Many parents struggle with parental guilt today.
With so much more information on what babies and children need, and with the deluge of parenting advice coming from doctors, professionals, social media, the internet, and other forms of media, there is much more reason for guilt.
Parents can’t help but ask themselves, “Am I bringing up my child right?” “Am I committing serious mistakes in the way I’m raising my child?” “Will my mistakes have significant and lifelong effects on my child?”
Such thoughts make modern parenting that much more stressful. It is interesting that while parental neglect is on the rise, parental guilt is equally on the rise. Perhaps the two trends are connected.
It is good to remember, however, that what is around us often causes stress, but that which is inside us can reduce it. In other words, our circumstances may increase anxiety but our character and faith can help us cope with it (see 1 John 4:4).
Hope Lies Ahead: Encouragement for Parents of Prodigals from a Family That’s Been There
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True Guilt Vs False Guilt
Some of the things parents feel guilty about or experience regret over are:
- Not being there enough
- Not listening
- Being too focused on the house and/or work
- Not being affectionate enough
- Being too critical
- Yelling, hitting, blaming
- Being a bad role model
- Not taking the time to understand their children
- Not being consistent
- Pushing too hard
- Not pushing hard enough
Guilt is a sense of having broken a rule or neglected a responsibility or relationship.
There is such a thing as true guilt; we experience this when we are objectively guilty. For example, a parent who has neglected a child to such an extent that he is under-nourished or suffers from some related illness should feel guilty.
How a child turns out is not entirely dependent on one’s parenting.
But, there is also false, neurotic guilt; this is where the person feels guilty subjectively, but is not actually guilty.
What do I mean? Broadly speaking, we as parents have to come to terms with this sobering, humbling fact: How a child turns out is not entirely dependent on one’s parenting.
Do Bad Kings Always Produce Bad Children?
In the Old Testament, we read of many kings of Judea and Israel. If we study them, we will find the following statements to be true:
Good kings can produce good children. Bad kings can produce bad children.
Intuitively, these statements make sense to us. But, studying the relationship between kings and their sons in the Old Testament will also reveal this undeniable fact:
Bad kings can produce good children.
This may come as a surprise to some, but it tells us that there are many factors that determine what children will eventually become. Such factors include: God’s grace, good influences elsewhere, a healthy reaction on the part of the children to their bad parents, and so on.
Parenting alone does not determine the path that children take in life.
Here is another fact:
Good kings can produce bad children.
This again may be surprising. “What went wrong?” we may ask. Again, we are reminded that parenting alone does not determine the path that children take in life.
What to Do with Parental Guilt
Parental guilt is at play in the second and fourth scenarios above—that is, when parents produce bad children.
Parents in the second scenario can experience true objective guilt over neglecting their children or not fulfilling their parenting roles. In such cases, can they do something about their guilt?
Yes—for there is always forgiveness in the presence of guilt. Parents can repent of their mistakes and sins, and ask God for forgiveness. They can also ask forgiveness from their children, which may start a healing and redemptive process in their relationship.
Also, parents can ask for God’s wisdom and guidance to see how some of the damage can be undone. It is never too late to seek redemptive changes, and these can happen if the parent starts to offer love, spend more time listening to their children, and proactively seek reconciliation.
Parents facing the fourth scenario may be experiencing false neurotic guilt, since parents alone do not determine how their children turn out.
Parents should not beat themselves up with self-recrimination and excessive guilt. They should not feel responsible when they are not.
Some godly parents try their best to bring up their children in a godly way, only to be disappointed when they turn away from the faith during their teen and adult years. In such situations, the parents should not beat themselves up with self-recrimination and excessive guilt. They should not feel responsible when they are not. Some things are out of our hands.
Instead, parents facing this dilemma should share their feelings with other mature Christians, and commit their children to God in prayer. They should not change their godly ways while remaining open to their children.
Remember the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11–31? The father was likely grieved about his rebellious son, but I do not think he beat himself up with parental guilt. He was a good man and gave his best to his sons. But each son was also responsible for his own actions.
When the prodigal son returned home, his father gladly welcomed him and was reconciled with him. He must have been a man of prayer who prayed and waited for his son. His arms remained open to embrace his repentant son.
All Parents Make Mistakes
None of us are perfect parents. We all make mistakes and neglect some aspects of parenting.
On hindsight, we can always find something that we could have done better, or something more we could have done for our children. But we should not wallow in our past mistakes. Instead, we can learn from them and do something positive in the present.
On hindsight, we can always find something that we could have done better, or something more we could have done for our children. But we should not wallow in our past mistakes.
Being a perfectionist does not help. Instead, being relaxed about parenting helps us parent with love rather than anxiety. When we are anxious and nervous, we tend to make more mistakes.
The only one who is perfect is our God who, as our Father, is willing to forgive us and help us redeem that which has been lost. “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19–20).
Extracted and adapted from Raising the Next Generation: Biblical Meditations on Parenting, published by Discovery House Publishers © 2019 by Robert M. Solomon.