I have never read a perfect "how to" parent book. However, if we are or have been parents, that means most of us were children who grew up with at least one parent. Even though we might not realize it, we have a substantial source of the practical, authentic type of "wisdom" that comes from experience and reflection upon it.
Contemplation and prayerful, meditative analysis of our experiences now and in the past --as children and parents, as well as observation of other parenting--can be a helpful "filter" of sorts for us to take progressive steps toward better parenting.
Jesus welcomed children, including their questions, which tend to drive some parents crazy. He blessed and held little children and "spoke sternly" to those who tried to keep them away.
Jesus also told us that the Kingdom of God belongs to children as well as child-like people (Mk 10:13-16). We have a lot to learn from children.
They are invariably inquisitive and inclusive. Kids also recognize differences (such as skin color) with curiosity and interest but without judgment. Imagine a world where people never "grew" out of such innocence and godliness.
Children are vitally important. As parents, they are entrusted to us. This is an awesome privilege and responsibility.
Additionally, we should also pay close attention and learn from them. Kids (ok, most of them) have certain traits we should never "grow" out of as we age. Rather, our maturing into adulthood should often go in the other direction, toward being more child-like.
Let's not miss out on such an opportunity. Yet, despite all of the positive aspects of having and learning from children, all parents know that raising kids is most challenging.
1. Appreciate the Moment
Moving in the direction of being a better parent is hard work indeed. On a parallel track, what about balancing all of our priorities toward a more qualitative and meaningful life? Must we put most everything that is important to us other than taking care of our children "on hold" until later in life when the kids grow up?
No, our focus should be on the present. God's gift of life is not a matter of gutting it out through hard and challenging seasons, such as having small children, to "get to" what we anticipate will be an easier and richer time of life.
Instead of waiting to arrive at a calmer future when we can be "whole" again, we should endeavor to live day-to-day, in the moment, with our children as priorities.
2. Use Experience as Your "Teacher"
Although I am not a child or family specialist or other expert, I have lived as a child with parents and a parent with children. I also observed parents of friends in my childhood and daily see other parents in action.
Our experiences are things we can all "read," reflect upon, and learn from to change our attitudes and perspective and grow as persons in the process. These certainly relate to one another.
Good people make the best parents. Endeavoring to be the best mom or dad we can possibly be makes us better people. We build and enhance Godly habits of responsibility, caring, empathy, and humility that then permeate every aspect of our days.
3. Don’t View Parenting as a Separate Part of Your Life
We should not see parenting and our children as distinct from other parts of our lives.
Yes, as parents, we do need to periodically and temporarily "get away" from our kids as a kind of "sabbatical" to rest and prayerfully re-generate. Our children, especially during adolescence, will also have days or periods of time where they more than test our limits (as we all did with our parents).
Yet, parents and kids are a family, the true hub of every aspect of our lives. In our faith and life journey, we must pay attention to each day and avoid missing out on any time of our lives.
Jesus captured the significance of daily focus and the attendant avoidance of stagnation in our past or preoccupation with our future in his vivid imagery within the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5 - 7): "The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light...." (Matt. 6:22)
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Iam Anupong
4. Reflect on Your Own Experiences as a Child
Learning from our experiences might be the least appreciated component of our faith and life journey, including as parents. Have you ever taken the time in solitude to seriously reflect on your childhood, including how you were "parented" and what you observed in friends' homes?
What actions, words, and qualities contributed positively to your life then and now? What didn't work?
The idea with such introspection is not to judge your parents. Instead, now that we are within the struggle to improve as parents, it can help us better understand our own parents and unhealthy things that might have happened in the past.
We all know there is no perfect parent. Yet, there can be growth in thinking seriously about what helped and hurt us when we grew up.
I watched my parents and how they lived and treated others more than I listened to their words. This reminds me that as a parent and now grandparent, like it or not, we are models (good or bad, our choice) because kids are often if not always watching us.
Realizing this, we should endeavor to act and speak with great care and often pause before we react to our kids. This is a great framework for relationships with all people at all points in our lives.
Consistent with the collective wisdom of the Book of James: "[E]veryone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger." (Jas. 1:19)
I offer a few particular examples of "watching" my parents as a child. I vividly recall my dad treating most everyone, especially people in service positions, in a kind and personal manner.
For instance, I remember like it was yesterday how he frequently slowed down in the grocery store or at the post office to call clerks by their names, ask about their families, and then listen to their replies with a smile and without any hint of rushing back to his business.
My mom consistently exercised kindness, gentleness, and sensitivity toward everyone, especially me and my brother. In contrast, I recall my dad angrily and arbitrarily raising his voice and telling me to be quiet when he was tired or preoccupied, and my mom arguing with my dad in front of me to the point that it scared me.
Importantly, I treasure the occasions when they each owned it and said: "I'm sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me. I love you."
I also learned so much from the times they encouraged my frequent questions. "That is a great question" often taught me more than any answer could and encouraged my further inquiry. Oh, in case you haven't noticed, kids (and grandkids) are loaded with questions!
5. Learn from Your Parental Experiences--and Then Working Toward Lasting Change
Parenting is time-consuming, busy work, especially in unexpected seasons of life like the COVID 19 pandemic. What can we do beyond the best we can each day?
One idea is a periodic, perhaps annual or bi-annual, intentional self-audit as a parent or as a couple.
If we periodically take the time for a hard and honest look at our intentions and priorities for parenting and things we need to change, we can emerge with the potential to progress in our parenting as well as the entirety of our living.
The follow-up is hard but rewarding and formative work. To help the process, we can create daily routines, such as part of an early morning quiet time before our kids wake up, to prepare and enable us with God's help truly to focus on things we want to implement and improve.
We can also utilize reminders as daily themes to help when we stray from our intended path in how we deal with our kids in any circumstance.
Simple things, like a daily word consistently in mind, can really help. For example, in Col. 3:12-15, Paul suggests that his readers "clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience."
He then adds forgiveness, peace, thankfulness, and the ultimate priority of love. That makes for an excellent starting list of priority words and traits.
Just imagine the potential results, for example, if we consciously went through one day with compassion as our consistent priority, and then the next day with patience as our consistent goal.
We can select one of those or other key words each day, truly intending and mindfully focusing on such qualities for the benefit of our children and everyone around us -- and for ourselves in the process.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Kerkez
Walt Shelton is an environmental attorney, educator, speaker, and the author of a popular, long-running faith column in the Austin American-Statesman. His new book, The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living (CrossLink Publishing, Oct. 13, 2020), is based on his education in history and religion, more than 30 years of experience leading Christian and interfaith discussion groups, speaking to church and other groups, a lifetime dedicated to studying the Bible, and learning from life experiences. For more information or to contact Walt, please visit www.waltshelton.com.