Every Good Parent Will Have Regrets

Advice to My 30-Year-Old Self

What would I tell my younger self about parenting?

Being invited to write on that question is akin to being offered free dental work. The gesture, though appreciated, involves drilling and often some pain. But even as I heard the drill cranking up, several themes came to my mind which seem helpful to share.

1. Parenting will not mainly expose your strengths, but reveal your weaknesses.

Many parents see childrearing as a platform to display their faithfulness and wisdom, even God’s validation of their parenting choices. That’s certainly what I imagined signing up for. I figured parenting, as a brand, was taking a serious hit and could use some fresh blood — some innovative determination from the next generation. In my mind, parenting was a golden opportunity to portray my strengths.

Or so I thought.

Wow, was I deluded. Parenting exposed every spiritual weakness within my soul, my marriage, and my family; it even created some new ones. Parenting acquainted me with desperation, teased me with fear, and awakened me to countless dark nights of the soul.

“Parenting didn’t exhibit my strengths; it exposed my limitations.”

I didn’t realize that a child’s “seeming” lack of progress was the place where parents truly encounter God. We pray, “God, fix them!” Then God whispers back, “Yes, Dave, they’re on my list. But first let’s talk about you.” Parenting didn’t exhibit my strengths; it exposed my limitations. It revealed the dozens of places where I trusted in myself and my leadership rather than in God. Ultimately, it laid me low and revealed my self-trust. But that weakness drove me to Jesus where, in my desperation, I was able to see he had plans for my kids and power for me (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Parents, consider this: Weakness is so important to God that he’ll take the highest earthly experience — the things that elate us (2 Corinthians 12:7) like marriage and parenting — and use them to impose the kind of weakness that delivers his power.

2. Your biggest battle will be the fight for your own faith.

As your kids grow, their preferences morph, their styles change, and their predilections reverse. Part of growing up is deciding what you don’t like or believe so you can run towards what you do. It’s natural and good, but sometimes it was disorienting for me as a dad.

When one of my kids developed a conviction, it seemed like a referendum on my parenting. It wasn’t always easy to find my ground — to know where to stand. The uncertainty resulted in unexpected pressure within me, and this pressure inevitably ricocheted back on my kids.

My problem was not my kids; it was my faith. Unbelief centers faith in the wrong places — it moves us from God’s grace to our activity. We x-ray our kids, looking for the smallest signs of positive changes. We fret over every questionable choice rather than prayerfully trust God’s promises. This makes us circumstance-centered rather than God-centered. When we find ourselves stuck here, Abraham’s example can help us.

“Fear makes us circumstance-centered rather than promise-centered in parenting.”

While waiting for Isaac to be born, Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20–21). For years this passage utterly captivated me. Abraham believed God long before his circumstances changed. His cultivated habit was to give glory to God even when the parenting situation was barren.

Charles Spurgeon once said, “It is a heroic faith that believes Christ in the face of a thousand contradictions.” I’ve wondered whether he was thinking about raising kids. Faith is essential when our kids’ growth is slow or perhaps indiscernible. Faith keeps planting when the soul’s orchard looks completely barren.

Abraham’s response was to grow strong in faith because “he gave glory to God.” Abraham’s faith was not sparked by circumstances. He believed God’s promises. For twenty-five years, Abraham’s circumstances didn’t change, but tucked somewhere in that trial, his faith did.

3. Enjoying your kids shapes their perception of your parenting as much as anything you say.

This wasn’t clear to me early on. I assumed we had most of the major responsibility areas covered, but we weren’t always enjoying the journey. I’ll never forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach when one of my boys once registered surprise when I said I really loved hanging out with him. My enjoyment didn’t always square with his experience. Not a good moment for Dad.

Ever since, when I’ve had a chance to encourage a younger pastor about loving his children well, I will often tell him to design his time, his life, and his vacations so that his kids would grow up thinking, Dad always enjoyed me. Delight in your kids just the way the Father did when he said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

4. Some Christians can painfully over-scrutinize parents’ and children’s choices.

In John 9, Jesus passed by a man who was blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1–2). Jesus’s followers interpreted the blind son’s suffering with the same diagnostic grid we often use for unbelieving, wayward, or rebellious children within the church. We think these kids reveal parental weakness.

“Enjoying your kids shapes their perception of your parenting as much as anything you say.”

At its worst, this becomes a form of gospel-determinism — a God-absent belief that the behavior and spiritual future of the kids is based exclusively upon the parent’s faithful leadership. If a teen is struggling, parents are just reaping what has been sown.

The flip side of that coin is equally dangerous. It assumes that if our kids are doing well, it’s because of our impressive parenting. Thank God for Christ’s response to the disciples’ question about who was to blame: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Christians can be uniquely vulnerable to this way of thinking. I wish I’d known that as a young parent. It would have helped me to set more reasonable expectations for the church, and also to serve parents who are burdened by guilt with more compassion, intercession, and long-suffering. Knowing this need would have helped me understand that a gospel culture is less concerned with code-breaking or undiscovered sin, but rather stands in faith, anticipating Christ’s internal work behind the external, more observable, conditions.

What All Parents Need to Hear

Once, a man told me about a parenting event titled “No Regrets.” I assumed it was an event organized by parents of newborns. The parent with no regrets, after all, probably needs to think a little deeper. If you have no regrets in parenting, just ask your kids.

But the gospel goes there — to that flaw-drenched and condemning place. Jesus chooses as his vessels those who are hounded by regrets and through them displays his glory. Peter denied Christ three times and fled from Christ in the Savior’s moment of greatest need. It’s difficult to imagine, even post-forgiveness and calling (John 21:15–19), that Peter didn’t walk the road of regret as a disciple and as a friend. If we’re going to make sense of the gospel, we must see ourselves in Peter’s failure. Parents who don’t make any mistakes don’t need the good news. As Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

“Jesus chooses parents who are hounded by regrets as vessels through whom to display his glory.”

We must own our regrets. But it’s also necessary to see that Christ offers us something far better than merely escaping regret. In the cross, God reminds us that our stumbles are never big enough to interrupt his plan for our lives. For Peter, and for all of us, there’s hope beyond regret. Because our glorious Substitute died and rose again, “No regrets” is scribbled over with “No record.”

Do you see how this might change the way we think about our families? We can live and lead with hope today — not because we will always get it all right, but because we follow a Savior who did. From that cradle of security, we can admit our failure, regrets, and weakness. And from that humble posture, we can lift our eyes to the reality, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).