By Dr. Kevin Leman, Crosswalk.com
The most important questions parents ask me are “How do I help my child develop spiritually?” and “How do I enhance my child’s relationship with God?”
The key to answering these questions centers around the Reality Discipline concept of action, not words. Children hear many words about God in their home, Sunday school, and church. But too often they don’t see much action that seems connected to what they hear. As they grow older, they often have difficulties with the weakness and hypocrisy of the adults around them. Now there is nothing wrong with being human, but there is a great deal wrong with being hypocritical. I believe that when I freely admit my humanness to my children, I am taking advantage of an ideal opportunity to teach them dependence on the grace of God. As I admit to my children that I don’t always have the answers and as I pray with them and share with them, they see me depending on God as I deal with the everyday hassles of life.
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite people, Chuck Swindoll. Chuck is the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, the master teacher on the syndicated “Insight for Living” radio program, and the baby of his family. As I was wrapping up our interview, I asked him if he could give other parents and me a tip. He responded almost immediately: “When you
don’t know, simply say you don’t know. Be authentic. Develop an authenticity with your children. Be real.”
Children look up to adults. Adults are so much bigger, and they can do so much more. Adults meet the needs of children throughout the day. It’s no wonder little children actually see their fathers and mothers as perfect. Of course, the mantle of perfection soon drops in tatters from our shoulders. But as long as we have them fooled, we are not doing them any favors with our masquerade. One problem is that when a child sees someone else as perfect, he tends to be uncomfortable. Perfect people are not easy to be around. They don’t seem approachable, and if there’s anything I want to be as a parent to my children, it is approachable. Recently I interviewed Rebecca St. James, the Australian Grammy-nominated Christian recording artist. She seemed so mature for her twenty-one years. What had her mom and dad done right? “They were approachable,” said Rebecca, eldest of seven children. And because they were approachable, she felt she could talk to her parents about everything. Oh, if we could only have more parents like Mr. and Mrs. St. James!
It is sad to see so many parents refuse—out of pride or selfishness—to let their children know that they do have flaws and that they don’t have it all together. When parents are brave enough to share their flaws and lacks with their children, they serve as beautiful models of what it means to depend on God. When you are open and transparent before God and your children, you are saying, “Even though I am many years older, I, too, depend on our heavenly Father, just as I want you to depend on Him.” Another benefit of being open before God and your children is that it motivates them to seek you out and talk about their real feelings. They are more likely to reason, Mommy won’t be mad about this because she had it happen, too.
Pray with Your Children
One of the best ways to show—not just tell—your children you are truly dependent on God is through prayer. Do you take time to pray regularly with your children? I’m not talking about sitting on your child’s bed just before he or she goes to sleep and reciting, “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . .” My children have never heard that kind of prayer. When I pray with them, I pray about the day, about our needs, about specific problems—whatever they might be. We pray for Grandma or Grandpa, for Mom and Dad, or for brother or sister. I pray with them about something we are particularly thankful for that day—a need that was met or an answer that came. I also pray with our children about my weaknesses and shortcomings. My children do not hear me thanking God for my perfection. They hear me depending on Him for wisdom and strength. I think prayer time is the most special time of the day for you and your children. I urge you to hold your children as you pray. Take your time, and don’t hurry. Stay away from cute prayers and prayers you can memorize. Teach your children to pray from the heart and teach them to pray for their every need.
Allow Godly Freedom
I believe the home should be a place where children can learn to make decisions about their lives and learn to accept the consequences of their decisions—the good and the bad. They need to make choices. Today’s permissive parent takes things a little far. “Brittany, Tyler, McKenzie, it’s eight o’clock. Have you chosen to go to bed yet? No? You’re going to stay up and watch Letterman? Well, okay, Dad and I are going to bed—lock up when you’re done.” Maybe that’s an overdramatization, but you can’t always be giving choices to kids. There must be order in the family.
Yet some choices are very appropriate, and kids need to be held accountable for their decisions. You can say to little Buford on that cold winter morning, “Would you like Crispy Critters or Cheerios? You decide.” Of course he says Crispy Critters. You pour the milk on the Crispy Critters, and what can you assume will happen? Now he wants Cheerios. He has changed his mind. If you retain only one thing, remember this: You can’t re-crisp a soggy critter. In other words, once that choice is made, we as parents have an obligation to hold the child accountable for his decision.
That’s Reality Discipline—freedom and accountability. The home is really a tuition-free university where children study the lifelong curriculum of decision making. We all must learn how to make our own decisions, including whether or not to accept or reject God’s offer of eternal love and salvation. Freedom in Christ is one of the apostle Paul’s favorite themes (see Romans 8:21, 2 Corinthians 3:17, and Galatians 5:1). The home ought to be a reflection of God’s love. God is in authority over parents but He gives them freedom and love. Parents are in authority over children, and children also should have freedom and love.
This sounds dangerous to some parents. They keep grasping the concept of control. If they do not control their child, he will get out of hand, he will get hurt, he will go the wrong way. But it’s important for us to understand that the tightly controlled child is going to rebel—if not now, then later when he’s thirty-two and abandons his family to go and “find himself.” If you stop to think about it, the parent has no other real choice than to give his child freedom. I’m not saying he should neglect his child or let him run into the street and get killed. I’m not saying we should be permissive or authoritarian. Either extreme creates rebellion. At the base of the child-parent relationship should be the parents’ desire to train the child, guide him, and set him free to become his own person. The child is becoming an individual anyway. Instead of cramping and crimping the process, you should encourage it and enhance it.
That’s becoming the parent God wants you to be.
Kevin Leman is an internationally known Christian psychologist, author, radio and television personality, and speaker. Dr. Leman has ministered to and entertained audiences worldwide with his wit and commonsense psychology. He has made house calls for Focus on the Family, Midday Connection, and Open Line, as well as numerous radio and television programs, including Oprah, Live with Regis Philbin, CBS’ The Early Show, Today, The 700 Club, and The View with Barbara Walters. Dr. Leman has also served as a consulting family psychologist to Good Morning America. Dr. Leman is the cofounder of RealFAMILIES.com—the television show. He is also the founder and president of “Couples of Promise,” an organization designed and committed to helping couples remain happily married. He is the best-selling author of numerous books. Dr. Leman attended North Park College. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Arizona, where he later earned his master’s and doctorate degrees. Originally from Williamsville, New York, he and his wife, Sande, have five children.