When Your Parenting Does (Or Doesn’t) Make the Grade: Raising Teens and the Gospel of Success

My youngest son recently brought home his report card. He gets to reflect on his own performance in a variety of behavioral and social standards. He can choose “S” for satisfactory, “P” for progressing, or “N” for needs improvement. Then, the teacher looks at his report and makes her own assessment of each standard. It is an early, low-stakes exercise in self-reflection and accountability.

As parents, it can become a habit to evaluate our parenting based on whether our children appear “successful” or “unsuccessful.” In light of the circumstance at hand, we measure our parenting (and therefore, our family’s success) as satisfactory, progressing, or needing improvement:

He made the team. Yes, the lessons and practices paid off. He did not make the team. I should have gotten the other private coach.

She is accepted into the college of her dreams. The tutor and long nights of studying made a difference. She did not get in; I should have pushed her to take the ACT one more time.

He is invited to the party. I’m glad he pursued that friendship. He was excluded from the party; I should have helped him to be more socially savvy.

She reads her Bible, attends small group, and speaks at her high school Christian club. Yes, the Sunday School and family devotions worked. She is showing no interest in God or his Word and her life choices show it. I should have prayed more or read the Bible with her more often. 

The Question Behind the “Gospel of Success”

In these scenarios and other circumstances, we work towards an outcome that we, or our community, deems as “success.” All too often, though, that desired result becomes an idol. That outcome is the thing that, if it goes wrong or does not come through for us, crushes and defeats us as parents. Thus, we will do anything to achieve that goal and be seen as “satisfactory” parents. 

When we dig beneath our social engineering, the over-the-top tutoring and lessons, and the nagging about grades, we find that we care deeply for our children. We desire good things for them, but we question if God feels the same. 

In Genesis 3:1, the serpent (Satan) is described as “more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made” as he approaches Eve. The serpent plants doubt in her mind, whispering “Did God actually say…” when he points out the fruit that appears to be good to eat, beautiful to behold, and crucial to accessing the wisdom she wants. Nourishment, beauty, wisdom—are those really bad desires? She wonders if God is withholding something good from her. 

As Satan points to the good desires of Eve’s heart and then questions if God really wants those for her, too, Eve takes matters into her own hands, taking the fruit and eating it. 

We, too, question the goodness of God’s plan for our lives, especially when our children experience suffering (or we fear they might). Satan points to the good desires of our hearts to preserve, care, and provide for our children, tempting us to question if God wants those things too. We fear that he does not and, like Adam and Eve, we act accordingly. 

The Posture Towards God in the “Gospel of Success”

When we do whatever it takes to achieve or maintain the idol of success, which includes preventing failure and suffering, we take on a role and a responsibility that was never ours. 

In Genesis 25, Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebekah struggle with their role and God’s role within the family setting. Jacob came from the womb grasping his older brother Esau’s heel, a picture of a grabbing for the eldest’s birthright. Isaac and Rebekah contributed with favoritism and manipulation: “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob” (Gen. 25:28). Strife between family members would only become more severe in their pursuit of success and avoidance of suffering.

The drama unfolds in Genesis 27:9-10 when Rebekah schemes to gain the firstborn blessing for her favorite (and second born) son, Jacob. She wants Jacob to be more blessed than Esau. She wants good for Jacob, albeit at the expense of her other son. Rebekah’s manipulation looks familiar to us who live in a world that demands success and avoids struggle and failure at all costs.

Like Eve, Rebekah does not trust God. Does God, who only a generation before had made a covenant with this particular family, have a good plan for Jacob? All she can see is the possibility that her favorite will not be as successful as her first born son. Does God really love Jacob? She leaves no room for his answer. 

Like Rebekah, parents claim the role and responsibility of God when we manipulate and scheme to achieve our goals and to prevent suffering, all in the name of our child’s good.

The Antidote to the “Gospel of Success”

As parents, we often look to our child’s behavior or circumstance to indicate whether they, and we, are succeeding or failing. Like Eve and Rebekah, if we don’t like what we see, we try to manipulate whatever we can. Beneath that desire for control lurks a false belief about God—a lightening-quick, negative evaluation of his trustworthiness and love for my child or family. 

Knowing my own heart’s bent to not trust God, and my subsequent drive to control, leads me to Jesus. The idol of worldly success is not sustainable nor satisfying. This idol is an exhausting and cruel master who does not acknowledge the reality of our sinful need to control. Jesus, however, offers freedom from the rat-wheel of the “gospel of success.”

Jesus explains to his disciples the reality of the world in which they live. “In the world you will have tribulation,” he says (John 16:32). As sinful people living in a broken world, our parenting will be marred by sin. It is not if our child will suffer, or fail, but when. Jesus himself tells us this. The reality of our world alone merits our believing what he says. 

Yet, we have hope. Jesus continues, “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Jesus, not me, has overcome the world—the suffering and failures, fear and control.

Jesus knows our hearts even when we do not. He understands that the only way for us to gain the “satisfactory” grade was for him to live a life of trusting, heart-level submission to God on our behalf. He took the grade of “not satisfactory” that we deserved, suffering on the cross—righteous for unrighteous—in order that God may look upon us and give us the full righteousness of Jesus Christ. 

In Christ we are more than “satisfactory.” In fact, God views us as he views Jesus, his beloved Son, so we are adopted, beloved children of God. We gaze upon the cross, and we see just how much God loves us and how much we can trust him. 

Despite our best or worst efforts, our children cannot avoid suffering or be guaranteed success. When we lean into the limitations that God has given us, we are brought to a place of dependence on God. God is God, and I am not. What a relief to hear it is not up to me when it comes to my child’s life.

In Jesus, there is rest for the parent who desires good for her child. In Jesus, there is a steadiness for the parent whose child is struggling. In Jesus, there is peace that comes with trusting and depending upon God for all things. In Jesus, there is freedom to enjoy your child, to pray for your child, and nurture your child, knowing that in all things he cares for you and your child more than you could ever imagine. 

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Dawson Cooper lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, Wil, and three boys (ages 7,10, and 15). She graduated from Wake Forest University. While at Wake Forest, she began freelance writing for a local magazine. She has been writing for Rooted Ministry since 2017. She also works as a lead floral designer with Marigold Designs. Dawson and her family attend Covenant Presbyterian Church where she is involved with leading a youth small group. When she isn’t at or driving to her boys’ various games, school events, or activities, she enjoys reading, playing tennis, and enjoying a good meal with friends. 

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