Teaching Moments

Last night my wife experienced an incredible moment with our oldest son.  We had returned home from a church event where the boys had an opportunity to spend time with some of their friends.  My oldest had spotted a friend that he wanted to go and greet, one he hadn’t seen in some time.  As he began to approach he suddenly felt insecure and backed away.  He was quite troubled by this experience and didn’t know what to make of it.  Bonnie noticed his anxiety and asked if he was OK.  At this point he isn’t quite old enough to really express what he’s feeling with much detail.  But Bonnie grasped pretty quickly what the issue was.  She spent the next few moments talking with him about why we all sometimes feel insecure and how to deal with it.  She reminded him of what a wonderful boy he is and how it is God’s love for us that gives us our security and identity in every situation.  It was amazing to watch.  A holy, teaching moment that unfolded right in front of my eyes.

How do we multiply moments like this with our children?  Two words come immediately to mind.  Attentiveness and discernment.  Bonnie noticed something in our son’s demeanor that piqued her interest.  She followed up.  She gently probed to get the relevant story.  It amazes me how easy it is for parents (myself included) to miss the obvious.  Most children aren’t sophisticated enough to mask their feelings.  They may not be able to communicate them clearly, but they don’t hide them well at all.  We must pay attention to what’s going on and engage with our children.  Next, we must discern what is really going on.  It goes beyond interpreting our children’s words and understanding what they are trying to say.  It is discerning with the help of the Holy Spirit what isn’t being said and what is at stake.  Insecurity is an attack on identity.  It is an arrow at the heart of our children.  It is a lie that says you aren’t loved and valued.  It says that to be accepted and loved you have to be someone other than yourself.  It is a spiritual issue that requires a spiritual response.  The antidote for a lie is the truth.  We must learn to embrace the truth about our identity and to teach it to our children.  Bonnie reminded our son of who he is.  She reminded him that he is loved by God and that provides him identity and security.  Truth overcomes lies.  It sets us free.  When attentiveness meets discernment and truth is spoken to our children in love – then a genuine teaching moment happens.

Don’t miss the opportunities to share these moments with your children.  Tune in to their hearts and engage them in the moments when they need reminders of the truth of who God made them to be.  Allow the Holy Spirit to place a holy finger on the issue at hand.  And cooperate with His Word for the issue that sets us free.  These are holy, teaching, connecting moments that have eternal value.  Oh, and by the way, they bring a lot of joy along for the ride as well.

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3 Ways to Engage Your Child’s Heart

One of the ongoing battles of parenthood is seeing beyond the immediate.  It is so easy to live in the world of unfinished schoolwork, messy rooms and sibling squabbles.  One can play and replay endless cycles of correction and behavior management.  But as a parent, my most important task is the shepherd my children’s hearts toward God.  That is much more than behavior modification and enforcing boundaries.  It involves engaging them at the level of the heart.  This challenges a parent to slow down and notice what is going on beyond the crisis of the moment.  How can I engage my child’s heart?  Let me offer 3 simple ways.

1.  Enter their world.  When is the last time you stopped what you were doing to watch your child work or play?  By work, I don’t mean doing a chore that was assigned to them – but something that they love to do.  Put down the remote, let the laundry go unfolded for awhile longer, put your priorities on hold for a bit and just watch them.  Next, without intruding in the flow of what they are doing, talk to them while they are at work or play.  Ask them questions about what they are doing or thinking.  Let them share with you some of their inner delight.  When you do this, you are communicating to them that you love what they love because you love them.  If possible (and if invited), work or play with them.  Every person longs to share what they love with someone else.  Give your child the gift of allowing them to share it with you.

2.  Share something that you love.  Your children may not love (or even like) the same things that you love.  But they do love you.  Take time to share with them why you love the things that you do.  The reason your children may not share some of your favorite things is that they don’t understand why it is special to you.  Explain it to them, without getting upset if they don’t jump on board your bandwagon.  Even if they don’t take up your love, they will at least understand you better.  Children long to understand their parents.  They want to know you so much more than you might think.  They may simply think that you plunge into some hobby or activity (or book or movie or game) as a way to fence yourself off from them.  Unfortunately, for too many parents that is true.  Make sure that it isn’t true for  you.

3.  Tell them why you love them.  Most parents tell their children that they love them.  But have you told them why?  What is it about their personalities that delights you?  What is about them that makes you smile?  When is the last time you told them that?  (By the way, this works with spouses too – but that is a different post)  Be specific.  And make it something that goes to the heart of their character and identity.  My oldest son, for example, has an incredible sense of justice and fairness.  He intensely wants to see the good guys win.  That is a big part of who he is.  My middle son observes everything.  He notices all sorts of things that other people miss.  What a gift.  My youngest has more determination than almost anyone I know.  He does not give up easily and has a hard time taking no for an answer.  That will serve him incredibly well in almost anything he will ever do.

Every investment that you or I make in the hearts of our children is invaluable.  It is layer of protection against the attacks on their identity that are sure to come.  And the joy of connecting deeply with them cannot be replaced.  Engage them today.  You will be glad that you did and so will they.

A Child’s Vocation

I love watching my boys play.  It is endlessly entertaining and also instructive.  They so easily enter into whatever role their play demands.  One moment it is a super-hero, the next a cowboy, then a ninja and so on.  A story develops throughout each moment and the boys are totally immersed in that story and completely committed to it in that moment.  It seems random if one isn’t really paying attention, but the play is full of purpose.  Within the imagination is the learning of an incredible range of morality, value and meaning.  The common themes include heroism, justice, loyalty and teamwork.  They re-enact these themes over and over, rehearsing them in different ways so that the framework gets firmly established.  These stories become written into the fabric of who they are and who they want to become.  It is life-giving for them.  At this point in their growth, it is as important as they air they breathe and the food they eat.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of squabbles over toys and who’s in charge of what.  But that’s just part of the picture.  It is merely filling out the details of the story.  And the story keeps going.

So what does this have to do with vocation?  Everything.

Vocation means calling.  It means living out the purpose for which you were created.  It means hearing God’s voice and acting on it.  Most of all, vocation is finding your place in the biggest Story of all.  That Story is the the Story of God’s redemption of fallen humanity in Christ.  It is the Story of the liberation of creation.  Heroism, justice, loyalty and teamwork are all needed in this Story.  Where can one learn these virtues?  One place is the great stories, the types of stories that children want to re-enact in their imaginations and in their play.  And just maybe, the more fuel and space we give our children to do just that the more they will be open to hearing the call of God to take their place in the Greatest Story of all.

One more thing.  I’m not a little boy anymore (although I do often act like one).  But what if one of the best ways for me to open up my heart and mind to hear God’s call is to engage those same imaginative muscles that adults all too often let atrophy while we take care of “more important things”.  Do you think I can learn something from my boys?  I certainly hope so.

Talking, Walking, Teaching and Learning – A Full-Time Parenting Task

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord or God, the Lord is one.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall team them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”   Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

We have a great responsibility as parents to teach our children.  Regardless of their age and level of formal education, whether they are in public school, private school, home school or at university, parents are the primary teachers of their children.  That teaching responsibility goes far beyond formal schooling.  It is much more than reading, writing and mathematics.  It is the school of life.  And your children are learning from you whether you are teaching or not.  This foundational Scriptural passage lays out that responsibility clearly and also gives some important clues on how to teach your children well.  Here are a few suggestions on how to make the most of those clues.

1.  Embrace the Responsibility – one of the biggest impediments to effectively teaching your children is thinking the responsibility belongs to someone else.  We live in an outsourcing world.  Any task we don’t want to do, we outsource to someone else.  Generations of parents have peddled the job of educating their children to the government and then complain when the job isn’t done to their satisfaction.  Even worse, generations of Christian parents have outsourced the job of teaching Christian faith to children’s and youth ministry and then wonder why their adult children take a different path.  We assume that colleges and universities will train our children to make a living, or worse, help them discover a purpose in life.  We need to stop with the outsourcing.  Schools, ministries, colleges and universities are wonderful resources and can help provide a lot of great things for our children.  But teaching children is a God-given parental task.  Embrace that task.

2.  It takes time – the passage speaks of talking with your children when you sit in your house, walking along the way, bedtime and early morning.  It assumes that parents are actually spending this time with their children.  It assumes that parents are sitting down with their children in the house, walking with them along the way, tucking them into bed and being there when they wake up.  Are these conversations taking place?  Are they taking place without television, computer games and smartphones dividing the attention of either the parents, the children or both?  Parenting requires unhurried time.  It requires saying no to many good things to embrace the best.

3.  It is comprehensive – the other thing about the time-intensive nature of parenting is that it covers formal and informal.  Some of the best teaching takes place in the most informal of settings.  In parks, in cars, in stores, in any and all kinds of shared experiences.  The life of a parent is the life of a teacher.  But these moments must be looked for, recognized and grasped.

4.  Learners make the best teachers – the command to teach is followed by the command to remember and constantly consider.  The best teachers are the ones who maintain the intense desire and curiosity to learn.  In formal schooling, the teachers I remember most fondly are the ones who exhibited an enthusiasm and love for the content that they were teaching.  Their passion was contagious.  Children will pick up on a lack of engagement and will often check out as a result.  Are you passionate and joyful about life?  Do your children sense that your faith gives you zest for living?  Do they see you reading, learning and speaking with others about the things that you are learning?  We can create a hunger in our children to know, to learn and to live.

5.  It only works when it is surrounded by the Love of God – the command to teach follows the command to love the Lord your God.  This first and greatest commandment is the wellspring of life and learning.  We are commanded to love God, but we only love because He first loves us (1st John 4:19).  The truth is that we will default to what we love.  We will effectively teach our children only to the level  that we have experienced God’s love for ourselves.  And our children will only learn that love when we, through our words and our actions, express and embody that love to them each day.

It can be a liberating experience to embrace the responsibility of teaching your children.  It is scary, but it throws us into the hands of God because we can’t do it alone.  God has given this task to us as parents because He wants to be our ultimate parent – a loving Heavenly Father.  Embracing that role can teach us more about the Father heart of God than we have ever experienced before.  It is more than worth it.

What Does “Train up a child in the way that he should go” Mean?

“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6 ESV

This verse in Proverbs is often used a sort of legal guarantee, that if a Christian parent raises a child in the Christian faith that even if he or she strays from the fold for a period of time, they will eventually come back to the faith.  This is certainly a comforting thought for parents who see adolescent or adult children walking down a path apart from Christian faith, but it isn’t really what the proverb is about.  Instead, it is a short powerful statement that highlights a vital truth of parenting.  It provides an insight that can guide parents in understanding and guiding their children towards a life of purpose and meaning.

The Hebrew verb (and its variations) that is translated “train up” in many translations is often translated differently in other contexts.  It often is used in the context of the dedication of buildings or objects to the Lord as well as the sense of initiation, discipline and education.  The phrase “in the way he should go” refers to both a moral sense, that is, a way a child ought to go or behave, and also a sense of path that one take through life in accordance with their temperament, personality, gifts, talents and resources.  When one puts these meanings into context it paints a much different picture.  It paints the picture of a parent that is carefully tending to a child, paying close attention to their uniqueness and seeking to understand what the best future for that child might look like.  It also paints the picture of a prayerful parent who understands that they are a steward of that child, dedicating that child to the Lord on a daily basis and co-laboring together with the Holy Spirit to guide that child towards a path that is suited to God’s purposes and the child’s unique design.

When seen in this light, this proverb offers an encouraging and challenging template of parenting.  It is encouraging, in that unlike the “legal guarantee” style interpretation it acknowledges that a parent cannot control either their child or the future.  Children make their own choices as they grow and that is a good thing.  They need to learn to do this in a healthy way and parents have a role in helping this to happen.  It is challenging, however, as it highlights the meticulous care and deep prayerful dependance that godly parenting requires.   Every child is a complicated bundle of emotional, spiritual, physiological and mental wiring that even the most sensitive parent can misunderstand and damage along the way.  Our role in stewarding that child requires all that we have and even that isn’t nearly enough to the task.  We need the help of the Holy Spirit every step of the way.

One final thought is appropriate to mention as well.  Acknowledging our dependance on God’s help does not excuse us from the responsibility of engaging deeply.  Engaging with your child is not the same as “helicopter parenting”.  But it does mean being present and being attentive.  It means coming to grips with being a steward, not an owner of your child.  They don’t belong to you, but ultimately to God.  But what a privilege to have the responsibility to help shape that child along the way.

The Impact of a Father

I got my undergraduate degree from Howard Payne University in Brownwood, Texas.  I was part of their honors program, the Douglas MacArthur Academy of Freedom.  When I graduated I received a numbered, special edition (signed my MacArthur’s widow, Jean) copy of his autobiographical book, “Reminisces”.  It had been years since I read it, but I recently picked it up again.  I am a history buff, so much of the material is right up my alley.  Much of the early part of the book deals with his family history, particularly the life of his father, Arthur MacArthur, who was a great soldier in his own right and a hero of the Civil War.  In fact, Arthur and Douglas are the only father-son duo in American history to have both been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest honor that our nation can bestow upon a soldier.  It is obvious in all of the material that deals with his father that Douglas MacArthur nearly idolized him and that their relationship was very close and full of great respect and affection.  One of the most poignant passages in the entire book is when MacArthur relates the story of his father’s death, on the 50th anniversary reunion of his Civil War regiment, the Wisconsin 24th.  He relates the details of the event in a straightforward, almost clinical fashion, similar to how he describes military maneuvers and strategy throughout the rest of the book.  But he adds a coda that is incredibly telling.  He says, “my world changed that day and I have not been able to fill the hole in my heart since”.  He writes this 50 years after the events happen, as a man in his early 80s whose life experiences, accomplishments and decorations few in history can match.  But the pain that comes through his words, even after all of those years stopped me in my tracks.  The “ultimate soldier” (at least that is the public image that MacArthur cultivated, I have no idea whether or not that was true), grieving the loss of his father, half a century later.

What an impact a father has.

I got my seminary degree from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and during my time there “inclusive language” (that is to say, gender-neutral language) was a fairly big deal among the student body.  The NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translation of the Bible was relatively new and its use of gender-neutral language in reference to God in many passages made a few waves.  Brite is definitely left of center theologically but it was not a place where (at least in my experience) liberal theology was shoved down anyone’s throat.  But that experience made me think a lot about how Jesus referred to God as “Father” or even “Daddy” throughout the Gospels.  Some argued that emphasizing this might be hurtful or raise unnecessary obstacles to faith for those who had difficult or hurtful experiences with their earthly fathers.  But doesn’t this make the same point as emphasizing it, only in a different way?  You can face up to it or ignore it but you can’t make it go away.

What an impact a father has.

I am not interested in arguing a theological point or discussing gender roles or language.  I am only pointing out the obvious.  Fathers, by their presence or absence, their success or failure, love or anger, faith or lack thereof make a huge impact.  What kind of impact did your father have on you?  Is it a cause of gratitude or pain to you?  And if you are a father, what kind of impact are you having?  Because you are having one, make no mistake.

I don’t know what your earthly father was like (thankfully, mine was and is wonderful).  But your Heavenly Father loves you more than you could possibly understand.  And the impact of knowing that can do more in your heart and soul than anything else.

Discipline

One of most enduring influences on the lives of children is when, how and why they are disciplined.  We have all heard (and some unfortunately have experienced) the nightmare of discipline gone far wrong, lurching into abuse and scars that go far beyond the physical.  Many more in our culture have experienced the other extreme, a permissiveness that leads to a lack of self-control and inability to understand proper boundaries.  As we consider how we might discipline our children in a way that reflects “the nurture and admonition of the Lord”, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1.  Discipline is Teaching –  “discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root word.  It might help to think about what Jesus did with his disciples.  More than anything he taught them (by word and example).  When correcting our children, it is always helpful to keep this in mind.  What am I trying to teach them?  If the goal of discipline is simply getting your children to stop doing something that is irritating or embarrassing you, you are missing the point.  Any correction should really be about teaching something specific to your child.  If your child is disobeying a specific instruction – the discipline should be about teaching the child how to obey.  This goes way beyond just giving a negative consequence for disobedience, it is about teaching them what obedience looks like and why it matters.  If your child is throwing a fit or exhibiting an outburst of anger – discipline is about helping your child learn to control themselves.  Your child can only learn from you what you are actually teaching them in that moment.  We need to be careful about what we are teaching.

2.  Discipline Does Not Equal Punishment – If the only time we consider discipline for our child is when spanking is involved, we are failing to actually discipline.  Giving out negative consequences is an important part of discipline (and yes, spanking can be a quite good tool here).  But it isn’t all there is to it.  Giving clear instructions to our children and rewarding their obedience and good attitude is every bit as important.  Children don’t just learn to avoid what gives them negative consequences, they also can learn to embrace what gives them good consequences.  Praise is one of the most powerful tools of discipline.  Life-giving words of affirmation can give a child the fuel to overcome obstacles, finish tough tasks and become a good influence on those around them.

3.  Discipline is About Building Relationship and Restoring Fellowship – Disciplining our children should bring them closer to us, not drive them away.  No one enjoys being corrected or living out the negative consequences of poor choices.  But when done well, the bonds of relationship can grow stronger during that time.  It can test those bonds, but just as exercise can strengthen muscles by tearing them down temporarily in a controlled fashion, discipline allows for moments between parent and child that aren’t pleasant in the now,  but builds up that relationship moving forward.  And the goal of discipline, particularly when correction is sharp, is to restore the child to full fellowship.  Forgiveness and restoration should be complete.  When we communicate conditions on this front, it can do damage to our relationship with our children that can have far-reaching ramifications.  Discipline is not primarily about behavior.  It is about relationship.  Behavior is temporary (even if consequences can be long lasting).  Relationship is eternal.

I recently had an experience that reminded me of all of this.  Micah, my oldest, has been exhibiting a bit of a temper lately.  He wanted to watch a particular show, but it wasn’t his turn to pick.  I overruled his choice and he exploded.  I sent him to his room and he stomped up the stairs, punctuating his arrival by throwing a couple of toys (maximizing the noise in the process).  This set me off and I followed him up the stairs.  I asked him if this was how he was supposed to act and he gave me a pretty whiny and loud response.  I sent him into our bathroom fully intending to give him a spanking that he wouldn’t quickly forget.  But thankfully, the Holy Spirit nudged me (not too gently, either) with a little warning in my heart.  Micah was struggling with self-control and I was about to reinforce that with a lack of self-control and an outburst of my own anger to react to his.  I took a breath and talked to Micah.  I reasoned with him about his behavior.  I asked him how he wanted his brothers to react when it was his turn to pick the show to watch.  I asked him if wanted to rejoin the rest of the family and enjoy the evening or if he wanted to be separated and on his own, in his room with nothing to watch.  I told him that we don’t always get what we want, and that when we don’t, losing self-control only makes things worse.  His attitude melted and he wanted to rejoin his brothers.  I held him for a moment and that anger and tension in his countenance and body was gone.  He told me he was sorry for losing his temper and I told him I was sorry for losing mine as well.  We went downstairs and had a great night (popcorn and Star Wars always help).  I want Micah to learn self-control and how to manage anger and disappointment when things don’t go his way.  The way not to teach that would have been for me lose my self-control.  But a bit of instruction, forgiveness given and received and restoration to fellowship are a lot more helpful.
There is a time for the rod of instruction applied firmly to the backside of learning.  There is a time for grounding and losing of privileges.  There is a time for tough consequences.  But those times are specific and limited.   Relationship, learning and fellowship are for all times.  When people say that parenting is about being the parent and not being your child’s friend I understand what they mean.  But that overstates the point.  You aren’t a peer to your child.  You are in authority.  But Jesus said that we are his friends if we do what he commands.  Authority and friendship aren’t exclusive on one another.  When you are really a parent to your child, you are the best friend they could possibly have.