by Jack Wald | September 19th, 2004

This morning Mariska and Tertius have brought their daughter, Chantal Daniela, to be dedicated to God and I thought it would be appropriate to talk this morning about parenting since the last two weeks we talked about the Biblical view of sex and then submission and marriage.

I found this in my files about how to prepare to be a parent.

Preparation for parenthood is not just a matter of reading books and decorating the nursery. The item I found lists 12 simple tests for expectant parents to take to prepare themselves for the real life experience of being a mother or father. I will read just 3 of them for you.

1. Women:  To prepare for maternity, put on a dressing gown and stick a beanbag chair down the front. Leave it there for nine months. After nine months, remove 10% of the beans.

Men: To prepare for paternity, go the local drug store, tip the contents of your wallet on the counter, and tell the pharmacist to help himself. Next, go to the supermarket. Arrange to have your salary paid directly to its head office. Go home. Pick up the paper and read it for the last time.

2. Before you finally go ahead and have children, find a couple who are already parents and berate them about their methods of discipline, lack of patience, appallingly low tolerance levels, and how they have allowed their children to run wild. Suggest ways in which they might improve their child’s sleeping habits, toilet training, table manners, and overall behavior. Enjoy it — it’s the last time in your life that you will have all the answers.

3. Hollow out a melon. Make a small hole in the side.  Suspend it from the ceiling and swing it from side to side. Now get a bowl of soggy Fruit Loops cereal and attempt to spoon it into the hole of  the swaying melon by pretending to be an airplane. Continue until half of the Fruit Loops are gone. Tip the rest into your lap, making sure that a lot of it falls on the floor.  You are now ready to feed a 12-month old child.

It is a bit uncomfortable for me to speak this morning without having first read the Scriptures. Notice that I said speak rather than preach. I’m told I am more of a teacher than a preacher anyway and when I came to the topic of parenting, I realized that the Bible is not the place to go if you want to find examples of good parents. It is quite amazing, but aside from the parents of Jesus and John the Baptist, can you tell me who in the Bible was a good parent? OK, Timothy had a godly mother and grandmother, but you know what I mean. Almost without exception, the parents in the Bible were failures. I have some ideas why this might be the case but not enough time to go into it right now. It might make an interesting discussion over lunch today to discuss this: why is it that there are so few positive examples of parenting in the Bible?

What are my credentials as a parent?

I have two daughters. Elizabeth is 26 years old and will marry Matt Frank on October 9. Caitlin is 24 years old and married John Littleton in January 2002.

They are both bright, energetic young women who made a commitment to Christ at a young age. They have continued to grow and mature in their relationship with Christ. They are leading a moral lifestyle. They have an open and honest relationship with Annie and me and we are increasingly good friends. The men they have attracted are creative and intelligent. They have a strong and growing faith and they love my daughters. I am a very fortunate man.

Does this make me an expert on child rearing?

No. It makes me the recipient of God’s grace.

Parenting lesson #1
Children have the marvelous capacity to survive their parenting.

Remember that it is God who is at work in us to draw us to righteousness and God can work through imperfect parents to draw children to himself.

Annie and I entered parenthood fully aware of our sinfulness and we were concerned with how we could we be good parents when we were such imperfect people and so the verse that we clung to as parents was I Peter 4:8
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

You will never be a perfect parent but that need not keep you from being a confident parent. Love your children. When you blow it, ask for forgiveness and love your children and know that our confidence as parents lies not in our ability to do right but in God’s transforming power to make our kids right.

Parenting lesson #2
Your children are not really yours. A child is a gift from God, not a possession.

When you receive a gift, what do you do with it? Let’s say someone gives you a package wrapped in beautiful paper with curled string and a bow on top. And let’s say that there is a nail in the table that needs to be hammered down. Do you pick up the package and bang it on the nail to push it down into the table? Of course not. You first open the package and discover what is inside. If inside the package there is a hammer, then it is entirely appropriate to use it to bang the nail into the table. If it is a tea cup, that is probably not a very good idea.

When you are given a child, you need to discover who it is you have been given. The child may be like you or very unlike you.

Annie and I are both introverted, analytical people absorbed by ideas and concepts and who try to create order in our world. In Jungian terms, we have the same personality. As Elizabeth grew up, we discovered that she had the same personality as we did. So we understood each other, knew how to work with each other.

Then came our daughter Caitlin who is very different from us. She is extraverted, relationally oriented and much more spontaneous than we are. When we would travel, three of us would be quiet, absorbed in our thoughts and one of us would be talkative, verbalizing what she saw out the window.

When Elizabeth was 4 and Caitlin 2, I took them to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up Annie who had been working on a film project in Massachusetts. While we were waiting, Elizabeth and I sat reading while 2 year old Caitlin walked up and down the aisle talking to people including a man who was secretly taking pictures of pretty women walking past and did not want to be talked to. When Annie got off the plane, we could not leave until Caitlin introduced us to all her new-found friends.

If we had not been aware that God had created Caitlin to be a person different from us, we could have destroyed her. When she wanted to talk, we could have said, “Can’t you just shut up for a while? Don’t you know how to be quiet?”

One of the tragedies of families is that a parent is unable to see that the child he has been given is different rather than wrong. If the father is a matter-of-fact person who is organized and thinks before he speaks and he has a son who is a spontaneous, creative personality who starts projects and then loses interest and rather than finish them, goes on to do something else, there is a real possibility that there will be communication problems.

The assumption of too many parents is that their way is the right way and they try to mold their children who are made differently into an image of themselves.

Affirm who your child is. If you think your daughter is scatter-brained and an air-head, see instead that she is creative and loves exploring ideas. Rather than call your son a bookworm, affirm his studiousness. Rather than describe your daughter as chatty or gabby, see how she is socially gifted. Rather than thinking of your son as unsocial, begin to see him as reflective and a deep thinker. Rather than calling your daughter a slob, see her as being unconcerned with order as you understand it.

Don’t try to make your child conform to your own image, work to see what your child can become.

You have to work to discover who your child is that God has given you and work to help your child become who God meant him or her to be. Don’t take a tea cup and try to make it into a hammer. The nail will never get into the table and you will destroy the tea cup.

Parenting lesson #3
Do not live vicariously through your children.

This is very clearly seen at youth sporting events when a parent crosses over the line of being a fan and becomes a problem. Parents plot and scheme to get their son or daughter more playing time in the games. When the coach does not put their child in the game, fights can break out. In the US there was a trial recently for a parent who got into a fight with another parent over the hockey game their sons were playing and one of the parents died as a result.

Why would a parent get so emotionally involved in a youth sporting event? One of the dynamics is that the parent is reliving his or her younger days when they played sport. A parent who did not achieve all they wanted in sports as a child now views having a child as a second opportunity to achieve.

This is true in sports. It can also be true in academics or anything else.

The danger when this happens is that the parent is no longer seeking to discover who this child is God has given, he is trying to make the child into his own second chance at life.

I am not unintelligent, but going through school I was an average student. There are a lot of reasons for this. I had many distractions growing up that prevented me from being the person God made me to be. I did not learn to study and do the work I was capable of doing until I was 2/3 of the way through seminary.

When I had daughters who were intelligent, I had to be careful that I did not make their achievement my second chance. I was alert to this danger and I often had to remind myself because I found myself slipping into that dangerous ground over and over again.

Parenting lesson #4
This is related to the previous lesson. Do not try to receive esteem through your children.

The last time I talked about parenting was when we lived in New Jersey and I taught an adult Sunday School class in our church in Princeton. At that time, people knew us in relation to our daughters. What people thought of us had a lot to do with who our daughters were and because our daughters were wonderful, people thought we were wonderful.

When people view you through the lens of your children, you have to resist trying to make your children objects that will make you look good.

In the US there is pressure on parents to make their children successful. In some circles, it is not just what college your children go to, it goes all the way down the line so that certain pre-schools are very competitive and parents scheme to get their sons and daughters enrolled in the proper pre-school. From the moment children are born and receive their Apgar score showing how alert they are at birth, parents compete with each other to see how wonderful their child is.

In Asian culture and Jewish culture and perhaps some others, the achievement of children is a very important part of how a parent is viewed. There is tremendous pressure on children to achieve and on parents to make sure their children achieve.

Parents will say they are doing this for the sake of their child, but I suspect it has more to do with how they themselves are viewed than the welfare of their child.

I believe this has to be resisted. Even if a child is successful, the pressure brought to bear as he or she was growing up eventually causes problems. I have a friend who is of Chinese ancestry. He went to a top university in the US and works in publishing for one of the leading magazines. He is a high achiever and he also this year has combated depression and gone for counseling. Why?

What is the message that was sent to him by his parents? The message was that you need to achieve in order to receive love and approval. If you don’t achieve, you will not be loved or approved. You will shame your parents.

Did his parent’s ever say that? I am sure they did not. Did they think that? I doubt it. But they followed their culture and while they may not have reflected on the consequences of raising their child this way, the damage was still done.

And then there is the problem if the child is not successful in the way his parents measure success? What happens if the child decides he wants to be a musician rather than a doctor, lawyer or international businessman? What if a child in a family of artists wants to be a corporate accountant?

I believe parents have to cut through their culture, their family expectations and allow their children to become who God made them to be. Don’t live vicariously through your children and don’t try to find esteem through your children.

What does God think of your child? That is a much more important question than what other people think of your child or what people think of you because of your child.

Someday you will kneel in heaven before the throne and lift praises to Jesus. Every parent’s prayer should be that their child will be with them and at that time what will matter is not how the child measured up according to the standards of the world but how they measured up to the righteousness of Jesus.

As an act of love, release your child to be who God made him or her to be. Sacrifice your expectations and the expectations of your culture. Discover who it is that God gave you and raise your child as an individual.

Parental lesson #5
To encourage positive self-esteem in your children, you need to do two things: love your spouse and exercise consistent discipline.

I believe it is a mistake to focus too much of your attention on your children. The primary relationship in a family is husband and wife. Children come second to this relationship.

It is unfortunate but many couples live for their children which leads to putting too much pressure on the children and damages the marriage relationship.

Parents do make sacrifices for their children but I urge you to keep it in perspective. If you are married for fifty years, less than half of the time will likely be lived with children in the house. It makes practical sense to keep working at your marital relationship because that is who you will be living with for the rest of life.

But it is also good advice because parents who love each other tend to have children with positive self-esteem. Children find comfort in living in a home where the parents love each other had show affection for each other. The parental relationship provides a safe place to be.

The best thing a father can do for his children is to love his wife. The best thing a mother can do for her children is to love her husband.

The second part of encouraging positive self-esteem in children is to have consistent discipline.

Some parents spank their children, some do not. But more important than whether or not you spank your children is that you have limits that are set and you consistently discipline your children to stay within those limits.

I read a lot about strong-willed children and then I had one. When our daughter Caitlin was three years old there was a family wedding and my mother told her to do something and she stuck her hands on her hips and said defiantly, “You’re not my mother. You can’t tell me what to do.” This did not go over well.

When she was 14, I told her in the car on the way home from church that she would not be able to play on the computer until her homework was done. She told me, “That makes me so mad. I had already decided not to play the computer until my homework was done and now it will look like I’m obeying you.”

I told Caitlin often that my goal was to break her will without crushing her spirit.

When she was 11 she was grumbling about helping to clean the kitchen and I finally had enough and told her to go to her room. About a half hour later she came down. She had used Annie’s makeup and painted her face white with red stripes on her cheeks, like an American Indian on the warpath.

I grabbed her by the collar and pushed her up against the wall and told her, “You have five minutes to get that stuff off your face and get down here or you will get the spanking of your life.”

She came down and we had supper on the deck and I watched her intently. Every little act of defiance was snuffed out be me. She kept probing and testing to see where her limits were and I kept showing her where they were.

At night I sat with her in bed and she fell asleep in my arms. The next morning as she left for school, I gave her a kiss and said, “Have a good day princess.” She looked up at me and replied, “OK king.”

It was amazing but I saw that when she knew where her limits were, she relaxed and felt safe within those limits.

Love your spouse and exercise consistent discipline and you will help your child to grow up with positive self-esteem.

Parental lesson #6
Be a parent to your child, not a friend.

It is a tragedy when parents try to be their child’s friend. A parent has to exercise parental authority without worrying whether or not their child will like them. When the parent gets to the point that they need the friendship of their child, the battle has been lost.

When my daughters would ask me why I was being so mean to them, I would reply, “I’m doing this so when you are an adult and go for counseling, you’ll have something to talk about with your counselor.”

If you are a parent, you will have your child as a close friend in their adult years. If you abdicate your parental role because you want your child to like you, you will damage your child and your long-term relationship.

Parental lesson #7
As a parent, you must be the number one fan of your child.

The world sets out to tear us down and the parent is the one who needs to consistently build up their child.

From the earliest years of my daughters, when I put them to bed, I would tell them I had three secrets. “Would you like to hear them?” I would ask. “You are beautiful. You are smart. You are really fun to be with.”

This was almost a nightly ritual and over time I would ask them what the secrets were and they would tell me, “I’m beautiful. I’m smart. I’m really fun to be with.”

We moved from Massachusetts to New Jersey when Elizabeth entered 6th grade. We moved in December so on Valentine’s Day, February 14, Elizabeth had only been in the new school for a month and a half. She came home from school upset because other girls had received not just valentine cards, but roses and teddy bears. She had received nothing.

That night she was in tears as I lay with her in bed and I asked her what the three secrets were. “I don’t know,” she said. I kissed her and hugged her and kept talking until she told me the three secrets, “I’m beautiful. I’m smart. I’m really fun to be with.” And then I talked with her about why I believed those three secrets to be true and that she should not let the experiences of that day affect who she really was.

Bonus lesson #1
I have shared these three secrets with other children who were not my own. The things I have been saying this morning apply to parents and to those who may one day be parents. But you don’t have to be a parent to be a blessing to a child or adolescent.

I have a niece who has not been a traditional child. Her parents divorced when she was young and she does not have the kind of personality that makes childhood easy under the best of circumstances. She has experienced a lot of criticism from people in my family because she does not fit their idea of what a child should be like.

But I have seen in her, from early on, who she will be as an adult and I have encouraged her consistently over the years. I think she is a terrific person and I think she is going to have a fascinating adult life. She knows I love her and believe in her and so has not closed off her heart to me.

She was not given to me as a gift from God, but I have nevertheless looked at this gift-wrapped package and tried to discover who she is. I have encouraged her and my sister who has raised her as a single mother, to be herself without allowing the world to mold her into its expectation of how she should be.

I have played a role in helping her to develop into a young woman, even when I have done that at a distance through email.

You do not have to be a parent to play a significant role in the life of a child. You can develop a friendship with a child or adolescent and become a positive role model for them. You can do this with nieces or nephews. You can do this in the church.

I am so blessed to have children. I know that there are many who are not married and would like to be married and have children. I know that there are those who are married and would like to have children. I pray for each of you that God will bless you and give you what you desire. And even if you do not get married or have children, I pray that God will bless you and give you relationships with children who you can love and encourage.