Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (1:8). In my early days of parenting, the words of that Proverb operated as a weighty command to always say and do the right thing, rather than a lovely invitation to experience “life…to the full” alongside our children.
I entered marriage as stepmom, attempting to find my place in the family with my previously widowed husband and his three adolescent children. My anxiety about “doing it right” would lead to paralysis, and I recall sometimes avoiding certain rooms because I simply couldn’t figure out what to say to the person within. I viewed myself as a shepherd to those young people, even while I wandered around like a lost sheep. It would have been helpful to admit that the latter was true, and to have rested in the care of the Good Shepherd.
If someone had asked me about the most important lessons my own parents taught me, perhaps I would have recognized that those rarely came directly from their spoken words, but from the years of observing and participating in life with them.
More Than Telling Them What to Do
In fact, rarely have I heard a young person quote specific words spoken by a parent at the dinner table, in a carpool, while struggling with homework, or during a family prayer. However, teenagers do recall that parents were present, involved, committed, and prayerful—or they may carry sadness that this was not often the case.
Any effective educator would attest that children learn best through doing—and many of the best teachers are those who model and “do” alongside their students. For example, I realized student journaling was notably enriched when I also began writing and sharing my journal entries with them. I was no longer just telling them what to do.
That’s the crazy beauty of what God did when He entered the world as a man. He is not a deity who spoke only from mountain tops and through his chosen prophets, but the one who “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus empathized with our human struggles as he lived vulnerably among us, humbling himself “to the point of death…on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Jesus didn’t just tell people how to live, but invited them to walk with him in the way of sacrificial love.
More Than A Single Day
As one who has worked at both the middle and high school level, I’ve earned the sometimes-awkward and always-humbling privilege of running into my now-adult students. I’m happy if they even remember me and delighted if they recall anything they learned in our class—which is rarely specific but usually something general like “you helped me improve my writing” or “you pushed me to think critically about history.” Sometimes they barely know what subjects I taught but will share that they knew I cared about them. None of that happened on a single day, but rather transpired day in and day out over a period of many months.
That’s a glimpse of what it is to be a parent. A moment can feel so heavy when in reality it carries only a tiny increment of weight. It’s not that moments don’t matter. However, the million moments of a parenting marathon allow for far more grace than the sprint we sometimes imagine we’re running.
As parents who ultimately entrust our children into the care of our (and their) heavenly Father, we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
Jesus Christ lived and died and was resurrected to save us from our sin, which includes any warped notion that our salvation, and that of our children, is up to us! Not only is he described as a compassionate father to his children (Ps. 103:13), but He also “tends his flock like a shepherd” (Is. 40:11). To complete that metaphor, that means we are sheep – a clumsy and wayward animal to which we are compared some 400 times in the Bible!
More Than Our Own Strength
So as much as I want my children to believe that I am wise and capable and all things good, it’s imperative that they know I am a foolish and helpless sheep just like them. As their mother, it is good teaching when I read a devotion to my toddlers and pray with them throughout the day, but it improves the instruction when they observe their father and I opening our home to those in need or marveling at God’s creation when we take walks together. It’s perhaps even more powerful for them to see and hear us admit that we have messed up.
Looking back on my first years as a struggling stepmom to teenagers, the moments that stand out—the truest moments in which I noted a blip on the usual apathetic radar of adolescent responses—came when I could no longer front my strength and was forced to reveal my weakness.
Here’s the thing: They already knew I wasn’t all that I sought to appear! I doubt my church-going and Bible-studying and moral-keeping retained much value as they observed me grit my teeth to fearfully operate in my discontent and brewing bitterness. “Do what I say, not what I do” is an instructional tactic that will fail parents every single time. What will not fail is God’s love and faithfulness to us!
While I am aware I have many more miles to go in this marathon, the freedom to live more authentically and acknowledge my desperate need for a Savior has helped me parent more hopefully. I feel less pressure when I trust what is true about our Good Shepherd in the second half of Isaiah 40:11: “He will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
So yes, let us speak of truth and goodness and beauty with our children. But let’s not focus all our energy there, for this is only part of the way to “train a child in the way he should go” (Prov. 22:6). Let’s also remember to ask a lot of questions, just as Jesus was prone to do, believing the Holy Spirit will work in the lives of our children. And may we trust that the majority of what our children inherit occurs in between our speaking and listening. In those myriad moments may we endeavor to live faithfully, for there grow the garlands of grace that they wear for the rest of their lives.