06/17/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Proudest Parenting Moment I'll Never Share With You

Stephanie Gates

I admit it -- I brag about my kids. I post pictures of my 3-year-old barreling down the sidewalk on her balance bike and share video of my oldest jumping from the diving board. I broadcast images of my kindergartener holding a finished school project, or my baby conquering the slide for the first time. I love to see my kids succeed, and I am quick to share their accomplishments with the online world.

It's natural to be proud of our children, right? Good, even, for them see us honor their achievements. Yet, I see a different type of pride among a few of my Christian friends, and as a parent, it worries me.

I open my newsfeed and I see glimpses of their children's budding faith. I don't mean milestones like a Baptism or First Communion. I am referring to the day-to-day "accomplishments" of spiritual life. "I'm so proud of my little worshipper!" along with a picture of a toddler's raised hands, or "My daughter just reminded me to pray first!" I see Christian parents taking pride in the seeds of their children's faith and posting them online. As a believer, I am happy for them -- we all want our children to share our faith -- but as a parent, I am disturbed. Every time I hear a parent brag about their children's spirituality, I think, That's great... for now.

The truth is, none of us knows who our kids will grow up to be. Mine sing worship tunes, recite prayers and quote Scripture from memory often. They also still use the same slang as their Grandpa and pretend the milk in their mug is coffee, just like mine. Children are hardwired for imitation, and they naturally want to please their parents. My children mean every prayer they utter. They also mean it when they cry in despair because they are too tired to brush their teeth. It's not that their faith isn't real. It is. But it is too immature to be held out for the world to see. As their mother, I have the great privilege of watching a little seed of faith bud open, tender and green. That little bud is real, beautiful and good. But if it is exposed too soon to the pressure of others' expectations, it will be crushed. It will need years and years to grow before it can bear fruit.

And what happens if the seed dies instead? If my kids have watched me take public pride in their faith, what happens when our little ones grow into teenagers who need to ask hard questions? What if they form into young adults who choose to walk away? Will they absorb embarrassment, frustration or disapproval from us? Will the years of showing off their preschool prayers now choke off honest adult conversation? Or worse -- will they sense that walking away from God necessarily means walking away from us?

I don't know who my kids are going to be. I sincerely hope they internalize the faith I am sharing with them now. I pray that those little seeds of faith will take root and grow firm and strong. Yet I know I don't get to make that call. I grew up in a Christian family, yet the decision to pursue a relationship with God as an adult was my own. My children will have to make that same choice in time. No matter what they choose, I want them to know I am proud of who they are, not of what they do -- neither for God, nor on the diving board. I want them to know they are free to ask hard questions, to make mistakes, to walk away. They are not required to make the same choices I've made to keep my love and approval. No matter what direction their faith takes, I will still be proud of who they are. I want them to believe in their gut that they will always have a place in our family.

The only way I know to foster that kind of relationship with my kids later is to give them room now. I must protect their little hearts from public display, let them develop their own faith without the pressures of a public eye, and trust them to live their own lives. As proud as I am of their budding acts of faith, I simply can't show them to the online world now, and foster a deep relationship with them later.

But that bike trick? I can't wait to show you.

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