In 1999, the year my first child was born, a study came out stating that 50-70% of Evangelical Youth were leaving the church after high school. On April 20th of that same year, the Columbine High School Shootings took place. Both these incidents made me keenly aware of the eternal importance of my role as a parent and they raised some red flags that our safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, parenting philosophies touted by parents and experts...were not working.
Parenting books and advice are similar to network cable news, you can find plenty of fear-based doom and gloom or you can be sold the latest fads or "breaking advice." After researching over 300 books, classes, conferences and courses on parenting, I found that much of the parenting advice was geared towards specific segments of parenting such as behavior or education but very few focused on an overall holistic, long-term parenting philosophy backed by proven results. There were a lot of opinions and theories but very little discernible wisdom.
Many popular parenting books and philosophies focus heavily on reforming behavior, controlling our children's environment, or even manipulating our children to comply or obey. While this seems popular with the Over Protective Parenting Crowd – I wanted to raise children who make the right decision out of obedience and love for God and no matter what environment they find themselves in. I didn't want to raise children who were merely obedient to my rules and boundaries but children who have a change of heart, a heart for Christ that is evidenced by the Fruit of the Spirit in their lives.
The following post is an amalgam of my own personal reflections, talks with empty nest parents and a sermon by Pastor James MacDonald and Mark Gregston on the same topic.
If I Could Do Parenting All Over Again, Here's What I Would Do Differently.
1. I focused too much on authority and obedience and not enough on relationship.
Often as parents, we just want our kids to behave and not embarrass us in public or we are so fearful of the secular world that we try to build Christian bubbles filled with tons of boundaries and rules to try to keep sin and evil away from our children. Looking back, neither one of these strategies works for very long and the greatest piece of wisdom I have learned is that compliance to MY will and rules is not the same as having a changed heart for Christ. There is just no logical way that you can control every move your child makes or everything your child says, especially outside of your home. Children have their own free will and will act on their own accord—and often in their own self-interest. I can create an environment that forces my kids to obey and comply but this ends the day they leave my home and If I haven't fostered an authentic heart change for Christ, I've succeeded in creating obedient children but failed to pass on authentic faith.
2. I would spend more time on Why and less time on What.
Often we spent way too much time trying to micromanage or orchestrate all the details of our children's lives. From schedules, to activities, to "sin management" we tried to do too much for our kids when they should have been doing it themselves. Many times our children will ask us to do something for them that we know they are capable of doing on their own or we just do it for them out of our incessant need to be involved in their details. Looking back, we should have spent more time modeling and reinforcing Biblical principles and life application of Scripture and letting our kids struggle and even fail sometimes learning to apply these principles to their own lives. Teaching them Why we do something is 100 times more valuable than teaching them how or what to do or my preferred way of doing things. If they know in their hearts the Biblical reason Why we do something, the details (what), the environment they are in, peer pressure or a sinful world will not persuade their morals and values.
3. I'd spend more time on common, authentic conversation.
Early on, I'd love to give little teaching (preaching) lessons to my kids sharing all my wisdom about life, faith, history, politics or whatever else seemed to be the topic. When my kids were little, they would look at me as if I was a walking "Dad Version of Google" with all the answers but as my kids grew, we taught them age-appropriate skills in order to allow them to become more and more independent. Soon, my "wisdom sharing" became seen as preachy and I had to learn to ask questions and then shut up. Often, we would have deep and sometimes off-color discussions at our dinner table about everything tweens and teens deal with on the daily basis. My kids would open up about all sorts of issues and struggles they were dealing with and I'd often have to bite my tongue and resist the urge to "tell them how it is" according to Dad's world. I learned that although I could offer sage advice and wisdom, it had to be asked for not freely offered when I disagreed with my children's comments or ideas. I learned to be a better listener than talker, ask thoughtful questions and to always allow discussion on any topic.
4. I would be less concerned about consistency among siblings and more concerned about appropriate decisions for that specific child.
Proverbs tells us that each child has their own unique "inner bent" and God made them that way with that unique inner bent. Our job as parents is not to try to correct that bent for our liking or preference but to raise them individually according to their God given unique abilities, quirks and talents. Often, we would have to make tough decisions that were not popular, not only from our children but even from teachers or other parents. However, we parented each child differently - one needed more boundaries and discipline, the other needed more independence and grace. One could handle more freedoms and responsibility, one needed to wait and mature more. We definitely never tried to make decisions based on what our kids would like, tolerate, or be okay with, but to make the decisions that were best for them individually and for our entire family.
5. I would have trusted my instincts more.
At first, I thought my job as a parent was to monitor or catch my kids misbehaving and then punish them to no end. Please don't misunderstand me, we had plenty of rules and boundaries but as my kids became teens, I learned that my job was to model and teach them how to act but not to try to run FBI surveillance on their lives and catch them making mistakes. Sometimes, I knew my kids were probably crossing some boundaries and testing their independence but rather than resulting to hyper vigilance (which often just pushes kids to become more secretive and clever) I chose to let some things slide unless I had direct knowledge of something. We focused on relationships and discussions because losing the ability to talk honestly with our teens or pushing them to the point where they shut down emotionally, was far worse than any bad behavior.
6. Authentic character over image control.
I've seen kids who look, act and sound like great Christian kids around their parents, church and other adults but in private; they are angry, rebelling from God and engaging in destructive habits. When we focus on image, often our kids learn what we expect and want and give that to us for "show" but they act very different around their peers or in private situations. I often say that I want kids who do the right thing when no one else is looking. In prioritized order, we focused on faith, character traits, treatment of others, teamwork and accountability before grades, sports, talents and behavior. We taught empathy and humility not judgement and bragging. We taught that your integrity is more important than your GPA. This approach ran counter to most teachers, other parents and the secular worlds "expertise" but parenting is not a popularity contest. We took this parenting philosophy right out of Scripture and still believe this is best way to raise kids.
7. Behavior problems are never the real issue.
This holds true for kids, teenagers and adults alike. Often behavior problems stem from underlying heart or character issues or unrepented sin that needs to be addressed more than behavior. Character issues are a function of the heart and exhibiting Fruit of the Spirit is often a thermometer to gauge a person's heart and motivations. If heart and character traits are not made a priority in the home, modeled by parents and other mentors and if children are not held accountable for these traits, behavior issues will arise. In my career field, we fire more people for character and heart issues than any other factor. In Psychology and Counseling, I learned that many of the social, behavioral and psychiatric symptoms identified in the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) can be directly correlated back to character and heart issues evidenced in Biblical Fruit of the Spirit. Unrepented sin often leads to bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness which are themselves also sins and bitter, resentful and unforgiving Christians often take their sin and poison others and situations with it. God commands us to forgive and to let go of bitterness and sin, regardless of the hurt or pain we feel. We forgive and let go not to let others or sin off the hook, but to bless ourselves and to stay in close fellowship with God. Not dealing with character, heart or sin issues early on in someone's life, merely postpones the consequences until college, marriage or later in life but eventually, the issue will have to be dealt with.
8. Give Them More Responsibility and Accountability Earlier.
Responsibility and accountability leads to maturity and growth. We often spoon feed our kids in areas far too long and the longer we take to allow them to have responsibility, the longer it takes them to mature and realize they cannot do it alone and that they need Christ. We started giving our kids choices and responsibility at around 2-3 years old. They were taught to pick up toys, play fairly and behave appropriately. As they grew, they learned to pick out appropriate clothes, manage money, cook their own food, take care of the house and yard work and they were responsible for their homework, grades and decisions. When we set expectations, boundaries or limits with our children and they did not meet them, we did not freak out or nag our kids non-stop, we simply enforced consequences calmly and told our kids that this was the result of their decision. We realized that our kids were still learning and we often showed them grace but if poor decisions or behavior became a habit, it was simply met with consistent consequences until the behavior changed or our children took responsibility for the area they were lacking in.
9. Struggles and Questioning of Faith Are Normal.
If you have ever read my personal testimony, you know that I attended a private Christian school and grew up in the church but became a professing atheist in my early 20's. Part of the reason for this is that when I had struggles and questions of my faith, they were unanswered or met with answers like "you shouldn't ask or think those things." However, struggling and questioning faith is a normal part of many people's spiritual journey and how we approach it as parents can make all the difference. First, you need to be reading the Bible daily and your faith should be witnessed in your actions and life by your children. Second, I highly recommend you read a copy of "Expository Apologetics" by Voddie Baucham Jr. This book will teach you how to calmly welcome questions and criticism of Christianity, then explain logical answers using Scripture as the backbone. You could also watch the film "The Case for Christ" as a family and discuss the topics. I also like "The Christ Files" by John Dickson (also on DVD) which gives unbiased, academic, and peer-reviewed answers about what historians, archeology, anthropology and science really knows about Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christian church. The bottom line is encouraging your children that these questions and struggles are normal and every Christian goes through them, some more than once. Questioning often leads to greater research and eventually, stronger faith.
10. Do Your Best and Pray Daily.
No parent is perfect nor should you attempt to be, you just get up each day, pray and do your best. Parenting is a perpetual balancing act between Truth and Grace—striving to find the balance between doing too much and doing too little, or giving consequences that are not too harsh but not too soft, either. Parenting is a times a roller coaster and other times a circus, we are often trying to balance several life areas all at once. Christian parents need God and prayer more than ever and no matter how much you try, you cannot rush God's plan for your kids or the Holy Spirit moving and working in their lives. Rather than being reactive and focusing on behavior issues, perfect schedules, or the worlds measurements of success we often need to let go a little and let God work. Focus on areas that really matter in eternity - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, empathy, faithfulness and self-control. If you get these areas right, the rest all falls into place in God's timing.