Raising Children in an Age of Expressive Individualism
Perhaps one of the great needs of our cultural moment is to consider the ways we, as moms and dads, have succumbed to the cultural winds of our era and how we may have left our children exposed to those harsh and deadly gale force gusts. Would our acceptance of certain cultural norms be shocking to Christians from other eras? Our movie choices? Our narcissistic tendencies? Our luxury beliefs? Our lack of conviction over biblical truth? Our lack of obedience to biblical commands?
Every generation has weaknesses and blind spots, but today’s Christian moms and dads are facing a world of expressive individualism in all its varied and sundry forms—from an obsession with one’s so-called gender as the defining self-demarcation to an obsession with personality tests to define one’s core inner self. The world is awash in self-identity and the need to express it far and wide.
This is why parents must be relentless as they evaluate whether this trend has taken hold—or more likely, to what degree it has taken hold—in themselves. Ruthlessly cut it out; ruthlessly reject yourself and your sense of things as the center of the universe; ruthlessly deny any desire to express a godless inner thought life for public consumption. Be who you are: a Christian who belongs to God, who was bought with a price, whose inner and outer self are meant to glorify God.
Then, we must turn to our children and guide them in the way they should go. Here are three principles to help inoculate your children from expressive individualism—an ideology that holds each person’s core self is an inner psychological self based on inner feelings and desires that ought to be lived out and expressed—and all its ensuing ills.
1. Help them see that who they are is discernible and given to them, not mysterious and chosen by them.
Expressive individualism wants to locate the “true self” deep inside the folds of the belly button, where all great mysteries reside. But finding out “who you are” is really very simple. Children must be taught to observe their God-given body. Is it male or female? That tells you something profound about who you are and what you were made for. It tells you if you are daughter or son, sister or brother, uncle or aunt, potential wife or husband, potential mother or father. Being made male or female is an assignment directly from the hand of God himself and it is to be received with joy.
Furthermore, hopefully your children are in Christ, which means they are his servants, his brothers and sisters, his friends. And so they are sons and daughters of God the Father. These are the deepest answers we have for the most important questions of identity. Without this, children will be left to drudge up paltry meaning from made-up gender identities, online tribes, and narcissistic social media traps that make them spectators of their own life’s meaning and popularity (or lack thereof).
There are other ways of discerning in a more temporary way “who you are.” Are you school age? Then you are a student. Do you have a job? Then you are an employee. These titles may come and go, but they are important indicators of who we are at any given time and what we are meant to be doing with ourselves. We must teach our children that who they are is not a mystery, it is a discernible gift, and it comes with certain duties and joys that are fitting to the circumstance.
As parents, we must protect our children from those who would teach them otherwise. There is nothing less than the eternal well-being of our children at stake. It is our obligation to make truth the norm. It is their obligation to listen to us and obey us. But none of that can happen if moms and dads opt out by allowing their children to be indoctrinated into the ways of the world.
2. Help them see that what they do reveals the heart, often more than what they feel.
In the parable of the two sons, Jesus tells of a Father who told his sons to work in the vineyard for the day. One said he would go but didn’t. The other said he wouldn’t go but changed his mind and went. It was the one who went to the vineyard who did the will of his father. Likewise, our actions are a meaningful indicator of what we truly believe. Our beliefs are not off in some theoretical, talk-only, feelings-make-meaning realm.
Our beliefs are made genuine with hands and feet and minds that serve the Lord. In today’s anxiety-ridden society, children need to be reminded that belief-fueled action is how we do God’s will—and that God’s will is a safe place to be. Our children need to be taught that because the Lord is mindful of them, because he cares so sovereignly and completely for them, they are free to focus their thoughts and their actions on other things—things like God, his excellencies, his Word, the good of their family and friends, the service of the church, the spread of the gospel, and the help of those in need. They are free to obey.
3. Help them trust external reality—God’s Spirit, God’s Word, and God’s people—rather than going it alone with their inner sense of things.
The biggest way to help your children trust God is to actually trust him yourself—to actually be banking on his promises day by day, to know them, to read them, to put all your hope in them, and to do so regularly as a family and in the company of the local church. These habits of grace, as David Mathis calls them, make for godly muscle memory that will serve as a protection in times to come.
What does your family do in a crisis, big or small? Pray and remember God’s promises. What does your family do after dinner each night? Read the Bible and pray for one another’s requests. What does your family do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights? Gather with God’s people to sing, learn, fellowship, pray, baptize, share the Lord’s Supper, and generally just love one another. There is nothing more powerfully protective for our children than rhythms of dependence on God. These rhythms help them know where to look for help—look outside yourself! Look to Christ, to his Spirit, to his Spirit’s words, and to his people.
We cannot depend on our inner sense of things as an infallible guide—it does guide, but it must be calibrated by his Word and taken captive to Christ. Lord willing, our children will have years of practice listening to the Spirit, identifying false teaching, submitting their own thought life to the Lord, and enjoying the freedom of an identity given by God the Father, not conjured out of a vacuous navel-lint ego. There is no more important work in the universe for moms and dads than to train their children in the Lord, to talk with them as you drive down the road, while you make coffee in the morning, and as you start the bedtime routine. Our children need us attentive and equipped, providing the stability of Christ as they grow up, so that they too can find their feet in these tumultuous days.