For almost a year, I’ve been taking my kids swimming after school once a week. No, I didn’t enroll them in lessons like a good suburban mom. I could barely justify adding the gym membership to our monthly expenses, much less private lessons for four kids. Instead, I decided just to go swimming and hopefully teach them something about swimming myself. My youngest was 18 months old at the time and immediately took to the water, floating freely in his Puddle Jumper. My older girls (now in 3rd and 1st grade) had taken a few lessons through summer school and knew their limits and abilities. But Luke, my three-year-old, planted himself on the stairs and refused to get off.
At first I tried to entice him into makeshift lessons with mom. I’d try to convince him to let me hold him while he floated or to get him to dunk his face underwater with me, but to no avail. He wasn’t having it. He spent hours happily sitting on the steps and building poolside towers out of the floating barbells used by the water aerobics classes.
Every time I would offer to help him swim, and every time Luke would refuse.
Recently, after nearly a year of waiting, Luke asked if he could wear his own Puddle Jumper. I’d long since given up making him wear it so I tried not to act too surprised or pleased. I put it on him, showed him that he could float, and his eyes lit up. THIS was what he’d been missing out on!
I take time to tell this story because it offers a picture of how I want to present faith to my children. Being a pastor’s child can come with a lot of built-in pressure. For pastor’s wives, it can be tempting to want to add to that pressure. We have to be at church frequently, and we want our kids to behave well to demonstrate to the congregation how well we’re doing as parents. We want new families to join our church, and it can feel like we need to display how well our kids behave to prove our church is doing a good job of making disciples. We might be tempted to appeal to their special duties as “pastor’s kids” to pressure our kids into behaving.
But we’re unlikely to win their allegiance to Christ through pressure and appeals to duty. When I first tried to get my son Luke to swim, I tried telling him it was for his own safety or it would be fun once he learned. None of it worked to get him off the pool edge. It wasn’t the idea of duty but of delight that finally convinced him to dive in. His brother and sisters looked like they were having so much fun. He wanted to take part.
Humans ultimately follow their desires. If our desires are evil, they lure us away and entice us toward sin (James 1:15). But we can also have (God-enabled) righteous desires that lead us toward what is good (Proverbs 11:23). Our hope as parents is that while our kids are young, they will develop a holy desire to do the Lord’s will by watching us truly enjoy our calling.
As parents, my husband and I have made a conscious effort to make serving the Lord a delight and not a duty for our family. Here are some of the ways we hope we’ve been able to do that.
We’re Not the Von Trapps
We don’t expect our kids to line up in response to their own personal whistle call. We don’t expect perfect manners at the dinner table or in our pew. We try to emphasize the heart behind behaviors and remain realistic about the fact that they are still just kids. My husband is often the one reminding me that certain behaviors, though frustrating, are more annoying than sinful. Galatians 5 reminds me that “the works of the flesh are evident” and include things like “strife, jealousy, fits of anger, (and) rivalries.” So we focus our discipline on behaviors that spring out of these self-centered desires. We do our best to pick our battles and enjoy the natural playfulness and spontaneity of our kids. We don’t expect our family to be a model family, even when others might expect that’s what a pastor’s family should be.
We’re Not Censors
We wrestle “not against flesh and blood” but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). That means that we don’t need to be hyper-vigilant about every trend. We are discerning about the shows they watch, the books they read, and the music they listen to, but we don’t divide the world into “safe” and “secular” so we can dismiss everything that is “secular.” It’s not the stuff that is dangerous. The seed of temptation for every possible sin already resides in the hearts of our kids, so the danger of temptation comes from within not just from without. So we pray against sin and teach our kids to recognize their own unique temptations to sin. The wisdom of Paul David Tripp’s book on parenting has helped me to see each child’s sin as an opportunity to model repentance, restoration, and to learn resistance to future temptations. Our kids probably don’t have the strictest restrictions in the church, and that’s okay. The pastor’s family doesn’t need to have the strictest rules!
We’re Not on Duty 24/7
We take God seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. One of our family traditions involves watching America’s Funniest Videos on Sunday evenings. I’m not sure the Puritans would have approved, but we find it restful to enjoy an hour laughing together and cheering for our favorite videos to win. My husband preached a series recently on Ecclesiastes that focused on how there are limits to everything we invest our hope in under the sun. Though wisdom is valuable, to be “overwise” does not save one from death. In fact, it can make life miserable (Ecclesiastes 7:16)! Though work is necessary, toiling endlessly means you simply end up passing on our wealth to “someone who did not toil for it” (Ecclesiastes 2:21). Though pleasure is enjoyable, to give oneself completely to pleasure is to recognize that even pleasure is “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11). Through the grace of God, we strive to work and to rest in good measure, demonstrating to our kids that we can work hard and also be merry. Especially when the boundaries between family life and my husband’s job are easily blurred, it is important to us to allow our family down time that is restful and creates fun memories.
We’re More Spontaneous Than Systematic
We make prayer and Bible reading a regular part of our bedtime routine, but we aren’t overly pious about doing family devotions. One of the advantages of having a husband with theological training is that he is great at responding to their spontaneous questions with little bits of important theology. We try to weave in theology as we address friend issues from school (my kids attend public school) or bigger questions about the world. We also like the idea of discussing spiritual matters “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” as God instructed the Israelites to do (Deuteronomy 6:7). We are diligent to bring these conversations back to our faith, we just aren’t systematic about it. I don’t fault anyone who wants to be more systematic in teaching their kids theology, but my husband and I both agree that we came to faith as young children in part because no one was pressuring us to do so.
I’ve been getting up early to read my Bible for many years, since long before I had kids. I do this for my own relationship with the Lord, but I also hope it will set an example for my kids. On a recent Sunday I was teaching my oldest daughter in Sunday School and I pretended not to know the answer to a question. We were discussing the Garden of Eden and I said “Oh, so sin is eating fruit?” in an effort to egg the kids on. The kids starting raising their hands to correct me and I called on one of the kids. My oldest daughter, Claire, turned to this kid and said “Just so you know, my mom gets up every morning to read the Bible so she already knows the answer.” I certainly don’t know all the answers, but I’m praying for the wisdom to know when to set an example and when to be more direct. I’m pleased to know that my kids are catching a vision for what a life of faith looks like.
We Love Our Friends
We talk about our friends, not our congregation. We accept invitations to people’s houses and we invite people over regularly. We prepare for our guests by cleaning up and cooking, but these are our friends so we try not to make it a big event requiring a total transformation of our house and behavior. We share our lives with the people in our church. Many of them have been over to our house for a meal at some point and many have babysat for our kids or spent time with them in the nursery or Sunday school classroom. Our friends know our kids and love to support them by remembering their birthdays or celebrating milestones with us. Through Facebook, I love to share funny stories or cute pictures and I often hear from people in the church who’ve enjoyed seeing these glimpses into our lives. We’ve chosen to invest the majority of our social energy into our church family so that church events feel like hanging out with friends, not like a work project.
We Point Them to Other Role Models
I know that my husband and I are not the only models for how to live a life of faith. I want my kids to be surrounded with examples of faithful, godly people. I am a stay-at-home-mom right now (although I have been a working mom in the past as well), but I don’t want my girls to think that stay-at-home-motherhood is the only vocation they should consider. I want them to see how a variety of women in my church live out their faith in singleness and marriage, by working or by staying home. I want my kids to see how faith inspires missionaries and those who labor in a variety of professions and trades.
Whatever unique gifts God has given to each of my kids, there is a way for them to use those talents to serve their neighbors and their church. While it is tempting to think that some members of the body of Christ deserve more honor (like pastors!), we want our kids to appreciate that we are all members of one body and there are no more or less important roles. “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25). We honor the ways that our friends demonstrate their faith even though their lives can look very different.
My hope is in Christ. My hope is not in my own methods of raising my kids. So I pray. It’s as simple as that. I persist in prayer for my kids because I know that I cannot produce the “fruit of righteousness” through my own efforts, no matter how diligent I am (Philippians 1:11). God alone is able to draw my kids to himself so I put my hope in nothing less. More than anything, I want my kids to walk with the Lord and “keep in step with the Spirit” as they grow (Galatians 5:25). I appeal directly to the Lord earnestly and often that He would draw my kids to Himself.
I didn’t even have kids yet when I stumbled upon the basic parenting philosophy that has ultimately shaped so many of my decisions each day. Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years reframed the issue of rebellious teenage children by showing how the world offers our kids an opportunity to be a character in a variety of stories they might find intriguing. If Christian parents really want to captivate their kids, Miller suggests that they need to offer their children a role in a better story than the world is offering. My husband and I hope the story we’re living out gives our children a vision for a life that is full of purpose and community and so much delight that each of our kids will find it irresistible to want to join us. We do not put our trust in our systematic approach. We simply demonstrate daily that we trust God’s power to keep our kids more than we fear the devil’s power to throw them off course. Without undue pressure or appeals to duty, we offer our children the joy of a life lived in blessed covenant community with God’s people in the hopes that, one by one, they’ll dive in on their own to join us in a life centered on the grace of God and the people of God.