Thursday, November 15, 2018

Faith-Minded Parenting

"...I will let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days they live on the earth and may instruct their children." Deuteronomy 4:10b

Writing about parenting has got to be the most vulnerable topic one can take on, so I find myself pressed to preamble any thoughts on parenting with caveats and disclaimers. But let me try not to belabor the point; the bottom line is I’m far from a perfect parent. I don’t have this all figured out, but I have found some principles that have helped me grow into and make sense of this extremely important role.

Parenting is a huge responsibility, and due to its heft it can seem large and overwhelming. As with any overwhelming task, the only way through it is to break it into smaller, manageable pieces. The way this manifests in my life is to identify the principles and themes that underlie the thing, and focus my attention there. With an organizing framework in place, I have a small but diverse set of tools I can draw from to approach any task. Here is the organizing framework and principles that have helped me make sense of parenting.

Principle 1: Keep first things first.

As a follower of Christ, I ultimately have only one earthly task that matters: to make disciples. This is also my only significant task as a parent. I can raise the most well-behaved, academically successful, and professionally impressive children, but will have accomplished nothing of eternal value if I’ve not taught them the gospel.

My foremost task as a parent is to point my children to the gospel. If they choose to follow Christ, then my one and only job becomes teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded (Matthew 28: 20). Christian parenting ultimately is nothing more and nothing less than disciple-making. If I miss this, or if I allow it to get buried under other priorities and activities of parenting (academics, sports, sexual development, even morality and care and feeding), then I’ve fundamentally failed. Conversely, when this is at the forefront of everything I do as a parent, it provides the keel that holds together the entire vessel of parenthood.

On a practical level, I seek to keep myself focused on this priority by constantly reflecting on this thought: “What is the eternal value in this?” Any parenting challenge or question that arises, I seek first to ask and answer that question. For a child that hasn’t yet accepted the gospel, asking myself that question reminds me to bring that perspective to bear—or at the very least to ensure that my course of action doesn’t draw them away or distract them from gospel truth. For a child that is a fellow follower of Christ, that question and its answer remind me to keep their spiritual development at the center of everything I seek to input into their lives.

Principle 2: Keep it simple.

One of my favorite statistical tools is the factor analysis. In the behavioral sciences, this method allows us to take large amounts of conceptual data and find the common themes that organize and characterize the information. This philosophy also is how I approach most problem sets. I find that if I can organize things into just a few practical themes, then it is much simpler to generate courses of action. To that end, I’ve found that nearly everything I need to teach my kids in support of Principle 1 reduces to three areas of focus. These are the three things I can teach them as a parent that will prepare them to understand the gospel, and once a believer, to live it.
      1.      You are a created, eternal being. There is a lot packed in this idea. Any created thing has a creator, and all creators leave their mark on their creations. The theological implications of this are vast, and the opportunities to explore with my child creator/created relationships between things can be both fun and significant. Eternity is an abstract concept, especially for small children, but is important to help them move toward understanding. Once they have a concept of time, however, the challenge is simply continually expanding their sense of their future. These opportunities, too, are myriad and often a lot of fun (e.g., preparing cookie dough and waiting to enjoy it after it bakes, going to school to prepare for a future occupation, etc.).

      2.      Actions have consequences. This seems self-evident, but drawing this out as a major theme in parenting has implications not only for responsiveness to the gospel, but also in basic behavior management. On the discipleship front it sets up concepts like the need for sin to be punished (as a natural consequence of the sin). It also provides a way of thinking about discipline that puts the onus on the child to control their own behavior. This could be its own principle, but for me it is closely linked with “actions have consequences.” My children need to learn to manage their own behavior, and allowing the consequences for their behavior to be as natural as possible is the most efficient way to do that. If I feel the need to control their behavior, at best I am going to undermine their natural learning progress, and at worst I am going to be frustrated to the point that my efforts are liable to stray into abuse. All abuse ultimately boils down to trying to control the behavior or emotions of another person. Whether we like it or not, we never really control our children’s behavior, even when they’re newborns. But we often do control the consequences of their behavior (or at least control what consequences of their behavior they’ll actually experience). Often there is an opportunity to allow natural consequences to take hold, or to highlight the natural consequences that could have occurred as a result of your child’s behavior. Looking for these opportunities will lay foundations for important theological understandings later on, and also will take a lot of pressure off of you to try to control that which you ultimately cannot control.

      3.      Love can be unconditional. This one, admittedly, is really difficult. The bottom line is that because I am a fallen human being, my capacity for unconditional love is limited, and I won’t always get it right. But because of the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in my life, sometimes God’s perfect love will manifest through me. Because God’s unconditional love underpins the whole gospel, as parents we need to double down on any opportunity that arises to demonstrate unconditional love to our children, and to point it out when we witness it around us. This one can be tricky to execute in light of our role as disciplinarians. However, keeping the focus of discipline on the previous theme, “actions have consequences,” will create much less tension than a punishment-focused approach. Seeking to model unconditional love, and being transparent and seeking forgiveness when I fail, also creates conditions of trust and safety that allow for a much more positive teaching environment.

      This is how I’ve made sense of my role as a parent. Hopefully there is something useful or encouraging for you, as well.