A few weeks ago, my middle daughter asked to go to a local trampoline park as a family for her 7th birthday. We arrived at the facility, signed the hundreds of pages of waivers (I exaggerate only slightly), herded the children to a table, stashed shoes in cubbies and pulled on jump socks with rubbery soles. The outing may have been for my daughter, but I barely paid attention to her as I juggled socks and supervised trips to the bathroom. I was being a good parent, celebrating my daughter’s birthday, but I was so caught up in the work of parenting that I almost missed the joy and celebration.
But when my daughter started bouncing, I had to catch my breath. Braids flying in the air as she bounced higher and higher with a huge grin on her face and arms waving above her head. I spent a moment not thinking about safety or planning out how to deal with daily chores, but simply drinking in the joy of a child jumping on a trampoline.
If you’re reading this essay and the other articles in this month’s magazine, I’m going to guess that you’re like me: you want to get this parenting thing right. We’ve managed to shepherd one or more children through the baby and toddler years all the way to elementary school. We have spent years not only doing the work of parenting, of soothing nightmares and enforcing timeouts but also feeling the pressure of cultural expectations around parenting.
We live in a culture that places extraordinary pressure on parents, especially mothers. From the moment we see those two lines on that little stick, we are deluged by advice and warnings on every side, from friends and family to national news. The expectation seems to be that, with so much information at our fingertips, we must always choose the one right thing for our children, lest they end up as some cautionary tale to new parents. Every decision can seem fraught. And no matter what we choose, someone will tell us that we’re wrong: whether that choice is significant, such as if and when to return to work; or inconsequential, like whether we introduce solids as purees or finger foods.
These decisions often seem so important because we love our children, and we want them to have good things. Our specific goals for our children may vary, but we want to give them the foundation that will allow them to be happy and successful adults. Moreover, as Christian parents, we also want to lay a spiritual foundation so that as they mature, they will come to love Jesus on their own.
And because we want these good things — and they are good things — for our children, we read up on Roblox and Fortnite, research the sleep needs of elementary school children, scheme about getting veggies into foods and worry about over-scheduling our kids. We tour schools and talk to our kids about bullying; we attend PTA meeting and parent-teacher conferences with lists of questions. We look for teachable moments, set boundaries and remind our children to eat with manners. We hope that this work will produce children who are happy, smart, successful and kind, but we worry that we aren’t doing enough, aren’t doing it right.
Social media can increase the pressure to perform parenting well. We post about the lovely moments like birthdays and runs through the sprinkler without mentioning the failures — that it’s the second birthday cake in a row with no candles or that the snapshot of the kids in the sprinkler was succeeded by a vicious argument and tears over moving said sprinkler (true stories). The self-editing that happens on social media can allow us to believe that other parents are reaping the rewards of making all the “right” parenting choices; we don’t want to be perceived as making the “wrong” choices, so we follow suit, curating images of perfectly together parents and ideal children.
The flip side of these perfect images comes when parents are honest with each other about the trials of raising young children. It’s refreshing to hear that I don’t have the only 9-year-old who declares that we are not allowed to give her consequences or the only 5-year-old who cannot seem to remember to flush the toilet (more true stories). But in my experience, this can become just as unhelpful as the perfect Instagram feeds: we all admit to our failures, yet we are still reassuring ourselves that we’re parenting as best we can. We continue to strive for perfect input into our kids, even when the output is a tantrum or an eye roll instead of cheerful participation in family chores.
Whether we’re adjusting our perfect filters or commiserating over constantly messy rooms, we focus on ourselves and risk missing the joy of our children.
I don’t want to add one more parenting burden to our backs; I’m preaching to myself as much as to anyone else. But the pressures and the worries can far too often keep us from delighting in our children. Our beautiful, messy children who — even amid mysterious fingerprints on every light switch and constant negotiations over screen time — bring so much joy into our lives.
These elementary school years seem like the perfect time to root ourselves in the joyfulness of childhood. The sheer exhaustion of the infant and toddler years lies behind us, and tumultuous puberty hides beyond the horizon. If I let myself, I am constantly in awe of the people my children are becoming, with unique ideas and preferences and insights. I love seeing them find a book they fall in love with and hearing them play a game together. I can sometimes even find joy in the hard moments, like when my oldest yells her frustrations at me but sits in my lap while she does so because she knows, deep in her bones, that I will never stop loving her.
The pressures of parenting can sometimes make us forget the children we are raising or at least push those children into the background as we worry about them without stopping to actually see them. We don’t need another item on our parenting to-do list, but let us take the time to set aside our anxieties and delight in our children. Let us enjoy who they are becoming because of — and in spite of — our parenting choices.
If God as our good father takes delight in human beings, as the prophet Zephaniah writes (Zeph. 3:17) or as Jesus describes in multiple parables from the good shepherd to the prodigal son, we earthly parents should also find joy and delight in our children. Even the worst of human sinfulness, evils that most western elementary school children cannot even imagine, does not stop God from rejoicing over his children. How can we human parents do any less?
This delight in our children won’t remove the responsibilities of parenting. But we can reduce the pressure and anxiety we feel by entering into their joy and receiving the gift of their childhood.
On her birthday, after watching my daughter jump for a few minutes, I pulled on my own rubber-soled socks and carefully made my way over to her trampoline. I started bouncing with her, slowly and hesitantly at first; I felt awkward and self-conscious. But with my daughter’s encouragement, I jumped higher and higher, throwing my arms up in the air as I rediscovered the joy of feeling like I could fly. We jumped together, grinning and sweating, until we couldn’t bounce any longer. In that moment, my anxieties dropped away as I soared upward, stretching into the joyfulness of childhood.