This week, my family will set out on our annual journey to the Atlantic coast for a week of relaxation and rest by the sea. This family tradition is one we inherited; my wife’s family has done this her entire life and even longer. The worst part of it has always been the car ride. Our first attempt involved a screaming five-week-old and two anxious parents. That was nothing, however, compared to the days of five little ones in five car seats with five appetites and five bladders. These days our kids can buckle themselves in, and most of them can hold it until the next stop for gas.
The journey is made bearable—even enjoyable—because we know we have an attractive destination. If you told me that we were going to be driving for ten or more hours just to make a loop back to where we started, none of us would be enthused. We endure the journey because we are excited about the goal.
Every Sunday evening, a small group of people from our church gather around our dining room table over a meal to pray and to discuss God and life. Since all the people in our group are at various stages of the parenting journey, our talks often naturally revolve around that topic. What did you do when yours were at this stage? How did you survive? Do you have any advice? Through these conversations, it has occurred to me that parenting is a lot like a very long car ride. It’s a lot more pleasurable when we have a clear and attractive destination in view.
So, what is the goal of parenting? The answer to this question is going to define how you approach the task. Your daily decisions will largely be determined by what you identify as the answer. If your goal is to survive the day, then your parenting style will reflect that. You will likely be inconsistent and erratic. If your goal is personal comfort and convenience, then your parenting philosophy will reflect that. You will likely rely on digital screens and other means of appeasement and get irritable when your children interrupt your plans.
This topic is important because it seems like many parents—including many Christian parents—are unsure about what the goal ought to be. I know I’ve often been unsure. As I watch many young parents struggle to find the right approach, I’ve noticed that many seem to believe that the job of a parent is to ensure that their child is in a constant state of immediate happiness.
The resulting parenting philosophy will seek to cater to every want, to shield from uncomfortable experiences, and to orchestrate a never-ending cascade of happiness. When the goal of parenting is the child’s immediate happiness, the child takes on the identity of a king or queen making demands and the parent becomes the servant whose job is to fulfill every wish.
But what if the goal of parenting isn’t about making your child’s wishes come true, but instead about training your child to wish for the right things? This question assumes a few things. It assumes, first, that your child is created in God’s image and that being created in God’s image has implications. Second, it assumes that one of those implications—a big one—is that your child was created with desires that are designed by God to lead in certain God-centered directions. In other words, we must assume that one of the consequences of affirming a Creator-God is the existence of objective truth, objective beauty, and objective righteousness in the world. Third, it assumes that the job of the parent is to help the child connect her desires to these great ends that God has given. Finally, it assumes that the child will joyfully flourish only when those desires flow into these God-centered purposes.
If I’m right about the above assumptions (and I have solid biblical reasons to conclude I am), giving a child what he wants may prevent him from joyfully flourishing. By appeasing the immediate desires of the child’s heart, you are training the child to fixate on immediate pleasures as solutions for the heart’s deep yearnings when you know full well that those temporary fulfillments will never ultimately satisfy and that, in the words of Augustine, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.”
The goal of parenting, to borrow the famed C.S. Lewis word-picture, is to teach our children that their desires are not too strong, but too weak. We should be laboring to show them that the things they demand for satisfaction, if granted, would only ruin them in the end. To end this where we started, we must help them see that preferring to make mud pies in the slum is ludicrous when God has offered them a holiday at the sea.