Parenting when you can’t see the forest for the trees

Written by Kristen Hatton
Published on June 23, 2023


This is the hashtag I added to an Instagram post of my daughter during her high school senior year. On one hand, it was simply a futile plea; on the other, it was an expression of my utter disbelief and grief over my daughter fleeing our nest. How did eighteen years fly by so quickly? When children are young, that age sounds like an eternity away, then poof! the years are gone. The parents ahead of me were right: “The days are long, but the years are short.”

During those long days in the early years, it was hard to see the forest for the trees. The here and now of diapering to disciplining and the routine in between is encompassing. We eagerly await the days our children don’t need us so much. But in a complete reversal—somehow overnight—the forest clearing is in full view and we long for a rewind. Whether the time went too fast, or we still have things we want to impart to our child, for some parents, we long for a redo.

As a professional counselor, I have sat with countless parents of teens unsure of how they got to such a difficult place with their child, or filled with guilt and shame over where they might have gone wrong. To this I want to say: there is no perfect parent, and we are never without the hope of redemptive change. There are no formulaic steps to prevent all difficulty, suffering, and trials for ourselves or our children. As parents, we can do everything as “right” as humanly possible and still our children may struggle or fall away. Or we can mess up royally and by God’s kindness and grace, we have children who love the Lord. However, as parents, there are foundations we can put in place during the early years—when we can barely see through the forest—that help smooth the path to the teen years.

Keeping the end goal in mind

 I like to think of these as small decisions made big. In the immediate timeframe, certain day-to-day parenting decisions may seem insignificant, but what we do in the early years matters. Being intentional requires keeping the long view in mind. So let’s start at the forest clearing and work backward: what do you hope is true of your children and family  at the end of age 0–18 phase of parenting, in terms of values and relationships?

For me, more than my children’s happiness or success, my greatest desire was for my children to know their need for Jesus and live dependently on him. It was also my prayer that our family would be close-knit, desiring to spend time together, able to talk openly, and living redemptively with one another. Keeping these end goals in view along the way informed our parenting.

 Although we know church is vital, parents are the main shaping influence in a child’s life. Therefore, only hearing about the gospel on Sunday mornings was not enough—we needed to live out the gospel in our home and communicate our need for Jesus in regular, everyday conversations. So, even when our children were little and didn’t necessarily understand what we meant about an idol ruling their hearts or fully grasp the deep truths recited in a catechism, we began to familiarize them with these concepts. With the hope of Deuteronomy 6 that teaching precedes understanding, we believed in time they would come to grasp a biblical, gospel-centered worldview and our instruction would shape their understanding.

Another aim, as I mentioned, was to foster relationships between siblings who wanted to be together when they grew up. When you are thick in the trees of parenting, your children tend to fight, and this was no different with our family. How could we raise them to be friends? To love each other well? These were questions we asked that led to sibling bonding times, and more importantly, dealing honestly with one another in our sin. Not just for our children’s sin, but my husband’s and mine too. If they were to live redemptively—confessing sin, seeking forgiveness, and extending grace to one another—we had to go first. We had to model what this looked like and tell them repeatedly of the finished work of Jesus that enables us to freely confess and stand secure in God’s love.

 Where we can place our hope

Parenting through the forest is slow. In places the path is rugged, and sometimes we may lose our way. We won’t always get it right. Although we may parent with intentionality, our kids may still wander onto another path, or we may get to the forest clearing and things don’t look like what we had hoped. But as we trod along with the long view in mind, we cling to Jesus and his steadfast promises to us. He is faithful. He is with us, and he will not forsake us. His promise is to work his salvific purposes through covenant families, and he promises to direct our path.

May we not lose sight of you, Lord, no matter how dense our view through the trees or how quickly it feels the clock is ticking on our days with children in the home.

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Kristen Hatton

Kristen Hatton is a counselor and author passionate about helping families. She lives with her pastor-husband, Pete, in Dallas, Texas. Together they have three young adult children and a son-in-law. Kristen is the author of Get Your Story Straight, Face Time, The Gospel-Centered Life in Exodus for Students, and Parenting Ahead. 

Read more about Kristen

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