The Myth of the Perfect Parent
My family and I were traveling in Guatemala a few years ago. We visited a man who had given his life to serving a poor congregation. We sat at the kitchen table with him, a man who had been bent into humility by the burdens of pastoring in a struggling nation while raising four children. Still in the muddy trenches of parenthood with our five sons and one daughter, we confessed to him our feelings of inadequacy.
"Your children are grown. What have you learned looking back on your years of child-raising? Do you have any advice for us?" We looked at him, needy, expectant.
He would have none of it. "I'm not one to talk to. I don't exactly have a perfect record." One of his children was immersed in an addiction, he told us, visibly sad. Another had a failed marriage.
He was silent for a moment, nodding slowly, and then continued. "I never lived up to my mother's expectations either. I've been reading her journal lately, and I see how she prayed for me, what she prayed. And I've never lived up to what she hoped for me," he said, his voice a near-whisper. "I think she considered me a failure."
In my mother-mind, I supplied the last words: "And considered herself a failure as a parent." This conversation shook me profoundly, touching one of my deepest concerns.
Prevailing Parental Panic
I'm hardly alone in my fixation. More than any other generation, today's parents are worried sick that they will mess up their children's lives. A massive 2006 study revealed that parents post significantly higher rates of depression than adults without children. Judith Warner's 2005 book, Perfect Madness: Motherhood in an Age of Anxiety, captured the national obsession with successful parenting and its overwrought attempts to secure happiness and success for one's offspring—and, by extension, oneself as a parent. Joan Acocella's November 2008 New Yorker article, "The Child Trap," disdainfully chronicled the anxiety and success-driven extremes of overparenting.
There is so much fretting that even the backlash has spawned a notable movement and subgenre of its own, the slacker mom, visible in such books as Confessions of a Slacker Mom, The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting, and Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. In these and other popular books, women compete to claim the most artful and witty negligence of their mothering responsibilities.
I find most Christian parents at the front of the line—the anxiety and success line, not the slacker line. With my own offspring ranging from first grade through college, I take turns stepping into both, perfecting my own blend of angst and aplomb, depending on the issue. This one question, however, sends me elbowing to the front of the anxiety queue, where I find most of my friends and fellow believers. Our most consuming concern is that our children "turn out"—that is, that our Christian faith and values are successfully transmitted, and that our children grow up to be churchgoing, God-honoring adults.
It appears that many of us are not succeeding. The exodus of young adults from evangelical churches in the U.S. is well reported, perhaps over-reported and hyper-hyped. The Barna Group reported in 2006 that 61 percent of young adults who had attended church as teenagers were now spiritually disengaged, not participating in worship or spiritual disciplines. A year later, LifeWay Research released similar findings, that seven in ten Protestants ages 18-30 who had worshiped regularly in high school stopped attending church by age 23. Regardless of which studies are the most accurate, there is little doubt that many youth who were raised in the church do not necessarily stick around.