Picture a gleaming trophy with an athlete poised atop its reflective surface. Except this statue captures a moment of clumsiness instead of prowess; the player awkwardly misses the ball and the text on the trophy reads “GOOD TRY.” Next to the gilded figure stands the headline: “How the Cult of Self-Esteem Is Ruining Our Kids.” That’s how Lori Gottlieb’s article in this month’s The Atlantic caught my attention.

Juxtapose that cover with an image still stuck in my mind from Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, where author Amy Chua describes 3-4 hour piano practice sessions so stressful that her daughter leaves teeth marks on the instrument. Gottlieb examines the implications of over-identification and helicopter parenting, while Chua glorifies her “venomous tongue” because nothing less than the best is acceptable to her and it leads (she claims) to straight A’s and Olympic medals. Despite their different approaches, these parenting types are ultimately the same—parents idolizing worldly success for their children so both parties can feel worthwhile.

Gottlieb’s essay “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” explains how ceaseless parental attention and lifestyles devoted to children (their every emotion, burgeoning interests, and myriad activities) makes said children feel like the center of the world. The problem, according to Gottlieb, is that such children grow into narcissistic adults who can’t handle the frustrations and conflicts of real life. Someone else has always done it for them (while handing them meaningless trophies, stroking their egos, and reminding them what special snowflakes they are). As Gottlieb concludes, “by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do—and some letting go.” Parents and children alike are so afraid to fail that they miss the point that growing up, for both parents and children, requires failure. Lots of it. And so parents who view themselves as martyrs raise a generation as fragile as “teacups.”

I do not advocate the controversial stance outlined by Amy Chua in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother either. She offers a style of rigid parenting that reads more like a guide for breaking rookie soldiers because: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.” That eventual fun (or at least being the best) supposedly justifies the yelling and criticism Chua generously doles out. Aside from the dangerous generalizations Chua presents about “Western” and “non-Western” parenting, there’s a clear message that life is about winning. Chua certainly doesn’t fall into the self-esteem-at-all-costs trap Gottlieb describes, but her alternative (where life itself is a competition only geniuses can win) is just as self-centered. Both scenarios – whether children are losers-with-trophies or piano prodigies – are meant to reflect parental success.

I sympathize with these extremes. Every week at story hour, I watch my little girl (the one who never stops talking at home) retreat into my lap and give everyone the stink face. No, she will not jump into the circle. No, she will not sing. No, she will not march with an instrument unless mommy carries her. Never mind how often we sing those songs at home while forcing her stuffed animals to jump into a circle. I imagine all the concerns other story-hour parents conjure about my child—the silent, stony-faced, mama’s girl. But really, those concerns are mine, about me and showing that I’m a fantastic mom, because anyone who knows my daughter well knows she is happy and healthy. The extremism that seeps into our story hour is just part and parcel of parenting (which is not, in fact, a competitive endeavor) and wanting the best for our kids.

But what extreme parenting misses  is that the fundamental issue here is idolatry. As creatures created in the image of God, we’re supposed to reflect Him and His values—not humans and human values. A life that centers around anything other than God is idolatrous. God hates idolatry because it’s wrong and it’s untrue (it gives undue credit to a creation instead of the Creator). Idolatry is also bad for humans, because God knows nothing but Himself can satisfy our deepest longings. The happiness Gottlieb’s subjects find elusive and the perfection Chua requires of her children are just false idols.

To feel good enough, both parents and children are under pressure to perform, and to be really happy about it. The more dangerous pressure for children comes from being idolized. Imagine the pressure of being the center of someone else’s universe, the definition of their self-worth, and the source of their ultimate happiness. That’s not what children are supposed to be and do. That’s not a burden anyone but God can bear, and even to allow God to fulfill in His own job description requires self-submission (such a dirty word these days), not self-aggrandizement. Biblical self-esteem is actually the opposite of secular self-esteem, and the results are different, too. The world directs inward, toward self and personal happiness and human recognition, while God pushes us outward, toward service and sacrifice and the incomprehensible joy of submission.

Gottlieb’s research and Chua’s manifesto illustrate two extremes, neither of which is Godly. There are helicopter parents who want their children to feel super just the way they are and militaristic parents who bind their children to impossible performance standards. In between stands God, whose grace balances original sin. No worldly trophy can measure how much we, the created, mean to the Creator. God alone is El Shaddai—the All Sufficient One, and nothing and no one else can satisfy us permanently. Worldly self-esteem will always be focused on what the world holds dear; those things decay and fluctuate along with the whims of us capricious and selfish humans. Godly self-esteem will always be focused on God’s infinite wisdom and loveliness. Instead of looking to yet another trophy to affirm how much we and our kids matter, look to the cross. We’re all sinners there, and Christ doesn’t tell us “Good try”  or “Try harder” when we know we’ve missed the mark; look to the cross, and to the empty tomb, where Christ’s strength is made perfect in our human weakness, and our happiness is subsumed by the perfect fullness of God’s joy.

I remember one day when my daughter was an infant, I lovingly referred to her as “my wicked little sinner.” My extended family loudly and vehemently uttered their outrage. But it’s true. I find my daughter charming, captivating, gentle and brave and generally adorable. She’s a sinner too. My husband and I used to joke about why our daughter fought her swaddle like Houdini. “See the baby Jesus?” I would tease, “I bet Joseph didn’t need to pin down His arms while Mary wrapped Him!” I imagined my daughter’s response as something along the lines of “Yeah, but my mother ain’t exactly the Virgin Mary.”

Godly parenting isn’t about pushing my own agenda, making my child feel good so that I feel like a good (enough) mother; it’s not about basking in the vicarious glow of my child’s accolades or accomplishments. It’s really not about me at all, and that’s the hard part for a parent to reconcile with a sinful nature that loves to chase after false idols. Godly parenting is a balancing act, between grace and original sin, between the perseverance that produces character and the love that covers a multitude of sins. It requires submission and faith that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can guide me in sufficient parenting because God alone is All Sufficient; there’s no trophy for that kind of parenting or growing up, because God Himself is the ultimate prize.


  1. I so agree. My girls are both in college now, but I can remember this push for the best. Actually I enjoy and have fun with lots of things that I am not very good at. From a Christian perspective we are to “train up a child in the way he should go”. This means to encourage them in there natural interests and help them to achieve excellence in those areas.

    I always say I am a jack or all trades and master of none. I don’t think that is a bad thing. I will never be famous but I am happy and content.

  2. Oftentimes, the “idols of the heart” ideas are used to explain behavioral problems in people as a way to encourage people to rest in God’s love for them. It comes from the backdrop of the pastoral theology we protestants have inherited from Luther, some Puritans like Edwards, and more recently, Jack Miller and the counseling faculty at Westminster Seminary. It’s a tough call to challenge anyone for what basically amounts to them encouraging them to know how deep God’s love for them actually is. And for that, I am incredibly grateful to all the pastors and teachers I’ve listen to over the 16 years I’ve been a Christian. How horrific it must be to be in a ministry or a series of churches where you are constantly presented with a peculiar kind of American piety as the standard by which God loves any of us.

    That being said, I think the “idolatry” explanation itself creates unnecessary problems for Christians too. First, it’s an untestable hypothesis. There is no unique prediction that the “idols of the heart” explanation makes that would allow a person to conclude that the behavioral problems observed in a child or an adult for that matter are due spiritual and not psychological. To a child with a hammer, everything is a nail, and I worry that the idolatry explanation is a good example of this. Where it has the biggest problem in my experience is where it actually runs up against the very people that need the most help.

    Take a person who has a child that has severe behavioral problems. They speak out constantly, are argumentative, prone to spacing out in conversation, socially awkward, etc. Many, though not all, of these symptoms are “moral” in the way that we define them everyday. And perhaps it is sinful for a child to be argumentative as a matter of fact. But if we continually tell ourselves that the reason the child behaves the way they do, and the reason some other child does not, is due to idolatry, we may – even the best of parents – end up missing very obvious signs of a chemical explanation, such as Asbergers, or attention deficit disorder. Unlike the “idols of the heart”, these alternative explanations can be diagnosed. And importantly, they can be treated – sometimes medicinally, sometimes with counseling.

    I say all this as a 35 year old man and father of three. I became a Christian at age 19 under a reformed ministry that inherited a lot of wisdom from the puritans, Luther, and contemporary writings in counseling from WTS. But, for good or bad, my own struggles with attention, impulsiveness, sensuality, an almost insatiable appetite for books and media, and a tendency to live in my mind were things I tended to reframe in terms of sin, personality, idolatry, or some combination of the three depending on the year and situation. Last year, my 3rd grade son’s teacher called us to a meeting. My son had suddenly, and without warning, become very hard for several of us – too complex and subtle to put into words adequately here, but I think my tendency with him was always to address the way he interacted with us and others as obviously the consequence of idolatry. He was so like me that it was straightforward to make the diagnoses and suggestions. But something happened the day that we were talking with the teacher. Every description of my son and his behavior was like polaroid of me – not only as a child, but as an adult. And not as a nominal christian, but as one who had been working on a kind of regular mortification without any real progress at all. Something clicked that day for me. Long story short, I ended up at a psychologist’s office where I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder of the “primarily inattentive” subtype. Not the hyperactivity – and hence maybe one reason why it was never spotted, as forever the only ADD anyone talked about was the ADHD.

    As an explanation, ADD was scary for me. It explained everything – it explained by bimodal performance in school, my obsession with sex and drugs in high school, so many things in my personality that I thought were really good things (like my “creativity”) as well as so many things that I thought were sin (like my impulsiveness, my “laziness”, my obsessive-compulsive feast or famine cycles of work), and so on.

    I say all this I guess as someone who feels that the “idols of the heart” explanation is a pseudo-scientific theory of human behavior that oftentimes enables us to fail the very people who we should be helping. It does not foster curiosity with regards to the people we meet, but rather is quick to provide a non-testable diagnosis. With my kids, I have abandoned the idolatry language completely. I don’t really have the wisdom anymore to know how to use it because I fear it is such an exclusive thing for the kinds of people that appear to be in my family tree. After I was diagnosed, I called some of my closest family members and encouraged them to contact a doctor. It came out that 3 of my closest relatives all scored extraordinarily high on ADD, and are now receiving treatment (children and adults). Yet this had gone missed. Why? I worry that we are trying to make the Christian faith sometimes a substitute for science in ways that are completely unwarranted, unnecessary and even damaging to real people.

    This is not meant to be as harsh as this may sound. I hope its a comment that is worthy of the post, which is excellent, well-written, and very provocative.

  3. @Erin

    My husband and I used to joke about why our daughter fought her swaddle like Houdini. “See the baby Jesus?” I would tease, “I bet Joseph didn’t need to pin down His arms while Mary wrapped Him!” I imagined my daughter’s response as something along the lines of “Yeah, but my mother ain’t exactly the Virgin Mary.”

    I am totally living this right now! My daughter is amazingly good at a month and a half at escaping the swaddle!

    Anyway–great post–I hope lots of parents read this and are as encouraged as I was.

  4. Scott, I read the post to be the parent making the child an idol, not attributing the child’s behavioral issues to idolatry. But maybe I read it that way because it is an issue to which I can totally relate. I find one of my most common confessions in prayer to be that I care more about what other people think about my parenting than about my child’s spiritual health. In that way, I have made Eli (and being a good mom) my idol.

  5. Scott,

    I actually quite agree with the direction of your post. If Christians want to make simplistic generalization about what kinds of parenting result in what kinds of behavior, they had better be able to back it up with real research and numbers.

    But Heather is quite right; Erin’s post completely challenges the wrongness of idolatry not by suggesting that we parent in a way that produces a certain type of result, but instead by saying that our parenting should not be idolatrous simply because that is what God calls us to do. In other words, rather than use the cheap rhetorical trick so may pastors use (by saying, “bad parents do this, and here’s how their kids turn out!”), Erin focuses on the fact that the only real barometer we have is parenting in a way that is God-centered rather than child-centered, and allowing God to use that act of trust how he will in our children’s lives.

    Really, this is a model for how to handle some of the contentious religious-secular debates about outcomes… rather than saying what we don’t know to try to argue other Christians or non-Christians into living a certain way, we can call God’s people to faithfulness, and allow Him to be the one to guide the directions our lives take. And we can trust that it’s this sort of life He can best use to be a light to the world.

  6. The idol of my heart is trolling Scott Cunningham on the Internet. Can your “Science” explain that behavior, Scott?

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