Columnists > Voices

Aim low

Timid and flabby describes more than mainstream parenting

Issue: "Rick Santorum: Penn Station," April 30, 2005

If it's a depressing fact that American parents tend to be way too casual and lenient in setting goals for the rearing of their children, get ready for much worse news: Americans who might well be called evangelical Christians are statistically almost indistinguishable on many aspects of that same assignment.

That's according to still another poll from The Barna Group, which in recent years has repeatedly shown how little sociological difference there is between Christians and non-Christians. George Barna, who heads the research organization, has said more and more emphatically that evangelical Christians are a lot better at talking than they are at walking.

Now Mr. Barna and his number crunchers say that a whole lot of Christians aren't even bothering to talk with all that much seriousness. His recent survey focuses on what kinds of goals parents are setting for their children-not, mind you, on how well they're doing achieving those goals-but just describing the goals themselves. Even on that front, Christians come across as timid and flabby.

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It may not be surprising, for example, to find that American parents in general (four out of 10) say that a good education is the main goal they are pursuing for their children. You wouldn't really expect, for example, mainstream parents to resonate with or echo the Apostle John: "I have no greater joy," he said, "than to know that my children walk in truth." But wouldn't you expect that seriously committed Christians might state the goals they have for their children in a faith-centered way? Mr. Barna says we shouldn't kid ourselves. We look pretty much like our secular counterparts, he says-suggesting that maybe we ourselves have been secularized far more than we have allowed for.

Overall, Mr. Barna notes, "The qualities born again parents say an effective parent must possess, the outcomes they hope to facilitate in the lives of their children, and the media monitoring process in the household were indistinguishable from the approach taken by parents who are not born again."

There is a noteworthy exception to that pattern, including both good and bad news. The good news is that Christian parents are twice as likely as their secular counterparts to teach their children that there are moral absolutes in life that ought to be observed. The bad news is that of those who qualify as born-again, only 60 percent take such a position!

Such relativism is evident in recent Barna polls on a variety of topics. It is evident as well in the casual response to the question: How will you measure success in the raising of your children? Fewer than three out of 10 said the real-life fruit of their efforts would be the determining factor. Instead, by a 2-to-1 margin, respondents said they'd simply consider whether they'd done the best they could-regardless of the outcome. The Barna report didn't indicate if the same folks would be so forgiving toward surgeons, car mechanics, stockbrokers, and airline pilots who might take the same approach.

Indeed, "discipline" and "toughness" were hardly dominant in the characteristics respondents describe as most important to effective child rearing:

• Patience: 36 percent

• Demonstration of love: 32 percent

• Being understanding: 22 percent

• Enforcing discipline: 22 percent

• Significant faith commitment: 20 percent

• Good communication skills: 17 percent

• Being compassionate: 14 percent

• Knowing how to listen: 12 percent

• Being intelligent: 11 percent

"Being a praying person" got a measly 4 percent score, while "having integrity or good character" got just 1 percent.

"Soft" goals may well be more palatable than "hard" ones-but they will also prove in the end to be the vulnerable underbelly of our culture. It's bad enough to be concerned and disillusioned about the current population of our country. It gets painfully worse when you consider how much softer the next generation might well be.

Thankfully, that's hardly the end of the story. Even though God sometimes visits our sins to what He calls "the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me," He also very often, in acts of incredible forbearance and goodness, steps into history to "show mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments."

But wouldn't you think that people who have tasted that mercy for themselves would list as a primary goal for their children that very same experience? The fact that they don't makes you wonder how real their own experience of God's goodness has really been.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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