Our Kids Are Not Upgraded Versions of Ourselves

table of trophies

As the youth pastor at the end of the weekly meeting, you feel that proverbial weight falling off of your back, since the planning, the sermon, and the logistics are over. But this is the time when teenagers will approach you with a question, a question that often seemingly comes out of left field. It’s usually something that has been on their heart, but they were too afraid to ask in the presence of their peers.

That’s exactly what happened to me right after a particular youth meeting and the question sticks with me to this day.

“So, I don’t feel like I’m good at anything, like I can’t do anything well,” this particular student struggled to spit out. My first reaction was fiercely rational. How old are you again? At your age, no one has had enough time to develop a high-level proficiency at anything. Then we talked through some activities the particular student enjoyed doing and explored other areas of his giftedness – of which there was plenty of evidence. The “perspective-setting” session didn’t seem to work. Every time I tried to point out a talent or skillset he would say, “there is always someone better at me than that.”

After the conversation was over, and I went home and had time to reflect, it hit me. Where did this student learn to think like this?

The more I learned about and reflected on the family situation, the clearer the picture became. This student was raised in and lived in a cultural context where there was absolutely no margin for error.  Everyday the message was, “everything must be done with perfection, and you only matter in life if you are the absolute best at something.” The parents had placed such a heavy burden of performance on this student that anything shy of absolute perfection or being among the best implied that his life was worthless.

Me 2.0 

The student’s parents had the American dream in mind for their child: to have superior academic, athletic and artistic performance, make it into a top-tier university, and get a job in an respected field at an esteemed company making lots of money.  As parents, we desire for our children to succeed in areas where we have failed. On some level, that desire can be a good thing, but it can cross the line into dangerous territory very quickly if we come to see our kids as updated versions of ourselves.

One of the things that annoys me about the iPhone is the constant need for updating. I go to check the scores of the game or the performance of my fantasy football team, only to have a notification that the app on my phone can’t be accessed because I have to update it first, or I have to update the operating system. The purpose, of course, is improvement, and in the long run, we appreciate a software program running smoothly without any issues.

While constant updating may work for software applications, it’s a terrible idea for parenting. As parents, we have our own insecurities, fears, and memories of past failures. So what do we often do? We have kids and raise them to redeem our shortcomings. If I didn’t make the varsity high school baseball team, I will put my kids in all types of travel sports leagues to ensure I have the next Aaron Judge. If I could only make it to middle management, my child will become the CEO. If I never made first chair in band, my child will practice trumpet or piano four hours per day after school. If I couldn’t get into a top tier university, my child will go to an Ivy League School, even if it means cutting church activities to get a high SAT score. The goal is the upgrade: if this version of myself doesn’t become what I want it to be, I will make sure that the next one will.

Our kids are not software upgrades. What we parents have done without thinking is create a savior out of our children – hoping that they will justify our failures and eradicate our insecurities. We have fallen for a philosophy that says, “you are how you perform.” We have started to worship the god of achievement, and more than that, we have placed our own children on that same god’s altar.

Freed From Performance

Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” There is only one Savior and his name is Jesus. There is only one who can redeem us as parents, only one who died for us, and only one who can fix the root of all of our insecurities and fears. Our identity must come from and remain only in him, not in any performance standard of the world, whether it be academic, professional, artistic, or athletic.

The beauty of the cross is that we don’t have to perform. We don’t have to impress God. He already knows our faults. He already knows our weaknesses and insecurities. All we need to do is be honest with him about our sinful nature and surrender our lives to him.  When we live this truth as parents, we will become the sweet aroma of Christ to our children.  In you, they will see the true savior – Christ – rather than a weak and faulty one – themselves. When we are honest about our shortcomings to our children and instead point them to the one without sin – Christ – they begin to learn dependence on Him instead of self-reliance.  Instead of trying to perform for positive approval, our children will be moved to joyful obedience and worship.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t work hard or do our best. Ephesians 6:7 says that we should “Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people,” and 1 Corinthians 10:31 says to “do all things for the glory of God.” Children should put their best efforts into whatever they do: academics, sports, music, or creative projects. But, they should work at these things knowing their identity lies in being redeemed by a loving God, not in being the family messiah.

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

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