Just because a person becomes a parent doesn’t mean that he or she knows how to act like one. This is no more true than when kids become teens. You’ve probably seen it: a nervous parent groveling before a surly teen or trying to be a “buddy” rather than a parent. It makes one wonder: why do some parents feel so guilty about parenting with authority?
Unfortunately this is more than just an occasional outbreak of bad behavior—it’s an epidemic with at least one root cause: “I can’t be too hard on him. After all, I made lots of mistakes growing up and I don’t want to be a hypocrite!”
To parent well, we’ve got to swallow our feelings of guilt and hypocrisy and learn to speak openly and honestly about what is most important in life.
If you have children still at home, chances are you’re a member of “Generation X.” You grew up with the ever-present mantra of “free sex, free drugs, no-absolute-truth.” I would say that at least half of the parents I visit with at homeschool conventions became interested in homeschooling because they wanted to protect their kids from the mistakes they themselves made growing up.
Yet when faced with dishonor and bad choices, these parents freeze. They know that once their kids get to be ten or so, the hard questions will start coming: “Mom, did you ever lie to your parents? Dad, did you ever do something your parents had forbidden?” Or more serious, “Did you have sex outside of marriage? Did you ever abuse drugs or alcohol?”
Sadly, many parents would rather abdicate parenting all together than confront their children’s bad choices and risk the “hypocrite” charge. Even though parents know how awful today’s television programming is, for example, Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation points out that more than 50% of parents set no restrictions at all on their children’s television viewing.
Or more sobering, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released a study in late 2006 showing that 57% of parents admit to “some degree of difficulty” in engaging teens in meaningful discussions about their friends, how they dress, and tough subjects like drug use.1
If you feel disqualified to parent authoritatively because your own life was marred by self-centeredness, premarital sexuality, drug and alcohol abuse or divorce, here’s some good news: There are at least three ways to parent well in spite of having a checkered past. Let’s consider each in turn.
The first step to hypocrisy-free parenting is to do what great men and women have done for millennia: humble yourself before God and express sorrow for what you did. Consider the example of King David, starting with this passage written by his son, Solomon:
Listen, my sons, to a father’s discipline, and pay attention so that you may gain understanding, for I am giving you good instruction. Don’t abandon my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender and precious to my mother, he taught me and said: ‘Your heart must hold on to my words. Keep my commands and live.’ Proverbs 4:1-4 (emphases added)
It seems like a fairly standard bit of parenting advice until one considers who Solomon’s father was—King David! And who was Solomon’s mother? Bathsheba! How did David and Bathsheba come to be married? David committed adultery with Bathsheba (Solomon’s mother) and even had Bathsheba’s innocent, honorable husband killed to cover up his sin.
If living a blameless life was the criterion for giving wise counsel, David would certainly have been disqualified. Yet he did not use his sin as an excuse to avoid giving wise counsel to his son. Rather than abandon his parenting responsibility, David made a confession, asking to be made clean and steadfast so that he could use his life as an example to those who had gone astray:
God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not banish me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of Your salvation to me, and give me a willing spirit. Then I will teach the rebellious Your ways, and sinners will return to you. Psalm 51:10-13
If you believe your past disqualifies you from wisely guiding your children, pray Psalm 51, as David did, asking God to make you steadfast in the truth so that you can impart wisdom to the next generation.
When I was just out of college my father shared with me some of the poor choices he made when younger, and how ashamed he was of what he had done. As he shared, he wept. I found myself feeling uncomfortable, but moved to take my own choices more seriously.
The second step in hypocrisy-free parenting is brace yourself for the inevitable difficult conversations. Think now about what you’ll say then, so you won’t be caught unprepared. For example:
Ultimately our children are responsible for their own lives and choices. Statements like these aren’t guaranteed to prevent your children from making poor choices, but they will help prevent them from using your life experience as an excuse for their wrong-doing.
The third step in hypocrisy-free parenting is to exert an influence even when your son or daughter is being resistant.
A number of years ago one of my students said, “Dr. Myers, I think a lot of people are focused on trying to have big, definitive conversations about important issues. But most of the life lessons we learn happen in ‘mentoring moments.’”
This student was wise beyond her years, and I think I understand exactly what she’s saying. Here are 10 ideas of things you can do to create conversational space, even when it’s awkward.
1. You can listen: “Tell me about what’s important to you...”
2. You can give a blessing: “Has anyone ever told you that you have the gift of ___?”
3. You can affirm: “Here’s something about you that makes a great deal of difference to me...”
4. You can be transparent: “I’ve made mistakes in my life and I’d hate to see you go down that same path...”
5. You can pray: “I’m not sure what to do either. Can I pray with you about it?”
6. You can encourage: “I know it’s tough but I know you can do it.”
7. You can teach: “May I share with you a Scripture verse that has been important to me?”
8. You can admonish: “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you?”
9. You can love: “No matter what, I’ll be here.”
10. Failing all else, you can just walk alongside: “Let’s go together.”
Tough conversations will come, but that doesn’t mean we must forfeit our responsibilities as parents. As the old saying goes, “You can’t have a new beginning, but you can start today to produce a new ending.”