I was recently given the honor of speaking to a roomful of women Mother’s Day weekend. The following is a slightly tweaked rendition of my talk that sought to answer: How do you disciple your children?
Whenever I go out in public with my four kids in tow (one in my visibly pregnant belly, and the other three, seven and under, energetically rambling around me), I’m told my hands are full. And they are.
My days tend to orient around nap-times, meal-times, and picture books–with sibling squabbles and errands as my parenthesis. Sometimes its painfully easy to relate to how the author of Ecclesiastes describes the world:
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
Or in my terms: I fill up bellies only for them to empty again. I fold the last clean shirt, only to turn and find four more stacks of laundry.
If I try to quantify my life I feel a little like T.S. Eliot’s Mr Prufrock, measuring out my life in coffee spoons…or maybe diapers changed.
My greatest temptation is to bemoan the tedium that is inherent in raising small children: the endless laundry, the constant, demanding needs, and the ever-present doubt that lingers, asking: is what I’m doing really important, does it matter at all?
It’s hard to see the promise of a flourishing garden when you’re in the seed planting stage. I find it hard to believe that anything can blossom in front of me when all I see is dirt on my hands.
But, along with those questions of doubt, a still small voice tends to perk up and ask, why? And it tends to lead me to think of a quote by Charlotte Mason:
Do not let the endless succession of small things crowd great ideals out of sight and mind.
In other words, don’t forget the why of motherhood, the calling and purpose. Don’t let yourself see only tantrums, and potty training fiascos, and unfinished to-do lists. Motherhood is much more than just keeping our kids alive, making them good citizens or successful adults. The work that we do in the little years, it matters.
If you don’t believe me, consider the story of John Newton, a former slave-trader turned abolitionist and clergyman, and best known for his authorship of the hymn Amazing Grace. Newton had interactions with a number of influential British Christians, and yet he always credited his mother as his greatest spiritual influence. This is exceptional because his mother died when he was only seven. In his very youngest years she spent her time (despite her affliction with tuberculosis) teaching her son about the God she loved, and eventually, despite his turbulent and wretched youth, he came to love that same God, thanks in part to seeds she had planted in his very young mind.
Motherhood matters. Our time with our children, all of it, is important. But I find that hard to remember when I’m knee-deep in dishes, or trying to figure out what to make for dinner while a toddler wails in hunger at my feet.
So, I have to keep my eyes constantly on that “why”, I have to keep remembering how seeds work. I have to keep looking back to why we do what we do as parents.
When I was pregnant with my oldest we were given the advice to be proactive parents instead of reactive. It’s easy to simply react to situations as they arise, and that tends to be our default. So my husband and I wrote out our goals, our family vision, and the type of people we wanted to encourage our children toward becoming. We wanted that vision to be framed solidly in Scripture, and we looked to godly parents whom we respected to help us shape our own family philosophy.
Seven years later, we still revisit our vision often, tweaking it here and there if we see scripture suggest something different, or we receive advice that we think is better than things we’ve done in the past; or we reorient our lives if we see we’ve strayed from our original intention.
Because the thing is, everyone has a philosophy of parenting (and life, really). Not everyone will call it that, and not everyone even recognizes they have one, but we all have goals, we all prioritize some things over others, and we all have some kind of vision for who we want our children to become. That’s a philosophy, that’s our “why”. The problem is, when we aren’t intentional about it, our default philosophy is not informed by Scripture, it’s inspired by what the world values. If we want our parenting to be in alignment with the Gospel, we have to be intentional with it. If we want to mother well, we have to ground ourselves in why God called us here in the first place.
I have to remember this every single morning. So I submit my mothering to God first thing. Otherwise my parenting tends to become about making my kids “good” people, or trying to get them to make me look good, or to make them academically impressive or successful, or, most commonly (and more than I’d like to admit), I just do whatever makes my day easier, survivable, and conflict free.
That’s not the Gospel. And I know it isn’t what motherhood is meant to be either.
So, discipling my children always starts with me. My day begins with reorienting my heart and renewing my mind. I wake up before my kids to read scripture, pray, and read edifying books–which in various seasons has looked very different. Sometimes that means reading and praying while nursing a newborn, or closer to an hour when my kids finally start sleeping through the night, but it has always meant sacrificing sleep, choosing less entertainment and recreation in the evenings so I can wake up in the morning, and less exercise than I’d like, but I’ve learned that out of all the things that I do it’s the most important, and I can’t do my day well without beginning it with Christ first.
In that time in the morning, and all throughout the day, I try to meditate on John Piper’s axiom:
The great purpose of life is not to stay alive, but to magnify–whether by life or by death–the One who created us, died for us, and lives as Lord forever, Jesus Christ.
When I remember that, everything shifts. I’m stilling putting out the same sibling fires, filling the same hungry bellies, changing the same dirty diapers, and reading and re-reading the same rhyming picture books, but it’s all within a greater context that reveals purpose behind those seemingly menial tasks. And suddenly I see countless opportunities to both see, and share, the glory of God with my children in our very average life.
So, we go through our day, but at breakfast, instead of being angry and hurt by my 4-year-old turning his nose up at the eggs I’ve prepared, I see an opportunity to teach him gratefulness, contentment, and kindness.
While we’re driving, instead of throwing entertainment at my children to shut them up and have a moment to myself, I listen to their rambling thoughts, and I find that my oldest is asking hard questions about hell and his unsaved friends, and we get to have a conversation.
When I hear the crash of broken Lego creations and the subsequent angry yells, instead of being annoyed that my time has been interrupted, I see a chance to teach brothers compassion and forgiveness, and to value people over things.
When I’m going through a history lesson that I’d really just like to finish and check of, instead of rushing past their questions about Greek myths and world religions, I pause, and we discuss why I trust Scripture, and how Jesus is so different from Hercules.
When my 2-year-old throws herself down in a tantrum, instead of being embarrassed by her public display, I scoop her up and show her I love her, even as I insist she obey.
And when I screw up–which is often: when I chord anger over patience, when I use entertainment as a way to shut my children out, when I choose my agenda over my children’s hearts, then I also see an opportunity to show real humility. I apologize, showing, along with telling my children to whom we turn when we realize we cannot do anything on our own strength.
It is true what Blaise Pascal wrote:
Man’s greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness.
My children have come to know the truth of these words because they see my wretchedness on display for them every day, and I hope they will also come to know the One whose strength is sufficient for me in my weakness…and theirs.
Motherhood is hard. It’s a weighty calling, but we’ve been called by the One who also promises to equip us. I found when I lean into him, this God who has called me out of darkness and death, then I see his hand in all the tedium.
As I listen to the soft breathing of an infant asleep in my arms, I remember I can rest just as peacefully in the arms that stretched out in agony for me.
When I whisper assurances in the night to the toddler afraid of the dark, I remember that my Comforter is always with me too.
When I gently hold the hands of the child who is broken from his latest failure to choose right, I remember those nail-scarred hands that cover my failures too.
As a result, instead of seeing a bunch of coffee spoons, dirty diapers, or a sea that never fills, I see eternity.
Ultimately, discipling my kids is less about a specific plan I follow, or wonderful resources, or a certain prayer I pray (though all those things are helpful and great), and more about letting God shape my heart first, and in so doing he reveals countless opportunities for me to reach the hearts of my children.
And that is something he offers to every single mom.