Raising Kids Who Fear God but Not the World

By Melanie Rainer

I’m a relatively new mom, just shy of two years in to this unbelievable adventure. I remember when I found out we were expecting, my anxious heart started beating faster and to be honest, it has never really stopped.

I’ve always been afraid of lots of things. Spiders, planes, cancer, car accidents … the list goes on and on. But when I started thinking and praying about the type of parent I wanted to be and the kind of child I hoped to raise, I prayed for a new, less fearful heart. I prayed that my husband and I would raise a child who feared God, but not the world.

Putting that prayer into practice, however, is a daily struggle. When the baby in your belly becomes – much faster than I ever expected – a fearless, bright-eyed, audacious toddler, all of my intentions to be that relaxed parent have been tested.

I’m not hyper-vigilant. I rolled my eyes when my parents (devoted grandparents) bought baby knee pads when my girl started crawling, and I congratulate my spunky girl when she gets a minor knee scrape – the souvenir of a happy afternoon outside. I want her to be messy and resilient, but not too careless of course.

When I read the viral New York Times Magazine story about father Mike Lanza, who is the quintessential “anti-helicopter parent,” it started me thinking. Lanza transformed his backyard into a mecca of adventures, from a trampoline to ladders that go to the attic (a few of the tamer options).

Lanza’s backyard is like a kids’ dream – but many parents’ nightmare. The author notes, “Central to Mike’s philosophy is the importance of physical danger: of encouraging boys to take risks and play rough and tumble and get — or inflict — a scrape or two. Central to what he calls mom philosophy (which could just be described as contemporary parenting philosophy) is just the opposite: to play safe, play nice and not hurt other kids or yourself. Most moms are not inclined to leave their children’s safety up to chance. I certainly am not.”

I would probably land on the author’s side – not letting her kids play unsupervised in the Lanza’s backyard – but I do think that as Christian parents, we have much to learn from Lanza’s “Playborhood.”

What is the line between recklessness and free play? And as Christians, how do we navigate trusting God with stewarding the gift of our children and their safety? I think it looks a lot like not being careless, but also instilling ourselves and our kids with a confidence that allows us to engage in God’s world without being afraid.

My fear falls into two categories – real and highly unlikely. Most of the time, I waste my midnight hours on the latter, especially when it comes to my family. ISIS, rogue gunmen in shopping malls and movie theaters, traumatic car accidents and horrible cancers – these are the easiest things to fear, because they are utterly beyond my control. When it’s out of my control, I can only dread it.

Controllable fears, like keeping my girl off the big slide at the park, are ways that I exert my own power over her day. They feed my need to be in control at all times. But both categories serve only to make me the one in charge, and subvert my trust in God.

Lanza’s Playborhood is all about controlling environments – and the tension he feels with the writer of the article and many of his neighbors is quite obviously a struggle for power. Both Lanza and the author seek to create their version of an “ideal” childhood. Lanza’s is a free and fearless one, the author’s is a more cautious approach.

Arianna Benedetto recently wrote in Christ and Pop Culture that it is easy for parents to fall victim to the “security Gospel” – this idea that God will essentially reward his followers with safety. She writes, “By teaching our daughter that her affluence and faith guarantee her safety, we were giving her a “security gospel,” which is essentially a version of the prosperity gospel, offering promises that were never made to us as followers of Christ.”

Benedetto offers what I think is the best solution to the debate between helicopter and free range parenting (though I think we are best served to not think of those things as diametrically opposed, but more so as a range of options that we can slide up and down on depending on a variety of contextual factors). She points us to the opposite of helicopter parenting, what God did when he sent His Son. She writes, “And yet, in glaring contrast with my idolization of my daughter’s safety, God sent His Son to take on and overcome the destruction meant for us—our truest cause for fear—in order to guarantee us eternal life with Him”

And so what does it mean, to fear God but not the world? As a mom, it means I trust God. It means I believe (or I try, with a lot of prayer for the Spirit’s power to change my heart) that God is in control, that I am not, and that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). And it is a prayer that I will instill the same hope, faith and trust in my daughter … that as my spirited, silly girl grows in stature, she will also grow in faith, and that she will face each day and each new adventure anchored in truth about the God who made her.