We tend to divide life, I think, into stages rather than years. At least that’s how it seems to me at this point. I look back over the course of my married life in particular, and the years tend to blend together into these larger segments of time.
There was, for example, the stage of life between marriage and kids. Those were the graduate school days. And then there was the first child. And the second. And the third. And for me, that constitutes another life stage – from the time our first son was born until our third child was actually walking around. The baby stage.
Then there was the elementary stage. These were the days of cartoons, of bedtime stories, and of kids’ meals at restaurants. And with each stage, you parent a little bit differently. You gradually start to loosen your grip, extend relationships beyond your home, and give more responsibility and freedom.
And so here we are again. I sense we are at the brink of exiting this childhood stage and entering the teenage stage, though we only have one teenager in the house. And just like our parenting needed to shift with the previous stages, so it also needs to shift now. Though I can’t begin to guess all the challenges that lie before us as parents in this new stage of life, I sense there are at least three shifts I need to ask the Lord to help me with. Perhaps you do as well if you are entering this same stage of life:
Shift 1: Not just what to think, but how to think.
When our children were younger, we were in the business of telling them what to think. What to think about everything, in fact. And most of the time, this “telling” was accepted without much discussion. The burden for us, as parents, was to be able to clearly articulate what to think in a way that was understandable to a child. But now? Times, they are a changin’…
I have to make the conscious shift in not just telling my children what to think, but how to think. That’s because they are and will find themselves in more and more real life situations, with real life human beings, and they need much more than just a rote answer to give about life, faith, and God. They don’t just need to know what to think; they need a framework that teaches them how to think. Though more complicated, and certainly more fearful from the standpoint of the parent, this is actually what discipleship is. Discipleship is not just learning the answers; it’s having your mind renewed by the Word of God so that you know how to think biblically in real time in real situations.
Shift 2: Not just expecting following, but encouraging leading.
In the old days – the days of previous life stages – it was reasonable for us to expect that our children would follow directions and commands, not just from us, but from other people in authority. But now another shift has to happen. I cannot keep telling my children to follow – to follow me or anyone else (other than Jesus) – it is important that I begin encouraging them to lead.
And that leadership is not just about leading others; it’s about leading themselves. My parenting has to shift to helping kids take initiative and responsibility for their own spiritual growth and development. For their own financial decisions. Even for their own physical habits of diet and exercise. This, too, is a fearful thing, because it means consciously ceding control to your child, and knowing they are going to inevitably mess up the freedom they’ve been given. But that’s part of leadership as well – it’s having the opportunity, messing it up, and then doing it again and again.
Shift 3: Not just talking at, but listening to.
I’m pretty good at talking at people. Especially my children. I’m less good at listening to. To be clear, I mean something more here than just listening to my children talk about their day (though that is probably more important than any of us realize). I mean that instead of telling them what to do in a given situation, to asking more questions about that situation, and listening to them work out the solution for themselves.
I must shift to more and more seeing myself not as the problem-solver, but rather as the counselor who equips his children to work out the solution they need and own it for themselves.
These are difficult shifts. Even as I type this, it makes me long for the days of the past when things felt more simple and straightforward. And yet I know – deeply know – that this is the way of things. That God would have me – and have us – not raise up children who can articulate the things of the faith, and yet not really internalize the things of the faith. These are the days when our things, by God’s grace, truly become their things. May it be so, Lord.