The conversation starts out easily enough. “How old is your child? What grade? Which school?” As two parents play the get-to-know-you game, the conversation flows to painting a picture of each one’s family. “And what does your child do?” is the inevitable next question.
What does my child do? My mind immediately equates this to an extracurricular activity, perhaps his strongest one. Depending on the child, I might respond with “Band; he is really musical,” or “Basketball; he’s pretty athletic.”
I’m telling you who my child is by telling you what my child does.
In the early elementary years, and even preschool years, parents begin signing their children up for extracurricular activities. They watch to see where their children seem to have a natural talent and perhaps what the child enjoys. For families with plenty of resources, activities are like a buffet, and parents happily pile more on the plate in an effort to find the best fit.
Extracurricular activities can bring great fun and friendships but may also bring frustration and worry. I will never forget my middle son’s mental breakdown in kindergarten Sunday soccer because we were cheering too loudly for him. He folded like a cheap lawn chair and refused to go back on the field. We wondered how in the world he would ever participate in sports if Sunday soccer was “too much” pressure for him.
Why is it important to have a “thing” your child is good at?
Believing that my child needs to have a “thing” where he excels can quickly drive me to make decisions out of fear. If I believe this “thing” will give my child a sense of belonging, status, and a larger identity, then I will do just about anything to “help” the child along. Conversely, I might feel shame or guilt if I’m not able to provide the extra lessons and opportunities for my child, as if I have failed to fulfill a responsibility if my child doesn’t find his “thing.” When my child is slow to find an activity he enjoys or is good at, his future identity and belonging feels threatened.
At that point, I have taken something good—an activity my child is gifted in or a desire for my child to be involved—and turned it into a functional savior. If my child is a part of an activity and good at it, then he will be okay. I have now made a savior out of something that was never meant to save.
It is not wrong to have a child who is gifted at sports, academics, drama, or whatever the activity is. It is not wrong to dream of your child joining the little league team. It is not wrong to encourage involvement in after-school activities and school clubs. It is not wrong to take extra lessons, travel to tournaments, to be “extra.”
But parents must proceed with caution, examining what is really at the heart of our choices, and more importantly what are we communicating to our children.
Parents get into danger when the desire for our children’s identity to be in the activity supersedes our desire for their identity to be in God. Worshipping the created instead of the Creator denies the complete goodness and sufficiency of God, and what He has done for our children and us.
An emphasis on an identity in anything aside from Christ will leave the children we love unanchored and adrift when that earthly identity eventually disappoints or fails them.
The “thing” that cannot be shaken.
The identity that Jesus offers, however, will withstand the tryouts and trials as well as the victories and successes of the “things” our children do.
The gospel is the antidote to the fear that parents have that their children won’t find their “thing”, and ultimately will be left out. The gospel is the anchor that will not fail your child when he questions who he is and where he fits in.
When God looks at your child, he doesn’t see what your child does. He doesn’t classify your child by activity, talent, and know-how. God identifies him in terms of his holy, perfect, and beloved son, Jesus. Jesus died on the cross for our sins in order for us to be reconciled to God and enjoy relationship with him now and for eternity. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, our children then are counted as righteous brothers and sisters in Christ. That is who they are, and Jesus is the Savior who can actually save.
1 John 3:1 says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” We must first point our children to their primary identity as children of God. Being a child of God does not depend upon your child’s performance, which means that your child cannot add to it, nor can he take away from it.
The “thing” is not who you are; it is simply something you do.
Opportunities to remind my children of who they are in Christ, and the surety of that identity, often come with disappointing and hard circumstances. For example, a bad practice shakes the core of my child who takes great pride in playing basketball well.
It would be easier to tell him to do better or work harder, or it just is not a big deal.
However, the disappointment he feels shows the inadequacy of the activity to validate who he is. His identity is threatened when that “thing” isn’t working well. As a parent I might even feel that his identity, and perhaps future, is under siege. The gospel directly soothes and reassures both child and parent in the uncomfortable space of disappointment.
While my son may really enjoy basketball, it is, at the end of the day, something he does. It is not who he is. Who he is in Christ cannot be changed by a million bad (or good) practices. In believing that his identity and belonging are completely secure in Christ, my child may enjoy any activity he does with the freedom that comes with knowing who he is does not depend upon what “thing” he does and how well he does it.
Jesus speaks in John 10:10 about caring for his people as a shepherd cares for his sheep—tenderly, protectively, intimately. He juxtaposes his posture to his sheep with that of Satan, who comes to “steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus says, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Chasing after an identity in anything other than Jesus will steal, kill, and destroy the joy to be found in the “things” our children do.
The Gospel gives rest to parents in search of that “thing” because in Christ our children’s identity is not in what they do, but in whose they are. Jesus came that we may have life abundantly. The abundant life is one that is anchored in Christ alone.