Real Life Parenting

Not long ago, I was lamenting to my wife about one of my children. As I passionately articulated my frustration with some particularly annoying behaviors she began to smile. Then she laughed and said, “You do know who that sounds exactly like, don’t you?” I somehow got the impression she didn’t mean her.

Unfortunately, I am all too often faced with the reality that my children generally reflect my behavior rather than my oh-so-wise parental instruction. Obviously this challenges me to make sure that even at home my behavior is consistent with what I would like to see in my children and, more importantly, with what is befitting a follower of Jesus. It also challenges me to find better ways to combine the teaching of biblical truth with real life in a way that impacts my kids and affects their behavior. As counter intuitive as it may sound, I believe that to genuinely impact our children’s behavior we have to actually focus less on their behavior and more on their heart.

Consider the words of Deuteronomy 6:7-9. “You shall teach [God’s commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” These verses convey two eye-opening principles. First, my goal as a parent should be to shape the heart of my child toward God. If this is my goal, the primary focus of my parental instruction is biblical truth about God and His Word rather than behavior modification. Secondly, These verses tell me that the context of my parental teaching is not primarily church, special “family devotion” times, or fatherly lectures – it is real life. Whatever my family and I find ourselves doing together provides a platform for shaping the heart of my children toward God.

Not surprisingly, this is the approach that Jesus took with his disciples – and what is parenting if not intense discipleship! A quick perusal of the gospels shows that Jesus trained these undisciplined, uneducated men into the foundation of the Christian church by simply spending intentional time with them. They took road trips together; went to dinner and parties together. They ministered and served together. They visited sick people and went to funerals. They managed finances, went grocery shopping, and harvested crops. They went fishing, they told stories, they hung out around campfires and even went to church. In short, Jesus shaped the heart of his disciples toward God through real life personal interaction. As simple as it may seem, this is still the best way to shape the heart of a disciple (or child) toward God. Notice that there are two essential elements to this approach: intention and time.

We have to spend time with our kids doing the kinds of things they do on a regular basis. It isn’t a waste of time to play, color, read, take walks, and have meals with our kids. Additionally, we also have to find ways to include them in the things we do. Let them help you with chores, take them to work, serve together as a family. Of course it’s easier to do these adult things without kids, but when possible we should include our kids.

As we spend time with our kids, though, we must sure to be intentional about using these experiences to connect our kids and their lives to God. You don’t have to preach. Just use casual comments. Isn’t it cool that God made us with the ability to play? Didn’t God give me a neat job? God sure is amazing/powerful/wonderful/etc. Or you can pray together. Ask spiritually minded questions. You will need to find what works for you, but just be intentional about connecting real life to God’s truth.

A discipleship approach to parenting will take some thought because most of us are used to reacting to bad behavior rather than focusing on proactively shaping our child’s heart toward God. I know from experience that it is tempting to chase down every bad behavior and counter it with teaching about why it’s bad, but I also know from experience that this is generally futile. Instead, we must commit ourselves to a lifestyle of intentional discipleship. It will likely prove to be long, hard, tiring, and inconvenient at times; but it will also prove worth it!

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A Change of Heart

I recently heard a godly, well-meaning older gentleman tell a young father that raising kids was just like training dogs. He explained that you just need to develop a routine of simple, specific commands that you repeat regularly and you can train them to respond on command. While most people don’t state it in that fashion, this advice reflects a behavior based understanding of parenting that is extremely common – even within the church. As parents, it is incredibly easy to make our children’s behavior the focus of our parenting. Raising “good” kids that behave “properly” is the assumed end game for many parents. While there is nothing wrong with desiring and working toward good behavior in your children, this should not be the goal you are working toward as a parent.

The responsibility of a Christian parent, the very heart and soul of all we do, is to shape our children’s heart toward God so that they will have a thriving personal relationship with him. In a word, it is “discipleship.” The focus of our parenting should be discipling little followers of Jesus so that one day they become grownups that genuinely and faithfully follow Jesus.

It should be overwhelmingly obvious that the task of discipling a child – shaping their heart toward God – has to be all about the condition of their heart. Unfortunately, this is something that many Christians miss in their personal walk with God as well as in their parenting. We are always trying to make the Christian life about performance, rather than about identity in Christ and personal relationship with the Father. God himself spoke of this problem, condemning his own people because they “…come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29:13) .” In this instance, the problem wasn’t their behavior – it was their heart. They said the right things and did the right things, but it was merely outward conformity to a bunch of rules.

Tragically, this outward conformity to religious standards that God hates and condemns is precisely what many parents are encouraging through parenting that focuses on behavior modification. Yes, you can train your child like a dog to follow your rules and do what you want them to do, but without a heart that is chasing after God they are no better off simply because they’ve followed the rules. Instead of always focusing on changing and curbing bad behavior, we must use bad behavior as an opportunity to look into our child’s sinful heart and shape it toward God.

The shortest answer as to how to do this is simply to give them the gospel.  We must give our children the gospel faithfully, constantly and relentlessly because a man-made training program of rules and commands might change behavior, but only the gospel can change a heart. When sinful behavior presents, take a step back and remember your goal. It is not conformity; it is genuine heart change. So you need to take the time to understand why they misbehaved. You need to empathize by sharing your own struggle with sin and then explain that this is a universal problem for all of humankind. Give correction and help them understand why consequences are good and necessary. Also, make sure to share the good news that God offers forgiveness and He offers to help us have victory over sin. Over all, you should place drastically more emphasis on God’s goodness than on your child’s badness.

Of course all of that takes time – much more time than a harsh word of reproach and a swift punishment. And the results take more time to. You may not get immediate conformity, but that’s ok because the goal is not to shame them into conformity but to drive them toward God’s heart. Make this the central focus of all you do as a parent. I urge you to make your child’s relationship with God more important than their behavior. Work toward shaping their heart toward God more than you work at changing their actions. Make discipleship your aim because if good behavior is your goal, you may one day reach the finish line and find you have run the wrong race and lost your children in the process.

Where’s the Evidence?

My family and I are just about as ready for spring as any family can get; yet the winter weather seems to persist. The weather is so out of character, that even the youngest members of the Harding family are taking notice. Last week, on a snowy “spring” day in late March, Zeke asked when it would be spring. I said, “Well, technically it is spring.” His response, (in an animated voice that betrayed his obvious frustration and bewilderment): “Spring is supposed to have warm air, and flowers and grass. Why can it be spring without any of those things?”

Of course I laughed and tried to explain, but his response has stuck with me. At first, I kept thinking about it just because it was pretty cute and funny. However, over the last week, that little exchange has gnawed at my mind, causing me to think about the depth of insight in that observation. I know – you think it’s a stretch, but stick with me for a minute. This is what I realized: even a five year old recognizes that it is ridiculous to claim that something is true when all rational and expected evidence is lacking.

This extends beyond the absurdity of a winter that seemingly spans a lifetime to our spiritual lives. We are living in a Christian culture that finds it acceptable to claim the name of Christ without any evidence to back up that claim. The Bible clearly articulates expected evidences of true faith. Jesus said that if we love Him, we will obey His Word and His commands (John 14:21-23). He also said that we are identified as His disciples by our love for others (John 13:33-34), involvement in spreading the gospel, caring for those less fortunate and abiding in Christ. Many such evidences could be searched out in scripture, but the point is this: it is absurd to claim Christ without any evidence of true faith. Yes, we are saved by God’s gracious work in our hearts through faith, but that faith will produce evidence. True faith always produces evidence that is observable – to others and to God.

I wonder if God observes our churches with the same incredulity with which Zeke heard the declaration that it was spring. Perhaps God observes our behavior and says: “My people love each other and obey me and spread my Gospel. Why can they claim to be mine without any of those things?”