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 idolatry is that idols require sacrifice, and we end up sacrificing relationship with our children for the idol of the family. When we elevate the image of the family, we effectively trade our children’s hearts for our reputation.
3. Emphasizing Outward Form
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.
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.
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 www.familyministries.com to order Reb’s CD set Influencing Children’s Hearts.