There were some challenges I think I was prepared for as a parent. I knew, for example, that we would have the technology challenge – when and if to get our kids a phone, what restrictions to place on it, and what to do when those restrictions are violated.
I knew that we would have the materialism challenge – how to respond to our kids when they inevitably come to us demanding to have the same brand of shoes and the same type of pants as everyone else.
I knew that we would have the “outsmarting” us challenge – that at some point, we would not be able to help our kids with their homework any more because either we’ve forgotten how to do what they’re learning to do in math, or we never learned it to begin with.
That’s not to say I was prepared to respond appropriately to all these challenges, because most days I sort of fumble my way through my dadding, asking the Lord for His help (and then for His forgiveness when I mess it up). It only means that I knew these challenges to be present. That I expected them to come.
But one challenge I did not see coming was the popularity challenge.
By that, I don’t mean the particular challenges that come if your children are popular, though those are many. I mean the temptation as a parent to treat popularity as more highly valued than it ought to be. This is what I was not prepared for – the same tug that I felt in middle school, except this time with my own child, to desire popularity for them. Almost at any expense. Of course, you don’t say to your kids, “Be popular,” but I’m finding the temptation to parent for popularity comes out in all kinds of subtle ways:
- It comes out when we gently nudge our kids toward extracurricular activities they don’t particularly enjoy because we know those are the most popular activities.
- It comes out when we pay close attention at the pick up and drop off to see what other kids are wearing, to see how our own child’s sense of style coincides with what’s trendy.
- It comes out when we intentionally schedule playdates and extend birthday party invitations to the “right” kids, even if those aren’t the kids our children are befriending.
The pull is strong – much stronger than I would have thought. It’s so strong, in fact, that popularity can easily become that thing that we fall back on when other parts of our kids’ lives don’t seem to be lining up. Sure, our kid doesn’t enjoy or pay attention in church, but they have a lot of friends at school. Sure, our kid doesn’t have a forgiving and generous attitude with their siblings, but they are well liked otherwise. Sure, our kid is caught up in always wanting the latest device, but that’s because they need to keep in touch with all their peers.
Here is a good and explicitly simple reminder for me, and maybe for you also today: We do not parent for popularity. We parent to the end that our children know and believe the gospel.
This, of course, is the harder road, because popularity can be manufactured. If you have the right clothes, schedule the right playdates, and teach your kids the right lingo then it can be achieved easily enough. Further, popularity is gratifying. If you were popular as a teenager, you know how good it feels to be in the middle of the middle. And if you weren’t popular as a kid, you know how much it can sting to be left out.
As parents, this temptation to push popularity shows us that we need the gospel as much as our children do. Our kids need the gospel so they understand the security that can only come when they are loved and accepted by Jesus. We, as parents, need the gospel so that we are secure enough not to relive our childhoods, or try to change them, vicariously through our children.
So if you feel the pull today, like I do, then perhaps the best thing you can hear today is the same best thing your son or daughter can hear today: Jesus loves you. And once you are His, you will never be left out.