"Am I a Bad Parent?"

by Gary Thomas

Parenting is a complex and demanding job, and few of us feel competent to master it. As parents, we know there is always more we can do for our kids. We can spend more time with them, listen to them more, pray for them more, respond in a more patient manner. The list of things we could do better never ends.

We also make mistakes. We get tired and grouchy. We don’t always think before we act. We're imperfect human beings, and parenting puts the spotlight on our imperfections like nothing else. We're often left wondering if we're really fit for the role of parent.

I have experienced tremendous feelings of guilt in my own parenting. I’m guessing you know that feeling—the sense that you’ve fallen short of your own parenting standards. Sometimes, it seems my limitations — physical, emotional, intellectual — outweigh my strengths. Many times, quite frankly, my limitation is simply insecurity: I’m not sure what the right thing to say or do is.

When my daughter, Allison, was quite young, I asked her to pick up her toys. She did it perfectly, without complaining and without being told twice. I wanted to reward her, so I reached into the cupboard for some chocolate chips, when a voice in the back of my mind warned, Haven’t you read that you shouldn’t use food as a reward and risk giving your daughter an eating disorder?

An intense mental deliberation followed. I wanted to reward my daughter, but I didn’t want to plant the seeds of an eating disorder. I stood there like a fool, internally arguing with myself over what to do, when my little 5-year-old finally asked, "Daddy, are you going to share your chocolate chips or just stand there and eat them yourself?"

Great, I thought. Now Allison’s probably going to grow up with feelings of insecurity since her dad can’t even decide if he should give her some chocolate chips for picking up her toys!

Other times, I feel as if I've failed to be a healthy role model for my children. I’ve been excessively modest about my body throughout my life. I've never felt comfortable with my shirt off. One day, my wife, Lisa, noticed our then young son, Graham, exhibiting some of these same overly modest tendencies. Now, biblical modesty is commendable, but shame isn’t. Without being intentionally critical, Lisa recounted to me what happened, and we both knew what she was thinking: We both know where that came from, don’t we?

Being in charge of a child’s emotional, physical, intellectual, social and spiritual well-being can often feel overwhelming. And there will be times when we'll drop the ball or not lead in the way God intends for us to. But within the conviction and the feelings of inadequacy that accompany our shortcomings, there is a surprising truth: God can use these situations to do some wonderful things. And we, as parents, can choose to use these feelings as opportunities to mature in our parenting journey. Here are a few things to consider:

Lean on God. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of a few basic facts. First, we’re not God. We’re going to miss some cues. We’re going to feel tired. We’re going to occasionally get distracted by our own temptations and failings. Sometimes our capacity as parents is impaired by our own needs, concerns or obligations. We are finite human beings with limited understanding, who require a certain amount of sleep. We can’t be God to our kids.

I often say that the things in life that point out our humility and usher us into a posture of dependence on God can help us grow. Being desperately needy toward God is a wonderful spiritual state. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). When we mess up, instead of berating ourselves, we can thank God that we’re not in this alone. He is real, working alongside us for the good of our children.

Help your kids find their true model. When Lisa talked to me about the body image issues our son was having, I knew I had to talk to him. Instead of denying my own struggle in this area, I wanted to use it to show Graham how his dad’s weakness contrasted with his Lord’s strength. So we had a conversation about how I, as his fallible father, might not be the model he always needed, but that God would never fail him in that way.

Have you ever thought about preparing your kids to deal with their parental disappointment? Have you ever talked to them about how much more capable their heavenly Father is than their earthly father or mother?

Physically, we train our kids to take care of themselves—to brush their teeth, to shower regularly, to floss. Educationally, we train them to earn a high school diploma and maybe a college degree. But what about training them spiritually for their inevitable disappointment with us? Why not use their growing understanding of our parental limitations to further cement their relationship with God? Our greatest weaknesses can be the very steppingstones that lead our children to Christ.

Resolve to improve. Is it possible that God knew we, as parents, would make mistakes, but that part of His grand design is that we will learn from those mistakes, and try to do better?

These feelings of guilt are a bit like a thermometer: they won’t cure you, but they can tell you something is wrong and lead you to take action. When I feel guilty about my personal limitations as a parent, this feeling motivates me to get involved in other ways.

For example, as a morning person, I’m essentially dead weight after 9 p.m. I often feel bad when I hear other parents talk about their late-night, soulful conversations with their kids. But this reminder of my limitations motivates me to get more involved at 7:30 p.m., before my brain turns to mush. It means I spend more time with my kids on personal lunch dates, when I’m more alert and available to them.

It is these adjustments, these responses to our limitations, that define our growth as parents. And that growth is very much part of God’s design for parenthood. He has created an institution — the family — through which He can shape, mold and form each family member, parents included.

So what can we say? Well, when we fall short, we should have corresponding feelings of conviction. But we mustn't look at these shortcomings without also seeing God’s remedy, His plan for us as parents. The feelings can discourage, weaken and frustrate us. But the light of the Cross motivates us, encourages us and keeps us focused. In this light, our feelings of guilt can actually be a useful tool as we press on in the sacred journey of parenting.


This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Growing Through Guilt" Copyright © 2012 by Gary Thomas. ThrivingFamily.com.


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