Anxiety, Idolatry, and Parenting

Note: On on January 11, 2009 I began facilitating a parenting class for DaySpring, the church I attend in Waco.  I’m going to be offering some of what I’m doing there in this space over the Spring.

What does it mean to say that parenting is “biblical?”  There’s always been a temptation to look to the Bible for rules for life, and the desire to find rules for effective parenting are a part of that search.  Rules are very comforting, since they just tell us what to do — no hard thinking involved.  The trouble is, rules don’t take in to account the multitude of unique circumstances and personalities that we face in the hard task of parenting.

For instance, Proverbs 13:24 insists, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”  If you’re looking for a rule, this one is pretty clear.  If you love your children, you will use corporal punishment.  Never mind if you have a son who withers at a mere stern look from you.

My approach is to look for principles in scripture that inform the fundamental ways we think about life.  Principles provide us with flexibility.  The downside is that principles require us to be spiritually mature in their application.  I can completely understand why people, including me, prefer rules.

Today (January 18, 2009) and next week I’ll be offering some principles for healthy parenting that I believe are very biblical.  I think some of these principles can even lead to some pretty good rules (i.e., Never use shame as a part of disciplining your children).  I’ll be very interested in your take on my ideas. This morning I will be telling the story of the Fall of humanity as a way of illuminating the pervasive effects of anxiety in our lives as we wander around on this planet.  I first developed this lecture many years ago, but I’ve never worked through it with a focus on parenting before.

An online video of this presentation is available by clicking here.  This version of the lecture does not include the focus on parenting, but you can get a general idea of what I’m doing.  An extremely basic summary of the story is:

  • Anxiety infects every human life (this seems to correspond psychologically with the development of language, though I’ll be dealing more with this idea in another session).
  • The Christian tradition identifies three basic responses to anxiety
    • We take our anxiety to God.
    • We take our anxiety to idols.
    • We fall into despair.
  • Christianity teaches that taking our anxiety to God involves choosing to become a disciple of Jesus.
  • Being a disciple of Jesus means that we choose to live as Jesus did, meaning that we choose to make sacrificial love the defining ethic of our lives.

By the way, I find it interesting to note that, although other religious traditions differ from Christianity in significant ways, the mystics of almost all the major world religions insist that sacrificial love is the fundamental characteristic of the spiritually mature person.

As I’ve been thinking about this parenting class, I’ve found myself wondering more and more about how we, as parents, can effect this process with our children.  A major dilemma is that most of are becoming parents before we’ve matured in our own responses to anxiety!  Obviously one way to resolve this dilemma would be to pass a law saying that no one can become a parent until some wise person says they are ready.  Given that this is not likely to happen, the next best approach is for parents to be very intentional in developing a mindful consciousness of how their anxiety functions in their own lives, and how anxiety can contaminate their approach to parenting.

Helping our children learn how to assess and respond to their anxiety is one of the most important tasks we have as parents.

When we are acting from spiritual immaturity, allowing our anxiety to get the best of us, then we become reactive, compulsive, and avoidant.  We invariably turn towards idols.  An idol is anything we turn to that may distract us from our anxiety, or soothe our anxiety, but has no power to transform our anxiety.

As our children mature, they will figure out which idols are their favorites (and they’ll figure out what are our favorites as well).  We, as parents, are in a unique position to see what’s going on before they can, and to teach them how to reflect on anxiety rather than react to it.  Of course, we will only be as effective working with our children on this important aspect of life as we’ve become with ourselves.

So, this morning, in the class, I’ll be asking parents to consider a few questions:

  • What did your parents teach you about anxiety, and how to manage it?
  • What have you discovered about your own approach to anxiety?
  • What have you come to understand about your own idols?  What are your favorites?
  • Are there any ways in which you are tempted to make your children one of your idols?
  • What are you noticing about your children’s anxieties?

These are very difficult questions.  I wish someone had been asking them of me when my first-born showed up on the scene nearly 20 years ago.



About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
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