Jay Blogs – Parenting from Fear

Graphic with the text Fear

There is a place for fear in parenting kids. Fear can be a very useful device.  For example, if your child is in the street and a car is bearing down on her at 45 mph, fear for her safety is a fantastic motivator to get you to rush into the street and grab her before said automobile squashes her like a bug. Fear motivates parents to protect children’s safety in times of extreme danger.

And, honestly, that’s about the only time I can think of when parenting with fear (or fear as we typically think about it) is actually a good thing. Every other time, it’s dangerous and potentially destructive.

I know we live in a world full of challenges, giving us all cause for concern. We should be on guard for our kids, ready to prepare them well. But, except for the example above, fear is almost always the wrong instinct for raising our kids; it’s crippling, and it undermines our trust in them and their ability to develop healthy lives. Peter Gray, writing in Psychology Today, notes that so much of today’s parenting is rooted in trust-killing fear:

The enemy of trustful parenting is fear, and, unfortunately, fear runs rampant in our society today…not because the world is truly more dangerous than it was in the past, but because we as a society have generated dangerous myths about dangers. We are afraid that strangers will snatch our children away if we don’t constantly guard them, and that our children will be homeless…or failures if they don’t get all A’s in school…and get into a top-ranked college. Somewhat more realistically, we are also afraid of others’ judgments of us, if others see that we are not guarding, pushing, and pulling our children in all the ways that society says we should.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the devil is the true enemy of our souls, and one of his biggest weapons is to use our fear to engage in bad parenting and in the process undermine our children’s abilities to develop into resilient, healthy, prepared disciples of Jesus. Because that’s exactly what he’s trying to do.

One of the ways of knowing whether we’re parenting from fear is by honestly searching our hearts and answering this question: are we more afraid of other people than we are of God? Psalms tells us that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. All who practice it have a good understanding.” (Ps. 111) As we know, “fear” here is awe, reverence, a deference to the Lord’s wisdom, rather than to other people. By contrast, parenting from fear means being more concerned and deferential to the preferences and opinions of others than those matters of conscience God has placed within you.

Being more concerned about the perspectives of others than revering the Lord takes several forms. It seems that in every generation and every community there are the “it” couples: families that, for whatever reason, seem to draw the attention and admiration of those around them. They may be attractive, or talented, or have some qualities that others feel are admirable. They become known for being great parents, or at least as those who seem to “have it all together.” The group in their orbit kind of sets the tone for everyone else, who follows what they do. Deviations from this crowd, whether through schooling, kids’ activities or lack of activities, things we let our kids do that the crowd doesn’t or don’t let them do that “everybody” does, draws comparison and adult peer pressure. Social media has exacerbated this phenomenon, “perfect” parents highlighting “perfect” lives, claiming not to be perfect yet projecting carefully-curated images.

It’s tough to cut against the grain with this crowd, hard not to be drawn into giving your kids something you believe the Lord is telling you they may not be ready for, or not letting them stay over at the house of someone who gives you a check in your spirit, or signing them up for one more activity than your family’s already busy schedule can handle. Yet, every kid and every family are different, and God gives you wisdom through prayer and His Word if you ask for it.  Denying the Spirit’s nudging in these areas in order to follow the crowd, is a form of parenting from fear.

Fear-based parenting also looks like adopting worldly mindsets towards raising kids. When we trust in the philosophies of the world, rather than God’s plan for our kids, our fear for the world is greater than that for God. These worldly mindsets include defining success for our kids through the eyes of the materialism myth- that the secret to happiness is getting them into a good college, so they get a good job, so they make a lot of money, so they can buy things, which brings happiness. Often, embracing the materialism myth leads to using influence, power, and resources to pave the way for our kids’ success- essay tutors, special coaches, and requesting special privileges from the adults in our kids’ lives.

Adopting worldly mindsets through fear of others may also manifest itself in the myth of competition. Sports, fine arts, and other competitive outlets can be fun, developmentally-appropriate, and play an important role in raising a child; however, the idea that life is a competition is not a biblical mindset, but a worldly one. The primary goal for the “winning-first” parents is that kids will develop the skills of persistence and performance under pressure necessary to win the “game” of life, creating winners, not losers. This mindset often plays out in overscheduled kids, those who are always on the road during the week and on weekends, at the expense of unstructured play and a love of the game.

Finally, parenting from fear results in letting kids learn from mistakes, or even from their sin. If our kids err, and we rush in to clean up their mistakes, or defend them from their errors, or worse, excuse their sin, we subconsciously think we’re covering up these things so others won’t see them. The reality, however, is that everyone sees them- we’re actually becoming “that parent,” the one we criticize as being blind to what’s happening with their kids.

What’s even worse, however, is that we harm our kids. We undermine their ability to get back up again after they’ve fallen, to become resilient. We subvert their ability to repent and seek restoration with the Lord, which is a mark of true discipleship in Jesus. And, we ruin their ability to develop empathy and compassion, which comes through experiencing failure and “walking in another’s shoes,” instead breeding entitled narcissists. Worst of all, we communicate that we don’t trust our kids to care for themselves, make good decisions, or develop their own relationship with the Lord, so that we have to do these things for them.

You may be tempted to say, “That’s not true; I totally trust my kid, it’s the world I don’t trust. That’s why I do these things.” But, here’s the deal. You live in a Genesis 3 world, broken and fallen. The Bible says there’s only one Person who is going to be able to actually fix the world and restore it for us. And, it isn’t you or me. So, unless Jesus comes before I finish writing this blog, the best (only) way we’re going to be able to raise our kids well is to prepare them for the world, not the world for our kids. That means disciplining them, preparing them to be followers of Jesus in the world as it actually is, not what many of our peers and influencers tell us it is, which is often fake and a lie.

The answer, of course, is living in the truth of Psalm 111- that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  In this fear and anxiety-ridden age, God tells us to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:5-7). This age has its own complexities, but raising kids has been a harrowing undertaking in any age.  God promises us that when we pray and go to Him in thanksgiving, He’ll protect our hearts and minds from fear. As His disciples, He’s going to replace our fear with peace and trust and love. And, peace and trust and love are the rocket fuel for raising healthy kids.

Are you a disciple of Jesus- not a believer, but a disciple, a follower–and is your primary goal to disciple your children, meaning, as much as it depends on you, to fill them with peace and trust and love for Jesus? If so, then seeing life and loving your kids through this perspective changes everything.

Fearing the Lord- being a disciple yourself, then leading your kids according to God’s Truth, actually allows you to drive fear away. It gives you the courage to make decisions that God is calling you to make for your own kids, and to connect with others who are making similar choices, rather than parenting according to the world’s standards or seeking approval from people guided by those standards. Trusting God with your kids frees you up to allow them to experience failure and consequences for their sin, knowing that God is writing a bigger story in their lives, one greater and more joyful than you could have imagined. Finally, it frees the Lord to do His sanctifying work in you, teaching you to trust Him and His plan for their lives, and for yours, as well.

I know this isn’t easy. Some think it’s easier not to be anxious or parent from fear when your kids are older, but that’s just not true.  When they’re gone, all our illusions of control, which we never really had before but convinced ourselves we did, are no more, and the stakes are all higher. Whether it’s getting a job, marrying someone, health issues, being able to have children of their own, or (like us last week) having one flip her car in a terrible accident (by God’s grace, battered, but okay) there are always opportunities to be afraid, to parent from fear. We just want to keep her on our couch watching Netflix and caring for her a couple more weeks where she’s “safe”, instead of getting her sore body back on her feet and into the life she and God have worked together to build for her. But, the Mighty Jehovah, who loves her more than I ever could, has His angel armies watching over her, guiding her and marching her toward His gracious and beautiful work in her life, and our job is to work with Him, and not against Him.

Parenting is courageous work, and if you’re not feeling some degree of healthy tension, too comfortable in the ways of the world, you’re probably not doing it right.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.