by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Tuesday, October 16, 2012, at 1:48 pm
After teaching college for a few years I’ve realized two things: (1) how young adults sincerely want to make their parents proud, and (2) how parents communicate, directly or indirectly, that their children are failures. A previous generation of parents was happy having kids who simply were “good,” but today’s parents want kids who are good and “successful.” And students who have grown up in conservative evangelical churches are not immune from this parental pressure.
Young Christian adults, of course, know their parents love them, that grace is better legalism, and that they are not rebels, yet they wonder if their parents’ praise depends on whether they are athletically, academically, and professionally successful. Even though good books like Age of Opportunity by Paul Tripp and Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson have rightly challenged a generation of parents in dealing with the perils of legalism, rebellion, and moralism, today’s narcissistic and individualistic Christian culture has resulted in increased pressure on youth to be the “Tim Tebow” of whatever vocation they choose.
Two moms I know offered possible explanations for this performance-parenting trend. One said, “I think a great deal of the anxiety young people face comes from carrying the burden of their parents’ own unfilled dreams and lack of joy.” Another explained, “First, kids are a reflection of [their parents]. What better way to elevate parenting than the success of the children? It really can be nothing more than satisfying the parent’s sense of success and accomplishment of which the child contributes. Second, it’s the issue of how we’ve defined success among Christians, which typically has translated into doing big things for God or achieving notoriety in some way. That’s nothing more than the infiltration of the American dream culture into the church, which is quite different from God’s paradigm. It’s why in general we love megachurches and celebrity pastors.”
Are these moms correct? It seems that over-praising and telling kids how “special” they are oddly puts pressure on children to fulfill impossible expectations. I wonder what would happen if America had a culture that simply taught children that doing something big for God and His Kingdom is nothing more and nothing less than loving God and neighbor.
Raising super-Christians hardly seems to be what the Bible intends as it commands us to “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6).
Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.