It’s funny the things people will ask me when they discover I have 15 children. Most times, the questions are a barrage of “How do you do it?” and “Don’t you know what causes that?” Sometimes the questions are heartfelt: “How did you get to adopt four children?” or “Why have so many?”
But one of the most important questions that rarely gets asked is “What’s the most important thing I can teach my children?” Of course the most vital thing to teach any child is the redemptive power that faith in Jesus gives us. But past this, most parents just tend to focus on raising well-behaved kids, as if being well behaved is the end-all goal of Christianity. Be good. If I have good kids then I am a good parent. If my kids know all the rules and follow them then I have done my job. An added bonus may include a college education or an exemplary skill of some sort, but truly it just boils down to their behavior, right? Wrong.
Look, moms and dads, I can see how we easily fall into this trap, and yes, it’s a trap. When children are small, we are basically relegated to making sure the child survives the day, no matter how many times they try and self-destruct between jumping off the couch, climbing out of their crib and swallowing everything possible to block their windpipe. We begin to think to ourselves that if we could ever just get through a meal at a restaurant without being humiliated, make it through Publix without the three year old having a total meltdown, if we could just get them to listen to us and do what we say, we will have done it. We’ll have done our jobs. If we’ve gotten those little wee beasties tamed, they may even manage to make us as moms and dads look pretty good in the process.
I am in no way saying that obedience itself is not important. It is. In fact, your child’s life may very well depend on them stopping when you ask them to, thereby avoiding being run over in the street. We must teach our children to listen to us and obey, but this is something that is rarely accomplished completely at a very young age. I have my sneaking suspicion that’s why the good Lord gave us a solid 16-20 years with our children under our wings to begin with.
But while my short-term goal may be obedience, I do not want an obedient 21 year old. I want a young adult who knows the rules and when to break them. “No fighting in school” may be the rule, but I want a teenager who knows when to stick up for a friend and get a bump or bruise in the process. “Live peaceably with all men,” say the scriptures, but I want my child to know it is alright not to be “peaceable” when someone is trash talking another classmate. Playing to win may be the unspoken rule, but when my child chooses all the school “losers” to be on her team for dodge ball and they get creamed, my child just won at the game of life.
You see, without watching ourselves, we can accidentally raise a child who is just obedient and not resourceful or full of initiative. We could raise a child who knows the rules and not the guiding principles, so they never learn to weigh out which is the greater need. And I have two really good examples of this.
Fourteen years ago, I was heavily pregnant with my fourth child. I had taken my three daughters, then 6, 4, and 3 years old to play on the beach while my friend and I talked. The girls were skimming along in the waves in barely a foot of water when the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Prompted by what I can only describe as a “Holy Warning,” I yelled “GET OUT NOW” to the children in a voice that screamed terror. The girls sprinted out of the water and ran 30 feet up to the dune. They then turned around and asked, “Why Mama?”
Thank God they ran before they asked. A tiger shark began rapidly approaching as they sprinted out of the water, and I saw it heading straight for where the girls were playing. Surely a tragedy had been avoided because they listened quickly. Shaken, I gathered them up and left the beach that day thanking God for their safety and ever since that day, shark has been the buzzword around our house we use when someone doesn’t listen and obey quickly.
Fast-forward about 10 years. A 4-year-old cousin is having a surf party at the beach. About 25 children are playing in the waves, trying out surfboards and enjoying a fun day in the ocean. One of the dads who’s a local surfing legend leans over to me and says, “Shark. Get the kids out.” In my “do it or else you’ll be sorry” voice I promptly tell every kid to get out of the water immediately. Of the 25 kids, five decide they would rather play than listen. I tell them there’s a shark in the water and those stinkers start arguing with me that since they don’t see it I must be wrong. And guess who’s still in the water between all these 5-8 year old arguers? My 16-year-old daughter. Daly Kay had grown into quite a swimmer and reasoned that since she was a strong swimmer she would rather stay in the water and gather up these yahoos to get them out of the water than leave them in there defenseless. Even as they negated the clear commands to leave the water, she was pulling them out to safety. She broke the rules. She disobeyed. But she did the greater thing. She saved these kids from their own foolishness.
My kids aren’t perfect and you can be guaranteed that I’m not either. There have been plenty of times that we’ve had to learn the hard way to obey. But at the end of the journey, I don’t want an obedient adult. I want a faith-filled, bold individual that knows the rules and when to break them. I want my children to be so full of His word, favor, and grace that they walk in confidence knowing their Heavenly Father loves them and their parents have their back. If we only focus on the short-term goal of teaching our children obedience, rather than the long-term goal of boldness through faith in Christ (and what his sacrifice bought us: favor, grace, and good standing with our Heavenly Father), we will have missed our opportunity as parents to raise up a generation of world-changers.
Submit a question for consideration in a future issue at GoodNewsFL.org/AskAColumnist. Or visit Lyette Reback’s inspirational parenting website at Believewithme.com where you can find encouragement, hope and real answers for your parenting challenges.