Parenting the Prodigal

You don’t have to look far, perhaps no further than your own family, to see Christian parents with prodigal children. I’m referring to children who turn away from their Christian upbringing, embracing beliefs and behaviours contrary to their parents’.

The primary struggle for Christian parents in this situation is coming to terms with what happened and how to relate to their child moving forward.  

Here’s Where They’re At

As children develop into adults, a necessary individuation process takes place where identities are formed. Part of the individualization process involves re-evaluating the behaviours and beliefs they were raised with while exploring and trying on new behaviours and beliefs. Children in this stage feel vulnerable and this offers them a chance for greater control in their lives.

This is a time of major self-centredness and individuation. Often during this time children see some hypocrisy and inconsistency in the faith, or dysfunctionality in the home, by their parents and/or the church. Coupled with feeling a lack of acceptance from Christians, children pull away from their parents and toward those who they feel acceptance from—other prodigals.

Here’s Where You’re At

Somewhere along the way you adopted a kind of psychological determinism that believes parenting creates the child and Christian parenting produces Christian children. It doesn’t. There are no guarantees like that.

The verse, “Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 NASB) is not a promise. Proverbs 22:6 is a general observation about understanding the natural inclinations of your child and fostering development in those areas.

Here’s Where Scripture’s At

Scripture has many examples of godly parents who have ungodly children. Even the perfect Father, God, had rebellious children. Proverbs 22:15 says, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child....” Sometimes foolishness begets prodigals.

In the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) observe that the father neither stops his child from leaving nor follows after him. Instead, this parent stays home and prays. When his child comes to his senses and returns home, he is waiting, watching, and runs to meet him.

Until signs of repentance and a change of direction come, parents should keep to their own counsel. Do not support the rebellion, and do not interfere (1 Peter 4:15).

Where To Go From Here

  • Instead of focusing on whether or not you are parenting successfully, ensure you are living and parenting faithfully.
  • Learn how to have difficult conversations with your wayward kids, taking care to be authentic and not hypocritical. Now more than ever it’s important to model redemption and not perfection to your children.
  • Welcome your prodigal home. Your concern is for your child's heart; don't create too many requirements for coming home. No matter how broken and alienated your child may be, you always will be his or her parent—you have the unique opportunity to love without strings.
  • Don't expect Christlike behaviour if your child is not a Christian or not acting like one. Find ways to connect with your child and always be ready to compliment and encourage. At the same time be sure to have clear boundaries. You and others in your family should not accept abusive or destructive behaviour from a prodigal.
  • Protect your marriage. Marriages can erode when prodigals become the focal point of the marriage. Use the crisis to solidify, not divide, your relationship.
  • Get prayer and emotional support. You need the prayers, counsel, and wisdom of your church leaders. You may need professional counsellors or other advisors. Be open to outside help.
  • Take your personal pain to Christ who offers sufficient grace. Pray and keep praying for your child. Nothing is impossible with God.