I have a complicated relationship with parenting books. As a new mother, I read all the books, analyzed all the angles, second-guessed all the decisions, and the only thing that saved my sanity is that Google had not yet been invented. That tightrope walk persisted for years until I learned to view the books with their diverse offerings of wisdom as a gathering place, a fellowship of parenting. Since there is an endless number of ways to be a good parent, I finally realized that it is helpful to read multiple perspectives … and it is most decidedly not helpful to take every piece of advice as gospel. Even so, with shared wisdom and reassurance from their own parenting successes and failures, it is a gift when authors come alongside other parents with a collection of answers — as well as a fistful of new questions — to stimulate growth in their readers, both personally and parentally.
The question author Shelly Hunt Wildman poses is simple and straightforward: First Ask Why. This question invites readers into an intentional practice that envisions the kind of family we want. She follows up on the question with strategies for doing, by God’s grace, what needs to be done to make our parenting vision become a reality.
When we begin asking why, we open ourselves up to a consideration of the purpose behind all the things we do as believing mums and dads. If leaving a Christ-following legacy is at the top of your parental do-list, your family becomes a unique training ground where you and your children together lean into the demands that are placed upon our lives by the gospel, all the while trusting in the promises for their glorious fulfillment.
Purpose is also the pivotal issue for Courtney Reissig, whose personal illustrations encouraged me to lift my eyes from the all-consuming “what” of my daily list and from the pervasive “how” (as in “how am I going to get all this done?”), and to fix my eyes on the one beautiful question: “Why?” Glory in the Ordinary serves up the truth that the work of home is the work of spreading God’s glory throughout the world. By entering into the reality of that today, we leave a mark on those we serve and prepare our hearts for a future of greater work and greater joy when we will see that there has never been a mundane task without purpose in God’s incredible universe in which nothing goes to waste.
Parenting books emphasize strong beginnings, but in his third epistle, John the Apostle sets up the terminal milestone on the parenting journey:
“I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth” 3 John 1:4 (King James Version).
It’s what we aim for and pray for, but there are a good many ways of measuring its achievement. How do we know that our children have leapt following their parents’ faith to actually “walking in truth” on their own? Kristen Welch would argue for two measuring sticks: Gratitude and Generosity. In her first parenting book, Raising Grateful Kids in an Entitled World, she reminds readers that if we want our children to appreciate their blessings and to operate out of gratitude rather than entitlement, we had better be modeling the right heart attitude ourselves. One of the ways we (and our children) demonstrate our gratitude and our biblical understanding of the role our possessions and our bank accounts play in our lives is by holding them with an open hand.
Then, in Raising World Changers in a Changing World, she follows up that initial message with stories from her experience in establishing and operating Mercy House, “a ministry that exists to engage, empower, and disciple women around the globe in Jesus’ name.” As her family has traveled to strategic locations, they have seen poverty and suffering firsthand, and they have been changed by it. Even as their efforts make small but measurable changes in the world, they are learning the impact that being a world changer can make upon an entire family as they share their parents with others, welcome visitors into their home and give up their rooms for long-term guests who need a place to stay. The truth is that every believer can be a bridge right in our own homes, communities and churches, and Welch offers action points in that direction:
- See the people around you. This requires more than just observing people; it means stopping to notice them.
- Spot the needs in others’ lives.
- Scatter kindness by donating a meal, offering child-care or providing needed transportation.
- Start over with number one. When we make this a way of life, it changes everything (55).
Catherine McNiel wrote Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline out of the experience of her own turbulence in the line of mothering duty. Well aware of the creaturely weakness that plagues her, she offers life-giving practices and perspective-altering insights. She invites busy mums to attend to the work God wants to do in their souls and to join C.S. Lewis in realizing that “the world is crowded with Him. … The real labor is to remember, to attend” (xiii).
Sometimes, we need the reminder that motherhood is a window to a deeper understanding of theological truth about the Incarnation; that pregnancy is a miracle in which “the unbelievable becomes tangible” in our own flesh and bone, and that we make it through the years of mothering “one hour, one day at a time” (149). In a life that seems to yield not one minute for observing spiritual disciplines, McNiel urges moms to sink deeply into the practice of motherhood with its slow minutes and fast years, and the multitude of mindlessly repetitive and yet very necessary tasks. Offered up to God with a heart of worship, the daily duties become a very spiritual practice, crashing through the artificial wall between the secular and the sacred.
Sara Hagerty’s collision course with the hidden but beautiful “waste” of a poured out parenting life is chronicled in Unseen: The Gift of Being Hidden in a World That Loves to Be Noticed. We will never know the comfort of God as our “refuge and strength” until we come to a place in our lives in which we need to take refuge. It’s clear that “our hidden places aren’t signs of God’s displeasure or punishment,” but rather places in which God intends to teach our hearts to sing.
Some books offer an unexpected abundance of parenting wisdom. A book intended for leaders, Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch notes that, like leadership, good parenting often requires the embrace of two things that seem like opposites. He reveals the myth of our linear model for viewing the world which focuses on the word “or”: humble or bold; firm or warm. In the paradox of flourishing, we are invited to embrace this tension, for flourishing requires both strength and weakness, authority and vulnerability.
Simple and ingenious, Andy Crouch has devised a 2×2 chart that demonstrates a melding of authority and vulnerability. As parents, we need to leave behind the tyranny of “or” and embrace the genius of “and.” Warmth and firmness are not opposites; one without the other is poor parenting. Kind parents are clear and firm; tender and affectionate. They promote self-control and self-confidence. The message is that there are some things you can do, and there are some things you may not do. In order to be orthodox Christians, we have to embrace many things that seem like opposites, and this is good practice for our parenting.
Even in this creative approach, our law-loving hearts might be tempted to seek a formula, a perfect balance of firmness and warmth, a series of steps to follow, which would ensure the desired outcome. Raising Uncommon Kids offers the astounding (and wise) suggestion that parents pay a little less attention to the do’s and don’ts surrounding their children’s behavior and a little more time evaluating their own behavior. There is no quick fix for raising children. There are, however, character qualities and behaviors that we desperately want to see in our kids’ lives. Author Sami Cone suggests that the first and best place to look for those characteristics is … in our own lives!
Beginning with the principles found in Colossians 3:12-17, Cone looks at the life of a family through three distinct lenses:
- Your Heart at Home: How do you and your spouse talk to each other? What kinds of behaviors and responses are fair game on the average Thursday afternoon? What do your choices reveal about your priorities? Remember: Your influence will impact your kids far more than your instruction!
- Your Attitude Toward Others: Do your children see you considering others before yourself? Is their obedience all about fear, rules and consequences, or are they beginning to see that forgiveness, patience and kindness are the best and most sensible way to live.
- Your Influence in the World: Selfless behavior has an impact far beyond the family room, and kids who are grounded in gratitude, peace, humility and compassion will become world changers wherever they go.
Parents of special needs children may feel the need for a fellowship of parenting more acutely than others, and Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood is a memoir in which Jamie Sumner allows her own special needs mothering story to tell itself while weaving in fresh re-tellings of the familiar life stories of biblical women.
It was none other than Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth and Naomi who walked with Jamie in the wanting and the waiting of infertility. It was Mary Magdalene, Martha and a choir of lesser-known biblical women who sang her through the getting and the appreciating of a high-risk pregnancy, a 10-week endurance test in the NICU and the white-knuckle gauntlet of learning to parent an extremely fragile special needs infant.
The conflict that persists throughout the book’s narrative arc is Jamie’s struggle to “stay present, be still, and take notice of the moment” she was in. Being “in” a season of infertility presented a persistent reinforcement of the truth that even a much-wanted baby would not fill Jamie and her husband, Jody’s, hollowness in a way that was eternally satisfying. Years of shots and pills and finally the roller coaster of IVF made it hard to stay close to their mission statement: What was all this about, anyway?
When authors write from a place of self-awareness that prevents them from sounding off as “parenting experts” and when they relate their own story with honesty about their shortcomings and failures, their offering becomes the voice of a fellow-traveler on this bumpy road of parenting. In the growing and the learning and the letting go of raising children, we long for wisdom that is both biblical and practical. We want reassurance that we are not failing, that we have not already destroyed our children with our misguided choices and haphazard ways. We need insights that acknowledge the uniqueness of each child, each family and each set of circumstances. In the perpetual challenge of raising another generation of believers, we need fuel that will enable us to fight against the prevailing culture and for hope and joy because so often we are swimming upstream. When the sun sets on another day in the life of your growing family, whatever resources you choose to consult along the way, first consider Jesus, for he alone can enable us to make our parenting vision a reality.