Challenging and nurturing your children

Safe or Strong? Preparing Children for Life, Trials, and Character Building

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Parents worry about how to keep their kids safe while also helping them grow strong. You can do both, and the Bible shows you how.

Recently, I was reading a book titled 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. In it, he asks parents this question: “Do you want to make your children safe, or strong?” He seems to suggest that parents can raise their children with safety or strength, but not both—and it can indeed be hard to balance the two. Today, many seek their children’s comfort and perceived “safety” at the expense of helping them grow stronger as they age.

Letting Children Fail?

As recently as the 1990s, my parents would allow my brothers and me to explore the woods of West Virginia, or ride our bicycles to an elementary school friend’s house a few blocks away. And—the horror of it all—they didn’t even send us with a cellphone! We often came back from our adventures with scrapes and bruises, but my parents always saw those as preferable to—and cheaper than—buying us a Nintendo.

Beyond that, they put us in sports, which taught us that this world is neither fair nor considerate of your feelings. You don’t win every time. Other individuals and teams will be better than you. This also applied to our schoolwork and music lessons: Our parents expected us to work hard to achieve the best we could, but that did not mean that my brothers and I were outstanding at everything.

Today, there is a trend for everyone to “get a trophy.” All children’s feelings “must” be treated with “kid gloves.” An important lesson goes untaught: Many times in life—perhaps the majority of times—even our best efforts come up short. Instead of trying to keep our children safe from everything, parents should prepare them for that fact of life and help them grow in strength physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Our children will learn more strength from losing a game, getting a “C” in a class, or getting scraped up in the woods than they will from not experiencing natural consequences and overcoming obstacles.

They need this type of strength, or “grit,” as they grow up, because there will be schools into which they are not accepted, jobs for which they are not hired, and romantic interests that are not returned. Life is full of failures, and we all must learn to dust ourselves off and try again. If we keep our children safe from failure in the small challenges they face, they won’t grow stronger as they approach the bigger challenges of adulthood.

Safe from Needless Trauma

This does not mean we should force our children to wrestle with every adverse circumstance possible. Parents must differentiate between challenges that will benefit their children’s well-being and true threats that will harm it.

Sadly, while many today focus on minimizing hurt feelings and boosting children’s self-esteem, they ignore some of the greatest causes of traumatic and unhappy childhoods—especially the alarmingly high rates of divorce and other actions that bring consequences that God never intended children to face. Particularly in most Western countries, these unhealthy situations and the general attack on the biblical family structure are little-acknowledged sources of childhood suffering. Some would seem to suggest that it is a greater problem for a child to lose a soccer game than a parent!

To those who respect the Bible as God’s inspired word, the traumatic effects of divorce are hardly surprising. The Almighty pointedly declares that “He hates divorce” and compares it to an act of violence (Malachi 2:16). The Bible does permit divorce in some cases of sexual immorality, abandonment, or fraud—and, tragically, these sins have spread as plagues among both non-believers and those who call themselves “Christians.” But our society goes far beyond and allows—even encourages—divorce for any and all reasons! Celebrities, politicians, and even some religious leaders have charged headlong into divorce for very trivial reasons, and many others have followed their examples. Now that we have decades of evidence of what divorce does to individuals and society, we can see all the more clearly how accurate God’s word is, as well as why He hates the practice.

Tens of millions of children around the world live with only one parent. While unavoidable circumstances have created some of those regrettable situations, in far too many cases the child is a victim of a pro-divorce culture. And studies are clear that the odds of a whole host of negative outcomes—including poverty, obesity, abuse, neglect, teen pregnancy, and criminal behavior—increase in a single-parent home.

Simply put, children should not have to survive the trauma of divorce. The same can be said of abuse, neglect, and many other tragic situations that so many children endure.

Safe and Strong

God expects parents to provide safety for their children as well as opportunities for them to grow stronger. A crucial aspect of that safety is as much protection from truly traumatic experiences as possible. Parents must do everything in their power to avoid divorce and actively keep their children from situations where they could be abused or neglected! This safety of healthy relationships and environments gives children the best opportunity to grow and flourish as adults.

Tragically, sometimes it is unavoidable that children grow up with just one parent in the home. We should thank God that we have a Savior to whom all children can turn to help them overcome any abuse, neglect, and tragedy of their youth. Those who rely on God can have access to His powerful Spirit to help them overcome the obstacles they faced in their upbringing (2 Corinthians 10:4). Nevertheless, parents should strive to keep their children from ever having to face such issues in the first place!

Parents are also responsible for challenging their children to grow stronger physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Strange as it might seem to some modern observers, the best way to help children succeed is to allow them opportunities to fail—or at least not win—in minor ways. Sports provide an excellent opportunity for our children to learn that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. The “grit” that can develop from losing, dusting yourself off, and trying again, can be transferred to other areas of life and help children grow stronger in both body and mind.

Similarly, a low grade on an assignment or test can be a teaching opportunity, far more than when a child easily cruises through an assignment! The fortitude that develops in facing academic defeat is valuable. If a low grade produces a rededication to learning and eventual mastery of the lesson, the child will grow in mental strength! This lesson also applies when they try to master a musical instrument, learn to ride a bike, or face some other challenge (Proverbs 24:16).

This type of strength—this “grit”—is what parents should aim to help their children develop as they grow.

Raising Godly Offspring

Should our children be safe or strong? The correct answer is, “Both!” As parents responsible for raising “godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15), we should keep our children safe from traumatic circumstances as much as possible—but we should also ensure that they naturally experience plenty of challenges while under our watchful care, to help them grow into strong and capable adults (Proverbs 22:6). As any trainer knows, growth comes only from effort, the best effort comes from teamwork, and the most effective team is the one that works together. Our families give us the opportunity to do just that.


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