There are hundreds, if not thousands of books and websites offering practical advice on effective parenting. What can we add here that hasn’t already been said?
For starters, most of those books and websites are about how to bring up children to be physically healthy, well-adjusted, and successful in this world. For spiritually oriented parents, that’s not enough. It is even more important to raise our children to be good, caring, thoughtful people who put God first and the neighbor second, and take care of their own needs in order to serve God and their fellow human beings.
Unfortunately, children are not born that way. As innocent as they are, babies are completely wrapped up in their own wants and needs. As parents, our job is to train them out of that natural self-centeredness into an active concern for other people, and for following God’s will.
We can do this by our own example as spiritually growing human beings, by teaching our children spiritual knowledge and values, and by disciplining them when they persist in bad behavior. Loving our children involves not only giving them plenty of affection, but giving them the guidance they need to grow into angels.
The pleasure and the pain of parenting
There was a time when bearing children was the greatest fulfillment a woman could hope for, and her chief source of social status. There was also a time when childbearing and motherhood were trumpeted as pure pleasure and unmitigated joy.
Though there are still strong echoes of these views in our society, we have entered a more realistic era when it comes to child-bearing and parenting—not to mention in attitudes toward the roles of women and men. These days, many women have found other ways to fulfill themselves. And although we still value our children highly, the difficulties of parenting get much more press than they used to.
Some mothers mourn the loss of automatic status from having children. Yet one of the things our society has gained from taking motherhood off of its unrealistic pedestal is that we can talk openly about both the joys and the struggles of parenting. New parents do not have to be quite so surprised by the hardships that often come when the initial joy of childbirth has passed. And with a greater ability to choose whether or not to have children, it is more likely that those who do have children will be more committed to raising them well.
Let’s face it: children can be a challenge. Sometimes it seems like the job of parents is less parenting than fire-fighting! The whole day is devoted to dousing the erupting flames of jealousy and conflict among the children—and dousing our own flames of frustration, preferably before they erupt into outright anger. When we are in the middle of one of those days, we may start wondering why we had those pesky critters in the first place! Or we may start wondering if we are really cut out to be parents.
Cute, innocent little self-centered babies
First, let’s explode a modern myth. These days it is popular to believe that we are born 100% good, and pick up faults and bad habits only from our environment, by exposure to adults and older children. Today’s “wisdom” is that everything wrong with children and adults is due to the environment, or “nurture,” and none of it to heredity, or “nature.”
It’s just not true. And thinking it is true can plunge us into all kinds of guilt when our little angels start acting like little devils. We can fall into the trap of blaming ourselves for all of our children’s bad behavior.
Yes, as parents we are not saints ourselves. We do have some negative influence on our children. But the currently popular “nurture, not nature” theory has at least two fatal flaws:
- It does not account for where human evil came from in the first place.
- It does not account for why we are open to being corrupted by bad influences.
But let’s not get into a big philosophical debate. Let’s take a realistic look at what we are like as babies and children.
It is true that we are born innocent. The traditional Christian doctrine of original sin makes no sense. How can we be sinners when we haven’t even done anything yet? We are not born sinners. And all babies and children who die will go straight to heaven, whether or not they are baptized. (See: Where are my Children who have Died? Will I Ever See Them Again?)
However, we are also born completely wrapped up in ourselves. As babies, our primary drive is to have our own physical and emotional needs met. If we are hungry or messy or uncomfortable or lonely, we first make a fuss, then start crying . . . and we keep crying and crying and crying until someone takes care of our needs, and makes us comfortable and happy again. We don’t care if we’re waking up Mommy or Daddy in the middle of the night for the tenth time in a row. In fact, we have no awareness at all of others’ wants and needs. It’s all about having our own needs met.
Does this mean we are sinners at birth? No. Sin is intentionally doing what we know is wrong. As babies, we don’t even have a concept of what’s right and wrong, so we can’t possibly sin.
In short, when we are born, we are 100% innocent, and 100% self-centered.
The innocent part gets us off the hook. Scolding or punishing a baby makes no sense. Babies are simply doing what they have to do to ensure their own survival. That means letting their caretakers know when something is wrong. But the self-centered part can drive parents crazy! It is also what makes us susceptible to being corrupted by bad influences in our environment.
Cute little not-so-innocent toddlers
There is a time in our young lives when we realize that crying and temper tantrums can be used as a weapon to get what we want. Our age of innocence is ending. Our natural self-centeredness starts to assert itself not only to make sure our basic needs are met, but to get our own way. And when we don’t get our own way, we ratchet it up a notch!
Are the tantrums of the “terrible twos” the parents’ fault?
Certainly there are more and less effective ways of handling misbehaving children, which will make things better or worse. But our self-centeredness and greed (“These are my toys! You can’t have them!”) are built into us from birth.
We naturally think of ourselves first, and others second. And if our self-centeredness is left unchecked, it gets stronger, not weaker, as we head through our childhood years. We have all seen children and adults whose parents catered to their every desire, so that they think the whole world revolves around them. A spoiled child is not a pretty sight. A spoiled adult is even worse.
The job of spiritual parents
Yes, on our own we naturally think of ourselves first, and of others second, if at all.
As spiritual parents, our primary job is to work on turning that around, so that our children can grow up to think of others at least as much as they think of themselves, if not more. And ultimately, our job is to put God at the center of our children’s lives. Our marching orders as spiritual parents are found in the two Great Commandments given by Jesus himself:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37–39)
How do we go about raising our children spiritually, so that they can grow out of self-centeredness and into loving God and their fellow human beings? There are three basic ways: example, instruction, and discipline.
Our example as parents
Our environment does have a huge effect on us, especially when we are little. And the deepest influence will be the example of our parents, or of those who raise us in place of our parents. Many of our basic attitudes and approaches to life will be formed in the first five years of our lives, before we are even able to consider what we want to be like as a person. And the influence of our parents will continue right through our childhood and teenage years, and into our adulthood.
This places a huge responsibility on our shoulders as parents. Our character and behavior, and the way we treat our children, will have a profound impact on their character. Yes, as teens our children will gain the freedom and responsibility to make their own choices. And once they become adults they will be responsible for their own lives. Yet they will make their life choices based on the foundation we have provided for them as parents.
This means that if we want to be good parents, we must be engaged in our own process of spiritual rebirth. We must be willing to examine ourselves and correct our own faulty motives and beliefs, our own bad habits, our own words and actions.
As parents, our character will have a profound effect on the character of our children. When our children see us doing the work of growing into more loving, thoughtful, and wise human beings, this will have the most profound effect of all. It will give them a sense in their gut that life is all about setting aside our faults and bad habits, and growing into mature, thoughtful, caring people whose lives are devoted to loving God and serving our fellow human beings.
Teach your children well
Lower animals have most or all of the knowledge they need to survive as soon as they enter the world. Not humans. We must be taught how to live. And that task falls first on our parents and caregivers, and then on various teachers, ministers, and so on. We also learn informally from the people around us, and through our own experience, trial, and error.
Of course, it is our job as parents to teach our children the basic life skills they will need to get along in this world. But even more important in the long run is teaching them the spiritual knowledge they will need to live a good life not only in this world, but to eternity.
Simple lessons of right and wrong can begin as soon as infancy gives way to the toddler phase, when our children start gaining the ability to think for themselves and understand the world around them. In their earliest years, most of these lessons will come in the course of daily life. “Don’t hit me. It’s not nice!” “Please wait your turn.” “No, you can’t take your sister’s toys from her.”
As our children head into their school years, they are able to learn and absorb more. We can then take them to a religious education program at a local church or spiritual center, or provide religious education for them in our home. Young children enjoy learning the basic Bible stories. And as they get older, they can understand teachings of the church about God, the Bible, the afterlife, and how to live a good and useful life.
All of this teaching will form a foundation on which they can base their moral, ethical, and spiritual choices throughout their lives. And it will form a pool of knowledge and understanding that they can draw from as they face the many complex issues of living in human society.
The necessity of discipline
Every parent finds out soon enough that we can teach children what’s right and wrong all we want, but sometimes they will not listen. We’re born self-centered, remember? And children often assert their own will, and do things they shouldn’t—even while they are hearing our voice telling them not to.
This is where the unpleasant task of disciplining our children is required. There are many schools of thought as to exactly how we should discipline our children. Parents will have to make their own decisions about methods. There are many good guides available on how to provide loving guidance and discipline for misbehaving children. The important thing is that our children learn that their wrong words and actions carry unpleasant consequences. Of course, no matter how we choose to discipline our children, it should be done with fairness, with respect for them as human beings, and with concern for their well-being. As God says in Revelation 3:19: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”
Some parents think they are harming their children by punishing them for their misdeeds. But consider what will happen when children who have never been disciplined grow up. In the wider society, if you break the rules at work, you’re likely to get fired and lose your income. If you break the law, you will be penalized by fines and even by prison time. If nothing else, when we punish our children for their misbehavior, we are preparing them for the realities of life as adults in this society.
But beyond that, we are preparing them for their eternal life—which we hope will be in heaven. Our motives and actions have spiritual consequences, too. If we choose as adults to live primarily for our own power, pleasure, and possessions, we will be creating a life of hell for ourselves. After we die, we will find ourselves in a living hell, not because God sends us there, but because we have chosen to live a life of selfishness and materialism. (See: Is There Really a Hell? What is it Like?) This life always involves anger and hatred toward those who stand in our way, and the fear of retribution that accompanies every evil action.
We cannot make our children’s choices for them. But we can show them that if they choose to live from self-centered and materialistic motives, they will suffer the consequences of those choices. And on the positive side, by hindering the development of bad habits in them, and encouraging good habits, we will be setting them on an upward course in life, and making it easier for them to choose good over evil.
Raising children for heaven
If we want raise our children from spiritual motives and for spiritual goals, we will not be content if they merely grow up to be successful in this world. Yes, it is good to be respected members of society with secure, well-paying jobs. But if we are parenting from spiritual motives, we will especially want our children to grow up into men and women who have a living faith in God that is grounded in love, and that moves them to live a life of thoughtful service to their fellow human beings. In raising our children it is good to keep in mind the words of Jesus: “What good is it for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul?” (Mark 8:36).
The task of guiding our children by example, teaching, and discipline may not always be pleasant. Yet every time we have to direct and correct our children, we can look at it as one more opportunity to bring the goodness and the wisdom of God into their lives. As we become more and more conscious of this goal in our parenting, both the times of happiness and joy with our children and the times of conflict and correction can become occasions for rejoicing. Both are giving us an opportunity to bring God more fully into our children’s lives, and to steer them toward the life of heaven.
This article is © 2016 by Lee Woofenden
For further reading:
- What is a Parent’s Role in the Spiritual Life of Adult Children?
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
- Noah’s Ark: A Sea Change in the Human Mind
- To Train Up A Child, or: Spare the Rod? What Rod?
- If We Don’t Have Children while Alive, Will We Be Able to Have Children in the Afterlife?
- Where are my Children who have Died? Will I Ever See Them Again?