I find it interesting that whenever parents have a chance to get away on a date night without their kids, they end up spending the date talking about their kids. My wife and I are no exception. I remember one of those dates. The details of where and when it happened are vague—I just know that it was some time after our daughter (and second of our two children) were born. But what my wife said concerning our children in that conversation remains vivid. It was in the context of discussing what we ought to prioritize when it came to raising our two children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph 6:4). In the midst of my knuckle-headedness, my excellent wife speaks with great wisdom. On that date night, this is what she said: “For me, what I truly care about is that Jayden would learn to be a good big brother and love his sister.”
It sounded elementary at the time, but I quickly came to appreciate my wife’s wisdom because I had recently taken on the role of overseeing and leading the young families ministry at our church. Being a family pastor forces you to contemplate how the Word of God should shape family life. And, of course, when you are in the role of family pastor, people love to ask questions along the lines of, “So what do you guys do with your kids?”
Affluence and Priorities
This is an excellent question, given the affluent culture in which we find ourselves. Biblically speaking, whether you categorize yourself as lower, middle, or upper class, the household is your business. But the truth is that, for the majority of families, living in America naturally affords us a plethora of opportunities, privileges, and assets that many families around the world simply do not have. For this reason, child-rearing and home management can get complicated.
Think of the number of different healthcare providers you can have, the car seats you can purchase, the various educational institutions you can select, the amount of grocery stores you can visit, the number of different soccer clubs you can put your kids in, the myriad of minivans you can choose from, the multitude of different children’s Bibles that are available, and so forth. It’s no wonder parents in the West often feel confused and overwhelmed, as numerous options require us to make more decisions. In an effort to be responsible (and we should), there is a growing pressure on Western families to architect the correct family structure and create the perfect family profile.
It’s almost unstoppable for the proverbial Martha to emerge as we raise our children, where we become so distracted by many good things that we neglect to pursue God’s priorities. When it comes to rearing our children, it’s easy to get distracted with making the “best decisions” regarding secondary issues. We become consumed with our children’s assets, insisting that each kid has his or her own room and that they have access to the most “mentally stimulating” toys. We become consumed with our children’s academics, losing sleep over what school our children will attend and experiencing anxiety attacks when one of them performs below grade level for elementary quantitative analysis. We worry much about activities, making sure that our they get to participate in the most elite soccer leagues and master their musical scales by age seven, and that we go on vacations each year where they get to swim with schools of spinner dolphins. We focus much about traditions, insisting that they wear matching shirts every Christmas and eat Nana’s famous sweet potato casserole every Thanksgiving (for the record, this is my favorite Thanksgiving dish).
Yes, some amount of financial assets are needed for raising children. Academics and activities can indeed equip a child for adulthood. Traditions can create an environment of stability. All of these are good things. But they’re not the most important aspects of family life, and thus they ought not to be the things that take up the bulk of our efforts as parents. We instead need to prioritize those values that God himself prioritizes and instructs us in his wisdom to prioritize. We need to keep the primary issues as primary, the secondary and tertiary issues where they belong.
Family Priorities from the Proverbs
What, then, are the priorities of family life? What are the primary elements that God says constitute the wise building of a household that pleases him? If we are to be a household that honors the Lord and his Word, what aspects of family life ought to receive the most attention? Listen to God’s wisdom in the book of Proverbs:
Better is a little with the fear of the LORD than great treasure and turmoil with it.Proverbs 15:16
Better is a dish of vegetables where love is than a fattened ox served with hatred.”Proverbs 15:17
“Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife.”Proverbs 17:1
These pieces of instruction are invaluable, because families naturally desire to have great treasures, great food and much feasting. Again, these things aren’t bad in and of themselves. But there are aspects of family life that are often neglected by families that are indeed, according to God’s wisdom, much better. These better possessions have to do with relationships—the way a family relates to the Lord and the way each member of the family relates to one another.
Priority #1: The Fear of the Lord
The first priority of a godly family must be the fear of the Lord (Prov 15:16). You can be a family of twelve living in a one-bedroom apartment and be destitute in the world’s eyes, but the presence of the fear of the Lord in a family makes the household richer and more blessed in the eyes of God than a family that owns the island of Lanai but who doesn’t fear God.
How can you tell when the fear of the Lord is present in a family? You see it in the way the family responds to the Word of God. No, I don’t mean we have to stick our kids into the most state-of-the-art AWANA program, and I don’t mean that we have to have hour-long family devotions every night. What I do mean is that, as parents, you establish the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God in all of you. By your example and instruction, your children should know that mom and dad will always submit to what the Bible says, period. And they should know that you will never approve what God condemns, that you would never condemn what God approves, and that you would never neglect what God commands. And yes, this includes faithfulness to your local church even if it means your kid can’t join the Sunday soccer leagues as a result.
While at seminary I heard a story shared by the vice president about a childhood experience he said profoundly impacted his spiritual growth. He was with his father at a car dealership, and they came across a car that his father liked. Yet, even after the salesman did his magic (also known as marketing sweet-talk), his father was hesitant to purchase the car. When the boy asked his father why he was hesitant, his father simply responded, “I just don’t know if it’s God’s will.” He saw the fear of the Lord in his father’s heart, and he followed in his footsteps soon after.
Priority #2: Love for Family Members
The second priority of a godly family must be the love for each member of the family (Prov 15:17). You can be eating nothing but celery and rice every day and be considered a candidate for food stamps by others, but a household of such humble means where love exists among the members is far more blessed in God’s eyes than a household that frequently feasts on filet mignons but where animosity is the rule. This is where I discovered my wife’s words of wisdom as I mentioned earlier to be so wise! When it comes to raising my son, for example, more worthy of celebration than the straight-A report card he achieved in second grade or the goal he finally scored in a soccer scrimmage, was the fact that he immediately ran to the freezer to get an ice pack (without being prompted by mom) and brought it to his sister after she inadvertently twisted her ankle in the living room. Similarly for my daughter, more important than the trophy that she won at her dance competition and the standardized test scores she achieved is the fact that she frequently offers her brother her potstickers whenever she sees that he’s still hungry. Love is relationally practical. Love cares. Love is others-minded. More important than any academic achievement, athletic accomplishment, or monetary asset in the household is raising children who are not only God-centered but others-minded.
Priority #3: Peace and Harmony in the Home
A third priority of a godly family must be peace and harmony in the day-to-day endeavors (Prov 17:1). I have often counseled married couples that, when it comes to their relationship, conflict is inevitable but fighting is optional. With children, in whose hearts foolishness is bound up, fighting (at least in the beginning) will happen. But, just like their parents, they can be taught not to fight. Household harmony is not an unachievable ideal, but a virtue to be pursued. And while it is not instinctive, it can be instructed.
I recall an instance once when my two children were arguing over what to watch on Netflix. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree—till this day, my wife and I have trouble agreeing on a movie to watch! Anyway, I was doing work on the kitchen table next to where they were when my son was insisting on on watching Transformers and my daughter was fighting for Princess Tales. (I don’t remember if this is actually what they each specifically wanted to watch, but you get the point.)
As a father, I wanted to both foster independence but at the same time provide instruction. Rather than saying, “How about one of you watch on the big screen and the other one use mom’s special iPad,” I looked at both of them and firmly stated, “I am going to let you two work it out as to what you’re going to watch on TV. But if you continue to fight, I’m turning the TV off.” As I proceeded to go back to work, I heard my older son suggest to his sister in a calm and gentle voice, “How about we pick something that we both like.” A few minutes later, they were sitting there watching a show that—you guessed it—they both enjoyed.
Better than providing each of your children with their own personal assets is teaching your children to deal harmoniously with one another with shared assets. I’m not suggesting that everything that they have be shared. Yes, kids are allowed to have their own belongings. What I am saying is that it’s better to have dry morsels and quietness (or harmony) than a house full of feasting with strife (or constant quarreling). Getting each child their own room, their own laptop, their own iPad, their own bathroom, or their own personal dinner menu isn’t always the solution to strife (though at times, as seen, it can be; see Gen 13:2-12). Children don’t need to be taught how to fight for their rights and the fulfillment of personal desires. What they do need to be taught is how to, at times, defer their preferences to each other and to obey their parents when instructed. When children know to listen to mom and dad through first-time obedience and know to prefer one another over themselves, you’ll have a quiet household free of fighting, yelling, squabbling, and bickering. Without such quietness, even the most promising Disneyland vacations will turn into occasions for World War III.
As I was writing this, I was on a plane on the way to Hawaii for a family vacation. My wife was in the row behind me (shame on Hawaiian airlines for not giving us a whole row to ourselves!), watching a movie. My kids were in seats across the aisle, watching movies (props to Hawaiian airlines for providing personal entertainment systems!). We were three hours into the flight, and they hadn’t fought. They hadn’t bickered. They hadn’t whined to mom. They were calm as cucumbers. They ordered their own drinks, helped each other select movies, and held onto each other’s drinks before the flight attendant came to pick up their trash. Call them good travelers if you want. But if you ask me, it’s because their mom knew what she was doing. Her words during that date night were the furthest thing from being elementary.