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Given the amount of information available today on every imaginable subject, it's no wonder that we live in an age of specialists. In nearly every field, areas of expertise are shrinking, and the impact is acutely felt by parents.
We want our kids to be healthy, so we make sure they have a doctor. It's hard to find a good, old-fashioned general practitioner these days, so our children may well have age-appropriate, gender-specific pediatricians.
We want our kids to be intellectually advanced, so we choose the locations of our homes according to school district, and we grill the teachers to ensure that our little Einsteins will have the best environment possible for developing their minds. Long gone are the days of the one-room schoolhouse with one teacher who taught all the subjects. Now we want young, attractive, energetic, multilingual math teachers who come in for one hour a day to teach only math (in a young, attractive, energetic, multilingual sort of way). If we want our child to learn Spanish, we'll find a good private tutor in thesuburbs.
We want our children to be athletic, so we enroll them in sports programs. God forbid that one kid in America should miss out on youth soccer! We find that coaches tend to concentrate on one sport. After all, what does basketball have to do with soccer? We enroll our children in piano, art, and ballet lessons so that they will be cultured and appreciate the arts. Of course, ballet lessons for a four-year-old are mainly an excuse to dress her up in a pretty outfit. There's nothing wrong with that.
We send our overscheduled, under-rested, stressed-out kids from person to person to ensure that they are having well-rounded childhoods. Do they have an appropriate balance of physical, cultural, and academic activities? Are they growing up with all the advantages we never had? Is there a specialist whose help we have not sought-a time-management expert or a nutritionist? Is there someone who can teach our children the most beneficial way of playing in the backyard?
There's nothing wrong with specializing in a particular skill or with seeking the expertise of someone uniquely qualified in a given field. If we can afford to give our children a leg up, we should do what we can. After all, we want the best for them, and we can't do it all by ourselves. No one says we have to coach Little League or learn a foreign language in order to parent our kids.
But who is responsible for our children's worldview and their connection with God?
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The fundamental assertion of faith among the people of God in the Old Testament was "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the LORD is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength" (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Every time the people recited these words, they renewed their covenant with God. It was a gentle reminder of their true identity and of the relationship they had with the One who gave them that identity.
The Israelites recited these words at least twice every day-when they woke up and when they went to sleep. These were the first words taught to a Hebrew child who was learning to talk, and they were often the last words spoken at death by Israelites who took their commitment to God seriously. The Shema (a Hebrew word for "hear" or "listen"), as it came to be called, was to be their first sentence and their last sentence-of each day and of their lives. Every Jewish person knew this portion of Scripture as the very core of what it meant to be a child of God's covenant love. Everything else was subordinate to this overarching principle: Love God with everything you have!
Moses told them, "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
THEY'RE YOUR KIDS
Who is responsible for making sure that our children develop spiritually? The Bible is pretty clear on this. Parents have the primary responsibility for teaching their children to know and respect God. Their worldview will flow from the foundational text of the Shema, so parents should make every effort to teach this principle to their children.
This isn't just an Old Testament concept-in the New Testament, the apostle Paul says the same thing: "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Clearly, children are meant to be raised by their parents.
As obvious as this seems, however, we seem to have gotten off track somehow. With school, tutors, Little League, and band practice, a parent is just one of many voices in a child's life. As we spend less time with our children, we lose confidence in our ability to parent. Society also contributes to this anxiety. We are told that the state can do a better job of educating children. Every magazine rack contains articles on how to be a better parent. Radio and television experts sometimes belittle traditional families with traditional values. In his book You're a Better Parent Than You Think! Dr. Ray Guarendi notes, "We are in the midst of a rush into child-raising awareness-a rush that is having an unexpected backlash on parents. It is breeding worry, guilt, indecision, and a host of other uncomfortable emotions that can undermine self-assured parenting."
On the whole, we live in an increasingly self-consumed society that no longer prizes such values as sacrifice and selflessness. This has created a startling lack of heroism in our culture as fewer people are willing to set aside their personal comfort and safety for the good of others. It doesn't take much of this prevailing sentiment to persuade parents that they can continue to pursue their own interests with minimal interference from their children-provided that they allow other people to raise their children for them.
Society thus tells us that we are probably not very effective as parents and that we have our own things going and shouldn't have to give them up. These two ideas combine to generate some serious consequences. It has now become acceptable, even normative, for parents to abdicate their role as the primary guardians of their children.
Under such intense scrutiny and pressure, many parents are content to allow institutions and organizations to educate and socialize their children. Schools and private tutors are readily available for everything from horseback riding and computer skills to table manners. Unfortunately, many people assume that they can also outsource their children's spiritual development.
It is shocking that the church often contributes to this upside-down philosophy. All too often, churches and pastors are eager to ride in on white horses, saying, "Leave those kids to us; we'll take care of them! Just drop them off in our age-appropriate, self-esteem-building, sterilized children's ministry environments. We'll let you know when they're ready to be picked up."
It is sad that churches have also played on the selfish mentality of many parents by billing their children's ministry as child care. "Mom and Dad are free to build themselves up while we take care of their children." Very few churches offer meaningful intergenerational gatherings where parents and children can together learn the basics of faith and how to live it out at home.
Should we let the professionals take care of it? After all, you probably didn't go to seminary. You don't know Greek or Hebrew, and you may not even know all the books of the Bible. How can you be responsible for the faith development of your kids? When everything around us requires a specialist, how can we presume to be our children's spiritual mentors-when we don't even have things figured out for ourselves?
We have made the faith development of children church-based and home-supported. But look through the Bible sometime for even a single verse about how the church is supposed to raise children. You will find that the Bible repeatedly tells parents how to relate to their own kids. In other words, churches should be assisting parents as they work at home to train their children and instruct them in the knowledge of the Lord.
There is a lot of truth to the old cliché "It takes a village to raise a child." But the village-the community of faith surrounding the family- must never replace parents as the primary caregivers, guardians, and instructors of children. Rather than eroding the confidence of parents or feeding their naturally selfish urges, churches should offer their resources and guidance to parents. They should avoid the trap of thinking that they are the primary source of spiritual development for children.
The Bible clearly says the primary responsibility for instilling faith and values in the next generation belongs to moms and dads who must commit time, effort, prayer, learning, and growth to this endeavor. We shouldn't expect it to be easy-and we cannot help our children grow in spiritual things if we are spiritually immature ourselves.
IS IT IN YOU?
Anyone who has ever flown with children knows the preflight statement, "In the case of an unexpected loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the panel above you. Those traveling with small children should secure their own mask before attempting to assist others."
Most parents think that it would be far more appropriate to make sure that the kids are okay first, but the airlines have a good reason for this policy. Parents are oxygen-givers. Our children-especially if they are young-depend on us for nearly everything. If a parent passes out, the kids are in trouble! Children need parents who are clearheaded and alert. You have to take care of yourself first when others are counting on you.
That's why Moses says, "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts" before he says, "Impress them on your children." It's impossible to give something away if you don't have it. Otherwise you can only fake it, and children are very good at detecting phoniness. Children look to their parents for ideas on how to live their faith. If parents aren't providing an example of what faith looks like in the rough-and-tumble of everyday life, children cannot be expected to "do as I say and not as I do."
As parents, we find time for the things that matter most. We manage to eat, bathe, and sleep-most days at least (unless we have a two-year-old, and then all bets are off). Most of us even find time to exercise and keep ourselves physically fit. Yet we claim not to have enough time to maintain our connection with God.
In the opening chapter of his book Finding God in Unexpected Places, Philip Yancey analyzes America's health craze and its obsession with physical fitness. Yancey, an avid runner, joined a Chicago health club after a foot injury prevented him from running. After his experiences at the health club, he wrote:
In the end, the health club stands as a pagan temple. Its members strive to preserve only one part of the person: the body, which is the least enduring part of all.... Physical training is of some value, Paul advised Timothy, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8). As I pedaled, straining against computer-generated hills, I had to ask myself: What is my spiritual counterpart to the Chicago Health Club? And then, more troubling: How much time and energy do I devote to each?
We need exercise. We are, after all, stewards of life and health just as we are stewards of money and talents. But we must place first things first.
THE HIGH STAKES OF PARENTING
A human being enters the world bearing an immortal soul. Every child will one day give an account of his or her life to a holy judge. All of us will face an unending eternity of either unspeakable joy or unbearable separation from God. In our society, parents are expected to think a lot about how to give their children temporal gifts-a nice house, good vacations, the best education-but these same parents neglect the one gift that will last for eternity. Parents love their children best by preparing them to stand before God.
Moses gave the Israelites clear instructions on helping their children to develop a relationship with their Creator. He warned the people about the dangers of departing from God's ways. "Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land. Do not test the LORD your God" (Deuteronomy 6:14-16).
How did the Israelites respond to this clear warning? Apparently they did quite well-for a generation. Joshua inherited the position of leadership from Moses and lived to be 110 years old. During his lifetime, he brought the Israelites into the Promised Land, led them to many victories, and set a great example of a life of faith. After his death, others of his generation lived on for a while, but eventually they died as well. "The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel" (Judges 2:7). While the memory of God's greatness and the work he did for Israel was alive, the people maintained their devotion to God.
After the death of Joshua and those who had seen God's mighty acts, "another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals" (Judges 2:10-11). Therefore, "in his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist" (Judges 2:14).
The people honored God because Joshua and his generation had direct personal knowledge of God's mighty acts among the people. The next generation didn't know God or his work on their behalf. This new generation turned to other gods, and the true God brought judgment upon them.
Judges is perhaps the saddest book in the Bible. It follows the children of Israel during one of the darkest times in their history and traces a depressing cycle: The Israelites honor God; the Israelites forget God; the Israelites are enslaved; the Israelites call out to God; God raises up a judge; the Israelites are delivered. Then the process is repeated-six times! If only the people had taken Moses' instructions from Deuteronomy 6 seriously, the whole pattern could have been avoided. Every time the cycle came back around to the part where they were delivered and again honored God, they had a chance to avoid repeating the process. And every time, the parents failed to pass the lessons they had learned on to their children.
If only this historical message no longer applied to God's people! Unfortunately, the cycle continues. Each time a baby is born, the parents have a choice: Will we pass the torch of faith to this child, or will we allow the darkness to claim another generation? Unless we parents teach our children about God and pass on a Christian worldview to them, the problems of our society will continue. We can turn the tide if we will courageously take back the responsibility that has been ours all along.
Excerpted from hearts and minds by Kenneth Boa John Alan Turner Copyright © 2006 by Kenneth Boa and John Alan Turner. Excerpted by permission.
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