Over the first weekend of December, we put up all our Christmas decorations. Stockings are hung, the tree is lit, the bottom three feet crowded with ornaments, and our advent wreath circles four small candles on the kitchen table. Just before bedtime, we gathered our babies around the table to light the first candle. I had my phone ready to capture the wonder and joy sparkling in my little angels’ eyes as their father lit the candle and read the words of the prophet Isaiah over them, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace(Isaiah 9:6).”
It didn’t exactly go as I planned.
The baby chose that moment to discover the “throw stuff on the floor and watch Mom pick it up” game. The oldest kept leaning over to whisper “I’m thirsty” every 30 seconds, despite my promise to get her a drink as soon as we were finished. The middle one….well, she was having issues with her nightgown. And amid all this nonsense, the girls were in a silent competition to see who could make the flame flicker the most without actually blowing it out.
I wish I could say that this night was an exception in the lives of my generally calm and quiet children. However, that’s just not true; this is our daily reality! In these moments, my tendency is to slip into “Taskmaster Mom” mode. I get frustrated and start barking out orders, with the simple goal of completing the task:
“Stop throwing things!”
“It isn’t a birthday candle. Stop trying to blow it out!”
“If you ask for a drink one more time, you’ll never see water again!”
Once I shift into this mindset, I completely miss the point of the moment. Discipling our children is not a task we can check off our list, but a process we must patiently pursue. Without a doubt, the Lord calls parents to disciple (and discipline) their children (Deuteronomy 6:7). In fact, raising children to follow God is one of the ways we obey the command to “go therefore and make disciples (Matthew 28:19).” Jesus himself takes a very specific and intentional posture toward children, and the way he interacts with them doesn’t resemble a taskmaster at all.
In Matthew 19, After Jesus had spent the day healing and teaching, people brought him their children, asking him to lay his hands on them and pray for them. The disciples got huffy and frustrated and tried to send the people away. Jesus stopped them and said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:14).” Jesus did not feel inconvenienced by these children. He wasn’t annoyed with them or frustrated that they were throwing off his plans. He did not see them as a task to be managed, but as beautiful individuals made in the image of the Father.
I love my children deeply. But despite the intensity of my love for them, it is so easy for me to forget that they are not just another chore on my list. They are not an inconvenience or a disruption. They are tiny humans with very real souls who are stuck in the same sin-sick world I am, and I have the opportunity to offer them the words of life.
I am by no means a parenting expert; Jake and I have just been winging it for the last five and a half years. But whenever the Lord readjusts my view of my children (which happens often), there are a few specific, practical things we try to do:
Slow down. We are often rushing to get somewhere. We wake up late and have to hurry to school. We get home and have to hurry to go out. At bedtime, we have to hurry to get everyone tucked in. When I am rushing my family to be somewhere or do something, I am just creating stress for everyone. Shouldn’t we be able to enjoy reading Pinkalicious for the thousandth time instead of flipping impatiently through it? Would it be the end of the world if we were a few minutes late getting to bed? Why are we always rushing off to the next thing? If we are a kingdom people, the only thing we are anxiously anticipating is the return of Christ. Because we know our God keeps his promises, we have great hope in this, and because of this hope, we are free to enjoy the moments we are in. Our Sabbath, our rest, is in the Lord; we can slow down and be still.
Listen. When I hear my five-year-old worry about her problems, I sometimes find myself thinking how cute it is that who played with who at recess is her biggest source of stress. I write off her “kid problems,” thinking how silly they seem compared to the real problems I face. But the thing is, her problems are just as real as mine. Her stress, fear, worry, and anger are just as real as mine. Just because I’m bigger and older doesn’t make me any more valuable than she is. When Jesus sat with the little children, they had his full attention. He wasn’t checking his Twitter or only half listening while actually thinking about work. When people listen to us, we feel valued. This is true for our kids too. If we want our kids to know with certainty that their identity is rooted in Christ and that they have worth because they are made by God, we must listen to them.
Play. No one values quality time like kids do. So much of building relationships with kids is found in playing. Sing, wrestle, tickle, be silly, tell jokes, do puzzles, watch YouTube videos of people falling off trampolines, anything your kid thinks is fun, do it. Sometimes when things are getting tense at our house and the kids keep getting in trouble and the parents keep getting frustrated, we pause everything for Mandatory Family Wrestling. Everyone gets on the floor, and we put the WWE to shame (Okay, mostly the baby and I watch the girls wail on Jake – it’s weirdly cathartic). This moment of fun allows everyone to reset and be reminded that not only do we love each other, we also really like each other.
If parenting is a picture of the gospel, and if in this analogy the parents represent God, I need some serious help in this arena. If anything, my failings here remind me how much more I need the grace of God. I can’t love my kids perfectly like Jesus does, but I do get to approach him and receive the same welcome the little children did. Sally Lloyd Jones describes Jesus’ reaction to children like this:
Now, if you had been there, what do you think - would you have had to line up quietly to see Jesus? Do you think Jesus would have asked you how good you’d been before he’d give you a hug? Would you have had to be on your best behavior? And get dressed up? And not speak until you’re spoken to?
Or… would you have done just what these children did - run straight up to Jesus and let him pick you up in his arms and swing you and kiss you and hug you and then sit you on his lap and listen to your stories and your chats?
You see, children loved Jesus, and they knew they didn’t need to do anything special for Jesus to love them. All they needed to do was run into his arms. And so that’s just what they did.
-Sally Lloyd Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, p. 261-262
So parents, persist in discipling your children. Teach them the Word, pray with them, model confession and repentance, and answer their hard questions honestly. But don’t be discouraged when someone interrupts the bible story to burp the alphabet or to ask why poop stinks so bad. Let your kids be kids. While you obey the Lord and faithfully disciple your children, also trust the Holy Spirit to do the work in them that you simply cannot. From what I’ve heard from parents who have gone before us, we’ll be shocked at what the Lord can do with our imperfect attempts at making disciples.