H. Norman Wright has written more than 65 books on everything from parenting to pets. But his book, Loving a Prodigal (Chariot Victor) is perhaps his most personal. At the age of 20, Wright's daughter, Sheryl, rejected the family's faith and became involved with alcohol, drugs and abusive relationships. Over the next several years, Wright and his wife, Joyce, prayed, cried and struggled to bring their daughter back from a dangerous life. Finally, Sheryl turned her life back over to God.
We talked with Norm Wright to find out why some children turn from their faith and their families and what parents can do to help their children avoid the traps of rebellion.
What do you mean by the term prodigal?
The word is used to describe someone who is extremely wasteful. In the biblical story of the prodigal son, the son wastes his inheritance and so much more. Prodigal children waste the values their parents have worked to instill in them. They waste their potential, their abilities, their health, their future. In some cases, they waste their lives. For the sake of our discussion, I consider a child who has rejected the values of his family to be a prodigal, even if that child still lives at home, even if that child is 12 years old.
Why do some children become prodigals while other children in the same family don't?
I believe rebellion comes from a combination of personality, environment, genetics and the basic sinfulness we all have. Parents might say, "We raised all of our children the same way. Why is John in trouble and Jane a model child?" But in reality, every child is different. Every child is born into a different family. The family dynamics change as more children come into the family. Parents react differently to their different children. Maybe you move or change jobs or someone gets sick. All of those changes affect the atmosphere of the family.
There are also factors like mental illness and addiction that play into this. After our daughter turned her life around, she told us that she has an addictive personality. She believes that contributed to her attraction to a lifestyle filled with drugs and alcohol. If parents suspect mental illness or addiction issues, they should work with a professional counselor as early as possible.
The truth is, every child has free will. If you want to know why some children rebel and others don't, that's the best reason I can come up with.
Is there anything parents can do that will keep a child from becoming a prodigal?
The best thing parents can do is listen to their children from an early age and get to know this person that God created. What's unique about him? What matters to him? How does he see the world? The more you know about your child the better equipped you'll be to notice the little changes that might be early signs of rebellion.
And clearly, faith has an impact. Strong families make Christ the center of the home in a healthy, positive, realistic way. The family devotions, praying for one another, praying for the child, demonstrating through your own choices what it means to live for God, these all make faith real for children and help them see that God is someone they can turn to, not someone to fear or turn against.
But again, parents can do all these things and still have a prodigal child. It simply happens.
You mentioned early signs of rebellion. What are they?
As I said, some of these signs are found in a child's temperament. There are children who fall into the category of being oppositional. These kids will challenge authority at every turn. They tend to be negative and stubborn just for the sake of being defiant.