In a recent conversation, a friend mentioned to me that she perceived a great amount of angst among parents of teenagers and pre-teens. You might be thinking, Of course. Parenting—at any age—is hard work, so angst makes sense.Yet, what she said next caught my attention. It seems, she suggested, that many parents believe that a certain amount of advocacy for their child is not only appropriate, but a moral obligation.
As if feeding, sheltering, clothing, and generally guiding weren’t enough, parenting, it would appear, now comes with the added responsibility of lobbying for one’s child. We are familiar with the stereotypes of the “helicopter parent” and the “tiger mom,” but now we must own that the “lobbyist parent” is a role that many in our culture—and perhaps in our church family—have taken on, as well. Like a professional lobbyist who works the channels of political power in our nation’s capitol, this parent sees it as their calling to speak up for their child at every turn, to make sure that their child is always accounted for and accommodated, and to step in whenever they perceive any potential for difficulty or challenge. I want to humbly suggest that such activity ought not be a part of the job description, for two reasons, one pragmatic and one theological.
First, let’s talk practicalities. Such lobbying, over-involvement, and advocacy doesn’t actually work as well or as often as we hope. Take, for example, the realm of academics.
The New York Timesrecently published an article concerning a study by sociologists Keith Robinson of the University of Texas, Austin, and Angel Harris of Duke that found that parental involvement in school and schoolwork was not a reliable predictor of student academic success. The sociologists write, Most forms of parental involvement, like observing a child’s class, contacting a school about a child’s behavior, helping to decide a child’s high school courses, or helping a child with homework, do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.
Another surprising finding of the study was that there were more instances in which children had higher levels of achievement when their parents were less involved than there were among those whose parents were more involved. Even more counter-intuitively: When involvement does seem to matter, the consequences for children’s achievement are more often negative than positive.One potentially negative consequence for the children of such over-involved parents is a stunted ability to navigate conflict, disappointment, or difficulty on their own. A child who has never faced a disappointment has not been parented well, but rather in a way that leaves them vulnerable and lacking the necessary coping skills for when life gets difficult.
If this is so in the world of academics, in which parents often have some level of content mastery latent in their brains, how much more is it likely the case that such over-involvement is unhelpful in the realms of things like dance, theatre, athletics, or other extracurricular endeavors where the parent is, possibly, less of an expert? Perhaps a daily reminder to ourselves that the success of our children does not, in fact, reflect primarily on our fitness for the position of parent—not to mention our acceptance into the family of God—would do us a world of good.
Yet, practicalities aside, the greater danger is theological in nature. The constant need to advocate and lobby for our children keeps us from directing our “lobbyist parent” impulses in the right direction. Yes, you read that right. It’s not that the impulse to lobby for your children is, in itself, wrong. It’s simply that we are lobbying about the wrong things and to the wrong powers that be. Ben Patterson helped open my eyes to this.
In his excellent book, Muscular Faith, Ben recounts the story found in Matthew 15 of the Canaanite mother who came to Jesus to beg him to heal her daughter. Reflecting on the story, he writes, There is something deep in the character of God that responds to the prayers of parents, and to all who pray the way parents pray. Maybe it’s because the prayers of moms and dads can be so very humble and self-effacing, because to be a parent is, almost by definition, to be humbled, almost humiliated…This can make parents shameless in their pleading.
Ben then goes on to highlight biblical examples of such parental lobbying done right. For the sake of her son, the Shunammite woman threw herself to the earth and clung to the prophet Elijah (see 2 Kings 4:27). The nobleman of Capernaum cried to Jesus, “Lord, please come now before my little boy dies” (John 4:49). Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him to heal his “little daughter” before she died (Mark 5:22-23)…A desperate father brought his demonized son to Jesus and pleaded not only for his boy, but for his own faith. He cried out that yes, yes, he believed, but prayed for Jesus to “help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
As we can clearly see, the issue at hand is not that advocacy and lobbying are inherently wrong, but rather that we are often guilty of lobbying incorrectly. If we are not advocating for our children to God and lobbying for him to work in their lives, to preserve them, to be faithful to his promises to them, to make them into his children and conform them into the image of Christ, then we are wasting our advocacy efforts by directing them in the wrong way. The advocacy that matters is directed vertically, not horizontally.
And, just imagine the benefit to our own spiritual life and that of the children we long to see thrive, if we routinely throw ourselves on the mercy of God, demonstrating our trust in him even when life challenges us. What if we present our children to him and then live as though we believe that God will, in fact, answer our prayers? Naturally, as resident aliens in a fallen world, we know well that engaging in such vertical lobbying is not always a guarantee that the results for which we lobby will necessarily result. Yet, at a time when the task of parenting and the role of parents is not always easy to discern, what a comfort to know where our lobbying efforts are best directed. Give the school, the coach, the teacher, the administrator a break and save your energy for the advocacy that matters. Let’s turn away from the faithlessness that keeps us from trusting God to be who he promises to be in our lives and the lives of our children and start living as though we believe that prayer for our children is the true moral obligation.