I’m sitting in the doctor’s office with one of my girls. She’s had mono for two months, and isn’t improving. Her doctor wants to see her to do more tests. She didn’t get to go on the class trip, spent spring break in bed, and is concerned what all of this means for cheerleading tryouts. From our perspective, we don’t know what else may be going on with her. This is a very crucial point academically in her high school career, and she has very little energy. In the midst of uncertainty, what we do know is how we’re going to deal with this and whatever else we learn in the doctor’s office today, how we’re going to continue to walk our daughter through it, how we’re going to point her to Jesus and what He’s doing in her life, how He loves her and is working for His glory and her good. We know how we’re going to respond because we made that decision a long time ago.
So much of what I see passing for parenting these days is passive parenting, just kind of letting parenting happen, with no real plan or idea of what folks are trying to see accomplished in the lives of their kids. I’ve been at this game long enough to know that the sovereign hand of the mighty God is wiser and greater and more loving in the lives of my kids than I am. I do know the futility of trying to control my kids’ lives or thinking I can manipulate some predetermined outcome for them. That’s a fool’s game, the road to insanity. But, equally futile is to parent with no plan, no idea of how what I believe about life, about Jesus, and about how those two come together plays out in the life of my kids.
Stephen Covey famously said, “Begin with the end in mind.” If I have no vision for my kids’ future—not whether they’ll be a doctor or lawyer or play in the NBA, but whether they’ll live for Jesus and what that will look like when they’re grown—I’m not honoring or glorifying God in my parenting, and I’ll just be tossed around by what everyone else is doing. My kids and I will suffer as a result. We have to parent intentionally.
Here is a list of five really important questions that intentional parents—and those of us who aspire to be intentional parents!—can ask:
- What will be some of the hallmarks of your family identity? I just asked my daughter while we waited for the doctor, and here was a part of her list of our family hallmarks: watching football together; waffles with Dad on Saturday; Don Juan’s (local Mexican restaurant) on Wednesdays; eating sugar only on the weekend; Seaside, Florida, in the summer; forgive and seek forgiveness; Dad going spiritually deep in discussions around the dinner table. What are your kids going to remember when they’re grown? What are those traditions, those core values that you want your family to stand for? Not necessarily to others, but to each other? Then, how do you talk about those things, model them, and reinforce them for your kids?
- How will your kids be educated and why? Is “it was good enough for me, so it’s good enough for them” really your standard? You don’t drive the same car or use the same cell phone you used in the ’80s or ’90s, assuming you drove or used one then. Why? Because they’ve changed—things change, even if they were the best things then. Intentional parenting means seeing how it’s changed, and seeing what’s best for your kids now, and why. It’s doing what’s necessary to make what’s best possible, allowing for the possibility that we may be giving up good things for great things. This answer is different for different people, because God doesn’t give parents a “one-size-fits-all” revelation for parenting.
- To what will you say yes, and, maybe more importantly, no? A huge problem in our society today is overscheduling and stressing out kids. I’m convinced that a big part of it is that we as parents don’t really have a plan in mind, so we play the comparison game. The Joneses, whom we admire, are sending their kids to this camp or this clinic, and we want our kid to be nice or smart or a good athlete like their kid (or not lose ground to their kid) so we sign them up for that clinic or camp. When we do that over and over again, we suffocate our kids with too much stuff on their plates. Conversely, if we’ve got a plan, and a vision, we can limit accordingly. We can say, “That’s good for the Jones kid, but that doesn’t work for us,” or “That’s in line with what we’re trying to instill in him; let’s sign him up for that.”
- What things are not OK for you as a family that may be OK for others, and vice versa? You may think having a glass of wine with dinner is just fine, and want your kids to see that wine, like all gifts of God, is good if enjoyed in context. If an alcoholic raised you, however, or you have other reasons, your conscience might tell you something different. You might not want a drop in your house, and might really strongly caution your kids against its use. What’s OK for your family may not be okay for someone else’s, and vice versa. The example I just gave is an “adult” one, but the idea is the same when it comes to kids’ media use (movies of a certain rating, secular music, video games), technology rules in your home (limiting technology time, determining how much privacy kids should have with their devices), and so forth. Knowing up front, together, what you will and won’t be OK with, and helping your kids understand that what may be OK for your family may not be OK for others, and how to deal with matters of conscience and conviction within the faith with love and respect for other people, other families, is a HUGE part of being a mature follower of Christ. How you decide what is and isn’t okay, and how you will teach and model these things to your kids, is a major part of intentional parenting.
- How will you handle the suffering, trials, and failures that your kids will inevitably face? If you wait until your kids are faced with tough issues to figure out how you’re going to deal with them, you’re almost always going to get it wrong, at least initially. Our hearts and minds are just too hardwired to protect our kids, so that our first response is to rush in, to save, to rescue. When kids are in genuine, imminent physical or emotional danger, it may very well be necessary to do so. At almost all other times, however, that initial impulse is the wrong one. If we yield to it, that yielding will often look like trying to manipulate people or circumstances in order to transform our children’s failures or suffering into success and happiness. We’ll spare them short-term pain, in exchange for long-term damage. I think it’s really important that our kids have a very good theology of failure and suffering, and that we work hard to teach and model it to them. We won’t have to work hard for life to bring them heartache; we just have to be ready to coach them well when it does. One suggestion is to read James 1 to your kids and talk about it. Why should we consider it joy when we face trials? How much different would our kids’ perspectives and approach to life be if we could teach and model for them that failure and trials are God’s pathways to righteousness and personal strength that we cannot reach otherwise? If they really believed that God loved them and wanted their good and His glory for their lives? If they could see current circumstances with some perspective of eternity? It would make resilient, strong kids who trusted the Lord and really believed in His promises. Are we willing to coach them and pray them through their suffering and trials, rather than solving their problems? The decision as to how we walk our kids through those trials is made long before the furnace heats up.
Parenting intentionally requires seeking God’s face. You won’t do it how I do it, and you probably shouldn’t. But, parenting intentionally is the kindest, most loving thing you can do for your kids, your spouse, the body of Christ, and the world.
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, The Head and the Heart. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.