A lot of parenting tips, techniques, and strategies seem to operate under the presumption that if you parent your children just right, they will turn out just the way you want them (which of course differs from family to family based on the parents’ values). Maybe this is a particular problem with religious parenting guides – they play on parents’ worries and hopes for their children by promising (usually not explicitly, but the idea is there) that if you just follow these guidelines, your children are guaranteed to end up as responsible, successful, Christian adults. The corollary is then obviously that if your child ends up as an atheist, or in a less-than-ideal profession, or has children out of wedlock, or differs in some other way from the “perfect little Christian” mold, you somehow failed as a parent.
But since those promises are empty and false, the guilt of the corollary is equally false. There is absolutely nothing you can do, as a parent, to guarantee that your child will become a certain type of person as an adult, and to try to force that result is detrimental to you, your child, and your relationship. (Your ability to influence your child is a different matter altogether… if your child loves and respects you, he is probably going to want to live in a way that honors you, even when he disagrees with you.) You might be able to enforce certain beliefs and behaviors while your child is young, but the time will come, sooner or later, when your baby will be all grown up and make choices for himself.
(Even this little guy is someday going to be a man! It’s strange to think of it now, but that’s the end we have to keep in sight as parents. They do grow up.)
It all comes down to the free will God gave to each and every one of us. God, our Father, is the perfect parent, is He not? And yet we, His children, most definitely have character issues and make bad choices – I can speak for myself on that one, and I think everyone who is being honest would agree. It doesn’t reflect back on His parenting; it simply means that you can give someone all the tools and guidance and love in the world, but if they don’t want to accept it, if they want to make a different choice than the one you feel is best, you can’t force them to use what you’ve given them.
In toddler analogies, I can give my son a fork, show him how to use a fork, model using a fork, and help him use a fork – but if he wants to eat with his fingers, I can’t make him pick up that fork and use it independently. He has to make that decision for himself. The same thing is true for my child’s faith, education, career choices, and relationships – I can give him opportunities, model wise choices, and demonstrate unconditional love, but I cannot ensure that he will take the opportunities that arise, act wisely, or love in return. He has to appropriate for himself everything he has been given and make it truly his own, because he, like me, is a human individual with will, dignity, and subjectivity. It is a cause for deep, deep sorrow when a person chooses to use his body and mind for self-destructive or sinful ends – but it is not a sorrow that must always be tinged with guilt.
This is why I get so frustrated with the parenting articles and books I come across that make it sound like you can determine what sort of person your child will become, and give the impression that this is the ultimate goal of parenting. All we can do is teach, model, and love – and then commit their hearts and minds and futures to the Father. We can’t choose the direction they will take, but we can do our best to equip them with the skills and habits that lead to virtue and wisdom, and then trust our Lord with the rest.