I will never forget the afternoon my child jumped off a medical gurney minutes before surgery and ran full speed down the hospital corridor. Even now when I think about hard parenting days, I hear barefoot steps echoing through the hallway and see a paper gown flapping like wild wings. My son’s actions that day have made a home in my memory, and so has my reaction. I felt helpless, afraid, and painfully exposed beneath the hospital’s bright artificial lights. I had given birth to this beautiful, miraculous creature, but in that moment I had no idea what to do next.
This experience, and others, left me with questions about raising my son that no expert seemed able to answer. What had led us here? What were we to do next? And most of all: what sort of a mother was I when I already seemed to have failed at parenting 101: understanding and directing the actions of my own child?
Piles and Piles of Pointless Parenting Advice
There’s parenting advice out there for every conceivable minutia of possibility, from the best teething treatments to the finest consistency of first foods, from how to keep your wriggly child still in a church pew, to how to best handle bedtimes. But never once have I read an article about what to do when your child physically runs so fast from what makes him afraid that you can’t catch him. In the end, it took a nurse twice my size to crash tackle my son to the floor like opponents in a rugby match. She carried him kicking and screaming into the operating theatre. A team of medical professionals held his still-squirming legs down and put him to sleep with a mask pressed to his face. All I, his mother, could do was watch on.
There’s no ideal bedtime routine for that scenario.
There’s no one parenting book, not even a single medical manual, that can tell you how to manage a child that doesn’t always operate within the range of what’s expected. How to herd them like a Border Collie back into the lines of what’s praised and respected by the world-at-large and the Christian world in particular. But perhaps the book I’ve been looking for isn’t stocked in the parenting section.
Out-of-the-box kid meets out-of-her-depth parent
I distinctly remember the first time a professional suggested there might be something more to know about my child. We were at an occupational therapy (OT) appointment. I’d heard somewhere these were good for regulation, for integrating the right and left sides of the brain, which seemed like something we needed.
To everyone’s surprise, no less our own, midway through our child’s first year of public school we’d pulled him out to start home-schooling. It was not something we’d planned, but rather a response to the unusual situation we found ourselves in. Our wonderfully artistic, unusually perceptive child had frozen at the threshold of the world. Literally frozen at the classroom door. He had anxiety so extreme, as we tried continually to explain to disbelieving teachers and staff, that we were all exhausted from the effort of just trying to push him forward. And over time, we began to question whether pushing was even the right response. Catchphrases like “building resilience” and “fostering independence,” were repeated ad infinitum. But in our guts, we weren’t so sure that a firmer hand, or in our case grip, was the answer.
Even though we decided to lay off on the formal school agenda, we kept trying to prod him forward in other ways. Like appointments: So. Many. Appointments. Our child might have struggled with formal reading and writing, but he didn’t—and has never—struggled with perception. He picked up the agenda quickly. We weren’t just trying to help him. In his eyes, we were trying to fix him. And he didn’t want to be fixed. While my other children danced around doing all the tasks the OT gave them, swinging from giant suspended aerial scarves and wiggling worm-like through brightly colored obstacle courses of tunnels, the one under scrutiny remained fixed to the floor.
“I’m sorry,” I said, unable to meet the OT’s eyes. Our hour-long appointment moved at half-speed as I prayed and willed and prayed for him to move. If only I could be like a superhero, affecting the change I wanted with my gaze. Aim my laser beam correctly and wham, he’d be up and at it. Obedient. Predictable. In sync with the room and the world. Perhaps if I prayed hard enough, I thought, God would move things that way. But he didn’t.
Later, at a parental follow-up appointment, the well-meaning OT took me into a smaller side office and sat me down. Beside me on the coffee table was a box of tissues. One look at her face, and I wanted to leave the room and climb inside one of the giant therapeutic scarfs myself. An adult cave, away from the onslaught of the world’s expectations. And opinions. Both seemed impossible to meet or answer. “Have you thought of investigating your child’s behavior further?” The well-meaning OT asked me. That was the beginning of a very long diagnostic journey. One we are still on today.
It was also the beginning of something else. My journey with confusion and disorientation around my child’s behavior. A journey I was sorely unprepared for.
(Not) the Cookie-Cutter Christian Family
If you’d asked me, before we had kids, what I expected raising a family to be like, I’m not sure how I would have answered. After all, the only experience I had was my own upbringing. I was a good kid who liked to check all the obedience boxes, not necessarily out of a purity of heart, but out of a quiet fear. A quivering people-pleasing center. I was anxious too. As a child this came out in performing, as a young adult, it emerged as an anxiety disorder. So, I suppose I wasn’t surprised in one way that my anxiety flowed down the family bloodstream to my children.
What did surprise me was how it manifested. Not in compliance, but, at times, the exact opposite. My child simply didn’t fit the cookie-cutter mold of what I imagined a Christian child to be like. Neatly cut, lifting obediently from the round of the tin, fitting in with the family and the community, ready to serve.
My idea of the godly family filled the kitchen of my imagination with the fragrance of Christian cookie-cutter kids. But was that a pleasing aroma to God? Does God really have a recipe for the perfect Christian family, or had I—have we—been unwittingly writing our own?
God is not in the parental PR business.
Despite what I spent years thinking, God isn’t some sort of omnipresent campaign manager presenting the perfectly behaved family of faith. God's family tree is in fact full of sons and daughters who take wild U-turns. They may not run down surgical corridors, but they run away from home (the prodigal son), step into public sin (David), and get run down (Elijah). He even instructs them to act in ways that don’t fit into the range of normal as a means of communicating with his people—like laying bound in ropes (Ezekiel), walking around in the nude for three years (Isaiah), or committing to a diet full of locust and honey and free of alcohol (John the Baptist).
The question then, when it comes to our own families, is what exactly is our responsibility as believing parents? If it isn’t to follow the recipe most Christian parenting podcasts set out for us or to herd our children back into the range of expected, then what is it? What does God want us to do when, quite simply, we don’t know what to do
The answer, in the end, wasn’t found within myself, nor was it found in all the external voices I looked to for approval of our actions. Rather than turning inward or outward, I turned again to Jesus, and this is what I found: He cares most about how we love each other not how we control each other. Loving my neighbor as myself meant starting with my smallest, closest neighbors: my children, including the one who didn’t fit the Christian mold.
We cannot control our children’s responses any more than they can. Of course, we need to keep finding the best ways to help them and us negotiate life. But this process needn’t be a desperate scrambling through brambles of our own making, scraping our knees against sharp thickets of unrealistic expectations. We need to choose to love those given to us, children, and indeed anyone in our lives, in their particularity. Like God loves us. God is a God of the wild as well as the calm.
When Jesus holds out his arms and asks the little children to come to him in the gospel story, he doesn’t make conditions on their behavior. He isn’t tut-tutting under his breath, or only taking the ones with their hair neatly brushed and securely tied. If there’s an anxious one, I imagine his arms are held extra wide for them.
In Paul’s emphatic final message in his first letter to the Thessalonians, while he gives instructions and guidance on behavior, his emphasis is on the good and flourishing of the other, and on love overall. “And we urge you, brothers and sisters . . . encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.”
Our task isn’t to worry incessantly, or to squeeze the fist of sour discipline like a lemon crusher, or to apologize and fear and cover over, to expect perfection where there is instead humanity. The task of parenting is to love our children in the midst of their particulars, just the way God loves us all in the midst of ours.
The Bible’s example led me to prioritize God’s example over the Christian cultural expectations. To find expertise in God’s word that I couldn’t in Christian parenting resources. I ditched my cookie-cutter hopes for the pursuit of wisdom in light of who my child actually is. Free to live alongside our children as they are, parents can focus on loving unconditionally and make a home that displays that love the way our children need it, to see each child’s gifts and help them grow in them, to pray over and with our child instead of pray and try to “fix” them, to model grace and faith in dark times as well as light, to forgive, to protect and advocate for, to laugh with and cry alongside. To be a parent who isn’t first a molder, but a lover.
Cover image by Nathan Dumlao.