Should I allow my kids to suffer the sting of failure?
In the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), Jesus examined the hearts of two sons and their father. The younger son was entirely ungrateful and unsatisfied with his father’s provisions. In fact, he longed for his father’s death so that he could take possession of his wealth and pursue his own sinful desires. Unwilling to wait for his father’s death, the son asked for his share of the inheritance. Despite this incredibly heartless betrayal, the father granted the son’s request. In this parable, the father is analogous to God the Father. What?!?!? This should cause parents to stop and ask questions like: "How could a wise and loving father allow his son to leave with his share of his inheritance? Why would a perfect Father, whom Jesus compares to God, allow his beloved child to suffer such an easily foreseeable circumstance of failure?"
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything (Luke 15:13-16).After the son’s great betrayal, he quickly discovered that his sinful pursuits had left him empty and enslaved to strangers in a distant land. The son had completely squandered his father’s wealth, hiring prostitutes (Luke 15:30) and feeding his sinful appetites. Initially, he was able to purchase his friends. But once he was completely broke, the people of that region were unwilling to care for him. This son grew so desperate and hungry that he found himself longing to eat alongside the pigs. Though he had once been a cherished son in the house of his father, he now found himself eager to share dinner with the most defiled of animals in the ancient world.
When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’” So he got up and went to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So they began to celebrate (Luke 15:17-24).
As the son endured miserable slavery and desperate hunger in the distant country, he was forced to reflect upon the goodness of his father. Though he had once despised the daily provisions of his father, he came to realize that his father had actually lavished an abundance upon him. Even the father’s servants were given so much that they had food to spare. So the prodigal son decided to humble himself and make the long trek home — eager to confess his sins and to beg for a position among the servants. The prodigal knew that he had forfeited his right to be treated as a son, and he could only hope that his father would be willing to hire him as one of the household servants. Regardless of his status, the son desperately wanted to once again live under the father’s care.
Imagine the pain in the heart of the father through all of this. I'm sure that he experienced many sleepless nights filled with bitter agony and weeping. But he was trusting that this son's failure would produce something that unhindered privilege and prosperity never could.
When the father initially watched his youngest son venture off to the far country, his son was filled with a despicable arrogance. On that day, the son enjoyed a healthy appearance due to the faithful provision of his father. He left home with the father’s abundant wealth, and he was dressed in the finest robes and sandals. However, things were radically different as the son returned. The posture of arrogance was replaced by a posture of absolute shame. The wealthy son now returned in utter poverty. His face and frame were much thinner due to the effects of starvation. His finest robes were now soiled and tattered from his daily service among the pigs, and he was returning without any sandals at all. As the prodigal approached the father’s house, he undoubtedly expected to be shamed for his wickedness and his embarrassing failure. Then comes the triumphant parenting moment.
Rather than shaming and humiliation, the son’s return was marked by a celebration, and the father joyfully sought to restore his son in every manner possible. When he saw that his beloved son was famished, he ordered his servants to prepare a feast and to slaughter the fattened calf. When he saw that his son was barefoot and that his robes were covered in filth, he ordered his servants to put new sandals on his feet and to clothe him in the family’s best robe. After hearing his son shamefully confess that he was no longer worthy to be called a son, the father ordered the servants to place the family’s signet ring on his finger — granting him all the privileges and authority of a son. Despite all of his sins, the father was overjoyed and thrilled to restore him as a beloved son. No questions. No lectures. No looks of disgust. Just an open-armed embrace from a father thrilled to embrace his humbled and desperate son.
The father had been eagerly waiting and watching for the day of his son's return. Upon seeing his son in the distance, the father was not interested in shaming his son, nor did he wait for his son’s confession. The father was not hindered by the son’s shocking appearance. Instead, he raced out to meet his son and embraced him — filth and all. Though his culture viewed it as shameful for an elderly man to lift his robes and run, the father endured the shame, because he could not contain his delight. Before the son could even offer his apology, the father wanted his son to know that his love was unconditional. His love was not dependent upon the son's performance. Nothing in the son’s past could separate him from the father’s love!
In the end, it turns out that the father's decision to allow the prodigal son to fail actually served to rescue his son. Thankfully, the father chose to allow for such an epic failure at a time when he would still be around to welcome and restore his son as a new and redeemed man. One can only imagine what fate may have befallen the son if he had received the inheritance as a result of his father's death.
Of course, I am not suggesting that we should allow our little ones to run away or to get into such terrible trouble. Remember that the prodigal son of this parable was a grown adult. However, on a much smaller and milder scale, I AM suggesting that we should seize the incredible opportunities that we are given to shape our children through their failures. Like the father of this parable, we will be racked with grief at times. We will want to shield them from the pains of this world. But when we shield them from every potential chance of failure or disappointment, we are actually robbing them of the opportunity to learn and grow and develop through their failures.
We can all agree that we would much prefer our children to learn to process failure (and your children WILL eventually experience some form of failure) while the consequences are relatively minor. Better now when the consequences include detentions, being grounded, or having a phone taken away than to see them learning how to fail at college, in their careers, or in their marriages.
At Bethany, we want success for every child. Often times, that road runs through a path of difficult failures. But we serve a God who is masterful at transforming our mud puddles into masterpieces! And that should be a great source of comfort and hope for all parents!