On Child Rearing

September 1, 2012

The following was written by my pastor, Ben Miller, as counsel to a family raising a young child. I've been given permission to reproduce the letter here. The only modifications have been to remove references to specific names and life situations.

Hi, [redacted],

I wanted to follow up on our brief conversation last night. I know the parenting issues you're sorting through are really difficult, and I'd like to offer whatever encouragement and counsel I can. I doubt I'll say anything here that you haven't already thought of, but maybe something will at least provide an additional perspective.

1. As you know, the goal in parenting is not to bring forth a product that meets the specifications in some pre-printed blueprint somewhere. There isn't a preformed set of specifications "out there" that says, "This is exactly what it will look like for your child to be Christlike." That may be obvious, but what it means in practice is that it's okay as parents to feel (pretty much every day!) a bit unsure of the best way forward. We ourselves are still discovering what the particular "product" is supposed to be, and sometimes our methods have to be retooled significantly as we move along in that discovery process. You know from scripture that your child is to be conformed to their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, but what you don't know is what precise form that will take (which, of course, means you're still learning every day what are the best methods to guide them toward their individualized conformity to Jesus). In short, if you feel uncertain, that doesn't mean you're blowing it!

2. On a related note, your child is not a problem to be solved, but a gift to be enjoyed and a mystery to be wondered at. This doesn't take anything away from the fact that they must be trained, but there's a world of difference between (a) training a child you have come to regard (not at all maliciously, of course, but simply because you're tired, perplexed, and frustrated) as a "problem child," and (b) training a child from whom you constantly step back and say, "What a wonderfully mysterious gift God has given us here." Part of the reason you get overwhelmed in training your child is that they're beyond figuring out - and God made them that way! We need to back away as parents sometimes and simply enjoy that.

3. In light of the medical issues, remember that your child is much more than a physical body; and remember also that they're much more than a will to be subdued. At the center of their being is something the Bible calls the heart, and your ultimate goal in parenting is to win their heart to you and to their Triune God. "My son, give me your heart" (Proverbs 23:26); that's parenting in a nutshell. It can be unclear, when children are very young and don't communicate well, just how to interact with their hearts; but as they get older and begin to talk, you get significant glimpses into their hearts every day, and you will have many, many opportunities every day to reach into their hearts with the love and truth of Jesus. This doesn't always mean talking to them; it means, for example, being glad (or at least acting glad!) to see them when they get out of bed in the morning, reaching out to touch them when they come near you, smiling at them, pointing out to them the good gifts of God, speaking scripture in their hearing, being careful of frustrated tones and gestures and even "vibes," being quick to restore affection after the sharpness of discipline, speaking well of them to others, noticing the little things they do that they yearn (yea, clamor) for you to notice, etc. Children need to feel drawn in by their parents, not pushed away (overtly or covertly). Again, the goal is to establish a bond of affection heart-to-heart that will then open their ears when it's time to rebuke, chasten, and instruct.

4. Again in light of the medical issues, you will continue to learn every day how to balance meeting your child's needs (which are real) with the dark reality that they (like all of us) will use their needs to manipulate you to get what they want. One of your child's needs is to know that when they push against a clear (and reasonable) boundary you have set, it's not going to move. Nothing breeds insecurity in a child so much as not knowing who's in charge. As you build the bond of affection I mentioned above, you will find that your setting and enforcing of boundaries will not frustrate your child (though they may still resist, just to make sure you truly mean it), but will give them great comfort and reassurance.

5. One of the hardest things to learn in parenting is when to skirt a particular battle in order to win the war. There are certain things your children are doing to do every day that are going to drive you insane, and now is simply not the time to address them. There is always a need to prioritize "battles" in the long "war" to win the hearts of our children. A parent who can't wisely prioritize, and then let go of certain things for the present, is going to be a parent who eventually gets completely overwhelmed - and heaven help the kids at that point!

6. Connected with this, I would suggest that you both sit down and hammer out a set of (by this I mean two or three) simple, clear, attainable goals for your child's development (say) over the next three months (or six months), and then teach and discipline diligently, consistently, and unswervingly to those. Other stuff will have to wait. You don't build a roof at the same time you're building a foundation. For example, this summer we're working with our kids on expressing gratitude and taking jurisdiction over particular "zones" in the house.

7. On the social side of things, listen to wise counsel from others, but don't be ruled in any way by the opinions of others. You are not bringing up your child for either set of in-laws, or Trinity Church, or the medical professionals who weigh in; you're bringing them up for the Triune God - and it is you who are called to bring them up, which means you need to be comfortable making wise decisions and seeing them through, regardless of what others think. This doesn't mean you're hard-headed and don't listen (I wouldn't be writing this email if I were trying to encourage that!), but it does mean you're comfortable with the fact that the God of all grace - and He alone - is your Judge in this business of parenting. Everything else is just human opinions.

8. [The husband], this is directed especially to you: be very careful (notice the "very" in that phrase!) about too many outside commitments at this stage in your family's life. You don't have time for a lot of outside commitments; your marriage and your children are your first priority, and whatever doesn't serve those relationships, at this stage in the game, is questionable. You need to unplug from stuff and connect with your children, especially this child. Whatever it takes.

9. Don't worry, I'm almost done! On a penultimate note, don't worry too much about visible results, especially day to day. God will bless faithful obedience. Believe that. You'll see the fruit in harvest season; right now it's planting and watering time, and it often looks like the plants aren't growing. They are, because God is at work. "Be it unto you according to your faith."

10. Above all, never let a day pass without praying fervently for the work of the Holy Spirit in all of your children. "You have not because you ask not."

With deep affection in Christ,

Ben