s on the menu. It’s all about their choice.

The Lord Is ruling sovereignly

From the standpoint of human responsibility, both parents and children make choices for which we are held accountable. Ultimately, however, we must rely on God to do, in our lives and in the lives of our children, what we are unable to do for ourselves. Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

You know, the Lord has to pour out just as much grace to save a child from a believing family as He does to save one from a more worldly environment! We parents need to embrace this humbling (yet liberating) truth: We are not in control of our children’s destiny. We are powerless to create faith in our children’s hearts. While we can encourage our children to hunger for Wisdom’s Feast, we cannot make that choice for them. Only the sovereign Lord can change our children’s hearts, and that’s because, as dear as they are to us, our children are sinners by nature.

Biblically speaking, there are no “good” kids

We may assume that our children are good because they aren’t in serious trouble and they are reasonably compliant, but such an assessment is based on outward behavior and not the inner heart. We have to be very careful about saying, “My child may have made mistakes, but he really is a good boy.” As much as we might want to believe that, we need to realize that ultimately, the question of “goodness” doesn’t have to do with what we perceive or think, but whether our child truly has received Christ as his Savior.

The Bible teaches that children are not good by nature; they are not a “blank slate” upon which we can write our values; they are not inherently innocent, nor are they genetically predisposed to be good. In fact, the Bible teaches that they are genetically predisposed to be bad because every child is born with original sin and a rebellious nature. This is the picture the Bible paints of our kids (and of us!):

…the intention of a man’s heart is evil from his youth (Genesis 8:21).

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Psalm 51:5). …

As it is written: None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one (Romans 3:10-12).

Outward self-righteousness

These verses might seem hard for us to reconcile with our experience when we gaze upon our little darlings and see their halting attempts to obey us. Unbelieving children may be sweet and compliant on the surface because they’ve learned that compliance is in their best interest and they don’t want to face the consequences of disobedience. This outward self-righteousness falls far short of true heart goodness (or righteousness) as defined in Scripture.

True goodness is rooted in love for God and is motivated by a faithful desire to please and glorify Him (Colossians 3:17 and 1 Corinthians 10:31). Fear of consequences will not keep children from making sinful choices when they think that the consequences can be avoided, and as they grow older, their true nature will come out. Until God renews the heart, every child is dead in sin and unable to please Him.

There is only one perfect parent

Often, when our kids rebel, we’re tempted to become angry with God. We are tempted to seek to remind Him of our efforts, our sacrifices, our godly focus. We don’t think that it’s fair that our children are turning away from the Lord, especially when we compare our efforts to those of others who don’t seem to be having any problems and who never really stood for the Lord the way we did.

The fact is, however, that none of us “deserve” godly kids, because none of us have the power to change their hearts. None of us have been perfectly consistent in loving and disciplining them. And, like us, they are saved by God’s grace alone. Only God can change your children, for salvation—and the transformation that results—is of the Lord.

This article was adapted from When Good Kids Make Bad Choices by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jim Newheiser with Dr. Laura Hendrickson. Copyright © 2005 by Elyse Fitzpatrick, Jim Newheiser, and Dr. Laura Hendrickson. Published by Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR. Used by permission.