Successful Parenting: What Makes It Work?

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What Makes It Work?

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When John F. Kennedy Jr. died tragically in a plane crash with his wife in 1999, a number of friends, relatives and former mentors came forward to recount the young man's childhood experiences. Commenting on his reputation among those who knew him well, Newsweekremarked: "The one child of the 1960s who had the greatest chance of growing up strange and insecure turned into one of the most centered and easygoing guys around" (July 26, 1999, p. 52).

How could this young man, raised with all the publicity and pressure focused on the Kennedy family, turn out to be so normal? What struck me in reading and hearing the analysis of his life in the media were the repeated references to his mother Jackie's determination to bring her children up with that specific goal in mind.

I'm not asking anyone to leap to the conclusion that Mrs. Kennedy was a paragon of child-rearing know-how. We might not precisely share her vision of what a child should become. But I do want to emphasize that she had a specific goal and was willing to expend considerable effort toward achieving it.

Speaking of her efforts to protect her children, Newsweekcontinued: "She kept them away from the worst excesses of their cousins, some of whom were living fast and loose and experimenting with drugs." Concerning the later relationship between Jackie and her then-adult son, Newsweeknoted that John "loved his mother dearly and spoke often and intimately with her" (p. 47).

Many parents today would count themselves successful if their children would speak to them at all!

What is it that causes children to become the kind of adults they do? How is it that one tiny, innocent baby can grow up to be a selfless humanitarian, while another becomes a mass murderer?

Virtually all authorities on child development conclude that the adult "product" springs from both its genetics (nature) and its environment (nurture). What is not so widely agreed upon is the relative proportion of these two influences. Let's briefly examine this and then look at what we as parents can do on the nurturing side.

Cultivating through love

Notice what one mother and author says in her book, I Didn't Plan to Be a Witch: and Other Surprises of a Joyful Mother: "Contrary to what we may have heard, children are not like clay—which we can mold into whatever we want if we try hard enough. They are seedlings. The seed of what they are has already been planted from the moment they began their existence. Some may be orange trees and others might be lemons. It is our job, as their gardeners, to observe, water, expose to the sun, weed, provide fertilizer, and nurture, in order to make the most beautiful plant possible from the seedlings we are given" (Linda Eyre, 1996, p. 107).

The gardening analogy is certainly appropriate and biblical. Jesus Christ used such symbolism many times. In the book of John, He tells us: "I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit" (John 15:1-2).

This principle is of critical importance as a foundation for child rearing since God, as our Heavenly Father, is bringing up spiritualchildren (Romans 8:16).

In fact, when we study the Bible carefully, we come to understand that God is actually focused on a tremendous goal for His children. He is working to make us just like Himin mind and character. That's right! He worksat it—just as Jesus described in the book of John. All His efforts are for our ultimate goodand for our eternal benefit. He loves us beyond measure and wants to give us every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).

And in His love for us, He has allowed us, too, to become "creators" in this physical realm. After He had placed the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, God instructed them to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28). In Psalm 127:3-5 we read: "Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them . . ."

Children, therefore, are given to us as blessings. Not only are they to be a source of joy and strength, but they are also intended to present us with an opportunity to pour out our love on them. This is one way our Heavenly Father teaches us to be like Him. It should be understood, then, that the right foundation of all effective child-rearing practices is true love for our children—godly love that focuses on their well-being and ultimate success.

We know that a mother's love for her child is an emotion that's part of her nature. Yet even as wonderful and powerful as it is, it doesn't match the perfect, outgoing love that God has for us.

The good news is that God canand willgive us His kind of love for our children—if we askHim for it. For our part, we must strive to measure all of our actions against His perfect standard. If we do, it will have an immediate and powerful impact on the way we interact with our children!

If you will stop and think about the conflicts you may have with your children, you'll likely be able to see that they often result from the child wanting to act in a way contrary to the image—present and future—you have in your mind. Children don't always fit neatly into the molds we create for them—even those that are solely for their own benefit.

But even if they could"fit the mold," perhaps they're not meeting those expectations because we haven't properly explained what we expect from them. Without such communication and instruction, our goals for our children's future are probably doomed to failure. And given the difference in maturity levels, there's little chance of parents and children accidentallyvisualizing the goal the same way.

Friction over unmet expectations

In Ephesians 6:4 we find instruction on child rearing from the apostle Paul. He says, "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath . . ." We'll look at the rest of this verse shortly. But for the moment, let's consider this question: Why would he say such a thing?

Maybe it's because this problem was as common in the first century as it is today. Why is there so much friction and anger in parent-child relationships? Present-day experience tells us that provocation of children, most often young teens, results from a conflict of interest between parents and children.

It may be the result of selfish motives on either or both sides. Or it may stem from differing visions or goals for the future that we've already discussed. And this can be a formidable stumbling block. For there aren't many things more frustrating than someone you love vehemently disagreeing with you when you're sure you are right!

Mom and Dad often seem to assume that their children will just naturally see things the same way they do and will thus fulfill their vision. They may assume that if a child doesn't conform to this vision or image, he or she is simply rebellious.

However, in my experience as a longtime teacher, counselor and—let me admit—mistake-prone parent, I've found that the culprit is most often something else. It's the failure of the parents to properly convey how they expect their son or daughter to behave—as well as the failure to provide them with the necessary tools to learnand adoptthat behavior.

Now, think about children who are very young. As soon as most toddlers learn to draw or color pictures, they like to proudly present them to their parents. Imagine just how crushed a little child would be if his father were to scold him for having drawn a stick man because Dad wanted to see a picture of a tree. A ludicrous example? Of course. But it serves to drive home an important point.

Though all of us would label such a parental reaction as outrageous, we may be doing the same kind of thing when it comes to behavior and personality traits.

I have often observed in a grocery store or some such public place a mother shouting at a toddler to behave. But what do you suppose the word "behave" really means to the youngster? Even for adults, "behaving" is a complex concept, molded by such diverse factors as our ownparents' values, our social environment, cultural mores and God's spiritual law.

The point is that we cannot expect our children to instantly and automatically conform to what most of us only learned after many years in the school of hard knocks. We should hold them responsible only for what we have thoroughly and patiently taught them. Doing otherwise would be correctly perceived by them as unfair.

Does our love for our children match God's love for His?

Now let's look at the rest of Ephesians 6:4: ". . . but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." Paul completes the previous thought about not provoking children to wrath by encouraging parents to teach and nurture their offspring in the spirit of love and concern evident in God's attitude toward Hischildren. Nurture and admonition work hand in hand to motivate and direct a child toward effective growth and development.

Let's pause to reflect on a sad truth. All too many mothers and fathers either never intended to become parents in the first place, or never understood in advance the incredible amount of effort and commitment that rearing children would require. As a result, many are frustrated with the lack of time and freedom to pursue their own interests after children come along.

In far too many cases—and, of course, even one would be too many—parents develop actual antagonismtoward their own flesh and blood. The cause can be jealousy, selfishness, competition, vanity or any number of other wrong motives. And the antagonism will only be eliminated when the parents become spiritually mature enough to put their children's welfare at least on par with their own.

The work of educating and training a child the way God wants us to is a labor-intensivejob. It requires a level of personal sacrifice that does not always come naturally to us. We will succeed in it only if our true motive is the kind of love for our children that Godhas for Hischildren on a spiritual level.

Life is a classroom

When the Almighty called His people out of Egypt, they had been wrongly educated for centuries. They had practically lost all knowledge of the instruction the Creator had given to their forefathers. So, in His love, He took the time to carefully instruct them in His way of righteous living.

Then, through the prophet Moses, God exhorted them to preserveHis way of life by passing it on to their children, from generation to generation. In so doing, He also gave them—and us—an important formula for instructing and guiding the young.

We can glean much practical wisdom from a few short verses in Deuteronomy 6: "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart" (verse 6).

Note that true and effective moral or ethical teaching must be rooted in personal conviction. We can hardly expect our children to internalize a way of life that we don't believe and practice ourselves. Our words of instruction would be hollow indeed. And there would be no proper parental example to reinforceour instruction.

But once we are committedto the right way, Moses tells us how to convey it to our children: "You shall teach [God's words] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up ... You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (verses 7-9).

Without examining every detail, let me point out here that Moses is using terms that describe our everyday routines.He's talking about a way of life, not some peculiar ritual.

Nevertheless, I've known Christian parents who've tried to apply these verses using a strict, literal interpretation of each activity mentioned. The religious instruction of their children was scheduled according to these daily routines. I've also observed that parents who take this approach usually have very little naturalinteraction with their children. For some, such a legalistic view became a trap that obscured the priceless instruction God was reallygiving.

Of course, it's fine if you want to literally write out the Ten Commandments on the doorposts of your home. You could make it an interactive Bible project that would be both instructive and fun for the whole family. But how tragic it would be if you substitutedthe rote task of writing words for what God reallywants for all Christians: "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds" (Hebrews 10:16, New Revised Standard Version).

God wants us as parents to be committed to livingby a set of righteous values and then to pass them along to our children throughout life. And this is to be done, not in a formal way only, but also through all the typical daily activities that bring the family into natural togetherness.

I have known many parents who complained that their children hated to sit still for daily Bible study or simply showed no interest. From the instructions God gave, it's clear that He anticipated this a long time ago! He knew that so-called religious instruction, apart from practical examples and application, is usually of little value.

If conducted properly, the process of teaching through daily experiences that God outlined for families would require quality time spent between parents and children as well as the continual communication that stimulates mental development.

This is the nurtureto which the apostle Paul referred in Ephesians 6:4. God, who designed and built the marvelous human brain and body, foresaw the need for such nurturing. We neglect providing it to the peril of our children and ourselves. Yet, as crucial as teaching by word and example is, it still does not always prevent a child from making mistakes or choosing to disobey.

Dare to discipline

Sadly, most children do not live with the constant companionship of their parents and siblings. Some are even left in day-care centers from infancy, often deprived of critical contact with their parents except for short periods in the morning and evening.

Nor are they educated exclusively by their parents. School, scouting, summer camps, sports and a whole host of other endeavors bring them into regular contact with other children and adult supervisors. They may be exposed to a wide range of personalities and examples. To a point, of course, this is good. Children need varied life experiences and social contacts to learn to live in the real world—an often inhospitableworld.

But there's a downside as well. These same situations subject our children to influences that often contradictthe teaching and examples given at home.

This emphasizes the importance of teaching children properly in the home environment, so that any negative outside influences will be mitigated. Moreover, no matter how well we train them, they are subject to the vagaries of human nature and the influences of a very real Satan, the god of this world (see 2 Corinthians 4:4).

Mistakes and wrong behavior will inevitablyoccur. When they do, parents must be the first to impose a suitable penalty to call attention to the inappropriate acts and help the child learn to discern between right and wrong (see Proverbs 22:6; 29:15).

Let's return to the example of God's instruction to the nation of Israel. "And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the LORD your God"(Deuteronomy 28:2, emphasis added throughout).

We see that God promised special blessings to His people if they would obey His voice. But there was a flip side to this coin. For if the people would notobey, a very differentresult would follow: "But it shall come to pass, if you do notobey the voice of the LORD your God, to observe carefully all His commandments and His statutes which I command you today, that all these curseswill come upon you and overtake you" (verse 15).

These prophesied blessings and curses reveal the principle of discipline. There are rewardsfor obedience and penaltiesfor disobedience. This serves as advance warning that right and wrong will lead to different results and consequences. Some of those, of course, happen automatically, as we all discovered as children. But other forms of correction must be imposed by a loving parent—following God's example—to help steer a child through the difficult character-building stages of life.

We find this principle of proper, loving discipline echoed in the New Testament: "For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives. If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?" (Hebrews 12:6-7).

This passage and the following verses make it clear that some form of chastisement—that is, punishment—is necessary to direct children toward the right way of living. It reveals that correction and punishment are appropriate acts of parental love.Parents who truly love their children will establish values and standards, educate their children in them, and provide a system of discipline to help young minds learn the difference between right and wrong.

Carried out in a timely and consistent manner, appropriate discipline in the early years can save a child from a great deal of pain and trouble later on. Notice this counsel given in Proverbs 19:18: "Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction." The phrase "while there is hope" makes it plain that the penalty is for the long-term good of the child, not for the "satisfaction" of the parent.

And here, a slight warning may be in order. Acceptable and legal methods of punishment vary from nation to nation and from culture to culture and may not be permitted at all in some societies. Parents must exercise wisdom at all times.

Continuing in the passage we read earlier in Hebrews 12, we see a potential problem. Referring to human fathers, the author writes, "For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but [God chastens us] for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness" (verse 10).

In contrast to our Heavenly Father, as flesh-and-blood fathers we may punish according to our limited understanding, and perhaps at times with a wrong motive. All discipline shouldbe done in love, without antagonism, and be accompanied by a clear and objective explanation of the wrong behavior and the right alternatives.

And while there can, and sometimes should, be a degree of "righteous anger" involved—at the sin and not the child—punishment should neverbe a lashing out at our children over personal hurt or offense they've caused us. But as we just saw from the Scriptures, human parents don't always succeed in this regard.

Volume after volume has been written, and many more will follow, on the subject of healthy child development and effective parenting. Much of what is being learned by experts in the field today is valid and helpful. When it is accurate, you'll find it to be in harmony with the Bible—for God created the family unit and He designedthe laws that govern it.

There's still much we can alllearn. But the most important thing is to diligently and consistently apply the principles we alreadyknow. We have here covered the three broad, fundamental elements of parenting—love, instruction and discipline.We hope that you as a parent will continue to educate yourself and keep abreast of new scientific insight and knowledge that is in harmony with the foundation of al lknowledge, the Bible.

God has given us the responsibility of rearing our flesh-and-blood children, who all have the potential to ultimately become His own spiritualchildren. We owe it to Him—and to them—to succeed! GN