Working with students for a living, I often get peaks into the lives of families in my community. Granted, I take what most students say with a grain of salt because I have my own kids and I’ve been one myself. I know the temptation to paint negative pictures that make us victims of our family lives rather than active culprits to the problems we face. Last week, however, I met a student who has a two-year-old brother who was drinking two to three mountain dews a day. A TWO-YEAR-OLD WAS DRINKING TWO TO THREE MOUNTAIN DEWS A DAY! Rage. Heart-break. So many emotions were boiling in me as I listened. The child has since been removed from the home due to processes long before I had been involved. Needless to say, I don’t feel the need to convince any readers that this was a terrible situation for the child. But why was it terrible? Having a two-year-old myself, I am pretty certain this child would not have said no to the soda. My child loves sugar and if given the choice he would probably choose to drink just as many mountain dews. So what’s the problem? The problem is that, as parents, we are called to shepherd our children towards healthy adulthood which will require us to be vigilant in protecting our children from harmful behaviors. It would be absurd to give our children the choice between ice cream and vegetables.

Why is this our role? If you’re a naturalist, or you function like one, you are likely to see the parent’s role is primarily to protect and instruct because children are uneducated and immature, but otherwise, morally neutral. The assumption is that upon maturity and education the bad choices will weed themselves out. I’m not going to make an argument for how this thinking has failed because the present state of adulthood in the world is clear: education and maturation do not inherently produce wise and healthy behavior. Why not? Naturalism has no satisfying answer. As a Christian, however, I believe that all human beings are irrational as a result of our separation from God (Romans 1:18). This is why we know many things that are true and yet still make unwise decisions. We’re driven by desires instead of truth. This has impacted us in all walks of life, especially food. The human, who is to be satisfied in their relationship with God, now seeks satisfaction in the created things (Romans 1:25). In America, food has long been an opiate to our anxieties. How does this impact us as parents? Proverbs 22:15 tells us that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” Children are born with an irrational sin nature (Psalm 58:3). This means our role as parents is not to educate a neutral soul but to lead and nurture wicked hearts into life with Christ (by his grace). We are not only seeking to educate but to engage our children’s bent towards evil.

Back to ice cream and vegetables. Most of us know that the parent who is letting their child regularly choose ice cream over vegetables is guilty of neglect. The child is both uneducated and bent on seeking satisfaction through short-term pleasure over lasting truth. Our role is to firmly and graciously lead our children to see the wisdom in vegetables over ice cream. This will not be easy because often we will not be able to rationalize with them. These times will be difficult. French fries and coke are quite delicious. Ice cream is always instantly more satisfying than broccoli. But isn’t the battle for their health worth it? Isn’t the fight for well-functioning bodies worth the frustration of battling their stubborn little hearts? I believe it is.

This battle is merely a parable. Our children face an even greater decay and destruction. Jesus warns us to not fret against things that will harm the body, rather, we should fear the One who decides the fate of our souls (Matthew 10:28). If it is parental neglect to let our children choose ice cream over vegetables, how much more wicked is it if we passively sit by while our children constantly chase fleeting pleasure over the Word of God and gathering with the local church. Your child may or may not prefer ice cream over vegetables, however, none inherently want God (Romans 3:10-11). None are inherently drawn to seek the Lord. When our children find the Word “boring” or Church fellowship unattractive, the answer is not to begin sugar-coating those things. Of course they will want vegetables if you soak it in enough ice cream! The question is, “Why?” Is it just that they’re developing or that they don’t want God?

For too long, we’ve led children to believe they are saved because they said a prayer and were baptized and yet they display no fruit of repentance in their lives. In order to keep these fruitless trees in the Church, we’ve had to adjust youth strategy to compensate for students who find the word and prayer boring. Is this not neglect? Are we not feeding them ice cream? Their souls are at stake. Their eternities hang in the balance. We can’t keep sugar-coating Church to keep them there. As parents, we must confront the folly in our children’s hearts with the truth of God’s Word. We must call them to repentance and maturity. To do anything less is far more damaging than two to three mountain dews a day. Jesus says, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” (John 6:27).

I want to challenge parents today to fight more for their children’s soul than for their children’s bodies. Your child’s body will only last eighty years or so. One day, all those meals you fought for them to eat will fail. One day, all those fights over eating healthy will lose. They will die. What will matter on that day is not what their bodies ate but what their hearts consumed. You may fear this to be an impossible task. So did the disciples. Christ responds, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). The answer is not that we begin serving spiritual ice cream. The answer is pointing them to the “food that endures to eternal life.” When they resist, we don’t resort to a tastier menu. We cry out to God to give them new tastes (John 3:5, Ezekiel 36:26-27).