In 2015 I was on a mission to better understand the crippling load of pressure young people are dealing with today. During my interview with Pastor Dave Gross, he made a profound claim. He said, “Parents’ expectations are probably one of the most dangerous things for raising good kids.” Years later, those words continue to echo in my head.
In a world filled with external risks, it can be easy to overlook emotional landmines we might be setting in our relationships with our kids. But at a time when youth suicide is a growing problem, we absolutely must get a handle on the pressure that is bearing down on our kids. Unfortunately, our expectations can become dangerous weapons that hurt our children, ourselves, and our entire families.
There are two ways we can get off track—and one place we can turn when we’ve lost our way on this parenting journey.
When parents expect too much – UNFULFILLED DREAMS
I’ll never forget the moment I held my firstborn baby in my arms. It was magical. I remember rocking her in the middle of the night when she was two days old, unable to imagine a time when we would disagree. By the time she was five days old, she had a preferred direction for feeding and had to learn that life would not always work as she desired.
As parents, we spend nearly two decades (or more) aligning our children’s expectations with reality. From convincing a toddler that wearing clothes is essential to teaching a teen about relationships and taxes, we have our work cut out. And when we’re in the messy middle of trying to mold and shape our children into functioning members of society, we tend to develop a vision of what parenting success looks like.
If we’re not careful, that vision will be built around our own dreams, ambitions, and fears.
It’s natural to want our children to have everything we didn’t—and to shield them from the pain we’ve experienced in life—but the pressure to do more and be better can hurt our children more than it helps them. As parents, we should not only be authorities in our children’s lives telling them what they should do—we need to become authorities on our children.
We should know who they are as individuals so we can help them recognize their unique value. This is more important than ever in a world almost overwhelmed by unhealthy levels of comparison.
In order to be the parents our children need we have to make sure we aren’t pressuring them to become what we wish we were. Instead, we must replace our preconceived notions about what their futures will hold with a healthy curiosity about what surprises God has in store for them (and us).
When parents expect too much – MISTAKEN IDENTITY
Another place where we get tangled up is when we know the job we’re doing as parents will be measured by the behavior of our children.
If I were to let my brood of five under the age of eight loose to run wild in a public place, you would—and should—judge me. But it’s also important to keep in mind that there’s a difference between good parenting and Godly parenting. We should all try to be good parents in a practical way, but the behavior of our children should never become a measure of our value as people. This is easy to know in theory, but much harder to apply in reality.
No matter how difficult the early years may feel, I’m convinced the hardest part of parenting is yet to come. When they’re little, I’m keeping busy with the hard work of providing the foundation they’ll need in the future. Once they grow up, it’s up to them to decide how they will live.
Sometimes I have friends who are excellent parents agonizing over whether their children will make the right choices. I have one question for them: “Do you think you’re going to do a better job of parenting than God?” In the Bible we see God’s people turn away from him repeatedly. He was faithful, but they still made poor choices. What’s incredible is that an all-powerful God would refrain from making them behave.
Instead, He gave them free-will—the opportunity to enter into a real relationship with Him. In other words, He chose love over control.
I am convinced that God wants us to do the same. It may not look that different on the surface, but our kids will know the difference when we’re parenting out of love rather than with our focus on what other people will think of us.
GRACE FOR THE JOURNEY
Sometimes keeping our expectations in check can seem difficult—especially when our perspective is based on a solid foundation. As a Christian parent your theme verse for parenting might be Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” I believe that is the absolute truth. I also believe, in some cases, entire novels could be written about that period of time before “when he is old.” (There is a reason the parable about the prodigal son is included in the Bible.)
Whether your children stray far from what you want for them or cling to the values you raised them with, you can expect one thing for sure: you and your children will mess up at times. You will fall short. And you’ll all need forgiveness and grace.
Thankfully, we have a God who was not only willing to allow us to make our own choices—He also loves us enough to have made the sacrifice necessary to wipe away the ugliness of our sins. In the end, sharing the beauty of having a humble heart, one willing to accept this give of grace, with our children will matter far more than any expectations we could have for them.
Teri Capshaw is an author, former journalist, and homeschooling mom on a mission to help families thrive in an overstressed world. In her book Dying to Win she takes a big-picture look at factors pushing students too hard—and provides parents with practical strategies to ignite and inspire their children’s love of learning.