7 Parenting Errors That Can Influence Adult Children to Leave the Faith

Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Even though my wife and I have both been Christians for more than three decades, neither of us was raised in a Christian home. When we married back in the 1980s, we dreamed of imparting a lifelong faith to our children and thus helping sustain Christ’s kingdom for the next generation. But it didn’t work out that way. Despite bedtime prayers, careful church attendance, family Bible reading, and a firm commitment to living out the faith, neither of our two adult children is currently following Christ. 

Since I am personally quite self-critical, it has been hard not to excoriate myself for this painful reality—so I strive to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in all things, especially salvation (see, for example, Romans 9:6-18). Yet at the same time, I can easily identify many things we did—or did not do—that may have contributed to our sons’ departure from the faith.

I hope to see others avoid such an outcome. In that light, here are seven parenting errors that can influence adult children to turn their back on Christ:

1. Emphasizing rules over relationships…

…so that your kids focus on obedience, rather than love.

Christian households need rules, but rules divorced from context—rules for their own sake, without any sense that one is serving or pleasing God by doing this or not doing that—can be demoralizing and confusing for children. As an example, parents might rigorously overemphasize the Sabbath, laying down numerous strictures about what the kids are not allowed to do on Sundays, without bothering to fill the day with joy, worship, and family time. 

And when such rules are broken, emphasizing shame and disappointment rather than grace and forgiveness makes the matter even worse. Christian precepts should be an opportunity to draw close to God and one another, even when we don’t keep them.

2. Being judgmental toward others…

 …so your kids feel they can’t share their struggles with you.

When our older son was around 14 years old, he realized he was starting to feel same-sex attraction. Much later, he recounted how—on the very day he figured this out—my wife and I said something derogatory about a well-known lesbian celebrity. What he heard was, “We don’t like her; she’s gay.” In retrospect, our attitude communicated to him he could not reveal this part of himself to us—which he didn’t for over ten years.

If you regularly condemn a wide range of sins in others, then your kids may never open up about their own failures and temptations, since they won’t want similar judgments falling on them.

3. Assuming they are Christians…

…rather than working to evangelize and disciple them regularly.

Many parents take their kids to church and get them to make a definite decision for Christ at a very young age—and then just assume that this will “take”—as if a few Sunday school lessons spent coloring, gluing, and eating animal crackers will inoculate them against a culture that ceaselessly attacks faith on every level.

When parents set all their hopes on the verse “The promise is to you and your children” (Acts 2:39), they may be tempted to ignore all the other passages about child-rearing. They assume the misleading adage “let go and let God” means their kids will be just fine. Yet, God often works through the ordinary means of godly parents whom he calls to disciple their children.

4. Keeping church and devotions hermetically sealed…

…and not talking about spiritual things at other times of the day.

In keeping with the emphasis on rules, parents could insist on regular family devotions and unflagging church attendance, without considering that these alone may not be sufficient to meet the child's spiritual needs They may even check off these duties on their to-do list, then go right back to work, school, and hobbies without applying spiritual truths to any of these areas. 

They don’t consistently take seriously the verse in Deuteronomy about God’s laws—the one that commands us to “talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7). If they did, they would be applying it on a daily basis so that God’s word would be real and fruitful in their children’s lives.

5. Attending a church with no one their age and no youth program…

…so they can’t develop any meaningful Christian relationships.

To further build on the erroneous idea that religion is divorced from real life, some parents don’t work at encouraging their kids to have any worthwhile personal connections at church. If they settle on a church with no youth program—or worse yet, a church with no one in their children's age range—then the kids won't have any peers with whom they can be comfortable throughout their childhood years.

If they start to develop such relationships with members of the opposite sex, some parents are quick to squelch this due to the possibility of such friendships leading to “inappropriate” behavior. One highly possible outcome of this kind of isolation may be that the only real friends they have—the only ones who will love and accept them without judging—are all non-Christians. 

6. Avoiding conversation about sex… 

…so they think it’s unseemly, and instead they learn about it from sources that are morally bankrupt.

A counselor I know has often observed that sexuality runs deep. Making it “off limits” in terms of discussion may convince kids that this important part of life also has no intersection with faith or Scripture or the church. Whatever is happening in that area of their lives then becomes a fertile ground for doubt and disconnection: “I can’t possibly be a Christian if I feel this way, and there is no place for me in the congregation.” 

This may be one reason our older son is about to marry his same-sex partner, while the younger has roundly condemned what he now refers to as our “sex-silent household.” Sexuality is one of the best things God made, but if parents don’t talk about it frankly with their kids, they will get their information from the Internet, media, and ill-informed friends. And when sexual desires begin asserting themselves, the resulting shame and curiosity may continue to alienate them from their parents, the church, and even from Christ.

7. Suspecting their children are struggling with their faith but failing to ask them about it…

…and instead making sure they struggle on alone.

Sooner or later, every child in a Christian home has doubts and questions—sometimes from a very young age. If parents create a family atmosphere where it’s never okay to express these feelings, children will suspect that what the parents want most is not a genuine relationship but rather a “perfect Christian family” without any problems or struggles.

These parents discourage their children from inquiring about their possible doubts—about why they don’t seem to want to go to church, or why obedience is so hard and so rarely successful. Instead of walking with them through areas of discomfort, anger, sin, or rebellion, parents may just “go through the motions” of church and family devotions until their children are out of the house and don’t have to pretend anymore.

By then it will be too late: These parents won’t have a “perfect” Christian family any more. Because they never did.

Once parents find that their kids aren’t believers, the father and mother may blame each other for all the things they did wrong. They may spend weeks, months, or years recriminating themselves, feeling hopelessly guilty and being angry with God for not keeping his promises. They may even draw apart from their kids, condemning them for being so different and insisting that they were failures as parents (with the corresponding implication that their children must be failures, too). Sadly, they may even lose hope that God can bring them back one day, and instead they may sink into despair in the soul-killing certainty that their children are surely going to hell.

Somehow my wife and I, by God’s grace, managed to avoid the pitfalls described in the above paragraph. We still have fairly solid relationships with our children. Even though we may have failed as parents in many ways, I am thankful that we both continue clinging to God’s faithfulness. He is indeed still sovereign in all things—including our children’s salvation.

As Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”

Mr. Helet is a speaker and writer. Though he often feels like he is “striving after wind,” he still loves his kids, his wife, his life, and his Lord.

This article was originally published on August 30, 2018.

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