Parenting is hard. It takes almost everything we have to give our kids what they need, with little leftover to occasionally provide what they want. While my parenting instincts were enough to meet some of their needs— protection, shelter and nourishment—much of what I depend on to help shape their character has been discovered by reading, watching or asking mentors for wisdom. Here are some of the most helpful axioms I’ve learned about parenting. Keep in mind, I’m raising them in my Christian faith of which I’ve sincerely embraced.
Never attach my emotional engagement to their behavior.
Do we want to raise a legalist? ( Of course not, but play along here.) I’ve found that all it takes to raise a religious, legalistic Christian kid is to attach my emotional engagement and warm affection to my child’s behavior. When they make me mad, just lash back and punish them with some stinging “cold shoulder” distance and emotional withdrawal. They blew it, we’re mad and we want them to feel it, right? Yet with this passive-aggressive and condemning retaliation, I unintentionally teach them a lifelong lesson that undermines the heart of my Christian faith: if you meet my expectations and please me I will emotionally love you and engage you, but if you fail or cross me, I will withdraw my love and affection—it all depends on pleasing me with your good behavior.
According to my Christian faith, they lashed out or rebelled because they have a prideful human heart that needs to grow and mature. Since it’s not personal, I can pursue and engage them lovingly, modeling the pursuing grace of God after we have failed. Think about it: what makes the gospel Good News for us is that when we deserve to be cut off, isolated and punished, God instead comes looking for us with tenderhearted mercy. He always loves us with both discipline AND grace, remaining close enough to help us face the consequences of our rebellion. So when my kids fail and expect to be condemned with cold emotional distance, I get a chance to help God’s grace come alive to them. I get to hug them while explaining their painful consequences through fatherly tears and warm embraces, not with raised voice and harsh finger pointing. After all, they haven’t primarily rebelled against me, they’ve rebelled against God—whose affection for us is steadfast, never wavering based on our behavior.
Parenting with grace doesn’t mean I shield my kids from the consequences of their behavior, it means I protect them from condemnation.
To discipline my kids with grace doesn’t mean I remove or avoid the corresponding and appropriate consequences. To be a grace-based parent means that we work to avoid crushing them with condemnation. They fail. They rebel. They lash back. Facing the painful weight of fair consequences for these bad choices, behavior or attitudes is vital for shaping their character. Expressing grace doesn’t mean shielding them from loving discipline with loud empty threats and phantom consequences. Instead we say, “Yes, the consequences still stand—you’re still grounded; you do the crime in this house, you do the time—but I forgive you for your failure because God does.” To be a grace-based parent, I have to continually help them walk through consequences, not avoid them.
The best thing I can do for my kids is to love and cherish their mom.
Where will my sons learn to cherish their wife? If not from me, where and who? Where will my daughters learn to expect their husbands to selflessly love them? From their dad. That’s my top job. If I don’t show them what it looks like to cherish a wife and humbly lead the home with love, they won’t expect it. Date nights, open affection ( eww! ) and wholehearted honor aren’t just for mom and I—they’re for the kids too. Loving their mom is a gift with a lifelong payoff.
It’s not neglect to take time away from kids to take care of myself and my marriage, it’s love.
Though it takes some family time away, I’ve decided that the best way to be there for my kids is to sometimes not be there for them. By skipping the end of the late night movie to head to bed early, missing a before-school breakfast to hit the gym and slipping away for a date night or weekend getaway with my wife, I make investments in the health of my kids. They require the best version of their dad to be the best version of themselves. If I’m running on empty, overtired and unhealthy they get a dad that’s ill-equipped to love and lead them the way they deserve. As counterintuitive as it feels, maintaining a healthy body and marriage has become more helpful to them than keeping them by our side every waking minute of their lives. We started these routines early, but I expect kids are adaptable enough to survive no matter when their parents start slipping out of their sight to refresh. Do you need some sanity but feel guilty for leaving them? Don’t. They need you to go away and recharge the battery—it’s gonna be a long haul.
If I don’t put down my device and listen to, engage and pursue my kids, I’ll regret it forever.
Squandering my limited family time doesn’t only happen because of “after hours” office work or out-of-town trips. Neglecting my kids happens far more subtly than that. I’ve learned I can be an absent father right at home—it’s as simple as excessively retreating into my own leisure. Without restraint, my beautiful iPhone 6s Plus draws me deep into decompression mode for hours at a time, flipping and browsing my way past of the real lives of my kids. Nothing I’ve clicked and no one I’ve “followed” has been worth missing a minute of my own kids’ fleeting lives at home. I would never be able to forgive myself if they ever described their childhood using the words “absent father” or “emotionally vacant.”
These parenting axioms aren’t everything that can be said, but for me, they’ve been a helpful starting point. I hope they help you, too.
Helpful Parenting Resources:
Intentional Parenting: Family Discipleship by Design by Tad Thompson
Grace Based Parenting: Set Your Family Free by Tim Kimmel
Gospel Parenting Website from Gospel-Centered Discipleship
Parenting Resources from the Gospel Coalition
Parenting Resources from Verge Network