Note: This was the last “Frank Answer” in my weekly column on the web site of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Evanston, Illinois just before I retired in June 2013. Maybe it’s time to bring it out and fix it up in time for Christmas, which in the Biblical story of Jesus is all about birth and family and parenting.
Question: We are expecting a child — a girl. What have you learned — as a pastor and parent — that are the best practices for parents to raise Godly children? And should we expect that, no matter what we teach her or how we raise her, that there will be an element of spiritual rebellion in her teenage or later years?
Frank answers: My experience as a parent for nearly forty years and as an active pastor for forty-four, is that parenting is a matter of improvisation. No two children are the same, even in the same family. Social conditions change rapidly in our ever-changing society. As children grow and expand their horizons peer influence competes with parental influence as the child makes his or her own decisions. And, of course, children sometimes develop their own ideas consistent with the gifts they have received, who they discern themselves to be, and what calling they hear.
And don’t forget that the parents’ situation also changes over the years. Jobs and careers change. This affects the amount of time one has to be in the home and how one relates to one’s spouse and children. Child care often gets passed back and forth between parents. Given our active lifestyles and sometimes erratic schedules, parents need to remain in communication about child rearing—including if, lamentably, marital divorce occurs.
Improvisation works best when it is grounded in something basic. So here I can only commend traditional practices of Christian parenting. Christian parents have their own values grounded in the commandments of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Parents will communicate these values by modeling them and teaching them as the child grows in experience and understanding.
Basically, since the commandments teach love of God and neighbor, Christian parents will have their children baptized and then bring their children regularly to worship in a congregation and find opportunities to be involved in serving the needs of others as a family.
Children should be engaged in active participation in corporate worship as early as possible—standing and sitting when the congregation does, following the service in the worship book, speaking texts they can get to know from memory like the Creed and Lord’s Prayer, singing the chants that are repeated from week to week. Children learn routine rituals very easily and pick up songs very quickly.
Reading to the young child at home (highly recommended) can include Bible stories and stories that promote Christian values. Children like to be read to and have favorite stories that they like to hear over and over again. Table prayers should not be omitted, at least at the main family meal of the day. This becomes a family ritual that children quickly grow into.
Eating together, in spite of our busy schedules, is also an important value. Christianity began as a meal fellowship; Jesus’s followers gathered for the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day. Customs of the church year can be taught in the home, often in conjunction with the meal, such as devotions around lighting an Advent wreath, decorating the Christmas tree, Lenten self-denial disciplines (fasting, almsgiving, prayer), and dyeing Easter eggs. Children like routines and these are family activities that the kids will remember fondly in future years.
But you note the element of “spiritual rebellion” in teenage or later years. Perhaps you remember your own adolescent years. Children have to strike out on their own to discern who they are as unique persons, even to the point of questioning the faith in which they were raised. Christianity endorses this with its teaching that each of us is endowed with a soul, which is what makes each of us who we uniquely are. While you can teach and pass on “the faith,” you can’t give your children “faith.” Your child has to do her or his own believing.
Adolescents are notorious for gravitating toward peer influence and away from parental influence, often making poor decisions in the process. This is where parental improvisation really comes into play. You have a fundamental responsibility as parents to protect your child from harm to body and soul. Yet you know that your child has to be weaned from reliance on the family in order to make his or her own way in the wider world. Hopefully, with a solid foundation your child will explore spiritual traditions even more deeply in the years to come.
In our society families make use of such things as summer church camps and church servant trips to give their children opportunities to be separated from immediate parental control while not being totally away from adult supervision and Christian influence. In later teenage years children will get driving privileges and you will experience the real angst of turning your child loose on society. And then she goes off to college, and, well, you know what you did in college!
The most comforting thing is that you came through the experience and are faithful to Christ and are trying to be the best disciple you can be in a world in which that isn’t easy. In our society adolescence is a prolonged experience. In a traditional society one is a child one day and assumes adult responsibilities the next by means of rites of initiation. The betwixt-and-between experience of adolescence is almost non-existent is traditional societies. But in our modern Western society adolescence can be prolonged for years as people complete higher education, find a job, and go through several relationships before they settle down into marriage (if they ever do) and have children of their own. Parental care never ceases.
Let me end with the story of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the great figures in Christian history. (Monica’s feast day is May 4.) She was married to a pagan (actually an unbaptized catechumen) but raised their son Augustine as a catechumen (boys especially were seldom baptized as children in those days). She prayed for him for thirty years as he went through at least one relationship, producing an illegitimate son, and dabbled with various philosophies, including Manichaeism. Finally, at the age of 30 Augustine was baptized by Ambrose, bishop of Milan, and returned to North Africa where he was soon elected bishop of the port town of Hippo and became one of the greatest teachers in the history of the Church.
The example of Monica is two-fold: never cease praying for your child and never give up hope that God has something in mind for the children we bring into the world with God’s blessing.
And for those who are providing foster care for children whose biological family is not able to care for them—God bless you for the work you are doing in providing loving care to these children.
Pastor Frank Senn