The subtle idols in Christian parenting

A friend shared some articles on Gospel Coalition recently and I felt that they hit the nail on the head.

Their titles were rather provocative, but the content was based on solid biblical teaching, and the authors’ points were certainly thought-provoking.

It made me wonder about how these issues play out in our local Singaporean context. I do catch myself slipping down these very slippery slopes many a time, and it does take regular reflection to figure out what truly matters to me, what should truly matter, and then how to re-calibrate my words and actions such that they align with my beliefs.


Education Idolatory

I had often thought that that ‘education-idol’ was particularly prevalent amongst Christian parents in Singapore, but I suppose we do not have a monopoly on this. I think it is even more dangerous, because it is so subtle, and “feels so right”. I feel that there is a fine line between Colossians 3:23’s ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord’ and elevating academic success to an idol, on whose altar we sacrifice our children.

The article says:

It robs the youngest among us of confidence and joy should they fall below a certain GPA or SAT score.

It’s not difficult to see that today’s teenager is painfully overextended and that many parents are running themselves ragged to ensure their kid can have it all. This is the new frontier of “keeping up with the Joneses,” and it’s not so much in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar as it is of the Almighty Degree.

Do we pursue ‘doing well in school’ to the extent that we spend excessive time on assessment books and tuition, that our conversation with our children and our mental energies are all focused on ‘keeping up with the Lims’, such that ultimately, our lives run contrary to how we are called to live in this world?

Do we choose schools that have high (and sometimes unrealistic) academic standards, and then subsequently lament that we have ‘no choice’ but to schedule back-to-back tuition so that our kids can ‘keep up’ with the school’s demands?

A speaker whom I deeply respect said over our church pulpit recently, “Spending time with your children does not mean shuttling them from one tuition centre to the next for the entire weekend.” How many of us have fallen into that trap?

I am not unsympathetic. I feel that it is easy for any parent whose child is not yet in primary school to wax lyrical about how they will buck the trend, and prioritise godly pursuits and free play in place of daily homework. I used to be one of them. I would walk past the shelves of assessment books in bookshops with an almost physical aversion.

Until cold hard reality hit, when my child (who is in an average primary school that is easy for anyone outside 2km to get in at Phase 2C) nonetheless had to spend most weekday nights navigating her homework (which was not excessive in comparison with the average Singaporean school), and at the recommendation of her teacher, purchase assessment books for more practice. We do it, because we are still trying to get her to take ownership of her studying, and not farm it all out to ‘enrichment centre experts’ (apart from the Chinese tuition she started in K2).

It is no wonder that the tuition industry in Singapore is a billion dollar one, and so many buildings have so many floors dedicated to enrichment centres.  It’s really quite depressing walking around those places, and see parents hanging around F&B establishments waiting for their kids to emerge from those fluorescent-lit rooms, glassy-eyed. It is almost dystopian.

As Christian parents, do we live counter-culturally in this aspect, or do we allow ourselves to be swept in with the tide of the crazed pursuit of academic excellence? I think it’s a very fine line, and all of us will have to prayerfully find our own balance. How much will we push our kid to work hard in a bid to stave away laziness, and when does it cross over to an over-emphasis that colours our child’s view of what is truly important in this life?

Only each parent can answer that for their own family, though I’ve always felt that the greater danger is in not even being aware, and thus not consciously calibrating the time spent on academics, and our words and tone when we speak to our kids about the pursuit of results when exam season draws near.

Image by Roger Coles

Sports Idolatory

Sports Idolatory is probably slightly less prevalent in Singapore (we don’t have local baseball stars or basketball stars to hero-worship as much), but tragically it is also probably simply a secondary idol to those who are already pursuing the academic idol. For in this day and age it is not enough to get straight A*s. One’s sporting (or CCA) resume needs to be sufficiently padded up to, for that Direct Schools Admissions (DSA) advantage.

So parents send their kids for gym classes at age 4, so that by the time they enter primary school, they can go for those secret gym trials and get selected into the School Team by week one of Primary 1. Or tennis classes (which are so expensive that most other parents would be priced-out, thus thinning out the competition), or whatever sport valued by the coveted brand name secondary school that the parent is aiming for their child to get into.

Sports is always time-consuming and it is easy to let it take over a large chunk of one’s free time.

When my kid’s CCA had exams on Sunday, we attempted a Chariots of Fire, and said we had to be in church at that time. But they mentioned that the exam was at that time for the whole of Singapore and there would be no other choice. So one of us had to ferry her there and back, thankfully it only happens once a year.

I guess the important thing is to make conscious choices, with the knowledge and acceptance of the fact that one can’t do Everything and be Everywhere. When we commit to yet another sport/musical instrument/skill-learning, something will give. And it is often the rest that we need to function well, and the time to be quiet before God that will automatically disappear.

If our schedule is so regularly insane that we can’t rest, then perhaps our heart has subtly shifted. We always have time for what is most important to us. If our calendars leave room for nothing but the kids’ activities, then maybe those activities have become what we value most. Family devotional times are challenging in the best of times, but during soccer season they often disappear.

What are we communicating to our children about priorities when we have time for all of their sports but never to read God’s Word together?


Safety Idolatory

I wasn’t sure what this referred to till I read the article. Then I realised, that this is also very relevant to Asian Christians. Often, the safety of our kids is paramount. This is natural, but when we pray for safety in such a desperate way, doesn’t it begin to seem like we don’t trust God’s ultimate good and perfect will, that may or may not result in the ultimate safety of our kids?

Often we want our kids to follow Jesus to a certain extent. We like their commitment to Christ when it means good moral choices and a sense of spiritual fulfillment. But what happens when they embrace the gospel to a point where life gets financially challenging, or even physically dangerous?

What if our child foregoes a medical school acceptance to serve as a missionary in Uganda? What happens when Christian conviction leads them to teach in the inner city or attend seminary rather than law school?

How do we feel when God calls our child to become a foster parent or to adopt children of another race—just when things were socially and financially comfortable with three beautiful biological children? What happens when God calls kids raised in the suburbs to live in an impoverished, crime-ridden area, or in a predominantly Muslim nation?

The sermon I heard last week on Psalm 46 also made me reflect on what it means to believe that “God is my refuge and strength”. If we hold the worldview that God is sovereign, and that our children are but seeds that we help water for a season, seeds that are planted and owned by God, seeds that only God can cause to grow, then surely we should live with true freedom, resting in God’s sovereignty and wisdom, come what may. He tells us to water these seeds for a season, but only He knows what seed he has planted (an elegant esoteric orchid or a prosaic albeit wholesome cucumber?) and only He can make them flourish to their true purpose if we obey His commands and walk in His ways.

The author puts it best as follows:

The Lord may lead our children into uncomfortable circumstances. For your child, that discomfort may involve a foreign nation or a college sorority, a low-earning profession or an investment bank. But regardless of what risk and discomfort may look like for your child, don’t let idols of comfort and safety rob them of the chance to experience the joy of life devoted to King Jesus—regardless of the cost.

Image by Roger Coles

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