How well do we support parents – and how well do they help themselves?
I recently attended a day at a nearby church focused on equipping Christian parents. Whole families were able to go, and the organisers did a fantastic job of keeping our children engaged and excited about the activities they did while we had teaching and discussions.
I was really struck by one of the questions we were asked:
"What is the best piece of advice you have been taught about parenting in church?"
We were then given a few moments to discuss it with the person next to us.
Those of us sat together all said the same thing – we couldn't think of anything we had been specifically taught about parenting on a Sunday morning (apart from the few comments preachers had given about what they've learned about parenting from their own kids and their own mistakes). This made me wonder: how intentional are our churches about teaching and equipping parents?
I spoke at length to one of the seminar leaders, who travels around the country giving one-day seminars to churches, and he agreed that churches seem to shy away from talking about parenting issues on a Sunday morning.
I understand the difficulties with this – only part of the congregation has children, and, as a pastor, you don't want to alienate everyone else. And, for those who are experiencing difficulties trying to have children it could be quite painful sitting through a morning of parenting advice.
There are some great courses out there – such as the Parenting Course. But I know many parents in our church work shifts, and balance childcare between them, so taking an evening a week to go on a course just isn't feasible.
This all got me thinking, and I wondered what the reaction would be if we started talking about parenting on a Sunday morning. And is it actually feasible to do so?
If help was offered, what would be the reaction anyway? I remember vividly what it felt like with a newborn – so many people giving advice (some helpful, but mostly pretty unhelpful actually!) that I felt overcome and needed space, not advice.
I know new parents who are currently going through the same thing. While the new mums and dads' groups can be competitive and draining, it is usually in those that newbie parents talk over issues with their contemporaries. But is that the biblical model? Or even our culture's historical model?
Not too many years ago it would have been family members, and older church members, that helped new parents and instructed them as to the best way of doing things. In Titus Paul says to older women, "urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure..." I'm sure that included very practical parenting advice!
Has our response to advice and instruction from our elders been tarnished by our culture shift? Families don't often live altogether in the same town or village anymore – but are we close enough to our church family to allow them to help instead?
Most people these days hate being told what to do. We want to make up our own minds, even if that means making mistakes. A common attitude is: "who are they to tell me what to do?" But does that not mean that we hurt ourselves – and those around us – in the process?
Wouldn't it be better to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" and actually stop and listen to an older person's advice? That said, the older person needs to be offering advice in a loving, careful manner – not ramming their opinions down the new parent's throat!
I'm still thinking all of this through, and you are reading my ponderings. Obviously it is our own decision as a couple to have children, so I can understand the argument that it's up to us to learn how to parent. But just because we've opted to become parents doesn't mean we know how to do it – most of us need help at some point!
Interestingly I was watching a TV ad last night that showed a new mum struggling in the middle of the night – it was advertising formula milk I think but it played on this concept of being a parent being the one job we don't get trained for – we just have to learn through our own mistakes along the way.
And we do all make mistakes. We all face struggles with our parenting. Yes, having close friendships with those at the same stage, as well as slightly ahead, of our own families is absolutely vital. It is in those relationships that we can be totally honest – and ask for advice and prayer.
But I wonder – I just wonder – whether we should be talking about parenting from the pulpit more? Not everyone is blessed with really open friendships, or perhaps wants to take the time to cultivate them or be that honest with others in their church (that's obviously their loss!). However, the pastor is still going to be held accountable for those people's spiritual walk if they are members of his/her church. Doesn't that include their parenting, which should have a spiritual element at its heart?
I understand the viewpoint that we are each responsible for ourselves, and our growth as people, and so that parents should be the ones that research and look into how to be better parents. But as churches we don't leave people on their own to disciple themselves – we do that together, often encouraging mentoring and accountability. So why not look at finding ways to encourage and spur one another on in the area of parenting?
As parents we are simply stewards of our kids' early years and what we model and teach them is so important. Don't we owe it to our children – and the parents in our churches – to be talking about parenting at any appropriate opportunity?
Also, aren't our children the whole church family's responsibility? Kids need to see faith outworked not only by their parents but by others too – young, old, single, married... They need mentors – friends and adults they trust to go and talk to when they want a perspective other than their parents'.
Indeed, during our last Father's day meeting I felt very strongly that I should be getting all the guys to stand up, not just the fathers. When they had done so, I asked them to look around for anyone in the congregation that was younger than them and said that part of the reason they are in the church is to set an example to each of those people.
Whether we know it (and like it) or not, we are models of behaviour to all those younger people in our churches. As the guys stood in our church I prayed that God would help heal any that hadn't had a godly father figure to look up to in the past, and that God would also impart His wisdom so that they could be great role models to those around them. The same, of course, is true for women.
As I said, I'm still working this through. If you have had any positive or negative experiences in this area I'd love to hear from you!