How Children Raise Parents

Parenting is an invitation to suffering because no one really knows what to do.

In his thoughtful book How Children Raise Parents: The Art of Listening to Your Family, Dan Allender posits that while we think of parents as raising children, in fact children often “raise” us by showing us our weaknesses and faults and challenging us to examine our thoughts and beliefs in deeper ways.

Allender believes that at root children are asking parents “Am I loved?” and “Can I get what I want?” and that parents have to navigate the answers to those questions through the lens of the Gospel and in different ways for different children and different stages.  He makes a strong point about our role as parents being to help our children grow in the gifts and talents God gives each one uniquely, rather than forcing our kids into whatever mold we grew up with or our personal subculture demands.

I found Allender’s points about looking to the Bible rather than to the culture for standards particularly compelling.  Of course, you are nodding, we would never want to raise our children in some worldly culture.  But wait, Allender is actually pointing to Christian sub-culture too!

Too many of us blindly adopt cultural norms without reflection or intention.  Whether the culture is the local church or the larger media culture, we frequently define what is good and right according to what is most acceptable to others.  When our children oppose such conformity, they are challenging norms that have little to do with the heart issues of the Bible.  If we confuse culturally defined roles with biblical requirements, for instance, then our children’s choices that differ from the norm will be considered rebellious.  We’ll wrongly try to steer them toward fitting into the culture rather than toward adherence to biblical requirements.

Not that all aspects of our cultural expectations are wrong, or that it’s not good or wise to conform to some of them, but I think it’s worth considering these things in light of scripture before we set them up as absolute rules or standards, especially if God is calling or gifting a child in a countercultural, but still biblical, way.  The book contains a lot of guidance about how to figure out your child’s God-given bent, and how to foster it, rather than attempting to make your child into the person you wish you were, or your community values most, and so forth.

Probably my favorite section of the book was on prayer.  Allender uses powerful imagery to describe how he moved from praying in a sort of humdrum repetition to really seeing the people he was praying for–even enemies–as people who God loves.  I found it very helpful and inspiring.

I appreciate Allender’s premise that in the course of our labor to raise our children, we ought not to lose focus on our own need for sanctification, and be thankful that God gives us our children, who He uniquely designed to sanctify us (I know this is true in my case!). While How Children Raise Parents isn’t a step-by-step manual for handling specific parenting challenges, it’s a helpful vision casting book, and I’d recommend it particularly for the section on how to let God use you in developing your child’s bent versus conforming the child to the culture or your own dreams.


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