Blind Spots of Homeschoolers

Exposing Major Blind Spots of Homeschoolers by Reb Bradley

In the last cou­ple of years, I have heard from mul­ti­tudes of trou­bled home­school par­ents around the coun­try, a good many of whom were lead­ers. These par­ents have grad­u­at­ed their first batch of kids, only to dis­cov­er that their chil­dren did­n’t turn out the way they thought they would. Many of these chil­dren were mod­el home­school­ers while grow­ing up, but some­time after their 18th birth­day they began to reveal that they did­n’t hold to their par­ents’ values.

Some of these young peo­ple grew up and left home in defi­ance of their par­ents. Oth­ers got mar­ried against their par­ents’ wish­es, and still oth­ers got involved with drugs, alco­hol, and immoral­i­ty. I have even heard of sev­er­al exem­plary young men who no longer even believe in God. My own adult chil­dren have gone through strug­gles I nev­er guessed they would face.

Most of these par­ents remain stunned by their chil­dren’s choic­es, because they were ful­ly con­fi­dent their approach to par­ent­ing was going to pre­vent any such rebellion.

After sev­er­al years of exam­in­ing what went wrong in our own home and in the homes of so many con­sci­en­tious par­ents, God has opened our eyes to a num­ber of crit­i­cal blind spots com­mon to home­school­ers and oth­er fam­i­ly-mind­ed people.

1. Having Self-Centered Dreams

The rea­son that our dreams for our chil­dren are so vul­ner­a­ble to crash­ing is because they are our dreams, imposed on our own chil­dren. As home­school par­ents we make great sac­ri­fices and invest a great deal to influ­ence how our chil­dren turn out. The prob­lem is that love for chil­dren can be lost in love for per­son­al suc­cess as a par­ent. Our con­cern for our­selves ends up over­shad­ow­ing our love for our children.

When my old­est son was 18 he devel­oped habits of dis­re­spect­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion and I had to ask him to leave my home for a sea­son. Need­less to say, my wife and I were dev­as­tat­ed by the dis­ci­pline we imposed. In the first month he was gone we wept each day for him. We were griev­ed that he was now unpro­tect­ed from the junk from which we had worked so hard to shel­ter him, but more than that, I was heart­bro­ken that my dreams for him and our fam­i­ly would no longer come true. I remem­ber speak­ing the words to him — “Son, you’ve ruined my dreams.” You see, I had a dream for my fam­i­ly and it involved adult chil­dren who lived at home humbly under parental author­i­ty, and who would one day leave home to mar­ry, after fol­low­ing my care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed courtship process. But now, my son had gone and “messed up” my per­fect dream. Noth­ing is wrong with dream­ing of good things for your chil­dren, but the truth was, my dream for my son was most­ly about me.

In hind­sight, what was par­tic­u­lar­ly griev­ous was that I was more wor­ried about the fail­ure of my dream of “suc­cess” than the fact that my son and I had a bro­ken rela­tion­ship. Although he did come back and was restored to us 4 months lat­er, it still took me years to real­ize that I had con­tributed to the dam­aged relationship.

It is only nat­ur­al for par­ents to have high hopes and dreams for their chil­dren. How­ev­er, when we begin to see our chil­dren as a reflec­tion or val­i­da­tion of us, we become the cen­ter of our dreams, and the chil­dren become our source of sig­nif­i­cance. When that hap­pens in our home it affects the way we relate with our chil­dren, and sub­tly breaks down relationship.

2. Raising Family as an Idol

When we allow the suc­cess of our fam­i­ly to deter­mine our secu­ri­ty or sense of well­be­ing we are seek­ing from it some­thing God intends us to receive from Him. I am describ­ing idol­a­try. If home­school­ers are not care­ful, fam­i­ly can eas­i­ly become an idol.

At times in their his­to­ry the Israelites wor­shipped idols. They did­n’t always for­sake wor­ship of the liv­ing God — they mere­ly served oth­er gods with Him. Some­times they sim­ply made an idol of some­thing good. Jesus rebuked the Phar­isees because they ele­vat­ed issues of holi­ness high­er than the very God who declared them holy (Mat 12:1–8; 23:24). An idol is any­thing oth­er than God in which we seek secu­ri­ty and ful­fill­ment. It may be some­thing bib­li­cal or good, but if it has the pow­er to deter­mine our well­be­ing, we have ele­vat­ed it high­er than God meant for us. As those who are devot­ed to our fam­i­lies, and there­fore invest a great deal of time, ener­gy, and heart, it is easy to ele­vate the fam­i­ly too high.

A great prob­lem with idol­a­tryis that idols require sac­ri­fice, and we end up sac­ri­fic­ing rela­tion­ship with our chil­dren for the idol of the fam­i­ly. When­we ele­vate the image of the fam­i­ly, we effec­tive­ly trade our chil­dren’s hearts for our reputation.

3. Emphasizing OutwardForm

Pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with results often leads to empha­sis on out­ward form. When we are pre­oc­cu­pied with achiev­ing results it is nat­ur­al to admire the results oth­ers seem to have achieved with their chil­dren. We like the way the pas­tor’s kids sit rev­er­ent­ly in the front pew and take notes of their father’s ser­mon, so we go home and begin to teach our chil­dren to sit rev­er­ent­ly and to take notes. What we don’t know is that the pas­tor’s kids con­duct them­selves with rev­er­ence and atten­tive­ness not because he “cleaned the out­side of the cup” and sim­ply drilled them to do so — he lived a gen­uine love for Jesus that was con­ta­gious, and watched as the fruit was born (Matt 23:26). Par­ents are des­tined for dis­ap­point­ment when they admire fruit in oth­ers and seek to emu­late mere­ly that expres­sion of fruit in their own chil­dren. Fruit is born from the inside — not applied to the outside.

Imag­ine that the fruit you desired was the edi­ble vari­ety, so you went out into your yard and plant­ed an apple tree. Just sup­pose that one day, while you were wait­ing for the apples to begin grow­ing on your tree, you caught a glimpse of a neigh­bor’s apple tree. You noticed in admi­ra­tion that its branch­es were laden with big, lus­cious apples. What would you do? Would you run to the pro­duce mar­ket to buy some apples, then go home, and in the dead of night, tie them onto your tree? If you did, the sight of your tree might real­ly impress your neigh­bors. But that is not what you would do. You would like­ly go to the neigh­bor and ask how he cared for and fer­til­ized his tree to pro­duce such fruit. It is the same with our chil­dren — lus­cious fruit will be born from what we put into them — not from what we tie onto them. As a mat­ter of fact, in no time, the fruit that we put onto our chil­dren will rot and fall off.

In the home­school com­mu­ni­ty I have observed that there can be a great empha­sis on out­ward appear­ance, whether it is dress­ing for excel­lence, mod­esty, groom­ing, respect­ful man­ners, music style, or an atti­tude of sober rev­er­ence in wor­ship. Some even take their chil­dren down a coun­try path of hum­ble fash­ions, rais­ing food, and mak­ing bread. Noth­ing is wrong with any of these things, but we must be care­ful — we can mod­el for our chil­dren out­ward changes and eas­i­ly fall into mold­ing their behav­ior and/or appear­ance, while miss­ing their hearts. In some cir­cles empha­sis on the out­ward is epidemic.

A friend of mine, a home­school mom, just passed away of can­cer. In the week before she died, I asked her if she had any regrets in her life. She told me she wished she had baked less bread — she said if she had it to do over again she would buy bread and spend more time with her chil­dren. She had invest­ed time and ener­gy in pur­su­ing the “path” because she thought it was part of the spir­i­tu­al home­school package.

Let us not for­get that Jesus came against the Phar­isees for their pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with what they felt were legit­i­mate expres­sions of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. They mea­sured holi­ness by what was avoid­ed and by what would be seen by oth­ers (Mat 6:1–2, 5, 16; 23:5–6, 23–28; John 7:24). The Phar­isees were earnest in their reli­gion, but they were pre­oc­cu­pied with out­ward expres­sions of holi­ness rather than hearts of humil­i­ty and love (Mic­ah 6:8) that would bear gen­uine fruit. I find it fas­ci­nat­ing that in the gospels there is not one men­tion of Jesus com­ing against immod­esty, even though among his fol­low­ers were pros­ti­tutes and the like. Jesus empha­sized clean­ing up the inside while the Phar­isees were the ones pre­oc­cu­pied with clean­ing up the out­side. We must ask our­selves: Which are we more like — Jesus or the Phar­isees? Even now do we jus­ti­fy our­selves, insist­ing we empha­size clean­ing up both the inside and the outside?

I know that some react strong­ly to these asser­tions, so let me empha­size that I do want my wife and daugh­ters to adorn them­selves mod­est­ly. God did address it once in the New Tes­ta­ment (1Tim 2:9), but we must ask our­selves, is it pos­si­ble that we have ele­vat­ed mod­esty, or oth­er issues of out­ward form, high­er than Jesus did? If he only men­tioned mod­esty once in the epis­tles and nev­er men­tioned it in his earth­ly min­istry, but instead empha­sized the impor­tance of a changed heart bear­ing out­ward fruit, should we not fol­low his exam­ple and con­cen­trate on reach­ing our chil­dren’s hearts? Because He did address it in the first epis­tle to Tim­o­thy, let us teach our chil­dren the val­ue of keep­ing pri­vate that which should be, but let us be care­ful of think­ing that just because they look moral on the out­side that they have God’s val­ues on the inside. Con­cur­rent­ly, let us also be care­ful of mea­sur­ing every­one else’s enlight­en­ment by what we have decid­ed is mod­est, spir­i­tu­al, or holy.

4. Tending to Judge

In set­ting stan­dards for our fam­i­ly, each of us must work through a process of eval­u­a­tion and analy­sis to decide what is safe, wise, or per­mis­si­ble. Once we become con­vinced of our per­son­al stan­dards, not uncom­mon­ly, it fol­lows that we believe they should apply to oth­ers as well.

The Phar­isees belit­tled oth­ers who did­n’t hold to their stan­dards. We have gone their way when we judge oth­ers. It is easy to miss this area of pride because we may not express our judg­ments “arro­gant­ly”; we may instead wrap them in com­pas­sion­ate-sound­ing words. Arro­gance wrapped in con­cerned tones is deceiving.

Pride is so decep­tive that we won’t know our judg­ments are even judg­ments. We will think we are just mak­ing obser­va­tions and feel­ing pity, when in fact, we are look­ing down on oth­ers from our lofty place of con­fi­dent enlight­en­ment. It is a high view of our­selves that allows us to con­de­scend to and belit­tle oth­ers in our mind. And if you already knew all this, be care­ful — pride will even cause us to be amazed that oth­ers did­n’t see what was so obvi­ous to us.

Typ­i­cal­ly, when we belit­tle oth­ers who don’t mea­sure up to our stan­dards, we will also imag­ine oth­ers are judg­ing us. Con­se­quent­ly, we will find our­selves fre­quent­ly being defen­sive. We assume that oth­ers will think low­ly of us for some per­ceived inad­e­qua­cy, so we offer unso­licit­ed expla­na­tions and clar­i­fi­ca­tions for us or our chil­dren. For exam­ple, let’s say we walked past a TV at Sears and saw some­thing of inter­est — when we tell oth­ers what we saw, we are care­ful to clar­i­fy that we saw it at Sears and weren’t watch­ing a TV at home. If we live under fear of judg­ment, not only will we tend to be on the defen­sive, but when­ev­er we are in a pub­lic set­ting where our chil­dren might be “watched,” we will put pres­sure on them.

When pride is work­ing its work in us, we sin­cere­ly believe our per­son­al opin­ions reflect God’s utmost pri­or­i­ties and stan­dards. What we believe to be our “enlight­ened” per­spec­tive becomes a fil­ter by which we gauge oth­ers’ spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and there­fore lim­its our options for fel­low­ship. We devel­op a very nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of what we call “like­mind­ed” peo­ple, based on the out­work­ings of our val­ues and opin­ions. Now we are on a path to exclu­siv­i­ty when we will no longer asso­ciate with those who will be with us in eter­ni­ty. Is it pos­si­ble we have lost sight of fel­low­ship based on love and devo­tion to Jesus, and have sub­sti­tut­ed per­son­al stan­dards and a nar­row view of Chris­t­ian liberty?

There are sev­er­al seri­ous con­se­quences of rais­ing chil­dren in a home marked by pride and judg­ment. Chil­dren may grow up also judg­ing oth­ers. Or, they may hide their real val­ues, act­ing as though they embrace our val­ues, when, in fact, they are sim­ply seek­ing to avoid dis­ci­pline and lec­tures at home. Or, they may see the shal­low­ness of our legal­is­tic faith that con­sists pri­mar­i­ly of “avoid this, wear that, attend this,” and not be attract­ed to it in the least.

5. Depending on Formulas

Home­school par­ents often take a for­mu­la­ic approach to par­ent­ing. Com­mit­ted to achiev­ing results with our chil­dren, we look for for­mu­las and prin­ci­ples to ensure our suc­cess. Know­ing the Bible is full of the wis­dom and promis­es of God, we look to it for its self-work­ing prin­ci­ples and promised meth­ods. Yet, there’s a prob­lem with that. We are com­mand­ed to trust in God, not in for­mu­las (John 14:1; Ps 37:5; 62:8). There is a mon­u­men­tal difference.

Trust in for­mu­las is real­ly depen­dence upon our­selves to car­ry out a pro­ce­dure cor­rect­ly. But any­one who real­ly under­stands the grace of the gospel knows that we can­not take per­son­al cred­it for any spir­i­tu­al accom­plish­ments. We are total­ly God’s work­man­ship (Eph 2:10; Phil 2:13; 1:6) and every­thing good in our lives is a gift from Him (James 1:17). We can do absolute­ly noth­ing by our­selves for which we can take cred­it (Eph 2:8–9; Gal 6:14; Rom 4:2; 1 Cor 1:28–31; 2 Cor 11:30). Yet many of us lean toward a for­mu­la­ic men­tal­i­ty, because our fall­en natures are drawn toward self-reliance. We want to feel that by our own efforts (works) we have achieved some­thing that will make us accept­able to God — by nature we are legalistic.

God does­n’t want us to trust in prin­ci­ples, meth­ods, or for­mu­las, no mat­ter how “bib­li­cal” they seem. God wants us to trust in HIM!

6. Over-Dependence on Authority and Control

Fruit­ful train­ing of chil­dren and ros­es require a goal, a plan, and dili­gence in labor. How­ev­er, the dif­fer­ence is that ros­es have no mind of their own and only grow as they are allowed. Chil­dren are people–self-determining individuals–and they ulti­mate­ly choose how they will respond to parental influence.

No amount of parental con­trol or restric­tion will guar­an­tee that a child will turn out exact­ly as direct­ed. Obvi­ous­ly, our train­ing increas­es the like­li­hood our chil­dren will cling to the faith when they reach matu­ri­ty, or turn back to Christ if they do enter a sea­son of rebel­lion, but our train­ing does not guar­an­tee the desired outcome.

I know that some will strug­gle with the asser­tion that par­ents do not have total con­trol over the out­come of their par­ent­ing, because of Proverbs 22:6. And I would have strug­gled too, ten years ago, but upon exam­i­na­tion of the pas­sage in ques­tion, I am con­vinced that it is a verse meant as an admo­ni­tion of wis­dom, not as a promise and guar­an­tee of out­come. Like many of the say­ings in Proverbs it is writ­ten as a state­ment of prob­a­bil­i­ty and not as a promise.

Solomon set for us a great exam­ple of bal­anced par­ent­ing — he admon­ished his young adult chil­dren and gave them com­mand­ments, but he knew that for them to hon­or his com­mands he need­ed their hearts. That’s why he said, “My son, give me your heart and let your eyes keep to my ways” (Prov 23:26). The apos­tle Paul knew how much he need­ed the hearts of those he exhort­ed, and there­fore told them “… although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love…” (Phile 1:8–9).

If we are to have sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence of our teenage chil­dren we must have their hearts. Win­ning their hearts means gain­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to influ­ence who they are, not just what they do.

7. Over-Reliance Upon Sheltering

An over-depen­dence on con­trol in a fam­i­ly is often accom­pa­nied by an over-reliance on shel­ter­ing of chil­dren. It is not uncom­mon for home­school par­ents to feel that since they fil­ter what­ev­er their chil­dren see and hear, they will con­trol the results in their lives. That was me for many years. I remem­ber say­ing to peo­ple, “I am con­trol­ling the influ­ences in my chil­dren’s lives, so I am going to con­trol the out­come.” I was absolute­ly cer­tain that my chil­dren would be exempt­ed from sig­nif­i­cant temp­ta­tion and from devel­op­ing par­tic­u­lar bad habits because I was con­trol­ling what touched their lives.

In the last five years I have heard count­less reports of high­ly shel­tered home­school chil­dren who grew up and aban­doned their par­ents’ val­ues. Some of these chil­dren were nev­er allowed out of their par­ents’ sight and were not per­mit­ted to be in any kind of group set­ting, even with oth­er “like-mind­ed” kids, yet they still man­aged to devel­op an appetite for the world’s plea­sures. While I’ve seen shel­tered chil­dren grow up and turn away from their par­ents’ stan­dards, con­verse­ly, I’ve known some Chris­t­ian young peo­ple who went to pub­lic school, watched TV, attend­ed youth groups, and dat­ed, yet they walk in puri­ty, have respect­ful, lov­ing rela­tion­ships with their par­ents, and now enjoy good mar­riages. Their par­ents broke the all the “rules of shel­ter­ing,” yet these kids grew up close to their fam­i­lies and resilient in their walks with Christ.

Pro­tect­ing from temp­ta­tions and cor­rupt­ing influ­ences is part of rais­ing chil­dren. Every par­ent shel­ters to one degree or anoth­er. All par­ents shel­ter — they just draw their lines in dif­fer­ent places.Protecting our chil­dren is not only a nat­ur­al response of pater­nal love, but ful­fills the com­mands of God. The Scrip­tures are clear that we are to make no pro­vi­sion for our flesh (Rom 13:14) and are to avoid all cor­rupt­ing influ­ences (2 Cor 6:17–7:1). It warns us that bad com­pa­ny cor­rupts good morals (1 Cor 15:33) and that those who spend too much time with bad peo­ple may learn their ways (Prov 22:24–25) and suf­fer for it (Prov 13:20). Just as our Father in heav­en will not allow us to be tempt­ed beyond what we can bear (1 Cor 10:13), we right­ly keep our chil­dren out of sit­u­a­tions they will lack the moral strength to han­dle. Young chil­dren are weak and we are to pro­tect the weak (1 Thes 5:12).

God under­stood the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of human nature when he gave the Israelites instruc­tions before they entered the Promised Land. He told them to chase out the idol-wor­ship­ping Pagans in the land, lest His peo­ple asso­ciate with them and be drawn into idol­a­try (Ex 23:32–33; Num 33:51–56; Josh 23:7–13). The Israelites dis­re­gard­ed God’s pro­tec­tive warn­ing and allowed some Pagans to remain in the land. Sub­se­quent­ly, each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion of young peo­ple was lost to idol­a­try. God instruct­ed them to shel­ter their fam­i­lies, but their neglect of His warn­ings brought pain to their chil­dren and to their grand­chil­dren for many generations.

How­ev­er, we are imbal­anced when shel­ter­ing from harm is the pre­dom­i­nant expres­sion of our par­ent­ing. Shel­ter­ing is a crit­i­cal part of par­ent­ing, but if par­ents keep it their pri­ma­ry focus, the chil­dren will grow up ill equipped to han­dle the temp­ta­tions in the world.A child iso­lat­ed from dis­ease may appear to be of the great­est health to his par­ents, but the health of the human body is only proven by how it with­stands an attack. A weak con­sti­tu­tion suc­cumbs to every germ and virus — a strong one fights them off. Our spir­i­tu­al and moral health is devel­oped and proved in the same way.

If we iso­late our kids from the world until they are adults they may appear to us to be spir­i­tu­al­ly mind­ed and strong in char­ac­ter. How­ev­er, it is how they ulti­mate­ly engage the world that proves their spir­i­tu­al resilience. This is because shel­ter­ing does not trans­form the human heart — it mere­ly pre­serves it, temporarily.

It is true that a box­er trains with­out an oppo­nent until his coach decides he is ready for an actu­al fight. And it is true that a farmer might raise plants in a green­house until they are mature enough to be trans­plant­ed and face the var­i­ous ele­ments of nature. So also, we keep our chil­dren away from bad influ­ences when they are young and need to grow unhin­dered in char­ac­ter and spir­i­tu­al wis­dom. The prob­lem is that shel­ter­ing with­out sig­nif­i­cant prepa­ra­tion to engage the world fails to equip them. In fact, it may insure that they will fall in their first solo encounters.

Grow­ing up iso­lat­ed from temp­ta­tion can devel­op a child who appears spir­i­tu­al­ly strong, but the appear­ance is not real­i­ty. When I was in col­lege I moved to north­ern Cal­i­for­nia to live for a sum­mer in a Chris­t­ian com­mune. I was some­what iso­lat­ed from the world and sur­round­ed by an amaz­ing sup­port sys­tem of my fel­low “Jesus peo­ple.” I remem­ber feel­ing so full of faith, so com­mit­ted to holi­ness, and so in love with God that sum­mer. How­ev­er, the “spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” I felt and the lev­el of holi­ness I achieved was not real and could not endure test­ing. At the end of sum­mer I returned to col­lege in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and dis­cov­ered that I had not devel­oped true spir­i­tu­al mus­cles — when faced with temp­ta­tion I fell flat on my face every time. The com­mu­nal envi­ron­ment, iso­lat­ed from sig­nif­i­cant temp­ta­tion, had not pre­pared me for the bat­tle I would face in the world. Valid spir­i­tu­al growth required that I face temp­ta­tion and devel­op the capac­i­ty to resist it, which even­tu­al­ly I did. My iso­la­tion from temp­ta­tion had left me like a box­er who had shad­ow boxed, trained rig­or­ous­ly, and looked good in his trunks, but had nev­er faced a spar­ring part­ner, let alone a true opponent.

I believe that a pri­ma­ry rea­son we over-rely on shel­ter­ing is because it is easy. It requires no plan­ning or expen­di­ture of ener­gy. It takes min­i­mal imme­di­ate brain­pow­er. we sim­ply assess that some­thing might be harm­ful and say to our chil­dren, “No.” I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it lazy par­ent­ing, but I will say that invest­ing in our chil­dren takes a lot more work and a lot more time.

8. Not Passing On a Pure Faith

We’ve all heard it said that faith is caught and not taught. The Gala­t­ian church pol­lut­ed their faith by seek­ing to make them­selves accept­able to God with what they did or did­n’t do” (Gal 3:3). In the same way, we may have start­ed off years ago with a sim­ple, unde­filed faith, but the more we got caught up in all the “works” of intense par­ent­ing, the more we moved away from a sim­ple faith con­ta­gious to our chil­dren. It is crit­i­cal for our sake, let alone for our chil­dren, that we enjoy a life-giv­ing faith in Christ with no reli­gious trap­pings added to it.

As I look back, I see that with my old­er chil­dren I was too con­cerned with how they were per­ceived by oth­ers. I saw their behav­ior as a reflec­tion on me, and I want­ed to look good. They, there­fore, sensed in me a mea­sure of pretentiousness–not the gen­uine­ness of faith that would have drawn them to me or to the Jesus I spoke about. My sin­cere con­cern for their char­ac­ter was over­shad­owed by my con­cern for my rep­u­ta­tion. I have dis­cov­ered that, like me, mul­ti­tudes of par­ents want their chil­dren’s hearts but live a faith that fails to com­plete­ly attract them.

9. Not Cultivating a Loving Relationship With Our Children

Rela­tion­ships between par­ents and teens are weak­est in con­trol-ori­ent­ed homes. Bev and I treat­ed our chil­dren as if they were “projects.” The more they became projects, the less we had sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion­ship. The less we had rela­tion­ship, the more we lost their hearts. With­out their hearts, the less we were able to influ­ence them or their val­ues. We reg­u­lar­ly spent hour coach­ing and admon­ish­ing them dur­ing the teen years, not real­iz­ing that with­out their hearts, the best we could do was make more rules and devise new con­se­quences. The con­se­quences affect­ed the out­side, but not the inside.

Our Story

When my old­est son was almost 16 we let him get his first job wash­ing dish­es at a restau­rant man­aged by a Chris­t­ian friend of ours. As diehard shel­ter­ers we wres­tled with whether or not our son was ready to enter the world’s work­force. We knew we could­n’t shel­ter him for­ev­er, and so final­ly con­clud­ed that he should be old enough to send into the world two nights a week. What we did­n’t real­ize was that he would be work­ing with drug-using, tat­tooed, partiers, and our Chris­t­ian friend was nev­er sched­uled to work our son’s shift.

With­in a month it became appar­ent that our son’s new work asso­ciates were hav­ing an effect on him. He came home one evening and asked, “Dad, can I dye my hair blue?” After my wife was final­ly able to peal me off the ceil­ing, I laid into him, remind­ing him whose son he was, and that I would not have peo­ple at church telling their chil­dren not to be like the pas­tor’s son. I explained that just because he want­ed to use wash­able dye, it did­n’t make me any hap­pi­er. (Note that my intense reac­tion had to do with “out­ward appear­ances” and the impact on me.)

Of course, my wife and I imme­di­ate­ly began to eval­u­ate whether we had made a mis­take by let­ting him take the job. After an intense dis­cus­sion we decid­ed to coach him more care­ful­ly and let him keep his job.

Two months lat­er he came home from work and asked me if he could pierce his ear. Again, my wife had to peal me off the ceil­ing. He thought it might be okay since he want­ed a cross ear­ring — like I was sup­posed to be hap­py, because it would be a “sanc­ti­fied” pierc­ing. If that was­n’t enough, he also want­ed to get a tat­too! But it was going to be okay, because it would be a Chris­t­ian tattoo!

As I was look­ing back on this expe­ri­ence sev­er­al years lat­er, some­thing my son said short­ly after he start­ed his job kept com­ing back to me. When I picked him up the sec­ond night of work, he got in the car with a big smile on his face and said “They like me!” As I dwelt on that com­ment, it sud­den­ly came clear to me — my son had final­ly met some­one who liked him for who he was. Few oth­ers in his entire life had shown him much accep­tance, espe­cial­ly not his moth­er and I. It is no exag­ger­a­tion — in our efforts to shape and improve him, all we did was find fault with every­thing he did. We loved him dear­ly, but he con­stant­ly heard from us that what he did (who he was) was­n’t good enough. He craved our approval, but we could­n’t be pleased. Years lat­er, I real­ized he had giv­en up try­ing to please us when he was 14, and from then on he was just patron­iz­ing us.

The rea­son our son want­ed to adorn him­self like his work asso­ciates, was because they accept­ed him for who he was. He want­ed to fit in with those who made him feel sig­nif­i­cant. He want­ed to be like those who gave him a sense of iden­ti­ty. The prob­lem was­n’t one that could be solved by extend­ed shel­ter­ing — he could have been shel­tered until he was 30 and he still would have been vul­ner­a­ble. The prob­lem was that we had sent our son into the world inse­cure in who he was. He went into the world with a hole in his heart that God had want­ed to fill through his parents.

Whether believ­er or unbe­liev­er, those young peo­ple who are least tempt­ed to fol­low the crowd are those who are secure in them­selves and don’t need the approval of oth­ers. The Bible calls inse­cu­ri­ty the fear of man — it is allow­ing oth­er’s opin­ions of us to affect our val­ues and choices.

The Solution

In the Bible we see that peo­ple obeyed God for two rea­sons — fear and love. King David sang of his love for God (Ps 18:1; 116:1; 119:159) and he also sang of the fear of God (Ps 2:11; 22:25; 33:8). God wants His fol­low­ers to be drawn to Him out of love (Jer 31:3), and that’s why it is His kind­ness that leads us to repen­tance (Rom 2:4). But He also wants us to be kept on the path by fear of His author­i­ty (Luke 12:5; 1 Pet 2:17). That’s why He told the Israelites He want­ed both their fear and their love; “And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deut 10:12). With our chil­dren, it should be the same.

Those who have the most pow­er to influ­ence our hearts are those to whom we are drawn: those who suc­ceed with our val­ues (which is what a hero is), those who can ben­e­fit us, those who make us feel valu­able, and those who have earned our respect.

If our chil­dren grow up moti­vat­ed only by fear of con­se­quence, they will even­tu­al­ly get away with what they can when­ev­er we are not around (Eph 6:6). If we have their hearts they will seek to hon­or us whether we are present or not, and their hearts will remain open to our influence.

I refer you to the apos­tle Paul who mod­eled this approach to lead­er­ship per­fect­ly, “There­fore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love…” (Phile 1:8–9a). Paul’s pat­tern with the church­es sug­gests he under­stood that appeals to love were more pow­er­ful than com­mands and threats.


I am con­vinced that the most con­ta­gious par­ent­ing is liv­ing a heart­felt faith before your chil­dren. Fruit­ful inter­ac­tion is not about what you do to your young peo­ple, but who you are with them. It’s about hav­ing a real faith in God, and express­ing it in a real rela­tion­ship with a real person–not about meth­ods and self-work­ing prin­ci­ples. God intends that the side-effect of lov­ing Jesus and enjoy­ing the grace of the gospel will be that all people–including our children–will be touched by the Sav­ior in us. I pray in Jesus’ name that as you read these words you will expe­ri­ence the grace of God in a fresh and new way.

Reb Bradley is a writer and nation­al con­fer­ence speak­er. Read the com­plete arti­cle from which this excerpt was tak­en here. Vis­it to order Reb’s CD set Influ­enc­ing Chil­dren’s Hearts.

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