Last week Minnesota’s Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan gave a speech in support of sex change treatments for minors in which she said, “When our children tell us who they are, it is our job as grown-ups to listen and to believe them. That’s what it means to be a good parent.”
Admittedly, I only saw a brief snippet of her remarks on social media, but I did not need to keep reading the comments to know what I would find below the post. “My child says he’s a turtle.” “Mine says she’s a dinosaur.” “My son is a superhero and wants to jump off the roof. Should I let him?” Any parent with common sense intuitively knows the ridiculousness of such a notion. Children are not mature enough to make permanent decisions about their futures, and good parents understand the necessity of providing protection and guidance on the pathway to reaching the maturity they lack.
But as I watched the video, I couldn’t help but think that many of the people laughing at her do not fundamentally disagree with her parenting philosophy. They would never apply it like she does because they have chosen opposite political values, but the view that good parenting is about assisting the child to discover who they really are is wildly popular, even among conservatives.
We live in a world where people arbitrarily choose certain ideals but have disconnected those ideals from their traditional historical sources. We adopt certain values, but we have no idea why. In such a context, it’s impossible to have meaningful debates over what is right, what is true, and what is beautiful. People don’t know why they believe certain things because we live apart from submission to authority. We’re all just making it up as we go.
Everything is based on preference, on feeling, on expediency. I choose this value because I like it or because it makes me feel good right now or because it will get me some desirable outcome. In our digital age, we usually choose based on public perception. I want to be identified as this type of person on Instagram, and so I will post things that make others see me as I prefer to be seen. To convince others that I am right, I can’t point to any shared tradition of authority. I can’t argue about what is objectively right, or true, or beautiful. Instead, I turn to emotivism. As my MaMa would say, I “pitch a fit” until others give me what I want.
In such a world, we lose any notion of personal virtue. We stop thinking in terms of the ideal person we would like to be. We have no goal toward which we are aspiring. In virtue’s place, we substitute “authenticity.” We teach our children to turn inward and to “discover” who they are by looking inside and paying close attention to what they find there.
Parents play their part in the game by becoming enablers. If the child tells us they want something, we move heaven and earth to get it for them. If they express emotion, there’s no conversation about whether the emotion is valid or whether they should feel the way they do. There’s no attempt to reshape the emotion by substituting a more virtuous response. If they tell us they want something, we seldom wonder if the desire arises from folly or immaturity or sin. The self must get out. The desire must be met. The person in there must never be questioned or suppressed.
How do we get out of this mess? Where do we turn for answers in such a confusing world of competing claims? The first step to rediscovering wise parenting is rediscovering authority. We don’t get to make it up as we go because God has revealed the standard. He has created us in his own image. He is the standard to which we aspire. When Jesus said, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), he was teaching us that he came to restore humanity back to its original design. We find wholeness and learn to flourish as human beings when we image our Creator through Christ.
The task of parenting is not about self-discovery but self-formation. We are not asking our children to tell us what they want to be; we are teaching them what they ought to be. Freedom is not found in self-expression, but in humble submission to the God who made us. Human flourishing does not result from looking within, but from looking without to the perfect man—Christ, the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). That’s what it means to be a good parent.