Finding a Middle Way through the Midway

With excitement in her eyes, Sarah kissed her parents goodbye. John and Judy’s decision to let their sixteen-year-old daughter attend the girls’ summer art camp wasn’t difficult. They had heard great things about the program and believed it was an excellent opportunity.

Then John and Judy learned the famous art camp was a magnet for teenage lesbians, many of whom believed their immoral lifestyles enhanced their identity as artists. Sixteen years of parenting flashed through their minds. Had they taught Sarah to make wise, godly decisions without them? Would Sarah maintain a loving witness for Christ? Would she be influenced by the immorality around her? Fretting over their daughter’s spiritual health, John and Judy wondered whether they should play it safe and bring Sarah home where they knew she’d be protected from the dangers of the world.

To children growing up today, the world is like the raucous midway of an amusement park, a fairground of enticing colors and sounds that promise excitement at every turn. They’re constantly bombarded with temptations toward sin and choices that aren’t always black and white. How do we as parents or leaders help them steer clear of the “crooked carnies” of their world without coming across as crotchety kill-joys? How do we prepare them to make wise, godly decisions without us?

Extremes of Legalism and License

Homosexual behavior is obviously wrong, while Bible study is unquestionably right. But what about issues where Scripture is not so specific—decisions requiring discernment? The approaches to guiding children toward wise decisions in gray areas often swing between the extremes of legalism and license. Some parents completely avoid the “midway” of the world by chucking the television, banning movies, or shielding their children from such “evils” of society as public schools and non-Christian friends. Others swiftly march their children through the carnival shouting “No!” The result may be protected children who are obedient, at least while they’re at home, but who lack the knowledge or wisdom to make wise decisions on their own.

Parents on the opposite extreme remove the word no from their vocabularies and offer little guidance for decision-making. They may use the television as a babysitter and ignore film ratings, thereby passively sacrificing their children to the destructive influences of the world. This lack of boundaries can produce children who have firsthand knowledge of the world, but lack the wisdom to distinguish right from wrong, wise from unwise.

Few parents are on these extremes of legalism and license, but many of us lean toward one or the other, especially as our children grow older. We inconsistently extend irresponsible liberties or set thoughtless boundaries that seem arbitrary. The result of an erratic or unbalanced approach is children who are unequipped to make wise, godly decisions in life. Like in Pinocchio’s misadventures on Pleasure Island, Christians often send their children into the world with a wooden head and a cricket-sized conscience, then wonder why they come back looking like mules!

Biblical Balance

The primary goal of parenting is to grow children into young adults who are able to make wise, godly decisions without the necessity of parental direction (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:31). This decision-making ability requires not merely obedience and knowledge, but also wisdom that comes from experience in making decisions. Ephesians 4:11-16 uses the maturing of a person to illustrate the growth of the church. Like church leaders, parents are to equip children for life (4:12), imparting knowledge of the truth as well as opportunities to exercise wisdom to stand strong in a deceitful world (4:13-16).

As children mature they require different levels of protection, guidance, and discipline (Proverbs 22:6; Galatians 4:17; 1 Corinthians 13:11; 2 Corinthians 12:14; Hebrews 12:9). At times it’s necessary to say no (Proverbs 29:15; Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20). However, we shouldn’t needlessly frustrate our children by over-burdening them with legalistic dos and don’ts that stifle individuality or stunt their growth toward wise discernment (Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:21). But having no boundaries can also frustrate them by communicating a lack of concern.

Finding the Middle Way

Though challenging, we need to give our children reasonable freedom to make age-appropriate decisions, such as spending allowance, reading books, wearing jewelry, and watching movies, distinguishing clear issues of morality from gray issues of preference. We also need to give children some freedom to make the wrong decisions and face the consequences. Hebrews 5:14 says the mature are those who “because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (emphasis added). While avoiding the extremes of legalism and license, we must prayerfully answer several questions as we guide our children through the middle way.

First, does the Word of God specifically prohibit the behavior? Protect younger children from dangerous behaviors. Several Scriptures mark clear boundaries of right and wrong (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21). Those who have influence over younger children are responsible to protect them, providing reasons for the rules whenever possible. But direct rescues from danger should decrease as children mature toward young adults who begin making decisions on their own. With appropriate words of wisdom from parents and an awareness of the damaging effects of sin on their lives, teens and young adults must learn to make their own choices to obey God’s Word.

Second, what broad principles apply to this behavior? Help your children apply general principles in their decisions. While most choices won’t be determined by explicit commands, the Bible places great emphasis on living according to general principles. We’re to do things out of love, humility, and ultimately to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 16:14; Philippians 2:3; 1 Corinthians 10:31).

For example, your child might want to accept a copied music CD from a friend rather than purchase his or her own. Instead of lecturing, consider asking your child, “Does this choice honor God’s desire for us to be honest?” Gently challenge their decisions, offering correction when necessary and always looking for opportunities to praise them.

Third, will this behavior cause a weaker Christian to stumble? Point your child to the effect his decisions will have on others, especially younger children who may look up to him and follow his example. It’s an opportunity to show how even neutral decisions can affect those who may not be mature enough to handle the same choices (1 Corinthians 8:13).

Finally, what are their motives? Don’t ask your children simply what they want to do, but why they want to do it. This question will help them focus on their hearts (1 John 3:18-22). As they do this, they might discover the pressure of outside influences or internal impure motives (1 Timothy 1:5), and choose wisely as a result.

In applying these principles and giving our growing children room to make choices, we must face the possibility that danger lurks in this freedom. Our kids may suffer consequences that hurt far more than a skinned knee. As difficult as it may be for a parent to allow, there’s no tutor quite like the pain of a poor decision—or the joy of a wise one. The difficult balancing act for the parent is to allow consequences to teach children without letting them destroy their lives in the process.

John and Judy had such a decision to make with Sarah. Having chosen to trust God and allow her to face the challenges of the world head-on, they were relieved when Sarah returned with a keener sense of discernment and a stronger faith in Christ. Like John and Judy, we’ll all face moments when we wonder if we did enough to prepare our children to make wise, godly decisions without us. When you reach this point with your own children, will you be able to look back with confidence and conclude that you equipped them to find the middle way through the midway?

Adapted from Michael J. Svigel, “Finding a Middle Way through the Midway,” Insights (October 2004): 1-2, 6. Copyright © 2004, Insight for Living. All rights reserved worldwide.

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Michael J. Svigel received his master of theology in New Testament and doctor of philosophy in Theological Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). He currently serves as associate professor of Theological Studies at DTS, teaching Theology and Church History. Prior to accepting his position at the seminary in 2007, he worked as a writer in the Creative Ministries Department at Insight for Living Ministries. Mike and his wife, Stephanie, are parents of three children.