When my youngest daughter was four years old, she twirled into the kitchen where I was putting away the lunch dishes and announced, “I’m going to be a mommy. The daddy will go to his job. Then I will do all the mommy things and it will be fun!”
I had to stifle a laugh. Elbow-deep in sink water, I was amused by her assumption that the mom life was all fun and no work, unlike the daddy with the “real” job. At the time she made her career-of-leisure-and-fun pronouncement, I was expecting our seventh child and homeschooling her and her siblings. Oh yeah. All fun and games.
For my four-year-old, parenting looked like fun. And some of the time, it is. But what strikes me as the really difficult part of parenting is not the dishes or the laundry, or even keeping the schedules and getting the kids educated, however that may happen. The hard part is the relationships. The really difficult day-to-day thing is loving each other well.
For me, the hardest part of parenting is modeling the love of Christ to my kids. You, too? You must be a human parent, just like me. And in God’s grace and goodness, we are told that He “Gently leads those with young.” (Isa. 40:11) He'll never leave us nor forsake us, either, (Deut. 31:6) and we can look to Christ for ways to model His love to our kids.
How did Jesus show His love for us? He stopped, slowed down, and made time for hurting people. He had compassion for them. He showed respect to everyone, regardless of class, race, or sex. He listened. He encouraged. He took care of the physical needs of those whom He served; practically, he fed the hungry. Jesus prayed for us, pointed us back to the Father, and ultimately, gave His life for us.
Like Jesus, we can show love to our children, too. If you're struggling with how to live that out, here are 9 things you can do to model the love of Christ to your kids:
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1. Just Show Up
Just showing might not seem super spiritual, but it is the epitome of faithfulness. Jesus didn’t simply talk about loving others, he showed up and loved by his faithful actions. This is at once easier than it sounds and more difficult than we’d ever dare to admit: Easy because the pressure is off if all we must do is be there, physically, for a play or a soccer match or the class party. More difficult because much of the time, that faithful showing up involves sacrifice on our part.
Kids, especially teens, notice when we show up, and as their independence expands, they have an assurance that we are here, available for them, ready with a patient ear and loving commitment to our relationship with them.
2. Give Them Jesus
When Jesus spoke to his disciples, he made it a habit to point them to the Father. We see this all through the gospels, but John 17 in particular is Jesus’ prayer for his followers, and it reads as one long beautiful reminder that they belong to God and that He has done so very much on their behalf.
When we are correcting or encouraging or simply living alongside our kids, the only thing we really have control over is our choice to remind them of Whose they are and what He’s done for them. Give your kids Jesus, and in that one simple act, you have loved them as Jesus loved us first.
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3. Sympathize with Your Kids
Admittedly, I am the least compassionate person in our home. I’m usually worshiping at the altar of efficiency, and a child suffering from the sniffles or the consistent inability to find their homework doesn’t naturally elicit a response of compassion from this mom.
But years ago I read something written by the Anglican theologian and father of four, J.C. Ryle, that struck my struggling parenting heart:
"Love should be the silver thread that runs through all your conduct. Kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, forbearance, patience, sympathy, a willingness to enter into childish troubles, a readiness to take part in childish joys—these are the cords by which a child may be led most easily—these are the clues you must follow if you would find the way to his heart."
That part about "a willingness to enter into childish troubles" changed my view of my children for good. Now, with both my young children and my young adults, I see their struggles as an opportunity to love them well. Jesus did this, too, with everyone He encountered.
4. Deposit More Than You Withdraw
In regards to our kids, my husband has a saying: We must deposit more than we withdraw. In other words, if we aren’t depositing good things (time, a listening ear, kindness, joy, delight) into the hearts and minds of our kids, there is nothing to draw upon when we go to withdraw (correct, discipline).
Our "withdrawals" likely come from a deep concern for our kids, and that concern is born out of our love for them, but our love is exponentially communicated in the overwhelming deposits that then prove in the mind of a child that our withdrawals stem from that profound love, too.
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5. Encourage Your Kids
Depositing encouragement draws lifelong dividends in the lives of our kids and offsets the discouragement they may feel as they struggle to do things well. Or as my father-in-law used to say, “One ‘atta boy!’ wipes out two ‘you’re an idiot!’”
But often I see the crumpled, smudged drawing before I see the careful rendering of the dog and the thoughtfully chosen colors, and I have to stop myself from “withdrawing” by way of criticism and instead, “deposit” by way of encouragement. A simple, “I love the colors you chose!” can give weeks of wind to tiny sails.
6. Parent from a Properly Positioned Funnel
When we were at the beginning of the parenting journey that eventually swelled to eight children in our home, someone wisely taught us to keep the “funnel” in its proper position: with the narrow end at the bottom and the wide end at the top.
What that means is that when kids are tiny people, the funnel is narrow and the freedoms few. As they grow, the funnel begins to expand, and as they show faithfulness, responsibility, and growing maturity, the funnel opens to greater freedoms and the ability to choose their path as they head into the teen and young adult years.
Unfortunately, many of us parent within an inverted funnel, giving great freedom to our toddlers and preschoolers (think: running away from us in a store as we sigh and comment wryly on their strong wills, or sassing the other parent as we laugh about how cute they are) and then desperately attempt to tighten the reigns when they become teens who disregard our rules or sass every other adult in their path.
We really love our kids well when we give them the appropriate boundaries in the preschool and elementary years, and then open up the possibilities as they show their faithfulness, obedience to our instructions, and a steady growth in maturity.
Jesus loved his disciples this way; He instructed and walked closely and then he set them off to spread their wings after years of close discipling.
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7. Whatever Is the Opposite of Micromanagement, Do That
We don’t love anyone well when we are attempting to micromanage everything they do. If you’re wondering how that jives with the concept of the inverted funnel, it would be something like this:
Major on the majors and let the rest go. For the toddler/preschooler, that might mean that your commands born out of a desire to keep them safe (for instance, “No playing in the front yard unless I’m watching!”) are to be followed because they are the majors. But whether they choose to wear the red shirt or the green one is not a matter of great importance unless you’re directing a photo shoot for your annual Christmas cards.
For teens, it may mean giving them a cell phone and closely watching all of the accompanying activity but not dictating the case, screen saver, or photo storage app they choose.
8. Allow Them Room to Figure Things Out on Their Own
The opportunity for growth, even when the decisions they make are cringeworthy, is a gift of love from us as parents. This means that we have to be the opposite of helicopter parents and develop deep ridges in our tongues from biting them.
In regards to making choices, if it isn’t illegal, immoral, or unbiblical, we can bite our tongues and allow them to figure stuff out, even if they end up doing things differently than we would have.
If we give them the time to figure things out on their own, they will learn to hear the Holy Spirit, and that is an immeasurable model of the love of Christ.
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9. Show Them What it Means to Rest
Jesus modeled rest so well that Luke took the time to make a note of it in Luke 5:16, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”As a mom of many, I admit that I don’t always model rest to my kids very well, but the truth is, we are at our best when we tackle life from a place of rest. Jesus loved people perfectly while he was here on earth, and he knew the power of taking time to be quiet and turn off the distractions.
Loving other people isn’t always easy, but when it comes to parenting our kids, modeling the love of Christ is essential to our relationship with them, both now and in the future. I love what J.C. Ryle had to say about the potency of love in the lives of our children so much that I’ll leave you with his powerful words:
"Nothing will compensate for the absence of tenderness and love. You may set before your children their duty—command, threaten, punish and reason—but if affection be wanting in your treatment, your labor will be in vain. Love is the one grand secret of successful training. Anger and harshness may frighten, but they will not persuade the child that you are right, and if he sees you often out of temper, you will soon cease to have his respect. Fear puts an end to openness of manner; fear leads to concealment; fear sows the seed of hypocrisy and leads to many a lie. There is a mine of truth in the Apostle’s words to the Colossians, 'Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged' (Col. 3:21)."
Kendra Fletcher is a mother of eight, speaker, author, and podcaster. She is the author of Lost and Found: Losing Religion, Finding Grace, and Leaving Legalism, and she regularly writes for Key Life Ministries. The Fletchers reside in California, where they play in the Pacific Ocean as often as possible. Find her here: www.kendrafletcher.com
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