It takes courage to be a parent today.
First, there is the erosion of childhood. One of sociologist Neil Postman’s most provocative works was titled The Disappearance of Childhood. His thesis was that children are being robbed of their innocence, their naiveté, their ability to even be a child. He contended that in our world, we ask children to embrace mature issues, themes and experiences long before they are ready. Or, as Postman put it, in having access to the previously hidden fruit of adult information, the child is expelled from the garden of childhood.
What Postman predicted has, of course, come true. It is virtually uncontested among sociologists that the behavior, language, attitudes and desires – even the physical appearance – of adults and children are becoming indistinguishable. This has led to a new and startling cultural trend, which is the tendency of children to grow older younger.
Related to the disappearance of childhood is the rise of sexual fluidity. A recent Gallup poll found that 5.6% of U.S. adults identify as LGBTQ. But one in six in Generation Z consider themselves LGBTQ. That is 15.9% of the entire generation, or at least those age 18 to 23, which was the age segment surveyed. As the Gallup research found, it’s not so much a true shift in sexual orientation, but rather a new openness to all things sexual. Generation Z has become sexually and relationally amorphous. It’s the refusal of either the homosexual or heterosexual label, the male or female label. The idea is that all labels are repressive. Sexuality should be set free of any and all restrictions and allowed to follow its desire, moment by moment.
Which brings us to a third reason courage is so desperately needed: the digital revolution. While Baby Boomers can’t remember a world without TV, and Millennials can’t remember a world without computers, “Gen Z does not know a world without constant, immediate and convenient access to the web.” When Steve Jobs announced the original iPhone as little more than a combination of “three revolutionary projects” – iPod, phone, internet connectivity – even he didn’t know what had been unleashed. And make no mistake—the iPhone changed the world.
And it’s changed the parenting dynamic in so many ways.
For one thing, it means they are able to be the most independent generation in history. They are the first generation to have the “ability to find whatever they’re after without the help of intermediaries – such as libraries, shops or teachers,” or parents. They just Google it. This has made them more self-directed than any other generation before them. But it also makes them the most vulnerable. Never before has there been such a wide chasm between almost unlimited access to information, and almost no access to wisdom.
One more reason for courage: the new post-Christian reality. There have only been three eras in relation to the Christian faith: pre-Christian, Christian, and now post-Christian.
I think most of us have heard about the rise of the “nones.” The “nones” are the religiously unaffiliated. When asked about their religion or faith affiliation on various surveys and polls, they do not answer “Baptist” or “Catholic” or any other defined faith. They simply say, “I’m nothing,” or check “none.”
When I first begin researching and writing about the nones, they made up one out of every five Americans, which made them the second largest religious group in the United States—second only to Catholics. Not only that, but they were also the fastest growing religious group in the nation. In 2021, the percentage of Americans who self-designated as atheist, agnostic or of no particular faith rose to 29% of all U.S. adults. That is nearly one out of every three adults, up 10 percentage points from when surveyed in 2011. Parents are now raising children in a post-Christian world.
So what is a parent to do? Just throw up their hands and give up?
It is a time for courage. Specifically, to be informed, be involved, and be in charge.
First, be informed. To be informed is to know what is going on in your child’s world. To be up-to-date, current, knowledgeable. You know what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. Yet one study found that more than 60% of all parents have never checked their child’s devices, such as their smartphone, iPad or gaming console.
Second, be involved. To be involved means that you are part of their world. You are not a spectator, you’re a participant. Most parents actually do pretty good with this. They take involvement seriously. They are at the soccer games, they are coaching little league, they are invested in their kid’s schools, they are present and accounted for.
It’s the third one that is tricky. Because not only are parents to be informed and involved, they must also be in charge. To be in charge means you are leading their world, creating their world, shaping their world.
And that’s where courage is most needed.
Because it means the following are not in charge:
What other kids do.
What other parents allow their kids to do.
What the dominant cultural values says kids should do.
You and only you should be in charge. But that’s going to take courage, because where you need to be in charge is precisely where you are being challenged not to be. For example, I recently read an article that quoted a child-development expert who said you shouldn’t do any disciplining at all. In fact, you shouldn't do anything that would establish any authority over your children at all.
So let us be clear: we live in a day where there is the disappearance of childhood,
... a digital revolution,
... a rise in sexual fluidity,
... and a decisively post-Christian world.
Which means parents will have to be informed, involved and in charge.
And that, above all else, will take one thing:
James Emery White
Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood.
James Emery White, Church in An Age of Crisis (Baker).
“‘Millennials on Steroids’: Is Your Brand Ready for Generation Z?”, Knowledge @ Wharton, September 28, 2015, read online.
Nisha Lilia Diu, “Look out, Generation Z is about to enter your workplace,” The Telegraph, July 19, 2015, read online.
James Emery White, The Rise of the Nones (Baker).
Alexandra Berger, “Most Parents Never Check Their Children’s Devices,” The HR Director, October 7, 2019, read online.
Joe Pinsker, “What ‘Go to Your Room’ Teaches Kids About Dealing With Emotions,” The Atlantic, October 12, 2018, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on X, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Hybrid Church: Rethinking the Church for a Post-Christian Digital Age, is now available on Amazon or from your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit churchandculture.org where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture Podcast. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.