“If you want to find out how selfish you are, get married. If you want to find out how impatient you are, have kids.” These were some of the first words uttered to me by an older couple when Mary and I announced we were going to have a child. Granted, it was given in jest and intended to be taken tongue-in-cheek. However, it did seem to suggest an air of resignation about how difficult raising children will be—so forget about having fun for about 18 years or so.
Well, our experience has borne out the fact that yes parenting is hard, yes I am selfish, and yes I am impatient. But this was true way before I had children. It’s always been true because I am a sinner in need of grace 24/7. Children don’t create selfishness or impatience in me, they just expose it. But fortunately, parenting isn’t about me. It, like everything else, is about Jesus. God didn’t grant my wife and me children primarily for our benefit. The universe doesn’t really need another Howell to carry on the family name, or continue the tradition of nerdy artists. God gave us kids for eternal reasons: to demonstrate his goodness and beauty, and to refine me, my wife, and our children, to be more like Christ.
It’s this perspective that helps me make sense of the daily highs and lows that are germane to the task of parenting. In fact, without some sort of eternal perspective I think I would be adrift on a sea of “trying to do what seemed best at the time” without any clear goals informing my parenting choices and behaviors. I would be tempted to make choices that are motivated by “how do I get this child to stop crying? what’ll make my wife happy? what will impress my neighbors? what’s cheaper? what works out best for me?” These aren’t necessarily bad motives, but they aren’t rooted in eternity and they can be deceptively toxic by placing convenience or expedience before goodness and holiness.
There’s not a chapter and verse for every parental situation, but there is a dearth of biblical advice and principles that have shaped our thinking and pointed us in the right direction, even when we had no clue. Which is often the case in parenting. Here are three things that we constantly try to keep in mind in parenting our children. And they are certainly not unique, nor original, to me. I have a former professor to thank for these. Also, each child is unique and these traits will look different depending on the child in question; children with special needs will attain and manifest these traits differently, but I feel the principles still apply.
1. Raise children that are independent from the parents – while seemingly obvious, this is in fact one of your goals as a parent. Your kids are not your own, they belong to God. Genesis 2.24–25 asserts that man and woman are made for one another and that when they come together they form a new family unit. But in order for this to happen they, as children, must leave their parents: physically, emotionally and psychologically.
When kids pop out they really can’t do anything. They make no contribution to society; they simply consume. And this is by design, because it certainly deepens the bonds between parents and children, which is a good and godly thing. You are not parenting well if you expect your two-year-old to make their own dinner or do the laundry. They need time. But over time you must lead them to not only take responsibility for their own physical tasks, but also learn how to think independently from you. You need to foster their efforts to distinguish themselves from you and establish their own identity. The goal of parenting your child is to produce an adult, the life stage that they will be in for most of their life.
2. Raise children that are dependent on God – this is obviously related to the first point. The reason why you need to prepare your children to be independent from you is so that they can develop a deeper dependence on the Lord. Your children need to find their identity in Christ and see their lives as taking shape around his eternal purposes. Proverbs 3 contains dozens of examples of godly wisdom and practical advice given by Solomon to his son. But if you boil it down, what he is essentially saying is to take what he has taught as a father and invest it in God. Trust God above all else. Filter everything through the Scriptures. Make your life about God’s purposes and things will go well for you.
To accomplish this your children have to see that the world is bitter but God is sweet. They have to be independent enough to figure this out. You can’t do this for them. But you can expose your children regularly to your own dependence on God, thereby giving them a solid on-ramp to the path of walking by faith. As they age, invite them into your struggles so that you can pray with them, read the Bible with them, show them how to resolve conflict, worship with them and observe the Sabbath. You are trying to cultivate the value in your children that everything worth knowing or having comes from God. And he readily dispenses these blessings to those who follow him.
3. Raise children that are responsible to the community – when children attain a healthy independence from their parents and start to understand that it is God who provides for their needs, they will inevitably cultivate the value of mission. They will start to see their lives, no matter what shape they may take, as a continual sacrifice of praise. Romans 12.1–2 claims that the only reasonable response to the grace of God is to pour out our lives for Him. The rest of the chapter reveals how we do this in a diverse community. We are all gifted in different ways to accomplish God’s particular will for our lives. But the endpoint is all the same: God’s glory.
When you take the training wheels off your child’s bicycle, they start to see that they can function without their parents’ help, but they are also aware (as are the parents) that their ultimate safety and provision are in God’s hands. Now they can explore their own neighborhood, form relationships, and bless people with their unique abilities. Raising children that are independent from the parents and dependent on God produces kids that are responsible to the community. They will begin to see themselves as part of God’s story and eagerly, albeit imperfectly, explore what role they play in this story, starting with their immediate community.
These three rules are very simple to understand, but impossible to implement in your own power, I assure you. Don’t even think of feeling competent to raise a child without a daily submission of your own will, as a parent, to God’s purposes. While children will expose your areas of growth, they are also a blessing. Another friend reminded us “there is no bad age,” and I have found this to be true, enjoying my children in different ways as they age and develop into who God has called them to be. Children are a joy and a blessing, and it’s one way that God will not only bring about the next generation of his followers, it’s also a way in which he will draw you closer to himself.