Parenting the Prodigal Son

We are all afflicted with a sinful will that tells us we can be, and should be, the masters of our own destinies. It is the greatest lie we believe, and Adam and Eve believed it even when they were in paradise! This proclivity is in our children, too, as much as we wish it were not so.

Jesus’ parable of the two brothers (Luke 15: 11 – 32) shows us how “older brother” types use the law to construct their own salvation. The parable likewise shows us that “younger brother” types spurn the law altogether for the rewards of an unrestrained life. The devices and desires of their own hearts set each day’s agenda. Both brothers chose to save themselves rather than be in relationship with their father.

Perhaps in your home is a particular version of your own prodigal child. Perhaps your carefree little daredevil is growing into someone who is showing signs of waywardness and self-destruction. I’ve been there, and it is scary.

Let us remember that the father in the parable of the two brothers gave his younger son what he asked for when that son reached adulthood. In the in-between time of adolescence, we parents are to love our wayward child as the father in the parable loved his, but the teen years are not the time to give our children what they want. Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.”

The following are a few suggestions for parenting a prodigal teenager:

Seek out Godly mentors for your child. Christ’s church, thankfully, is full of prodigal sons and daughters who have come home. We found a Christian counselor who genuinely delighted in our lost child. While my husband and I felt exhausted and overwhelmed, this wonderful man had a perspective that was so helpful to us. He understood our child in a way we could not.

Deuteronomy 21: 18 -21 says: “If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’”

The next verse instructs the elders to stone the disobedient son to death to “purge the evil from their midst.” Thankfully, we are no longer bound to Mosaic law! The take-away for parents who are raising a rebellious child is to appeal to your Christian brothers and sisters for support and counsel. Church communities are where we share our struggles, not where we hide them. Purging evil, in whatever form it appears, is the very work of the Holy Spirit in community with other strugglers. Literal stones are not the weapon, but a praying army of believers can be a mighty force against evil.

Take care of yourself. If parents are not supported and staying close to the Lord, they are not going to be equipped for the struggles of a wayward child. We found people in our church community, and in other Christian communities, who understood our situation and were open about their own. They prayed for us. This was balm to our sense of failure and inadequacy. It also was relief from our embarrassment about having a “troubled” child.

Let your child suffer the consequences of his or her waywardness. Romans 1: 26 tells us that God gives the apostate up to his or her “dishonorable passions.” Parents of a wayward teenager do not relax their intolerance for drug use, for example, but when their child is caught with a stash of marijuana, St. Paul’s teaching is our guide. Parents give their guilty child over to the consequences. This can be a heartbreaking experience for a parent.  I have immeasurable respect for a friend who did not bail out her daughter from jail late one night after she had been arrested for public intoxication. The younger son in Jesus’ parable came to his senses face down in a pigsty. As hard as it is, parents have to let God do his saving work through their beloved child’s suffering.

Articulate your love to your child. If your teenager is in a dark or lost place, communicating anything to him can seem futile, especially words of affection. I urge you to persevere and articulate your love daily. The sullen face and lack of response do not mean your love is not penetrating your child. It’s important to tell your teenager why you love him. He may be wandering in the wilderness, but you know your child and you know his unique gifts. As you articulate your love, emphasize the even greater love that Christ has for him.

Hope in the saving power of our powerful savior. This is hard to do some days, but in faithfulness we hold firm in our hope that God will redeem and restore our prodigal child. Romans 5: 3 – 5 says, “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Restored prodigal sons and daughters make for incredible Christian believers. In my denomination’s prayer book the liturgy of “The Reconciliation of a Penitent” has the penitent saying, “Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.”

Following the confession, a minister concludes, “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.”


Thanks be to God.


Carolyn Lankford lives in Birmingham, Alabama and has three grown children with her late husband, Frank. Formerly a co-director of Christian Education at the Church of the Advent, Carolyn served as the Advancement Officer at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University before transitioning back to the Advent to work as Interim Director of Women's Ministry from 2021-2022.

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