Hidden Idols

No pain grabs us quite like parental pain. It seizes our hearts as we raise our children, but more so as they embark on the grand adventure called adulthood. We roll back the video of our kids’ childhood, smile at the happy times, and, if we’re honest, wince at things we regret. Some of us even weep. Is it too late?

Through tears, this is what I’ve heard parents say: “He’s all I’ve got,” “If I lost my daughter, you’d have to just put me in a mental institution,” “He’s my heart and soul,” and “They are everything to me.”

When you have a healthy relationship with your adult children, all can seem right with the world. Research has borne this out—“young adults and their parents perceiving their relationship as good has been associated with low psychological distress and high life satisfaction.” But parents and adult children don’t always agree on the state of their relationship.

Parents may believe their relationship is healthier than their adult kids think it is, and this mismatch can blindside them when an adult child cuts off communication. One study found that “1 in 4 U.S. adults have become estranged from their families.” A Journal of Marriage and Family article reported that 11 percent of mothers ages sixty-five to seventy-five with two or more grown children were estranged from at least one of them. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman, who surveyed 1600 estranged parents, explained in an interview,

Ironically … estrangement happens because the adult child is in some ways too loved, too taken care of. And one of the consequences of a much more intensive, anxious, guilt-ridden, worried, involved parenting that has been going on in the past three or four decades is that sometimes adult children get too much of the parent, and they don’t know any other way to feel separate from the parent than to estrange themselves.

Getting too much of a parent—resulting from what is referred to as “helicopter parenting” and identified by a lack of boundaries—is the most common (but certainly not the only) reason adult children distance themselves from their parents. Yet how could caring—or caring too much—for the children God gave us be wrong? Christian counselor Christina Fox writes, “There is a fine line between doing all the necessary things to care for and raise our children and making all that we do be about them.” Our outward behavior has an inward motivation. And it all goes back to what or who we treasure.

Worship God Alone

Who are we supposed to treasure? More specifically, who are we to treasure the most? The psalmist writes, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing [and no one] on earth that I desire besides you” (Ps. 73:25). Could desires for our children actually be a turning away from this kind of worship, an idolatry?

Tim Keller defines idolatry as 

anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything that you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would hardly be worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources on it without a second thought.

Fox offers a similar definition of idols as turning to another source for “things only God can provide.”

Overall, parents need both the truth of God’s word and his love to care for their kids without making them an idol. If we point our kids to Christ as we raise them, we will reinforce our primary devotion to God as we offer our children life-giving love and care. Some parents think they can teach their kids the gospel by simply taking them to church. But it isn’t just the church who will give an account before God concerning the care of children—it is primarily mom and dad.

So how are parents doing in this area? What kinds of regular conversations are they having about Jesus with their kids? Do children know how their parents came to Christ? Do children know how God is working in their parents’ lives now? Are parents willing to share some of the mistakes they’ve made and how God’s grace transformed them? Far from making them appear weak in their kid’s eyes, conversations like these can strengthen the bond between parent and child. These conversations empower parents’ faith in God because they remind parents that they are flawed vessels, dependent on the Lord to accomplish anything redemptive.

Model Empathy

A friend, Russel, expressed frustration because his son made careless errors in math that could have easily been avoided if he had only double-checked his work. His son, who tended to rush through many things, didn’t seem convinced that looking over his work would make a significant difference in his grade, let alone a difference in life outside of math class.

Around that time, Russ’s family had to postpone a long-anticipated family vacation. The reason? When balancing his check-book, Russel had made a math error several weeks earlier. He added an entry that should have been subtracted. When he finally caught the error the following month, several hundred dollars he thought he had saved for the vacation just weren’t there.

He decided to use his own mistake to help his son. With tears in his eyes, he said, “It’s my fault we must postpone our vacation.” He explained his error and how he’d forgotten to double-check his work. “This is just one area where math will matter outside of class, son.” Without any lectures or ultimatums, his son’s efforts in math improved. Sometimes we can more effectively point out our child’s shortcomings by using empathy instead of condemnation. Loving God first includes bringing children “up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), but discipline isn’t always negative. It can also mean affirming our children when they do right.

Eyes to See the Good

When a mom came by to speak with me about her adult son, she said, “He won’t talk with me.” I happened to know both her and her son well. Mom was a demanding parent who had unrealistic expectations of her children. I asked her, “When was the last time you affirmed your son about anything he said or did? Even the smallest thing would do.” She told me she didn’t know of anything positive to praise. Ouch. No wonder her son refused to speak.

When we are angry with our kids or feel disappointed by them, it can be hard to see the positive. We need to pray for God to give us eyes to see past our frustration and annoyance. Sometimes amazing gifts hide amid the mess.

Historians call Benjamin West one of the great masters among American artists. His paintings line the halls of museums in America and Great Britain. In 1745, when he was seven years old, his mother asked him to look after his baby sister, Sally. When his sister fell asleep, he gathered his ink, paintbrush, and paper and began to work. His tools were homemade and weren’t neatly contained in airtight containers or Ziplock bags. Ink spilled everywhere.

His mother’s return startled him. She surveyed the mess in front of her, but she was able to see beyond the obvious chaos of a child’s unsupervised creativity. She picked up Benjamin’s “masterpiece” and said, “Why, it’s Sally!” and kissed him. Benjamin West later remarked, “My mother’s kiss made me a painter.” Benjamin West’s mother could have scolded her son and unwittingly frustrated his budding talent. But she didn’t. Instead, she had eyes to see the good.

Content taken from Loving Your Adult Children: The Heartache of Parenting and the Hope of the Gospel by Gaye B. Clark, ©2024. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

Gaye B. Clark
Gaye B. Clark

Gaye B. Clark is a registered nurse and has worked with young adults for more than twenty years.