“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.” St. Paul’s advice in Ephesians 6, which is repeated in Colossians 3, was not particularly emphasized in the homeschooling circles where I grew up. Much more interesting were the preceding verses about children obeying parents. Yet St. Paul seems to be giving equal weight to this, cautioning that doing so may result in pushing a young person away from his or her parents and maybe even from the faith.
This warning resonates with a phenomenon that I have seen in many of my friends: that the young people most likely to become disillusioned and identify as progressive Christians or even leave the faith entirely, were those whose parents set the strictest standards. More mildly, much of the overreaction to the fairly benign and helpful suggestions of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option has been influenced, not by what Dreher said, but to the danger of sheltering young people from the outside world entirely.
The kinds of people who understand the times we live in and have taken Dreher’s advice to heart face an equal and opposite temptation: that of imposing strict codes rather than to taking the more difficult and nuanced path of Christian prudence and discipleship. And in the circles where I grew up, there were many guides offering one-size-fits-all strategies that claimed to be the Biblical way. Now I don’t think for a minute that most parents realize that they are doing this. They are trying to find a way to impart Christian ethics to their young people and teach them to think outside the cultural box. But in doing so, they often inadvertently create their own cultural box, which has more to do with reacting to the outside world than reflecting on Scripture.
Now I should be clear here that I am not referring to cases where adults used the language of Christian counterculture to mask abusive practices. The temptations here are more subtle. It’s the impulse to shield students from anything that looks suspicious or outside the Christian bubble. And when young people eventually encounter the real world, they look back and see the prohibition as arbitrary.
An excellent example of this was the whole Harry Potter scare from a few years ago. I remember friends and their parents talking about how no one should ever read them or, really, any fantasy—except C.S. Lewis, and maybe Tolkien. The trouble was that none of these parents had read Rowling’s books, and when their young people went off the college, they watched the movies, read the books, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about. These books didn’t have anything that the fantasy their parents allowed them to watch and read didn’t. And if their parents’ rules about a fantasy series were mistaken, what else were they wrong about?
The problem should be clear: in trying to keep their children away from anything that might taint them, these well-meaning parents neglected something. You cannot shield your family from sin. Alexandr Solzhenitzyn said that the line between good and evil runs through the human heart, reflecting the truth that the Psalmist realized: the source of sin is within us, not outside in the culture. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer echoes this with a warning about idolizing Christian community, whether that be church or family. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live transformed lives in Christ, not the efforts of our parents.
And this is a good thing. Change is always hard, but in a relationship between parents and children, it is inevitable. The children have to learn to depend less on their parents, make their own decisions, and take responsibility for their own lives and careers. And this process should start well before the end of high school. Having worked with teenagers in a church setting, I can say that they appreciate being given responsibility and making real choices. Middle and high school students are ready to grow up, to have their questions taken seriously, and to think deeply about serious issues.
And this is exactly what St. Paul means when he commands fathers (and mothers) to bring up their children in the instruction of the Lord. “Because I said so” is an exasperating answer to honest questions. To instruct young people in the faith, one has to deepen one’s own faith and wrestle with the questions being asked. And in a time when many young men and women find the contradictions between historic Christianity and the ethics of our culture to be troubling, parents do their children no favors by giving superficial or moralistic answers to these questions.
The goal is that young people become mature adults walking with the Lord, and the best way to encourage that is for parents to start hard discussions and keep them going. Not to hide the world from their children, but to reveal it and train their children in how to read it. I know a couple of churches that watch movies with mature content and themes with the youth group to help teach how to critically engage with the world.
But even more important is showing children and young people the Gospel. Teaching costly grace rather than cheap moralism. Modeling repentance and forgiveness instead of harshness. And most of all, pointing people to the person and work of Jesus Christ. But even the best parenting is no guarantee of a young person’s continued faith. Parents cannot believe for their children—but they can pray for them. They can love them. And they can continue to show them the love of Jesus. This is what a healthy Benedict Option might look like.