By Julie Homrich, LPC and Mandi Allison, LCMHC

Anyone who has children or works with children has expectations for how they “should” behave.  Before becoming a parent, you may have seen kids whining in the grocery store and thought, “I’d NEVER allow my child to act that way.”  You may be a teacher or a coach, both inspired by the students in your life and frustrated by their behavior at times.  No matter where we land in our parenting or childcare experience, children have the capacity to bring up some pretty strong emotions in us, the adults. Due to the level of responsibility required to teach, care for, steward and raise our children, we may even find ourselves attaching our identity to our children’s behavior.

Control verses Guidance

Parenting consists of two elements: what is within our control and what isn’t. Our vision for parenting and how we choose to raise, teach, discipline and guide our children is within our control. Our child’s choices or behavior? Not within our control.    When we attach our identity, security or satisfaction to their behavior or life choices, we can end up parenting from a place of anger toward our children for not living up to our expectations of them. Dan Allendar said it best when he said, “One of the biggest sources of conflict between you and your kids is when they refuse to bow down to your idols.”

What is an idol? Tim Keller defines it this way: “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.’”  Basically, it’s something that we invest in and look toward in order to feel good about ourselves.  Our kids can be a huge source of our own attempts to feel good about ourselves if we’re not careful.  Many parents can unintentionally place their own happiness and identity in how their kids act or what they accomplish.  We can get caught in that trap of letting our kids represent us, and our image is hinged upon our kids. 

 “If my kid is on the honor roll or in the gifted program, it’ll reflect well on me.  If my kid is obedient, I’ll be seen as a good parent.  If my kid excels in athletics, I will fit in with this group.”  

On the flip side of that is: “If my kid has a tantrum, people are going to judge me.  If my kid is more reclusive and not social, I will be embarrassed in social settings.  If my kid struggles in school, people will look down on me.”  

When our kids have unconventional issues or don’t take the paths we preconceive for them, and we get frustrated, embarrassed, or upset, it can actually highlight some of our own insecurities.  It may highlight our need for control, our desire for convenience, the importance of status or image.  Sometimes it’s not necessarily “bad”– it’s not bad to desire peace or comfort or a well-ordered life.  The problem comes when we need those things in order to be happy and we rely on our kids providing them for us.   

We make good things into idols when we place our identity in them. We, as parents, can sometimes place our own happiness or identity in how our kids act or what they accomplish.   However, even with consistent discipline, all the love and compassion and support in the world, sometimes our kids just won’t act the way we want them to.  The immaturity and need for growth is in the very nature of being a child. If we weren’t allowed to make mistakes as children, we may have a difficult time allowing our children to do so- instead, expecting them to always obey right away or never have emotional moments.

What About Discipline?

The root word for “discipline” is to teach.   When we focus on our kid’s behaviors as a reflection of ourselves, we lose sight of the actual lesson we need to be teaching them in the moment– a lesson that will usually help them grow into more maturity. We may elevate our need for control, convenience, status or image above our child’s natural need to learn through mistakes.

When we feel our children are “out of control” , it can be tempting to get even more rigid and try to control them even more, not because it’s the best way for them to learn in the moment but because we think a well-controlled child will reduce our own feelings of embarrassment. A child may feel that their behavior is compliant only to appease a parent, rather than being compliant because of a heart-felt conviction to do so.

Children are attentive. They notice when our moods and responses are tethered to their behavior.  When we do this, we are reducing our peace to the level of compliance of our child’s behavior. If they are acting good, we’re feeling good.  This a definition of co-dependence: our happiness being dependent on someone else.

God as our Model for Parenting

God is the perfect parent, and look how out of control his kids are! We could do everything right as parents (and of course none of us do everything right), and still have kids that don’t comply, don’t adjust well, don’t like certain things, who make poor choices or rebel. The way we raise our kids certainly affects our kids’ actions and health and well-being, but it’s not the end-all/be-all.  It’s not a formula.  It’s not a guarantee.  And it’s certainly not the only factor.  Twelve disciples walked closely with Jesus and had the best mentor/teacher/father figure that ever lived, and they didn’t all act the same.  One betrayed him, another denied him. He didn’t lead them differently, but they had different outcomes.  

When we attach our own identity and security and image to another unpredictable human, especially a young, immature, inexperienced one, we will experience a lot of insecurity, embarrassment, and guilt.  Oftentimes, these feelings of insecurity and embarrassment usually cover themselves up with anger.  When our emotions are unhealthily attached to our children, we either feel pride when our kids are “good” or angry when they are “bad”. Although it’s only natural to have some level of these emotions arise in relation to our children, it’s important to be careful they do not circumvent the most important element of our parent-child relationship: unconditional love that manifests itself in support and, at times, correction.

Oftentimes, especially in the evangelical church, we talk about children honoring and respecting their parents. This is important. However, respect comes most easily when you know someone loves you and has your best interest at heart.  Not just when you demand it.  In both our parenting relationship and our relationship with God, it’s important to remember that  “Rules with relationship leads to respect.  Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.”   When we focus on parenting from a place of wholeness, not insecurity, we are able to truly listen to our children’s needs and refrain from taking their behavior personally. We can connect with them before we correct them, discipline them appropriately and teach them valuable lessons in the process.

With this in mind, next time you find anger rising up in you based on something your child said or did, consider if it’s hitting on an idol in your own life.  If so, acknowledge it so you can respond to the child in front of you with clear eyes and a clear heart. With grace-based parenting as our model, it’s never too late to begin.

For a more detailed conversation about this topic, check out the Positive Talk Podcast episode “When Our Kids Don’t Bow to Our Idols”.