Parenting To Make Disciples: Overcoming fear and perfectionism


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Are you nervous about how your kids will grow up? Are you trying hard to give them all the right opportunities? Does parenting feel like a high-stakes game of “Whose kid is more awesome?” If so, be encouraged. We made 10,000 mistakes and our kids still turned out ok.

So much parenting advice plays on our fears. We see the results of this being lived out in young adults as they struggle with the fruits of our fear-based parenting: Questions of identity, lack of community, confused calling, and sense of entitlement in an increasingly complex world. Is it possible to parent without fear? Our advice: Feel free not to play along – refuse to drink the “experts” Cool Aid.

It takes a fair amount of hutzpah to give someone else parenting advice, but we get a decent amount of street cred by knowing that we have made a mind-bending amount of parenting fails and still having adolescents who are turning into nice young adults – heck, we’ve even had people tell us they joined our church because they wanted their kids around ours. And our kids actually are pretty swell: They are kind. Thoughtful. Motivated. They love God. They seek community (both multi-generationally in church and in age-appropriate ministry groupings). They lead and serve others. And they are doing these things without much prompting from us. How did we do it? Was it dumb luck? Were we experts in child psychology? Were we blessed with compliant children? Actually, it was none of the above. We are ordinary people who did a few grace-based things that we thought were right. Here, in no magical order are…

10 things we do as parents that seem to have worked:

  1. Keep the end in mind. When our kids were young we sought the advice of parents whose young adult children we respected. A surprising number talked about “parenting for the future.” It was freeing to remember that what we were  not after eight year olds with the most activity ribbons, but self-directed, moral, responsible, God-following thirty-year olds. We parented alongside friends who were forever fretting: “Are they meeting the right kids, playing the right sports, learning the right version of Mandarin, eating sufficiently organic meals, will they try sex, will playing that video game turn them into a basement-lizard crackhead?” It was exhausting. So we relaxed. We lowered the bar early on. Our big goal for early childhood was that by age four our kids would know, “God loves you and Mommy and Daddy do too.” That was it. Instead of club sports and video games we kicked them outside and let them engage in kid-organized play. We let them be bored. We, gasp, put them in the “wrong” schools.
  2. Realize they will become you. All of us become our parents. Knowing our kids will become what they see, we watched what we said and, especially, what we did. In Christian Smith’s groundbreaking book Soul Searching, he describes the belief system of Americans as a shallow, touchy-feely, do-goodism masquerading as faith. The bombshell is not just that this is the belief system of both secular and many churched Americans, but that the source of that theology is parents. It may be trendy to blame the church, but the number one reason kids don’t love God is not the pastor. It is us. So we tried to grow in our faith and our kids noticed. And, because children live what they learn, they developed the habits of faith too.
  3. Love each other. It is (or should be) a given that we parents love our kids. Want to raise secure children? Love your spouse. It creates a stability that allows them to take healthy risks later.
  4. Live grateful, generous lives.We made service and ministry hallmarks of our family. We opened our home and family and let our kids see us sacrifice time and money for other’s benefit. We involved “those people” in our family. Most parents try to avoid “them.” Don’t. Have your kids in school with kids who are different from them. Have “them” in your home. In the small youth group that met in our house last night, kids from twelve different countries were present. This is not about serving the “less fortunate.” “They” have values that we wanted our children to learn. Educational research tells us that heterogenous groupings (differing abilities) are more effective than homogenous groupings (i.e. all the smart kids in one place). Our kids are broader and more able to cope in a diverse world as a result. More than that, it fights the creeping narcissism of our culture when your kids grow up involved in things that are for the good of another for another’s sake.
  5. Use lots of words. Ask good questions and listen. Talk. Read. Create a word rich environment. The dinner table is critical for this. Skip the baby talk. And don’t be afraid to praise them when you see them doing something admirable.
  6. Remember the goal is adults who walk with God. This is not the same as having the appearance of walking with God. Rule following is not nearly as important as a heart that wants to walk with God from love. We worked on teaching them to learn to love doing the things Christians have always loved doing: Read the Bible, pray, be in mutual surrender with other Christians, gather to worship, serve, etc. But experiencing being the beloved’s of the God behind these practices is the goal.
  7. Tell the truth. There are plenty of things we cannot and should not tell our children, but we tried remarkably hard to be sure that our kids could count on our word. (BTW, we took this one all the way to Santa Claus. We said, “Santa is really fun pretend. Sort of like your dolls are really fun, but still pretend.” You may not want to do that. It made us pretty unpopular with other parents when our kids spilled the beans.)
  8. Don’t need them to “like” us. Instead, be people they can respect. Parents seem to be confused in the Facebook age of “like.” You don’t need to be “cool.” You don’t need the latest slang. Kids are like sharks – they can smell a parent’s desperation. The impulse to be liked is in all of us. But what kids need now is a parent. So, rather than need to be liked, be someone who is courageous to talk about their life. Be someone worthy of their respect. …But do like
  9. Develop their gifts and dreams. Not ours. Encourage experimentation and risk taking. But before they can experiment with chemicals and sex, help them experiment with their God-given gifts and dreams so that they can begin to taste their calling. Help them to prefer adventure and risk to safety and security. Faith and fear do not go together. As a result, our kids have done a bunch of things that we would never have dared attempt.
  10. Have lots of honorable people in their lives. Hillary Clinton was right, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The successful families we were watching were all people who knew that they needed other adults in their kids lives who were saying what they were saying, but just happened not to be them when they said it. Surround them with healthy Christian adults, young and old.

In other words, we placed high value on effort, risk, faith, and service, and a lower one on club sports (never played one), academics (although they signed up for plenty of AP courses on their own), and fighting their battles.

How about you? Do you have any tips for young parents who are embarking in this lifelong adventure?

For another post on parenting: The Secret Sauce for Raising Great Teens


10 thoughts on “Parenting To Make Disciples: Overcoming fear and perfectionism

    • You wouldn’t want me. I wrestle and play dolls and wander around the outside looking for adventures and telling stories. I’m not nearly serious enough about their goal directed futures. One evening off task with us would surely derail your girl’s big shot at the Ivies. I should have really shortened the thing to: “we tried to parent like a youth worker meets a grandparent.”

      • LOL! Sounds familiar. My primary disciplinary style is distraction through tickle fights and/or discussion of the various and sundry sounds our bodies are capable of producing. It makes me a fun parent, but not a very good husband.

  1. You very much captured the “other” way to parent “and guarantee that you kids will be average” all their lives. We fought that battle so often!

    We always figured, and told the “authorities” that our job was to raise responsible adults that were willing, able and prepared to provide for themselves, with their own money, at the own addresses. This transition was expected to begin in their Highschool years and be realized shortly after they graduated. All four of them have their own money, their own addresses, hold good jobs and are active in their churches. Only one of them chose to go to college and now works for that college, as does his wife. One of them took some classes in the banking industry and has since decided that being a mom is a much higher calling. One of them took some local college classes for dual credit in Highschool and she is now a CNA at the local advanced care facility of the hospital. One of them went into an apprenticeship with a contractor friend of mine and has since come to work for me. All of them played with sticks and dirt outside…alot. All of them rode with me on service calls by turn to see where the money comes from and how much fun it was to be grown up.

    Regarding #2…I will never forget the day I was watching my two year old son trying to put the stupid pegs in the cute little toy work bench…he got frustrated, rated back and threw the little plastic hammer across the room! I tried…I really tried…to avoid “the look” I knew my wife was giving me! But, like an old episode of Cosby…”the look” reeled me in and I knew without any words being spoken, that I must model a better way for my son.

    He is now 27, a highly skilled plumber and heating technician…just like me and has joined me in my business.

    And we don’t throw hammers…it’s a matter of policy.

  2. Raymond in OKC

    Being a parent isn’t hard.

    Neither is it easy.

    It was absolutely the craziest think I ever “tried” to do. Meaning “it drove me crazy.” Now at age 84 I still am a “parent” but I “parent differently.

    My three children survived me. , now in their 50’s all three with children, two with grandchildren.
    By the way, “being there with them” was the most significant thing I ever did with them, for both them and for their mother and myself. My children pushed me into the freeway to maturity.

    Keep yourself sane, if necessary get into individual or couple therapy with your spouse when you need it, Be real, be present, be attentive, be a guide and not a drill sergeant. Don’t be a playmate but still play. Don’t be an ATM machine but still provide resources. Absolutely be a Disciple of Jesus yourself. Don’t just dip your big toe in the baptistery, plunge your whole soul in.

    The day they are born (or maybe a few weeks later) agree with your spouse on what you want them to be when they are 25, then do whatever and only will move them toward that goal. As they grow, help them agree with you on what they will be when they are 25.

    Once a parent, always a parent, even when you are 90 and they are in their 70’s. So be careful not to treat them like they are six when they are in their 70’s and you are 90.

    PS. They still are going to do things their way no matter how much “teaching time” we parents have with them. Don’t we want them to have the humanity to make their own way? And let them do some teaching for you as well. learning is always reciprocal.

    • Amen and Amen.

      And to riff off of your Jazz-parenting, true discipleship is when their interior is formed in Christ and we celebrate them “doing things their way.” It isn’t the “way they do things” we are after. It is the motives from which they do them. Are they doing what they do from a love for God which works itself out in loving others as much as they love themselves?

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