A big thank you to @mrsreid118 for suggesting this topic! After almost 15 years of parenting, working with kids of all ages in ministry and long talks with my wife about her job (she's an early childhood education/development teacher). This is my best attempt at sharing some wisdom and advice for new dads, dads to be or even struggling dads. Moms too!
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”–Mark Twain
When I first became a parent, I was clueless. I'd never babysat or watched kids and we didn't have those classes in school where you take the baby doll home for a week. So, I did like most parents probably do, head to the bookstore and start reading all the best sellers from "experts". Over the years now, I've probably read somewhere around 300 parenting books from both secular and Christian authors - Pediatricians, Child Psychologists, Pastors, Child Development Gurus and Academics. I've also sat through countless hours of seminars on the topic and after all that here's what I've learned. When it comes to parenting, there's a lot of opinions and good ideas but true wisdom is rare. Furthermore, parenting is not some new thing, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel.
I think it's human nature to see our parents flaws in raising us and reject their ways for some "new and improved" methods. When in reality, even though our parents and every parent makes mistakes, there are nuggets of parenting wisdom nested with Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa that you will not notice as true wisdom until years later. Plus, if Dad or Grandpa gives you some parenting advice, no matter how crazy it sounds, there may be some truth and validity behind it even if you can't comprehend it as a new dad. Furthermore, I believe that there are some fundamentals of parenting that have been passed down for hundreds of years that many parents today have lost or forgotten. Parenting is not new and some of the "old ways" are the best ways. Look at some of the research by Robert Shaw or simply go ask a Middle School Teacher what they think of kids today in regards to respect, integrity, empathy and other character traits. Which leads us to #2.
I looked at parenting like a business - a long-term strategic plan with milestones and a stated end goal. Your stated end goal (or lack of) as a dad or parents will ultimately effect and influence every decision you make in your parenting journey. Many parents today place as their end goal to have educated, logical children who go on to be successful in life. These parents stress academics and schools as their primary concern. Sports, Health, and the Arts may also top this list of end goals. Some parents try to do all of the above and really run themselves ragged. Other parents continue to live their lives and careers like it was before kids while fitting the new addition into the schedule and may not even have an end goal. The problem with all of these approaches is that none of them are Biblical, many of them produce adverse results and these approaches fall more into line with the worlds definition of The Success Illusion.
More and more research is now starting to come out showing that the youth of today are severely lacking in character development, emotional development, resiliency and empathy. Documentaries like Bully and almost every single mass shooting incident has been linked back to people who are very academically intelligent but severely lacking in one of these emotional developmental areas. Years before all this research, my wife and I sat down and looked at what areas the Bible commanded us, as parents, to train and develop our children in and we decided that above everything else - good grades, sports, talent, fame, beauty, etc. We would raise our children with faith, character, emotional intelligence and empathy for others as our primary focus areas. Our end goal was to raise children who have a relationship with and trust in Christ, who have strong character traits and morals, healthy emotional well being along with positive coping mechanisms for setbacks in life and a genuine concern, caring and empathy for all people of the world expressed through love, grace and acceptance. We would stress these areas throughout their development and into adulthood. This was our parenting foundation.
The funny thing about this approach is that because we made our parenting foundation on rock, our kids also flourish in all the other areas - grades, sports, the arts. We don't even have to stress those other areas, they came naturally as a result of our children's strong foundation. In our home, we don't get excited if you get a "C" on your report card or you miss a pass in the football game as long as you tried your best. We don't have long talks and stress our kids out about SAT's and picking the right college. We don't forbid our kids from befriending the lost or other kids with problems. BUT, we do get excited if you are dishonest, cruel to others, disrespectful to elders or judgmental of others. These infractions will not be tolerated and will result in a talk about attitudes and character. If there was only one area that I can stress to you as a new parent and Dad, it would be to build your foundation on rock not sand. My kids recently started attending one of the top 100 school districts in the country and they are surrounded by lots of privileged kids who are extremely intelligent and very talented in sports, some are already looking at college scholarships. However, forgive me for saying this, they are also some of the most selfish, cruel and emotionally dysfunctional kids we have ever met and it's a real shame.
3. Don't Major in the Minors
Number 3 ties in closely with number 2. Don't major in the minors simply means don't sweat the small stuff because in the long run, it really doesn't matter. I usually address this topic to parents of young ones, usually newborn's through toddler age. My wife works with this age group daily and at times it's humorous to hear about the things that new parents obsess about. Let me share a secret with you, when my wife and I were new parents, we did a lot of things wrong. We only breast fed for 8 months. We gave them whole milk. We started them on solid foods and schedules by 12 months. We let them walk and potty train when THEY were ready and our kids were not reading until they were 5. Complete failures by some of today's parenting standards. I've watched parents obsess and get overly stressed and sometimes even hostile about schedules, nap times, too much dairy, not enough dairy, organic snacks only, proper baby slinging procedures, parents who don't let their toddlers go outside to play (even with $300 worth of protective gear, clothing and sunscreen) not letting children do anything remotely exciting as it may be way too "dangerous" and then having long in depth conversations on the size, color and consistency of their child's bowel movements. Guess what? Talk to some parents who have been there. In 12 months, all the stuff that seemed so important will be forgotten. 100 years ago, our grandparents crawled around on dirt floors playing with farm animals while their mothers gave them raw milk and cooked up a meal with lard. Today, children have more allergies, health conditions and "disorders" than ever in our history. Maybe it's because we are doing something wrong?
I'm being half serious, half sarcastic. It's just that many of the issues that parents today think are so crucial for child development are not that crucial in the long run. For example, my wife has a Bachelors degree in Early Childhood Development/Education yet countless parents will debate things like scheduled naps, exploration and development through play, feeding schedules, Hendrix Stages of Development, and Piaget's Developmental Model. These parents think their child is so special that no one has ever seen or come up with research for best development practices. Why? Frankly, I believe it's because new parents have a tendency to think their child's situation is more unique than every other child in the world and that the world revolves around their child. Then, they try to perpetuate this fallacy onto everyone their child comes in contact with while disregarding the advice from parents who have gone before them. Research by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell claim that Americans children are among the most spoiled and today's parents are raising children that grow up with disrespectful, entitlement attitudes while today's youth are maturing slower and staying in long term “adultescence.” well into their 20's and 30's. One of the theories is that today's parents are longing for their kids’ approval while seeking social acceptance and validation from their peers that they are parenting adequately. This leads to parents coddling children far too long in the development cycles and the parents being at their children's beck and call 24/7. As the child ages, this parenting style further perpetuates itself by parents becoming overly protective and micromanaging every detail of their children's lives and schedules well into their children's High School years. These children enter High School with the attitudes that the world still revolves around them and Mommy and Daddy will make all the decisions and get them out of trouble or tough homework assignments for that matter. (There's some research and studies out there on parents doing their children's homework for them to boost grades.)
Okay, rant session done. This is one of my hot buttons because I run into these issues so frequently. The bottom line is focusing on character development, parenting using grace and moderation, firm boundaries and consequences, espousing independence in our children and focusing our parenting on the long term, eternal issues.
4. Hearts not Heads.
The fourth area is simple. Focus on their hearts not their heads. This is true of both their faith and parenting in general. There is a very popular parenting curriculum that focuses on loving your child while also manipulating their external behaviors and habits to get them to conform and obey the parents. Many parents love it and rave about it because you exacerbate kids into obedience while displaying a non-confrontational attitude. The problem I have with this style of parenting is that you are focusing on their external behavior and environment rather than developing and cultivating internal character in your children. In regards to our children's faith, we did not want to raise children who had the external appearance of being Christian yet inside they were empty, lost and hurting. Research shows that somewhere between 65-80% of Evangelical Christian children develop this type of moralistic therapeutic deism rather than authentic faith and ensuing they leave the church and their faith after High School.
I’ve met and read countless stories of kids/teens/adults who can quote you verse after verse from the Bible but their lives, decisions and treatment of others are less than Christian. In fact, in my younger years, I was one of these statistics. The word was in my head from countless hours of Church, Sunday School, Youth Group and Summer Camps. I could go through all the motions and put on a great Christian facade. But the truth was that the word was not in my heart. I must stress that I’m not against memorizing the word, but spiritual head knowledge does not equal a heartfelt relationship with Christ.
To cultivate this in our own children, my wife and I focused more on the practical application of the word than the memorization of it. For instance, my children can not quote you the exact chapter and verse of the story of the Good Samaritan but they instinctively stop and help those in need and volunteer their time for those in need with no prompting. They have an authentic empathy for those in need and the suffering based on actually experience rather than textbook knowledge. The idea is to be a living example of the word rather than just a mouthpiece of it.
5. You Can't Outsource Responsibility.
According to a Barna Group study, parents that were successful in raising children (with our stated parenting end goal) took parenting very seriously and realized that raising their children was the most significant contribution they would ever make to society. Even more important than their jobs, their hobbies or their educations. These parents made parenting their number one priority and often sacrificed in other areas of their lives in order to attain their parenting goals. This parenting philosophy often conflicted with other friends and societies views as our society puts a high value on career advancement or academic progression rather than successful parenting. As men, we sadly often measure our self worth by the worlds standards. Income, Position, Projects Completed, Promotions, Goals Attained. These parents, however, often stand out from the crowd and make personal life sacrifices to expand their time and to enhance their abilities to be better parents. Being a parent is there number one priority.
6. Caught not Taught. M-O-D-E-L
M – Manage your time. It is very easy these days to devote our time to other areas of our lives. Careers, sports, friends, television, hobbies, social media. All of these areas vie for our precious time but they do not enrich our family. Quality time with our family and children is where we need to invest our most precious resource to ensure a healthy family and home life.
O – Observe Teachable Moments. These are those moments when "life happens" and you have to be prepared to teach your children a lesson from them. Your child or their friends steal something, you help a homeless person, your children are turned down for a position or part. These moments can pop up at any time and require you as a parent to step in and provide guidance and wisdom.
D- Date Your Family. Read the studies, they all show that children (and wives) want more time with their dads and husbands. We have to make it a priority to spend time each day with our families AND be actively present and engaged. (Invest in 5 hour Energy) I really love spending time as a family each week as well as spending a least an hour or two each week, alone, with each child. I take my kids to Starbucks or out to their favorite restaurant and just talk and ask them about their lives. This is one of the ways I stay actively involved and engaged in their lives.
E – Encourage Your Kids. Kids constantly look towards their parents for affirmation and to see if they are "getting it right." They want guidance and they want us to tell them when they are doing right and wrong. We have to encourage them but we must be sure to encourage them in the proper areas. Faith, Morals, Character and Values should be the top priority. Empty praise does not work and should not be used.
L – Learn From Difficulty. Out of difficulty comes growth, out of growth comes character. Dr. Gary Smalley found that one of the traits shared by successful families is that they go camping. Camping allows families to spend time together enjoying God’s creation and it also presents many difficulties to endure and learn from together. Ultimately, we have to show our kids that yes, parents fail, make mistakes and have difficulty in life. We then need to talk with them about these setbacks and and show them how we deal with and overcome these difficulties and setbacks.
My wife and I also decided that we did not want to try and raise "nice" or "perfect" Christian kids. We realized that sin is inherit in this fallen world and that no matter what we do, our children will sin and fall short. Even if we built a Christian home/fortress with only Christian TV, Christian Music, Christian Books, Christian Friends and Home Schooled are kids, we cannot keep sin or the world out of our children's lives. So, we instead decided to raise our children to be in the world but not of the world. To be the salt and the light of the earth. To be living examples of the Grace and Love of God and to be able to relate, reach out and help lead the lost to Christ. Because as Christians, we have God on our side and the Good News, so why should we fear the world? Plus, in order to relate, reach and minster to the lost, you have to be actively engaged in the world of the lost. Therefore, our children go to public schools, they listen to Christian and secular music and watch Nickelodeon. Yet, they don't swear, they dress modestly and they maintain their Christian values even amongst their atheist peers and peer pressure. In fact, over the past 4 years, our home has become a "youth hostel" of sorts to many lost and hurting kids. At first, our home seems a little different to them. Then slowly, they realize that we are here to love and accept them. They start to feel comfortable and start spending a lot of time at our house. They sit down at meal times like a family with us and start praying with us, they respect our rules and start to ask questions about our faith and many of them come to church with us and some eventually come to Christ. My children have lead more kids to Christ in their 12-14 years than I have in my 36 years. All because we open our home to everyone and our children are living their faith and ministering to their peers in the world. Are their days my wife and I are scared that our children are in the world and all it's evil? Absolutely. This keeps us on our knees and letting God and Holy Spirit work in our children's lives rather than foolishly thinking we can somehow control His master plan or circumvent the Holy Spirits power.
8. The Final Word on Parenting.
Pray, submit and trust in God.
There will be days as a parent when it seems hopeless and it's all you can do.
But I assure you that God is amazing, he will watch over you and your family and He always comes through.
Esse Quam Videri
For more on this topic also see - The Foundation - What We Did The First 12 years