What Every Parent Needs to Know about the Prodigal Child

Catherine Segars

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Updated Jul 27, 2023
What Every Parent Needs to Know about the Prodigal Child

Be encouraged, moms and dads, if your child is wandering. Keep praying. Prodigals do come home.

Some kids are born to push the boundaries. They are hardwired to do things the hard way. In a recent parenting Bible Study that addresses complex cultural issues, pastor and theologian Ray Ortlund says, “Some children will find Jesus the hard way. But it is better to find Jesus.”

Yes, it is better to find Jesus the hard way if a child insists, but what can a parent do when their child is wandering?Christian Parent Crazy World banner ad

That is a topic I addressed in a recent article as well as a recent episode of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD, which just turned one year old and earned the 2022 award for Best Kids and Family Podcast by Spark Media. Having a battle plan and prayer guide at your side is imperative if you have a child who is not walking with the Lord.

But in addition to a battle plan and prayer guide, we must have the right perspective on parenting. When we don’t, it can wreak havoc in our relationships with our kids and destroy our peace.

As parents, we need to understand what is our responsibility, what is our child’s responsibility, and what is God’s responsibility. I discuss the delineation of these duties in the latest episode of CPCW. In order to understand these responsibilities, we need to consider the four stages of parenting, because as parents, we assume a different role in each of these stages. And we will damage our relationship with our kids if we get stuck in the wrong stage.

Stage One of Parenting: the CAREGIVER.

The first stage of parenting is infancy, and the role we assume as a parent in this stage is the caregiver. We care for absolutely every single need in our child’s life. What they eat. What they drink. What they wear. What they hear. When they sleep. Where they go. What they see. Our kids really can’t choose anything for themselves in this phase of life.

This stage is filled with round-the-clock care, stressful days, and sleepless nights as our child’s every choice is made by us. Their every need is provided for by us. We are the caregiver.

Stage Two of Parenting: the COP.

Somewhere around toddlerhood and extending through the early elementary school years, we enter the second phase. As parents, we still maintain the caregiver role, but our primary role changes. We become the cop. We tell our kids what they can and cannot do.

Don’t touch the stove. Don’t run into the street. Don’t play with knives. Don’t watch that show.

Don’t put that undissolved hunk of dishwasher detergent in your mouth while I have my back turned to put the dishes in the cabinet because I don’t want to spend the next half an hour on the phone with poison control and have to take you to the ER to have your stomach pumped… Ahem. Yeah—that happened. Ok, so we didn’t have to go to the ER, but it was way closer than I would have liked.

In this stage of parenting, the list goes on and on and on about all the things we have to do to keep our kids from harming themselves. We spend much of our day repeating and enforcing rules, issuing fines and punishments. Because we’re the cop.

Stage Three of Parenting: the COACH.

In the middle to late elementary school years and extending through much of high school, the third phase comes. Our kids pretty much know the rules at this point. We still have to enforce them, but now we enter into a new phase in late adolescence. We become the coach.

In this stage, we’re not just telling kids what they should and shouldn’t do anymore, we’re explaining why. We want them to reason through a situation and eventually coach themselves because we won’t be there every day for the rest of their lives to coach them. Nor do we want to be. We want them to grow up.

But until they become adept at coaching themselves, we use the things that happen in everyday life to teach our kids vitally important life lessons, just like a coach would.

Eat your vegetables because you need those nutrients in order to be healthy and live a long life.

Brush your teeth every day and floss because if you don’t, you may lose your teeth.

Don’t make a face at someone because your face might get stuck like that permanently. Ok, so that one isn’t legit, but my mother said that to me every time I made a face. That is such a mom thing to say.

In this phase, we don’t just tell our kids what to do. We tell them why, because they need to understand the why in order to become a responsible adult. So, we coach them.

Stage Four of Parenting: the COUNSELOR.

Finally, nearing the end of high school, we enter the last stage of parenting. We become the counselor. In this phase, we offer advice on a myriad of issues. What college. What career path. What friends and hobbies. But we can’t make these decisions for our kids anymore, and we really can’t barge into their lives unsolicited and offer all kinds of advice, at least not without some very unfavorable consequences.

A counselor doesn’t come to your home and tell you what to do. You go and ask for a counselor’s help, you ask for their advice. And when our kids enter this phase, we offer advice when asked.

Obviously, you grow out of the coaching phase into the counselor phase with some overlap. There is overlap between all of the phases. But you are entering this final phase of being a counselor somewhere around 16 or 17. (This will vary from child to child.)
As long as your child is in the house or receiving your financial assistance, you can have a lot to say about their choices. You can choose not to fund a kid in college if they aren’t doing the work. You can choose not to fund or support poor or destructive choices.

But ultimately, the only advice that will really land in this phase of life is advice that is asked for, advice that comes through a healthy relationship with mutual respect.

God doesn’t control us, and we can’t control our kids.

Every phase of life beyond the womb is a successive step towards autonomy for our kids, starting with the cutting of the cord. That first milestone after birth is metaphorical as well as physical and spiritual. We want our kids to function as godly adults in an ungodly world, but we can’t control their choices.

Now, of course, kids can go down the wrong path due to poor parenting. We’ve all seen examples of that. But kids can choose the wrong path with right parenting. And, this is crazy but I’ve seen it more than once—kids can choose the right path with bad parenting. Because at some point, kids get to choose their own path. And we have to let them. And we have to stay in the proper role for whatever stage we are in.

With these stages in mind, let’s look at what Scripture has to say about parenting a wayward child.

What do we learn from the Bible about the prodigal child?

In Luke 15, we see what appears to be a very godly parent. In fact, he represents God himself. Still, the child decides to wander. He’s one of those kids who just has to push the boundaries and learn things the hard way.

Notice that the father doesn’t lecture him. He doesn’t offer unsolicited advice. He recognizes what his role is in this stage. He’s not the caregiver or the cop or the coach anymore. He is the counselor, and his son isn’t asking for advice.

Instead, the prodigal son takes his inheritance and squanders it, and he ends up in a pigpen. The father doesn’t follow him there. The father doesn’t get in the pigpen and shake a finger in his face. Instead, the father waits, looking out the window every day, praying that his son will come home.
It’s important to note that in this story, we don’t see that the father did anything wrong. I don’t say that to absolve us as parents from our responsibilities or our mistakes. My entire podcast is about what we need to do as parents in order to influence our kids towards godliness.

But ultimately, we cannot choose godliness for our children. They must choose it for themselves. And in this story in Scripture, the son does not choose godliness. Not at first. Not until he is at his lowest point.

Then he remembers the kindness and love of a very godly father. And he comes home.

Be encouraged, moms and dads, if your child is wandering. Keep praying. Prodigals do come home.

(I offer a list of Scriptures to pray over children who have left the faith on my website.)

The only perfect parent in the Bible.

One other story from Scripture is very appropriate for us as parents. There’s really only one perfect parent mentioned in the whole Bible. That is God Himself.

God created Adam and Eve and walked with them in the garden. He was their father, and he put them in a perfect environment. They had paradise—everything they could possibly want and more. They had countless good choices that they could make every single day and only one bad choice.

Still, they chose that one bad choice. They chose their own path. They chose their own standard. They rejected the perfect father. And the rest of Scripture, the rest of life, is a journey of the prodigal coming back home.
The fact is—we are all prodigals. Every last one of us. Some stay closer to home like the older brother, and we might even get a little self-righteous about that. God help us if we do. And some end up in the pigpen. But we’re all prodigals. Every one of us is a prodigal child.
God is the perfect parent, and still, His children wander. So don’t be discouraged if your child is a prodigal right now or becomes one. The best antidote for a prodigal child is a godly parent. Hoping. Waiting. Peering out the window. Praying for your child to come home.

(Listen to episode 12, “What to Do If Your Child Has Walked Away from the Faith,” and episode 14, “How to Battle for Your Child in Prayer,” if your child has left the faith.)

What is our responsibility as parents?

Moms and dads… we can’t be God for our kids. We can’t even choose God for our kids. We can only point our children to God by being godly ourselves.

An article called “The Gospel Story” in Christ-Centered Parenting gives a paradigm-shifting perspective on our job as parents. It says,

“Children are a divine stewardship. They are not for us to own but for us to love, carefully guide, and then release to God’s providential care. We cannot pressure, bully, or force them into the faith. We parent, not with the anticipation of some promised outcome, but out of faithfulness to Jesus, leaving the outcome to Him. Gospel parenting puts God at the center of our parenting—not our own efforts and not our children.”

No, we cannot control our children. We do not own them. We cannot make them choose godliness. As a parent, you can only choose to be an example of godliness for your kids. And godliness, true godliness, is contagious. It is awe-inspiring. It is life-giving.

We can influence our kids like no one else with our godly example. How can we do that? By putting God at the center of our parenting. Not some desired outcome. Our job is not to raise godly kids—that isn’t up to us. Our job is to be godly parents. And being a godly parent will give our children the best chance they could possibly have at becoming godly themselves.

To learn more about the proper role of the parent and to hear the greatest question you could ever ask your child, tune in to the latest episode of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ThitareeSarmkasat

Catherine Segars is an award-winning actress and playwright—turned stay-at-home-mom—turned author, speaker, podcaster, blogger, and motherhood apologist. This homeschooling mama of five has a master’s degree in communications and is earning a master’s degree in Christian apologetics. As host of CHRISTIAN PARENT/CRAZY WORLD, named the 2022 Best Kids and Family Podcast by Spark Media, Catherine helps parents navigate through dangerous secular landmines to establish a sound Biblical foundation for their kids. You can find Catherine’s blog, dramatic blogcast, and other writings at www.catherinesegars.com and connect with her on Facebook.

Listen to Catherine's FREE Christian Apologetics Podcast for Parents - Christian Parent, Crazy World, available now at LifeAudio.com!

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