August 22, 2017

Strength to Endure

Doing the right thing has never been easy.

Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, every human has struggled against his natural propensities to think and act in inappropriate, sinful ways (Jeremiah 17.9). But in some times and places, cultural norms have gravitated toward biblical values such that most individuals more often than not chose to act appropriately rather than suffer social sanction. And even when cultures have been more “neutral” toward biblical mores, there often existed a subtle, underlying understanding that principles like The Golden Rule were “just the right thing to do.” Thus, most people chose to behave accordingly in order to “fit in.”

However, in recent decades our culture has moved far from even the neutral stance. Thus, we’ve reached a sad cultural state in which “right” (i.e., biblical) behavioral choices are no longer supported, either overtly or covertly. In fact, a biblical worldview is now openly mocked and decried in many quarters. Just as the Apostle Paul lamented in Romans 1, “[people] not only continue to [sin], but also approve of [others] who [do].” 

In such an environment, it goes without saying that choosing to have a willing good character – deciding to do the right thing even when it’s hard and when no one is looking – takes, first, an inclination toward choosing non-conformity (Romans 12.2) and, second, the strength to endure in that commitment for the long haul.

It can be incredibly difficult to go against the cultural flow knowing that doing so may very well result in ridicule and marginalization. God has, after all, created us for relationship, so we desire meaningful connections with others. And if a decision to do right results in separation from those we love, the pain is real and deep. But God does tell us that he “is faithful, and…will not let [us] be tempted beyond [our] ability, but with the temptation…will also provide the way of escape, that [we] may be able to endure…” (1 Corinthians 10.13). Thus, we can purpose to rest in our knowledge of the truth that God is always with us and that he will provide the strength we need to continue to follow his ways.

Of course, these are hard truths even for adults to grasp because consistently choosing to see with “spiritual eyes” can be draining. And it’s even harder to help a hurting child who has, for example, been ostracized by a group of friends for refusing to go along with bad behavior. Our journey toward trusting God in all things – even when it puts us at odds with those around us – can only be taken one step at a time, day by day, in all its inherent messiness. But he is there with us, keeping his promises to strengthen us as we go. Let’s heed his call and encourage our children to come along with us.


August 8, 2017

New Every Morning

I wrote last time about how I’ve struggled with self-control in regards to respecting others. In thinking about my propensity to yell at fellow drivers from behind my rolled up car windows or to berate various customer service representatives via the relative anonymity of a phone call, I now see the sad reality – i.e., that I’ve demonstrated a disregard for those people in those situations. My actions reveal the fact that I struggle to see strangers for who they are – namely, incredible creations knit together in their mothers’ wombs by a God who loves them with His whole being. When that happens – when I essentially dehumanize another – it’s easy to treat them poorly. In other words, it’s hard to do the right thing when no one’s looking or when it’s hard – to have a willing-good character – when I fail to choose to see others as worthwhile human beings.

Put another way, if we want to develop a willing-good character in ourselves – and in our kids – we must decide to consistently choose to view other people – friends, family, strangers walking down the street, those with whom we differ politically, even “extra grace required” folks – the way God sees them, as revealed in the words and actions of Jesus. But how on earth do we do that?

Obviously, that’s part of our sanctification so it’s a process, not a one-time decision that “sticks” for the rest of our lives. And we can’t ultimately muscle it out in our own strength; indeed, regarding others positively really does take supernatural intervention in some situations!

But God tells us His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3.22-23). And I know it’s true for me – as well as for many others with whom I’ve spoken over the years – that when I purpose to spend time with Him first thing every morning, everything “goes better” through the day. That doesn’t mean my life is smooth sailing on days when I start out reading the Word and praying; goodness, sometimes those days have more “issues” than any other! But I’ve seen that I can manage life’s inevitable difficulties – including stressful interpersonal interactions – with grace and peace when I start my days in God’s presence. And I’m more able to help my children do the same when we all begin our days purposely focused on Him.

Our lives can feel so hectic at times that we might believe we don’t have time to devote to Him each morning. But, as the old saying goes, “If you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy.” In other words, if we really do desire to respect others so we can demonstrate willing-good character toward them, we must set our priorities so we start each day with Him.

Photo Credit: Elis Alves

July 18, 2017

Self-Control: Can You Have It for Your Kids?

To say that I’m not a patient person by nature is a gross understatement. But ever since I became a mom, I’ve worked really hard at learning how to exhibit patience with my kids; it’s not always easy and I’ve failed much more than I’d like to admit. Yet I’ve made conscious decisions to apologize when I’ve blown it and so, by the grace of God, I know my kids see me as generally patient...with them.

However, just as when water spurts out a second hole in a hose when we plug the first, I used to allow myself to vent in other ways. In my case, I took great pleasure in ranting at “stupid” drivers – though, of course, only when my kids weren’t in the car with me – and giving “ridiculous” customer service representatives a big piece of my mind if they couldn’t instantly resolve the issue about which I’d called. As hard as it is to admit, it felt really good to blow off steam “anonymously” and I justified myself by making sure I only did it when my kids were out of earshot.

Until my one of my daughters called me out.

It turns out my “secret” rants were a lot louder than I’d thought. So when I’d believed my girls were occupied playing upstairs, they could hear me yell and, yes, even cuss out hapless company reps on the other end of my phone line. And a couple of years ago, one of them called me to account over my behavior.

I’m grateful she did. I couldn’t downplay or deflect because it was coming from my child. God used the commitment He’s given me to do right by my kids to get my attention. I had a self-control issue and despite my attempts to hide it, I was modeling inappropriate behavior to my children. It had to stop.

I admitted my sin and apologized to both my girls. Then – just between God and me – I committed to praying for self-control before making any potentially contentious phone call. And I could almost instantly tell a difference in my mood and demeanor when I did. I still lose patience at times, but now, more often than not, I don’t.

Several months after my daughter had first confronted me, she saw me hang up after one such call and said, “Wow, Mom. You’re doing so much better at that. I’ve noticed.”

One of the ways we help our kids develop a willing-good character is to model it ourselves. If we want our kids to exhibit the kind of self-control they’ll need to choose what’s right when it’s hard or when no one else is looking, we can teach them what self-control means, correct them when they fall short, and praise them to reinforce good choices. But we must also model in ourselves what we want to see in them, leaning into God and letting Him move through us in order to do so with consistency.

Can you think of an area in which you need to exhibit self-control? Perhaps realizing that your kids are watching will motivate you to work on it for the benefit of their ability to have willing-good character.

Photo Credit: lisaclarke

July 5, 2017

Baking Self-Respect

When my daughters were little, one of them regularly expressed her frustration over disagreements with her sister by biting. She’s since explained that after a certain age she unequivocally realized that verbally working out conflicts was right and more productive in the end – she was, after all, disciplined any time she bit her sister and usually had the very thing she’d wanted taken away for good. But she still bit because doing so was simpler and more satisfying in her young, immature way of thinking.

Of course, she doesn’t bite anymore and hasn’t for several years. But what ultimately influenced her to stop despite how “good” it felt to chomp at her sister’s arm?

Consistent discipline was critical. Brainstorming and role-playing alternative reactions had value. Fostering a spirit of cooperation between my daughters mattered. Modeling proper ways of responding to conflict helped. And praising her when she chose well was great reinforcement.

But all of those things were merely ingredients, the way eggs, milk, flour, and sugar serve as ingredients for cake. A bunch of eggs – even when cracked open and whisked – doesn’t transform into cake. A cupful of sugar cannot morph into a cake while it sits on the counter. In fact, we can have a ready supply of all those ingredients and use them liberally for various purposes. But unless we mix them together in the right proportions and then bake them – applying heat over time – we’ll never get the cake.

The same is true in regards to fixing childish behavior and poor choices our kids make. We do need good ingredients like consistent discipline and positive reinforcement. And we can’t skimp just because we’re tired; I had to keep at it with my daughter regardless of how her behavior exhausted me. But, honestly, just as a cake removed from the oven too soon will either ooze out of the pan or deflate before our eyes, we cannot rush the development of what it takes for kids to have a willing-good character.

My daughter is now an adolescent – a true young lady, not the stereotype of a “teen.” She would never dream of expressing frustration physically now. And, in fact, remembering her biting habit mortifies her. Why? Somehow – just like the mystery behind the chemical reactions inherent in cake baking – the combination of ingredients my husband and I chose “baked” in God’s “oven” of child development over time produced a beautiful “self-respect cake” in her.

My daughter knows right from wrong, but she knew it when she was still biting. The difference between then and now is that maturity has brought with it self-respect such that she now cares about the long-term ramifications of her actions within her own spirit. Being able to smile at herself in the mirror a month from now matters much more than instant gratification.

Again, working with good ingredients along the way is imperative; cake doesn’t get baked in an empty oven either! But the self-respect that has transformed our daughter into a young lady who is willing to make the right choices even when she doesn’t want to could only come over time.

As you’re “mixing up and baking” your child’s self-respect cake, anxious to taste it in all its glory, remember patience. Your child’s “cake” will be an amazing confectionary delight…in due time. 


Photo Credit: Peter Mooney 

June 20, 2017

A Surprising Tool for Growing Self-Respect

It makes sense that a person with self-respect – having an accurate view of one’s strengths and weaknesses without overinflating either at the expense of others – will be more likely to do the right thing even when it’s hard and no one else is looking. After all, if I don’t like myself, I won’t care about doing what’s right because I probably won’t believe I can. But, conversely, if I think and feel positively about myself, I’ll more likely believe I can do the right thing, and I’ll be willing to work at it even when doing so isn’t easy.

But how do we help our children develop a healthy, balanced sense of self?

There are, of course, many elements to that answer. But I believe one important – though rather counter-cultural – idea is to aim to insure that our kids don’t become peer-dependent – i.e., heavily involved with other children as their main or primary influences.

It’s not that we should isolate our kids from other children; that wouldn’t be healthy or possible even for the most rural of homeschool families, let alone for those whose kids attend a school of some sort. Quality kid-to-kid friendships are important and positive. But it’s unavoidably true simply by virtue of their age and natural lack of maturity that “foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child” (Proverbs 22.15). Thus, when kids are peer-dependent – if they come to rely on the approval of other (immature) kids – they cannot develop an internalized sense of self-respect that propels them toward a habit of doing the right thing. So part of our job as parents is to monitor and mediate our children’s friendships.

This is undeniably easier for homeschool families. Because homeschoolers must be more intentional about insuring that their kids do have time with non-sibling peers, it’s relatively easy for them to make sure their kids spend time with those who influence them positively and to appropriately limit that time so they don’t become dependent on the opinions of their peers. But it’s possible for those whose kids attend school as well even though they cannot know every other child with whom their kids interact; I’ve seen many of my friends do this very well so I know it can be done.

If you’re in that position, your task is to be intentional with the time you do have with your kids. Choose to positively engage with them after school and on weekends so they want to spend time with you and continue to see you – their parents – as the most important people in their lives. Limit time your kids have with peers outside of school, not eliminating it, but, rather, making sure the peers with whom they spend time are positive influences and that time with friends doesn’t supersede family time.

For various reasons, our culture perpetuates an unfortunate, harmful myth that kids should grow away from their families. However, it’s possible to enable kids to grow up into mature adulthood in strong connection with their families – and doing so actually facilitates the development of full maturity in regards to self-respect and other character qualities. Taking measures to help our kids have healthy friendships without becoming dependent on same-age peers is part of that process.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

June 6, 2017

The Rewards Do Come

How would you respond if someone said, “I have a really hard job for you; in fact, it’ll be the hardest job you could ever have. It’ll stress you and exhaust you and bring you to your knees regularly. But if you can commit to absolutely pouring yourself into it for five or six years without giving up, you’ll almost certainly be able to move into a sort of ‘maintenance mode’ after that, and you’re nearly guaranteed great rewards that will grow exponentially over time for the rest of your life. Are you in?”

On the one hand, such a job sounds incredibly daunting. But for almost-certain, high, long-term dividends, most of us would probably go for it.

What if I said the job at hand is parenting?

Parenting is, indeed, the hardest job any of us will ever undertake. Meeting our kids’ day-to-day physical needs is exhausting enough, but when we account for the bigger picture – the fact that we’re also responsible for helping them become well educated, emotionally healthy, relationally grounded men and women of strong (godly) character – we may want to throw up our hands in defeat before we’ve even begun. After all, how on earth can we possibly begin to “guarantee” that sort of success?

And it’s true that the guarantee is never 100%. Kids do have free will and some go astray no matter what we do. But there is hope, and it lies in the proposition above – i.e., making a commitment to absolutely pouring one’s self into the task of parenting for the first several years.

My kids are teenagers now. And I’ve been privy to watching the growth and development of a few hundred kids to whom I taught English for nine years before my own children were born, as well as dozens and dozens more via church, family, and community connections since. And in all of that experience, I’ve seen one common denominator across all sorts of social and cultural differences: when parents have determined in a child’s first five or six years to devote the vast majority of their time and energy to relationship-building and character-development, they lay the foundation from which the rest of the child’s youth and young adulthood can be solidly built with relative ease. Conversely, parents who feel they can just “phone it in” for the first few years – waiting until a child is older to set standards or planning to rely on school teachers to do their work for them – have found themselves and their kids in very dire straits.

Even though my kids are nearly grown, it actually seems like yesterday that I was in the throes of changing diapers, cleaning up baby puke, managing temper tantrums, and picking up toys that multiplied like rabbits on steroids. I know how exhausting it is – and how thankless the task seems. But if you’re committed to helping your kids develop a willing-good character, please know that making that commitment to give it your all in the first few years really will pay off. Parenting doesn’t end when a child turns five or six, of course – my mother-in-law attests to the fact she still worries about her 40- and 50-year old “kids” – and plenty of work goes into raising children between the age of five and young adulthood. But it is very true that, if you can aim for consistency in terms of your expectations and relationship in those early years, it does get easier and the rewards do come.

Photo Credit: Penn State

May 23, 2017

Pray and Then...

As we think about the need for children to have an inner moral code, our first question is probably, “How do I make that happen for my kids?”

Unfortunately, the short answer is, “You can’t make it happen.”

As one of my pastors explained when preaching through the Old Testament a few years ago, verses like Proverbs 22.6 – i.e., “train up a child in the way he should go and even when he is old he will not depart from it” – contain principles, not promises. In other words, even if it were possible for a parent to do “everything right,” the free will God has graciously granted every human being means that, tragically, some will go astray. And much to our chagrin, there’s no “magic formula” to guarantee none will.

But that doesn’t mean we should give up in despair. A principle is not a promise, but it is – by definition – “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.” Thus, it is true that if we “train up” children properly, most will “go” as they should – i.e., embracing God’s ways as their own inner moral code.

And there are a few important things we can do to support this principle. First – and most importantly – we must daily take most seriously God’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17) for our kids’ spiritual growth and development. This shouldn’t be an occasional afterthought we get to after trying everything else. Instead, it should be our first “line of defense.” Simply put, if our kids are to choose God and His ways, it will be primarily from His leading, not our cajoling.

Then - if we are first “prayed up” – we can work on other things:
  1. Taking time. In order to earn the right to impact our kids’ hearts and minds, we must spend time with them – not just a few random minutes a day but as much as possible. Ideally, that means eschewing daycare and even institutional schooling in favor of a parent staying home with and being his/her children’s long-term, primary caretaker in all aspects of life. But if circumstances preclude that, we must at least purpose to be very intentional about the time we do have, making certain our kids know that they have our full attention when we are with them;
  2. Modeling what’s right. We won’t be perfect, but if kids see us living out God’s ways even when it’s hard – and honestly acknowledging before them when we realize we’ve blown it – they’ll want to do the same. Why? Despite what the culture sometimes insinuates, all the research clearly demonstrates that a child’s parents still have the greatest impact – for good or for ill – on his/her behavior and choices;
  3. Demonstrating authentic love. As parents, we should not try to be our kids’ friends; we must retain our “authority” over them. However, playing drill sergeant won’t help. Our kids must know – in their “guts” – that we love them, and we have to demonstrate that with our actions. When they know without a doubt that they have our hearts, they may not always like decisions we make “for their own good,” but they will accept our choices and continue to move forward in relationship with us. And if we hope to impact their inner moral code, that’s what they (and we) need.

    Photo Credit: Long Thien

May 9, 2017

Hold On in Order to Let Go

A lot of the wisest parents I know set rather firm boundaries around the time their kids spend with similar-aged peers.

These moms and dads aren’t playing helicopter. Their goal isn’t to isolate and infantilize their children; quite to the contrary, they ultimately desire for their kids to grow up into mature, productive, fully independent adulthood. And as a child demonstrates consistently positive character qualities and personal integrity, these parents incrementally increase the level of autonomy he’s given.

They set the boundaries to begin with – limiting the amount of time their younger kids spend with other children and closely supervising the interactions they do allow – because they understand the nature of children as described in Scripture:

Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child. (Proverbs 22.15a)

He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.
(Proverbs 13.20)

Thus, they know that allowing their kids to become peer-dependent would reinforce bad habits of mind that naturally exist within children by virtue of their youth and immaturity. And, conversely, they understand that kids can develop a solid “inner moral code” if they spend the majority of their time for several years under the consistent instruction and continuous modeling of those who are more mature – ideally, the parents themselves, who are very intentional about their role and responsibility in this regard. These parents intentionally devote themselves to being their kids’ primary influence so that the good fruit of an immovable inner moral voice is ready for harvest beginning in the teen years.

This way of looking at things is quite countercultural, and I wasn’t consciously aware of it when my children were young. My kids had friends – quite a few, actually – but I was careful about the quantity and quality of those interactions. Not because another parent told me to be mindful or due to copious research. I did it simply because “something” in my “gut” – which I now understand as the wise prompting of the Holy Spirit – told me to do so.

But make no mistake; I took a lot of heat for it. The term “helicopter parent” hadn’t yet been coined, but I was accused of “extreme sheltering.” I was told I was “anxious” and “overprotective” and that my kids would “suffer.” I saw the pitying looks. And I had my moments of self-doubt.

But then I caught sight of my kids’ blossoming personalities and burgeoning self-assurance, and I saw evidence of their deep roots of conviction about right and wrong. Obviously, they’re not perfect – that goes without saying because they’re human and since Imperfect Me was among their main models! And they’re going to make mistakes as young (and – eventually – not so young) adults. But I’ve witnessed before my very eyes what these proponents of early limitations and incremental autonomy have been talking about.

If we want our kids to have a strong inner moral voice, we must be intentional about getting them there. We must consistently model it in what they see and hear in us, and they must be with us enough to see and hear. Keep your kids close early on…so that you can release them with true confidence in their ability to soar in due time.

Photo Credit: Christian Barrette

April 25, 2017

Do Small Things in Love

One day last fall, my younger daughter – who had rather recently discovered a love for cooking and baking – announced that she wanted to “do something” to help some “less fortunate” folks in our community. She’d thought through her idea thoroughly enough at that point to know she wanted to bake and share the fruit of her labors. I helped by listing the names of area shelters, and she quickly honed in on one – the “house” designated for men struggling with homelessness and addiction. That ministry had helped a friend’s dad to break free of alcoholism and, as she said, “All the shelters can use help, but I think most people probably focus on the ones for women and children. I bet these men are forgotten a lot.”

My initial “mom instinct” was to make a call to the shelter for her; after all, we knew almost nothing about the place and it housed “troubled” men who might – in theory – be “dangerous.” But I stopped myself and instead encouraged her to call, realizing that if she were to own the project, she should take the lead. A phone call was very safe, and I’d obviously go with her if she followed through. But to start with, she needed to know I had full confidence in her to proceed.

At her request, I coached her through what she might say, but the rest was up to her. And follow through she did! She spoke with the shelter director, estimated what she’d need to make 36 quick breads (one for each man and an extra for the director himself), insisted on paying for everything with her own money, went with me to make the purchases (because she’s not old enough to drive herself yet), and then spent the bulk of her waking hours for two days mixing, baking, labeling, wrapping up, and praying over each individual bread. Finally, she called the director back to arrange a delivery time and happily toted her boxes of breads up to the shelter’s second-floor dining hall.

As my child, I obviously think she’s something special. But in a greater sense, she isn’t. She’s “just” a kid who – by God’s grace – has developed empathy and a strong desire to serve others. Every child and teen can be the same – and so many already are.

Our job as parents is to nurture the unique ways in which God has wired each of our children so they might begin to notice how their talents and abilities can make a difference in the wider world. And when they start to gain a vision for what they can do – even if it’s something as small as baking bread for down-and-outers who “don’t deserve it” – we must encourage and enable them. When a child realizes she can make a difference, she’ll want to “be good” in order to accomplish her goals.

“Don’t look for big things, just do small things with great love…
the smaller the thing, the greater must be our love.”

~ Mother Teresa


April 11, 2017

Part of the Train but Not Driving It

One of my daughters is very emotionally sensitive, often allowing herself to be ruled by her feelings. When she was young, this manifested in impulsivity. She reflexively bit her sister instead of remembering to work out a disagreement with discussion. And she literally put her finger in a light socket because she felt like seeing what would happen rather than remembering the warnings my husband and I had given her. As she’s gotten older, she’s struggled with bouts of anxiety as she allows her feelings to control her reactions to various everyday occurrences.

A little girl whom I babysat from her infancy until she was nearly six was the epitome of strong-willed childhood. Even in her first few months, her parents and I clearly saw evidence of it – and over the next few years, we wrestled with it on a regular basis.

Both girls are good girls – very good girls. From an early age, their love for others and desire to do the right thing was evident, and both accepted Christ as Savior when they were still preschoolers. But each has still needed guidance in terms of learning to put her feelings in proper perspective.

The parents of my young friend and I talked about this regularly beginning when she was still a baby. Since she spent eight or nine hours a day at my house for about half of every year, they asked me to partner with them in shaping – without breaking – her will. We knew that God could use her in amazing ways for His kingdom if she could harness her strong will for good. So it became our daily task to prayerfully decide how best to address each of her meltdowns to that end.

I did the same with my daughter when she was young. But now things are a bit different since her battle with feelings has turned inward, causing emotional harm to herself instead of impulsivity being directed toward others. My goal is to help her see that feelings are good – we err gravely if we communicate to kids they ought to be stoic – and that her sensitivity is a gift from God, but that she needs to keep feelings in their proper perspective.

Over the years, I’ve always come back to this simple Fact-Faith-Feelings illustration. It’s not that we should decouple Feelings from the train; in fact, trains are incomplete without cabooses, and cabooses have an important anchoring role. But we must remember that Feelings ought not be pulling the train, nor powering it. When we mix up the order and let Feelings take a role for which they’re not equipped, we cause problems for others and ourselves.

My little friend is 10 now and she’s learned this lesson well so far. She’s not done – she’ll no doubt have new track to navigate as she enters adolescence – but her words and actions currently communicate quiet strength. My daughter’s route comes with hills and valleys these days, and her Feelings car regularly tries mightily to jump the track and throw her completely off-kilter. My job as her mom is to pray for and with her so that it happens less and less and to do everything I can – through my words and actions – to help her keep those Feelings where they belong. Part of the train but not driving it.


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