We are blessed to have access to so many excellent books on parenting. From conception to empty nesting, from strong-willed toddlers to rebellious prodigals, from the joy of welcoming a child to the grief of losing one, there is a book to guide and help us. And for that, I am truly thankful.
And yet I believe that many parents fail to read the parenting book that could make the biggest difference to their lives and families. Many neglect to give their attention to the parenting book that God has set right before them. It’s the “book” that is being written in the lives of the people in their own local church.
When my children were younger, I loved to read a good book for parents. I read most of the major ones and many of the lesser-knowns. I learned how to shepherd and instruct a child’s heart, how the gospel powers our parenting, how to be purposeful and persistent parents, how to have “the talk” with our children, and on and on. I benefitted a lot from each of them. There was always something to learn and always an area of weakness to address.
Yet I could never shake this thought: I don’t actually know any of these authors. I don’t know anything more than what they have told me about themselves in their books. I don’t know how they have actually lived these things out in their homes. I don’t know how their children feel about them. I don’t know if they gained the hearts of their kids or lost them, if their techniques led to great success or total failure.
But I knew it is much harder to be hypocritical in a context in which you are seen and known. It is much harder to fake it, to have a great disparity between what you teach and how you live or between what you say is true of your family and what is actually true. The local church proves who you really are, what you really believe, and how you really live.
And so I decided it would be wise to commit to reading the “book” that I saw each Sunday, the one that was right before my eyes. Here I could see fathers who loved their children (and were loved by their children) and ask them for guidance. Here I could see parents whose children I would be proud to call my own and learn to imitate them. Here I could see the principles of Scripture really lived out. I understood that it would be foolish to spend time with a book when I could spend time with a family, to learn from a stranger when I could be mentored by a friend.
And my encouragement to young parents today is to do the same. Don’t neglect the “books” made up of human lives in favor of books made up of mere paper. Let the people in your life and church be the main thing and let the paperbacks be supplemental.
To that end, let me offer a few tips.
First, do not be easily impressed by people whose children are still young. Often the people who have the most obedient little children now will have the most rebellious older children then. It is easy to crush the spirits of little ones and force them to do your will. It is much harder to keep their spirits crushed as they grow older and have a greater ability to live their own lives. So seek out parents whose children are older and, ideally, grown and independent.
Second, look for people in your church whose older children are living the way you’d hope your children will someday live. Look for grown children of whom you’d say, “If this was my child, I’d be proud.” Then go to those parents and say something like this: “I want my children to someday be like your children. Can we spend some time together so you can teach me how?” If you’re feeling especially humble, you can say “If you see me parenting in a way you think is unbiblical or unwise, I would appreciate if you would speak to me about it.”
Third, be wary of people whose egos are tied closely to their children. There are many parents who are desperate to be known as good and successful parents—parents whose identity is found in their parenting. Such people can often be inadvertently hypocritical. It is better to look for people who do not obviously present themselves as authorities on parenting, but who are doing it well nonetheless.
Fourth, as you speak to exemplary parents, also speak to their exemplary children. Ask them what they believe their parents did so well. Ask them what they have learned from their mom and dad. Ask them for the ways in which they intend to imitate their parents.
Finally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because older parents raised their children many years ago and in a different cultural context, their counsel is no longer valuable. You will naturally be drawn to people whose lives are similar to your own and whose children are the same age. But don’t confuse youthful confidence for experienced wisdom. Don’t think that apparent success in the early days necessarily predicts a good outcome in the later days. Job was not wrong when he observed “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”