Combating Regret in Parenting: Looking Back and Looking Forward
Over the past several weeks I’ve been going through old photos in preparation for my son’s high school graduation. It makes me laugh to see pictures of his timeless, mischievous smile and goofy mannerisms. But I have another emotion that surfaces when I look at old photos of my kids.
Sometimes, I feel regret.
I look at their young faces and regret not hugging them more when they were little. I regret “getting through” the younger years rather than taking in all the joys of toddlerhood. I feel guilty that I did not instill a greater reverence for God’s holiness or a better understanding of His mercy and grace.
And then I sigh through my many “if only” statements: If only I sent them to this school and not that one; if only I waited a little longer to let them have a phone, and if only I fed them more vegetables and less animal crackers.
I know I’m not alone in these emotions because I’ve talked with other parents who get stuck in the same pit of regret, especially when we’re launching a child into the world. But I’m not sure this is the way the Lord wants us to reflect on our childrearing years.
God has graciously brought us to where we are right now in our parenting, so rather than looking back with guilt, we should reflect on our past parenting with thanksgiving and anticipate our child’s future with great hope.
Looking Back with Abundant Thanksgiving
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The first part of this Proverb exhorts parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.” I can assure of you of this: no one who has lived through the nuances of parenting has done this perfectly. No one.
God specifically chose you to parent your child, not because he thought you could do it without mistakes, but because God knows exactly what your child needs. And so, in His graciousness, He matched you with your child.
There’s no doubt that this God-ordained “match” is a sanctifying one. Our sin is magnified in our attempt to love, nurture, and direct, but we also grow through our mistakes, learning day by day and year by year how to better love the child that God has placed in our care. What grace the Lord shows us through this journey!
Accordingly, the Hebrew translation of “the way he should go” speaks into the child’s individual inclinations. While the goal is to train our children in the wisdom and knowledge of Jesus Christ, each one is totally unique in their personalities, circumstances, and needs.
Because of this, we are not given a Biblical outline on the one right way to train up a child. That training will look very different depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the child whom God has given you.
Regret in parenting often arises when we forget that our calling in parenthood is unique and instead, we become envious of other parenting stories or successes. We perceive someone who did it right, and in turn feel guilty that we didn’t follow their ways. But the Lord says, follow me. Keep your eyes on me. Using other parents as the ultimate standard discounts the wisdom and goodness that God has provided in your own, unique parenting journey.
Do you sense the freedom in this truth? You don’t need to reminisce with regret, but you can remember with joy and thanksgiving all that God has done in guiding and sustaining you as a parent thus far. Give your regrets to Jesus; throw them at His feet and rejoice freely in your heavenly Father who has walked with you and guided you.
What is more, God lovingly redeems your greatest weaknesses as parents. The world tells us that our kid’s successes depend on our success. There is nothing true in this statement. What is true is that God uses our failures in ways we could never comprehend. That doesn’t make sense on a human level, but, as Luke 18:27 reminds us, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” Jesus is always at work, even in and through our mistakes.
Looking Forward with Great Hope
The second half of this Proverb urges us to look forward: “even when he is old, he will not depart from [God’s ways].”
It’s essential to understand that this verse is not formulaic. Generally speaking, it is true that training up a child in the ways of the Lord will result in a child who considers God’s ways. But this is not a guarantee. It’s a principle, not a promise.
We struggle with this concept because we have a hard time not being in control. So, if our child is wayward, we blame ourselves for not doing enough, but if our child turns out “great,” we pat ourselves on the back and very quickly offer our expert parenting manual to others.
Both responses discounts God’s loving sovereignty. It is God who receives glory in our parenting victories, and it is God who receives glory even in our parenting failures because He uses our frailty in ways we could never fully understand. The way you parent does not ensure a particular future for your child. God alone is the author of their stories, and while we have tremendous influence as we “train them up,” it is ultimately Jesus who works in their hearts, often in profound and mysterious ways.
Anticipate your child’s future with great hope because we serve a great and awesome God who can and who will do great things!
And in the meantime, don’t stop making disciples. Even if you are on the brink of empty nesting, your work as a “trainer” continues. Listen well when your child seeks advice, pray often for their relationship with Jesus, and look for other younger children and parents to disciple.
I can’t help but think about the Apostle Paul. Of all people who might live with regret, this persecutor of Christians had every right to live a guilt-ridden life. But after Jesus revealed himself, the rest of Paul’s life was not marked by regret, but instead by faithfulness to the gospel message. He lived and breathed Jesus.
May our lives be marked similarly as we look forward with great hope to all the ways in which God will continue to use our parenting to advance His kingdom and to spread His love.