A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of embracing the “both/and” in our relationships with others, and our perspectives on faith. As I was thinking about it, so much of parenting is about the “both/and.” As kids transition from infancy to adulthood, and as we shepherd them as parents, some of the ways of viewing God, themselves, and others that we teach them early on have to transition into other ways of thinking. It doesn’t mean that the perspectives we taught them earlier weren’t true; they most certainly were. But, it’s that they need the other things, the things they’re not ready to hear when they’re younger, the more mature messages in life, to make the full transition into adulthood. So many of the young adults I see who aren’t well-adjusted never learned the fullness of both messages, what I’m calling the “both/and,” often because their parents either never understood the “both/and” themselves, or forgot or neglected to teach them to their kids.

I was floating this observation by my friend, licensed professional counselor Millie Tanner, the other day. She told me about a psychologist named Erik Erikson who developed the idea that normal children go through stages of psychosocial development as they age toward adulthood, stages in which the very real needs of the individual must be reconciled with the very real needs of society, the people and world around them. These needs are brought into conflict, and must be resolved through each stage in order to reach healthy maturity. This reminds me of Paul’s recognition in I Corinthians 13 that, “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Part of learning what love is includes putting away childish ways, and coming to new realizations.

My friend Millie and I thought of several of these “both/ands,” both of which are true, and which we have to teach and shepherd our kids through harmonizing what may seem initially like conflict, but is really more like a beautiful dance:

  1. God made you unique…in order to serve other people as part of a greater whole. When children are little, it’s important they realize they are a distinct, special creation, loved by God and one-of-a-kind. It helps them capture the sanctity of life, and the dignity of each human being. But, if we stop there, that message can degenerate into narcissism and self-focus. Which is why, as kids get older, they need to learn, while they are unique, they are also created in that uniqueness for a purpose: to glorify God and serve others by working with other, uniquely created people as a unified whole, one in which our shortcoming sand faults, which are many, are areas where others are strong.
  2. You have a special purpose…but life is not all about you. This is a closely-related concept to the first. As part of a healthy sense of God’s call on their lives, it’s important that kids know that each one of us has been created and called by God for a specific reason. The danger in that is our own human selfishness wants to use learning about ourselves through things like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram as an opportunity for navel-gazing and believing that life is all about making us happy. In order to give our kids a God-sized view of His calling on their lives, and to help them avoid becoming self-absorbed, obnoxious, unhappy people, it’s so very important that we help them realize that life is not about them, but about God’s glory and pouring our lives as an act of love and service of Him and others. Ultimately that’s our collective purpose in life, and our source of joy.
  3. God is good…but, God’s goodness is often most manifest in suffering and pain. One of the most important lessons we can teach our kids when they are young is that there’s a God who loves them, and who is always good. Every good and perfect thing comes from Him. (James 1). When we’re young, however, we tend to equate goodness with “happiness,” or “getting what I want,” or “prosperity,” once again, self-actualization. So many of the good things God gives is related not to things, what we have, but to character, who we become. And, nothing grows us and helps build character like difficult times. It’s in these moments, if we press into the Lord, that we experience His richness and provision, and truly see Him as our strength.  If kids never make this transition, never see goodness in suffering and pain, they’ll persist in the immature belief that God is a genie, popping in to grant my wishes. This is actually therapeutic deism, a different religion than Christianity.
  4. Your needs and wants are valid…but, sacrifice is a building block for relationship. Everyone has needs. To be human is to be in need; need reminds us of our dependency on God. It’s normal to have needs; they are good things. Kids shouldn’t be made to feel shameful or wrong for needing closeness, love, affection, and (even though they won’t acknowledge it) discipline from parents and other authority figures. In order to learn to love, however, kids need to learn that love is about sacrifice. The depth of our connection to someone else is always measured in what we’ve given up for them. Think about it: the people you love most in life- your spouse, your kids- are those for whom you’ve sacrificed the most (paradoxically, you probably don’t consider it much of a sacrifice, which is the beauty of love). Kids need to know about sacrifice as a building block for love, so they won’t confuse love as about getting our needs met.

There are several other “both/ands”: “You have a voice, something to say…but listening is a gift, and the pathway to wisdom,” “You have freedom in Christ…and a responsibility to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself,” and, “There is a clear right and wrong…but, living and serving others requires understanding nuance and empathy for their pain and struggle.”  All of these are so important to a healthy and biblical sense of God, others, and self.

Isn’t that life’s essence, in some sense? Life is about tension and resolution, and struggle and empathy, and collaboration and confrontation.  Teaching our kids to love and live well means parenting through the “both/and.”

Jay Ferguson, PhD, Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.