By Steven Norris
Parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles: How’s your long game? Recently, I was talking with a group of parents about the difficult task of raising children. We lamented: How do you get your children to obey and keep them from harm — especially around the teenage years?
I admit that I come at this question from multiple angles: as a parent of teenagers, a former middle and high school teacher, and as a pastor. The truth is that many of us parents have adopted short-sighted methods to get our children to obey that may have unintended long-term consequences.
Fear can be a powerful motivator when children are little. We may be able to create a big enough threat that they do what they are told, but our relationship becomes one of intimidation. At the same time, the obedience that comes from fear is externally motivated. When you remove the external motivation (like when a child goes off to college or moves out of the house), there is little incentive to continue to make those same choices.
Another common motivator is that of reward. How many times did I say it when my children were growing up? “If you will behave while we are at the doctor, I will get you an ice cream on the way home.” Over time, the rewards have to get progressively larger to maintain the same level of motivational power. At some point, children decide that the reward just isn’t worth the effort anymore. Once again, the external motivation has not produced internal change.
Sadly, when these don’t work any longer, many parents resort to shame and guilt. Many of us likely remember a parent or grandparent saying something like: “After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get!” “When I was your age, I would have never even thought of doing that, much less actually done it!” Though temporarily effective, I cannot help but wonder how such shame-based parenting negatively shapes our children in the long run.
I believe that Christ offers us a different way. Paul Tripp describes this as the way of powerlessness and inability. It is tough to admit, but parents do not actually have the power to change their children. Rather, we have the ability to consistently model a life surrendered to the grace of God, a life of humble repentance, and a life of prayer and confession when we fall short. From there, we remember that the power to change hearts lies solely in redemptive work of Christ Jesus. As much as we may try, we cannot be the Holy Spirit for our children.
Parents must be willing to play the “long game” as we seek more than just obedience. We are seeking to reveal to them a God who loves them more than we ever could and actually has the power to change them from the inside out. We all need to be reminded: God is with you, wants the best for your children, and has called you to be an instrument in capturing their hearts for Christ.
Not a question. Need a period.