We’re entering into the “dog days” of new year’s resolutions. Whether it’s eating differently (that’s one of mine), hitting the gym, managing finances better, or anything else, auspicious beginnings and fresh starts follow a familiar pattern. First, there’s the excitement of doing something good for you, the first couple of days when the new thing still feels fun and exciting. Soon thereafter, that wears off, and you remember why you haven’t done whatever it is you swore you’d do this year last year: because it’s really hard, and not much fun. That’s when newness and perhaps the memory of holiday excess are no longer good enough to get you across the finish line. At this point, you need different motivation to stay the course.
Walking alongside and shepherding your kids through life is kind of like a new year’s resolution. The novelty of walking them through fresh starts, like a new activity, a new school year, or watching them engage in new relationships, are all really fun. They’re excited, and they enjoy it. They come home from school, or activities, or interactions with friends, and sit around the dinner table, telling stories of what’s happening (primarily when they’re younger; when they’re teenage boys, this comes translated as “it was good,” or “it was fine,” when you asked them how their day went; yet, you can tell they still enjoy it). You enjoy it, too, because it’s always fun to see your kids excited and happy.
At some point, however, the novelty wears off. Homework kicks in. Tests or papers or projects or other assessments come due. They actually have to practice. Or, they either start having some conflict with these friends they enjoyed so much several weeks ago, or these friends just start bugging them. At this point, they’re no longer having as much fun as they were before. They need different motivation. That’s where you come in, to help them stay the course.
I think one of our hardest jobs as parents is to help kids stay the course. Kids inherently lack perspective. For them, long term is whatever is happening Saturday night. They lack perspective, and they lack spiritual maturity. Because you’ve lived longer and, hopefully, are more spiritually mature, you understand that life is about way more than having fun in the moment.
Eugene Peterson credited Friedrich Nietzsche, who was no believer but understood a few things about life, as saying that “the essential thing in heaven and earth is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction, that thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” Last week, I wrote about what author Paul Miller calls the “J-curve”- the continuous cycle of becoming like Christ, joining him in his “death,” figuratively speaking, through trials and challenges, then joining him in his “resurrection” in the joy, renewed strength and godly character that emerging from those challenges, all the while pressing into Jesus, brings to us.
As parents who are followers of Christ, we can probably all tell those stories, of a number of times the Lord brought us through times of trial, or hardship, or suffering, only to draw us closer to him and make us stronger, more patient, wiser, and more mature. By comparison, our kids have no stories, or very few. They don’t understand that “the J-Curve” is the normal, default process of the Christian life and growth. For them, if a problem or discomfort arises, the solution is to remove the discomfort or walk away from the problem. Because they’re kids, and have limited actual authority to walk away from problems, they will often attempt to have you give them authority to walk away through complaining, or managing information, or manipulating, or maybe just sharing their extremely limited perspective on life with us as parents. They hope that, if they press long enough, we’ll help remove them from the situation.
As parents, we know that most of the time, walking away is a short-term, fake solution that actually short-circuits the growth process. In fact, if repeated, it becomes a learned way of responding to stress and challenges that can stunt and undermine our kids’ abilities to handle life in the future, or grow spiritually.
That’s why God has given parents greater perspective. To help kids stay the course. God’s given us the power to help our kids discern, and to act or not act. Helping kids stay the course looks like: deciding whether we as parents need to intervene in a coaching or teaching decision in order to correct an actual injustice, or whether the particular decision is something God is using to bring forth greater fruit in our child’s life; deciding whether to allow kids to drop out of activities or change teams or even schools because remaining is actually harmful, or whether a greater, deeper good is served by teaching them to remain and persevere and play through the difficulties; or, deciding whether to intervene in a child’s friend situation by getting other adults involved, again because genuine, significant harm to the child is at stake, versus shepherding our children through those situations and teaching them how to negotiate interpersonal conflict. There aren’t always easy answers; that’s why God gives kids parents, and gives parents the Holy Spirit.
When we make new year’s resolutions, adopting new habits, doing so is impossible without changing our heart. As my pastor says, people do exactly what they want to do, and they can’t change that until they change their hearts to want to do something else. The only way we can truly allow our kids to stay the course, stay on the J-curve, and let the Lord mold and shape and re-make them in wondrous ways, is by ensuring that God’s plan for our kids’ lives becomes more important than their discomfort, or whether they like us, or even what we think that plan should be. Helping kids stay the course begins with our willingness to do the same.
Jay Ferguson, PhD, Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.