The statistics—the numbers—that you are about to hear are a little dated, but newer sources that I read this week say that little has changed in the past ten years, so I’m going to go ahead and run them by you:
A father in Japan . . . spends an average time each day with his children. . . of 17 minutes. 17 minutes per day. “That statistic,” said the original article, “which is printed on government-sponsored posters aimed at getting men to do more at home, touched off a round of finger-pointing between the sexes in Japan. (Another poster has the caption) ‘A man who does not help in child-rearing cannot be called a father.’ ‘That is not true,’ responds Noboru Yamada, a banker and father of two children. ‘We just don’t have time.’ When his children were young, he continues, he changed a diaper . . . about every six months, and spent more than a few minutes a day with his kids ‘once every ten days or two weeks.’” And that’s OK, in his mind. I wonder what kind of Father’s Day gifts he’ll be getting today.
But before we start feeling culturally-superior to Japanese fathers, let’s consider this statistic too: “This week in America, a parent and child will average 38 ½ minutes in meaningful conversation with each other.” 38 ½ minutes . . . for the whole week. “This in comparison to the 1680 minutes the child will watch of TV during the same period.” Perhaps a poster campaign will be starting soon in our country too.
It is Father’s Day today, but the first thing you need to know about our sermon on raising children is that it isn’t just for fathers. In fact, notice that the title doesn’t even include the word “parenting,” suggesting that this topic is only for mothers and fathers. We are discussing “raising children,” and many more people than their parents are responsible for how children are raised. We all make promises at infant baptisms, for example, to help bring the child up as a person of faith. We are all called to be Sunday School teachers, and Vacation Bible School volunteers, or to make decisions about these kinds of programs, as church officers. We have grandchildren, nieces, nephews, neighbors, the children of our neighborhood, community, society. We, and our legislators, vote on issues that affect the raising of children all the time: what’s available to kids on the Internet; which movies are too violent for them, or which ideas for toys; questions about health care and making it available for children; education questions like standardized testing and vouchers and school safety. There are many ways in which we all decide how the children around us will be raised. The saying “It takes a whole village to raise a child” was a respected African proverb long before it was a book title. So feel free to listen in, today, whether you’re currently the parent of someone under eighteen or not: What does the Bible tell us, all of us, about raising children?
Well, some of the examples the Bible gives us are examples of what not to do; not everybody in the Bible had this parenting thing perfectly squared away. We read in Genesis, for example, of parents Isaac and Rebekah each picking their favorite son between Esau and Jacob, and letting it be known they had a favorite. The result? Lies told to parents, estrangement of brothers, and one son fleeing from home for his life, for over 14 years. Identifying a favorite child? Didn’t work real well. But later on, the one son, Jacob, does the same thing! “Joseph is my favorite; I’ll give him a special coat.” The result this time? Joseph’s brothers nearly kill him, he ends up in prison, and his father, thinking he’s dead, almost dies in his grief. So watch out who you take as your Biblical role models for child raising; consider the consequences of their techniques.
On the positive side, the first point we can take away from Jesus’ reception of children, in our Mark 10 reading, is that they are of value to God; they are welcomed into Jesus’ presence. Children received little attention or respect in Jesus’ day; they were largely seen as little workers who could be easily ordered around and taken advantage of. They weren’t “worth” as much as adults, which is why the disciples figured Jesus wouldn’t want to “waste his time” with them, when he could be speaking with adults, “real people,” instead. Jesus sets them straight on all this: The children are welcome; they do count, just as much as adults. A poem by T.C. Lewis picks up on Jesus’ point. It begins with this quote from Genesis: “God created humankind in the image of God” – and goes on to say:
“Nobody is trash,
Nobody is trash.”
She stood defiant
as she answered
her child’s question,
which should never
be a child’s question.
“What is poor white trash?”
her six-year-old had inquired
with quaking innocence.
dumped that toxin
into her child’s mind?
A clash of children
Had left no one wounded
Until the other’s mother arrived,
shifting the balance of power.
“Keep that poor white trash
away from the decent children!”
she had fired,
defiling the other.
So “What is . . . poor white trash?”
her child now quaked.
“Nobody is trash,
Nobody is trash.”
She stood strong,
Speaking God’s mind,
saving . . . my life.
- The first Biblical point on raising our children is that they are all valuable, all created in the image of God.
- A second thing the Bible tells us about raising children is to make sure they know the important stories of our faith. It isn’t enough, we read in Exodus 13, that you’ve seen God liberate the people from slavery in Egypt. It isn’t even enough that you carry out an annual ceremony to observe it, by eating unleavened bread. No, you must also tell your children, it says. Tell them why we’re eating unleavened bread; tell them what God did; tell them all that God has done. Our children need to know the stories of our faith – from their parents, their grandparents, their Sunday School teachers . . . Never before has there been such an assortment of great Children’s Bibles as there are today, to help us. Never have there been as many resources to explain worship to children: why we’re doing what we’re doing. We tell the stories to our children.
- A third principle that comes from the Bible is that discipline needs to be part of the raising of a child. The book of Proverbs includes such verses as “Discipline your children while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction” (19:18). And: “Discipline your children and they will give you rest; they will give delight to your heart” (29:17). I don’t know if you can hold God to that as a promise or not. But we do our children no favors if we fail to teach them that there are consequences to actions, that there are tasks that require perseverance in order to get to a sense of accomplishment, that we restrain our own individual desires sometimes in order to cooperate with a group – the whole family, for instance. These are things that have to be learned, are not in-born.
The encouragement to discipline does not, however, replace all the Bible verses about how Christians in general treat each other, the ones which say things like: Be kind, be compassionate, let only talk that builds up come out of your mouth, do not let anger cause you to sin, forgive . . . (Eph. 4: 26-32). If in the name of discipline, we allow anger or bitterness or talk that breaks someone down instead of building them up prevail, that “discipline” has gone too far; we’ve neglected other parts of Scripture.
Our Ephesians 6 passage, for example, balanced “discipline” with not provoking our children to anger. Colossians adds: “Fathers, do not provoke your children or they may lose heart” (3:21). Again, any disciplining is meant to build up, teach, guide our children, not indulge our own anger, or the resentment that has built up in a bad day at work, or a desire to control. When discipline becomes unfair so that children are angered by it, or so harsh or relentless that they “lose heart,” we have, again, neglected important verses of Scripture on raising children.
Now you may not find answers to all your specific questions about the details of raising children in the pages of Scripture: Do you let the baby cry or rush to comfort her right away? What is the most effective use of “time outs”? What are the exact words we should say to help a child understand? You may not find here answers to eternal questions like: “Why do I hear myself saying ‘Because I said so’ and ‘If all your friends jumped off a bridge’ and ‘You’ll poke your eye out,’ and all those other things I swore I would never say when I became a parent?”
There are resources elsewhere, however, which can help with specifics – childrearing books, magazines, article, websites. Cokesbury, the provider of church resources, has a whole curriculum on parenting: “Handling Anger,” “Communication with Your Teen,” “Parenting 101.” Also a series of “Parents Booklets” called “FaithHome” – “Your Preschooler,” “The Family Dinner,” “Now That You’re a Grandparent.” There are many resources written from a faith perspective which offer advice and help.
We also want to consider: What goal do we have in mind as we raise our children? What are we trying to accomplish? Where is all this headed? The dean of Duke Divinity School offered some thoughts on these questions, saying: “I just want my child to be happy.” Parents say this often, sometimes when their child is doing something other than what they would have hoped. “I just want my child to be happy.” And in one sense it seems straightforward and reasonable, when we consider the alternatives: We don’t want our children to be unhappy, depressed, discouraged. But what if we expected parents to say, instead, “I just want my child to be faithful”? How might that shift our expectations of parenting, and of what we hope for from our children?
We rightly ought to cry out on behalf of our children who suffer because of their parents’ oppression, or lack of resources. We rightly ought to protest when children suffer because of their parents’ selfish pursuits, whether of money, drugs, or ambition. But should we not also protest when children suffer because their parents offer them nothing worth living and dying for? When children are left with shallow and hollow lives because they have not been invited to live for something more significant than themselves? When they’re left with a lack of convictions, or corrupt convictions, rather than given noble and faithful ones? We need to wish for them a “happiness” that is a reflection of a deeper and more satisfying flourishing than the superficial hopes too many of us tend to have for our children – a happiness that’s a wonderful by-product, of having learned the more important and more profound lesson of what it means to be faithful.” Or, as Exodus puts it: “You shall tell your child on that day what the Lord has done.” Raising our kids to be faithful.
And finally, regardless of the exact amount of time we spend with kids, we can always pray for children. Pray that they would be valued. Pray that they would hear the Bible stories. Pray that they would be both disciplined and cared for – forgiven, loved, not provoked. Pray that they would be faithful.
These too are most certainly part of God’s kingdom. Let us pray for them now: God, we don’t always know exactly what to do as we try to raise our children. We don’t always know in a particular moment, in a particular situation. We don’t always know when it comes to setting social policies, like metal detectors at school, or use of the internet, or decisions about vouchers. Guide us, that the choices we make and the things we say and do would work toward raising a generation which is faithful, which knows the stories, which finds the happiness . . . of following you. Amen.