Failure isn’t an option in parenting. It’s an inevitability.
It’s nearly impossible to count the number of angst-ridden parents I’ve sat across in a counseling room. They wring their hands as they worry that they’ve ruined poor little Johnny or Jane. Frantic, they wade through the record of wrongs they’ve committed against their child over the years. Harsh words, unkind thoughts, and rash actions all make it on the list of parenthood infamy. What should we make of our mistakes in what is one of the most important roles God has charged us with? My answer: Not much.
Let’s be clear on one thing first: I’m not saying that we don’t let our failures affect us. The hurt, fear, anger, and sadness of our little ones — caused by our parental malfunctions — should break our hearts. This is not celebratory “failurism.” Our missteps cause genuine pain, and that pain needs to be listened to, understood, repented of, and — to the best of our ability — prevented in the future.
But we must remember: We are sinners tasked with parenting fellow sinners. Sin affects every relationship we have. From the most intimate of family members to random strangers, there’s no relationship on earth where sin doesn’t have its sway. That’s Paul’s testimony in Romans 7 where he laments that though he would do good, the good he wants to do he doesn’t do, and the evil that he wants to quit he finds himself continuing to do (Romans 7:18–19).
Three Pressures to Be Perfect
If failure is pervasive, then why do so many parents live in fear of it?
1. Our culture no longer has a biblical view of who we are as parents.
The spiritual component of our identities has long been replaced with the nature/nurture model of man. It is not uncommon to read or hear a discussion about how a person’s upbringing (nurture) is supposed to shoulder most the blame for whatever ails him. This puts an incredible amount of pressure on the parents to provide a context in which every good trait is perfectly cultivated, and every negative one inhibited, or even eliminated altogether.
But this is where the Christian understanding of the fallen nature of man is such a help. We know that children are born as sinners. Sin isn’t just an action; it’s a condition — one that none of us can escape (Romans 3:9–12, 23). Even in the most loving, encouraging, rewarding, and earnest families, we can expect that our children will lie, cheat, steal, and be mean just as their parents will surely be irritable, selfish, lazy, and inattentive. Not the majority of the time (we hope!), but it will happen nonetheless.
Yet we are not undone by these failures. Instead we are invigorated by the grace that God in Christ has for us (Romans 5:1–5). And that grace doesn’t encourage us to be less like the parents we are called to be, but energizes us to be more like them (Romans 6:1–2). Grace is the engine that drives God-glorifying parenting.
2. We don’t want to lose respect and authority with our children.
In one sense, they are afraid that by admitting wrong, they will lose credibility, authority, or respect with their children. Without a doubt, parents need to have authority over their children (Ephesians 6:1–3). Kids who don’t respect their parents tend to have problems with healthy boundaries in every area of life. But having credibility, authority, and respect is not the same as being inerrant.
Admitting our faults is not tantamount to admitting incompetence. In fact, the opposite is generally true. The more we are willing to own our mistakes and seek forgiveness, the more our children find us to be trustworthy authorities in their lives. They already know we’ve messed up; now they need to know that we can take responsibility. Plus, if we present ourselves as being without error, when our children know definitively that it isn’t true, then what will they think when we present God’s word as being without error?
3. We feel the pain of owning that we’ve hurt and disappointed our children.
Watching our loved ones hurt is bad enough on its own, but to know you caused that pain stings like nothing else. It’s easy and convenient to pretend that our failures never occurred in the first place — but it’s not healthy. Actions and consequences are integrally tied together.
As Paul tells the Thessalonians, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Not having food is the consequence for not working, and hunger pangs provide pretty good incentive for employment perseverance. Likewise, watching tears in our children’s eyes as we admit our mistakes provides pretty good incentive for high-quality parenting perseverance. Beyond this, the discomfort our children experience as we confess and repent is the sort that tends to heal rather than wound. It helps them to make sense of the world and provides grounds for forgiveness, rather than soil for roots of bitterness.
Let Your Failures Point to Another
As strange as it may seem, there is a reason to be encouraged when we fail. Admittedly it’s not much encouragement at the time, but when we fail it’s a chance to model for our children what secure repentance looks like. A repentance that’s not afraid to hear how we’ve hurt them. A repentance that doesn’t recoil from the words, “I’m sorry” or, “Please forgive me.” A repentance that is cause for tears in our eyes, but hope in our hearts.
That is a skill that our children desperately need modeled for them. How are they, as spouses, supposed to admit when they are wrong if they don’t hear it from us? How are they, as parents, supposed to own their mistakes if they don’t see it in us? How are they, as Christians, supposed to throw themselves on the free offer of the gospel if they don’t experience us doing the same?
Coming to terms with our own failure is never easy. Admitting it to those we’ve failed can be even harder. Yet it provides an amazing opportunity to live out the gospel for our children in a way that nothing else can.