God’s Guidebook for the Defeated Parent

The Real Cost of Gracious Childcare

Sam Bush / 8.3.21

The New York Times parenting newsletter covers an endless range of topics. There’s an article on why the sex talk should happen earlier, how to raise kids to love exercise, how there’s no right way to dress your baby, what do to with kids being homesick at camp, and why your kid is such a tattletale. Modern parenting advice is no longer a holistic, “Do what you can and hope for the best” scenario, but a specific set of insights and recommendations that cover the minutiae of modern life. Want to know how to get your daughter to eat green vegetables? Want to know how to keep your son from biting his friends? Want to know how much screen time is appropriate? They’ve got you covered.

What does this say about us parents today except that we clearly don’t have much of a clue about how to be parents? In addition to not living anywhere near our own parents, we tend to be skeptical of how we were raised. We no longer trust the previous generation who allowed us to sprawl across the backseat without seatbelts or who fed us sugary cereals and microwave dinners. In the absence of parenting folk wisdom, there is a void of authoritative figures to look to for guidance. And so we have become the generation of seemingly self-taught parenting. We turn to YouTube to learn how to change a diaper. We subscribe to supermom Instagrammers who can offer valuable life-hacks for packing healthy lunches. If you happen to be desperately seeking out help or approval, the burgeoning self-help industry is here for your every need. 

Parenting has become less of a moral venture — raising kids who don’t grow up to be jerks — and more of a science.  We don’t primarily aim to raise good children, but healthy ones (for whom success will inevitably follow). And without fail, every parenting article today cites a psychologist or sociological study to support the novel mores. In a recent interview in the Atlantic, Emily Oster, the economist and best-selling author of Cribsheet, talked about how our obsession with data has affected the way we parent. “I think it’s that we really, really don’t want to mess up,” she says. “We want an answer for how to do it right. Somehow we got this idea that data can help us answer some of these personal questions and get them right … It feels like data would give us control in an environment in which it’s easy to feel like I don’t have any control.”

The vibe behind this steady stream of instruction is a deep sense of anxiety. Since data doesn’t seem to be quelling our fears about our children, thousands of articles and resources are designed to provide parents both a nudge and reassurance. Parenting anxiety leads to a need for reassurance, which then leads to non-directive parenting that absolves parents of missteps, big or small. Thus, there are many articles with titles like, “You Can Emerge as Slowly as You Like: How to Support a Shy Kid.”  

Parenting isn’t a challenge, a weekend adventure, or a difficult task on a to-do list; it’s impossible, perhaps now more than ever. From the moment the bundle of joy is placed in arms until the university bills are paid up, it is a gradual accumulation of fears and failures. The reason why parents want absolution from the NY Times is because failure is inevitable. 

As for me, who is somewhat in the beginning stages of parenthood, the one thing that has brought any amount of lasting comfort isn’t yet another instruction or parenting-hack. It is not advice to try a new bedtime routine or to develop different eating habits. It is not a new article affirming my intuition. All of these things have helped along the way, but nothing has helped longer than a fortnight. What has actually brought me considerably more help, however, is a certain kind of solidarity, for another young parent to say, “This is really hard,” or, better yet, “I’m at the end of my rope, nothing seems to be working, and I’m not sure how I’m going to make it.” Hearing people say these things doesn’t bring a sensation of schadenfreude because it’s not delighting in someone else’s suffering as much as it is feeling companionship in the trenches. These vulnerable confessions don’t justify one’s failures or fears as a parent, but simply serve as a way of gesturing skyward, arms raised, asking for deliverance. I cling to them like little buoys in an ocean. They might not teach me how to be a stronger swimmer but they sure keep me floating a little longer. 

Similarly, God does not aim to quell our anxiety by offering us helpful tips or boosting our self-esteem. One would be hard-pressed to find life-hacks in Scripture. Instead, God extends a similar solidarity that I seek from other parents. “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me,” says the God of Isaiah. “Why will you continue to rebel?” The parent/child analogy as stand-in for God is imperfect, but there is also something to be said for God sounding like a defeated parent: a father who has all but given up on raising well-balanced, obedient children. 

You would think that a perfect Father would have the capacity to raise perfect children, but, here, God sounds just like another dad on the playground, confiding to his neighbor how He’s tried everything but nothing seems to be working. Of course, God hadn’t tried everything (not yet at least). He had, as it were, two possible options. The threats of judgment could have escalated further, spiraling toward the catastrophe of a worldwide flood — or some other suitably purifying response. Or the forbearance with which God tended to his children all along could continue, culminating in a very costly act of forgiveness. Thankfully, God had planned for the latter all along. 

Parenting is not a science, a problem that can somehow be solved with the right steps outlined by the right book. If God’s own parenting is any indication, it is a lifelong struggle of loving and being loved in spite of being human. In parenting, and in life more broadly, grace runs the risk of never changing a person. This love is not a habit-developing formula. Forgiving a child in order to soften their heart is not forgiveness, but the momentary delay of judgment. Love is not an equation for change or a means to an end, but an end in itself. 

Parents want comfort for their struggles with a willful child. They want a way to avoid the feeling of inadequacy, a parenting hack that provides an absolution that lifts the burden. And yet … the exasperations of forbearance, the despair over misbehavior: these are the costs of grace a parent pays. Sleepless nights, vacations ruined by a tantrum, or inefficient weekends lost to stubbornness are all the price of love. The cost may be steep, and at times unbearable, but it’s far better than the alternative in the long run.