Few topics are as popular today—or as controversial—as Christian parenting. Perhaps this is natural, given the importance of raising children in today’s post-Christian world. Sadly, though, the cacophony of competing approaches has become divisive among God’s people, leaving parents without the wise counsel they desire and need. Most of the seminars, books, and video series available in the Christian marketplace that I have examined are less than helpful because they are based far more on a model of authoritarianism rooted in modernism than on biblical reflection. They sound good since they are littered with proof texts, and they sometimes result in compliant children, but they are by and large devoid of grace. Some believers react against this unhealthy overemphasis on authority, but permissiveness is equally problematic.
That being the case, I was enthusiastic when I learned that Dr. David John Seel—no stranger to the readers of Critique—was writing a book on the topic. When a copy arrived, I began reading it with both eagerness, and to be honest, just a touch of nervousness. That always occurs when I read something by a friend whom I respect highly, since there is, after all, some small chance I will disagree. The more I read, however, the more my enthusiasm grew, and soon I was doing something I never do: I began recommending it even before I finished reading it myself. Parenting without Perfection is a wise and biblically informed book. I even recommend it to non-parents, since it is such a fine example of thinking biblically about what Christian faithfulness looks like in our deeply fallen and profoundly pluralistic world.
Parenting without Perfection is divided into three parts. In the first, Dr. Seel provides an introduction to his topic by defining Christian parenting. “I have come to question some of the common assumptions held by many Christian parents and parenting books,” he writes. “One is that certain choices will isolate one’s children from the effects of today’s youth culture; another is that following a specific set of guidelines will produce ‘perfect’ children.” Seel argues there is no formula, and identifies eight provocative questions that inform his thinking in this book: How does God treat us as children? And how is our approach to parenting affected if:
-the goal is children who are apprentices to Jesus?
-discipleship is understood as more than an intellectual affirmation or outward behavior, but a life lived in, for, and by the resources of the kingdom of God?
-we come to understand our teenager as a young adult rather than an overgrown child?
-we respect the self-determining nature of our child and acknowledge the priority of motivation—the direction and loves of his or her heart?
-we acknowledge that youth culture is spiritually toxic but inescapable by our teenage children?
-we understand that the choices our teens make outside our context or control actually influence them the most?
-we recognize that parenting is a temporary stewardship with no guarantees?
In the second part of Parenting without Perfection Dr. Seel gives a careful explanation of how spiritually toxic youth culture is today. It isn’t particularly pleasant reading, but essential if we wish to understand clearly the context for our faithfulness as parents in this fallen world. Whether we are parents, grandparents, or simply love young people, this section of the book is must reading. And contrary to those who desire to safeguard their children by isolating them from the world, Seel is correct in insisting that this toxic youth culture is an inescapable part of our children’s lives. It might have been good for Dr. Seel to have included a bit more on why it is so inescapable, since so many parents appear to believe otherwise, but perhaps their commitment to tribalism is not open to examination. It is a “deathwork culture,” Seel argues, far worse than most Christian parents realize, and desperately in need of the gospel of Christ.
In the final section, Seel explores ten priorities for Christian parents, which actually apply to far more than just parenting:
To be apprentices of Jesus.
To live our lives with integrity for that which matters.
To be students of our teenager’s world.
To advocate our child’s constructive interests.
To establish limits for our teenager based on the objective truth of reality.
To encourage our teenager to become a passionate seeker of truth.
To focus on influencing the beliefs, not the behavior, of our teen.
To respect our child’s self-determination.
To recognize that our teenager’s friends and neighborhood will influence his or her heart’s direction.
To pray for our child as our first responsibility.
In a real sense, as this list indicates, this is a book on the nature of Christian faithfulness; it just happens to be addressed to parents.
I suspect many Christian parents will dislike Parenting without Perfection. It provides no techniques, lists no formulas, makes no guarantees, and more radical still, it argues that none are possible. It argues instead that we walk by faith, that “parenting adolescents teaches us the requirement of love, of letting go of our children in order to entrust them to God.”
We recommend Parenting without Perfection to you. Read it carefully on your own, and then form a discussion group to work through it together. Place a copy in your church library. And please: give a copy to every Christian parent you know.