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Becoming a Parent & Discipling Children – Part Two

This is part 2 of the 3-part series, “Becoming a Parent & Discipling Children” by Jonathan Dodson

You Don’t Have What It Takes
John Eldredge, best-selling author of Wild at Heart and You Have What It Takes: What Every Father Needs to Hear, would have us believe that, for fathers, the most important question we can ask and answer for ourselves and our sons is “Do I have what it takes?”[3] He argues that most of us don’t realize that we are built for fatherhood and that we need to know, as our sons need to know, that we have what it takes. Although Eldredge is right in pointing out that mothers and fathers have been given the natural equipment to parent, he underestimates the bent motivations we have in parenting. To be sure, Eldredge directs the wounded parent to the healing Christ, but only as a way of getting us back on track in the task of child affirmation, of telling our sons: “You have what it takes,” and our daughters “You are lovely.” As a result, his model of parenting can boil down to a task-based, self-esteem building enterprise that dangerously neglects the sinful issues of the parental heart.

The reality is that we really don’t have what it takes to parent for the glory of God and the good of our children. Our natural equipment for instruction, discipline, care, and love is in disrepair; we can’t consistently and accurately instruct, discipline, care and love our children, even if we have received the love of God in Christ. Time and again, our children push us to the limits of our love, and we cross the line of selfish anger or embittered depression. We will spank or yell out of spite, not mercy and love. In dark and honest moments, we will daydream of life before children. We do not have what it takes to parent our children.

The godly response to our paralyzing fear is not to pat ourselves on our backs and assume that we have what it takes, nor is it to counter our parental limitations with earnest preparation.  Instead, we need to redemptively confront our fears. If we respond to fear-motivated preparation and personal paralysis with a you-have-what-it-takes attitude, we bypass the heart, where our fears fester.

Although diligent preparation and careful concern can be a godly response to the task of parenting, it is the heart that determines the righteousness of our actions.

Related to this fact, is the reality that our children see our hearts as well as our actions and act out of their own impure motives. More than success is at stake, our hearts, parent and child’s, are on the table in the privilege of parenting.[4] If we are to parent well, then we will need more than task-based survival tips and emotional pats on the back. We will need the gospel to redemptively engage our fears…and our frustrations.

Frustration and Parenting
Fear isn’t the only obstacle encountered in parenting. Frustration over failure and freedoms lost often haunt us. Of course, we don’t always understand this dynamic when we snap at our children. I have particularly faced frustration with the birth of our daughter, Ellie. Unlike our son, a sleep-through-the-night poster child, Ellie took a cry-through-the-night approach. For a while, this was both her day job and her night job. She was what you might ambiguously refer to as colicky. Needless to say, I don’t like colic. More than once I have lost my patience with Ellie’s unpleasant, incessant crying.

Consider the following snapshot. It is evening, after a long day at work. Owen is in bed but Ellie is hungry, so I feed her, wrap her, and put her in the swing in hopes of some silent time to myself. Five minutes later, her blood-curdling cry severs the silence. I swiftly return to her with sucker in hand to plug up the noise. (Oh the sucker, a tease for both parent and child, which provides teasing and temporary relief.) Another five minutes go by and out comes the sucker along with the screams, only this time they are louder and shriller. This cycle repeats about twenty times, and I lose it. I huffily run in to the room, swiftly pick up Ellie, and with a couple shakes I angrily reason with her: “Ellie why won’t you go to sleep? You have already eaten!” Minutes, if not seconds later, I am beside myself. How could I lose my temper with my six week old baby daughter?

In the same scenario my wife responds differently. Instead of getting angry, she patiently returns again and again, speaking sweet words into our daughter’s ear. How does she do it? Sometimes in loving motherly despair. One day she called me at work in total despondency. She desperately shared that she just can’t do “it” anymore, that she had to get out of the house. She went on to describe how she couldn’t escape and informed me that she was getting a job. She wondered who she had become and thought to herself, “I am a terrible mother.”

Responses of Husbands and Wives
As our children grow, parenting scenarios change but the challenges remain somewhat the same. What are we to do with the challenge of our frustrations? Talking them through with my wife has been enlightening and helpful. She has suggested that, perhaps part of the reason I can get so upset with our helpless six week old, is that I can not fix her crying. All my earnest preparation, my swaddling techniques, and carefully situated suckers fail in soothing my daughter’s cry. My response to the frustration is to fix things. As a man I am a fixer. If I can’t fix the problem, then my manhood is being challenged. If my manhood is challenged, I have every right to get angry. So goes, not the counsel of my wife, but the logic of this line of reasoning. Am I to conclude that the problem is really that I can not fix my daughter’s colic, that my manhood is being challenged?

I believe the problem runs much deeper than mister fix-it masculinity. The reality is that when I am confronted with the fact that I am powerless to fix my problems, I am forced to recognize that I do not have what it takes. Accepting that I do not have what it takes, which is what all my earnest preparation sought to secure, requires humility, which is part of true manhood. Furthermore, the inability to control my daughter’s crying has a direct affect on my schedule. It results in less free time, time to do what I want to do. In these moments, my inability to fix the problem and my frustration from lost freedom combine to produce a powder keg of anger. This anger stems from the fact that, in those moments, I am the center of my family. Instead of taking the path of servant leader, I choose the path of commando leader. I deserve my freedom!

What about a mother’s frustrated response to lost freedoms? Perhaps despair and self-deprecating thoughts are the appropriate response to a mother’s failure to fully empathize with all her children’s needs, to wholly love the chaos of being a stay-at-home mom. While mothers are generally better equipped to empathize with their children than fathers, should we then conclude that the very thing that makes them mothers—femininity—is the same thing that leads them to despair? When faced with the demands and frustrations of parenting, does the feminine capacity for empathy necessarily lead to motherly despondency?

I believe that the problem goes deeper than the limitations of feminine empathy. It has to do with resistance to God’s plan for children to raise their mothers. It has to do with our idolatrous association of freedom with identity. For instance, whenever my wife encounters the frustrations of parenting, it easy for her to mistakenly equate lost freedom with loss of identity. Though she is certainly not able to carry on all her hobbies and friendships with pre-parenthood potency, she has not lost her identity. It is being transformed. However, the reality is that my wife’s loss of freedom sometimes makes her feel trapped. In turn, the trapped feelings associated with motherhood lead to guilt over passionless parenting.

Other times, screaming kids and a messy house drive mothers to the bottom of their desire to parent. In those incredibly stressful moments, mothers don’t want to mother; they want out. Understandably, moms need breaks from the demands of their children. However, focusing on a way out will not change the frustrated heart. Instead, redemptive parenting begins with confessing to God that we don’t have what it takes to be a good and godly parent. When confronted with either a limited capacity for empathy and love or an extinguished desire to mother, focusing on lost freedoms or parental inability is not the pathway to godly parenting. Fixing things doesn’t work either. The pathway is paved with repentance, faith and grace. How do we graciously respond in these moments for the good of our children and the glory of our God? What role does faith have in parenting?

[3] John Eldredge, You Have What It Takes: What Every Father Needs to Hear (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004).

[4] For a book that addresses parenting a child’s heart see, Paul Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart (Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 1995).

Jonathan Dodson (M.Div, Th.M) is happy husband to Robie, and proud father to Owen, Ellie & Rosamund. He is also the lead pastor of Austin City Life church and a leader in The GCM CollectivePlantR and Gospel Centered Discipleship.com. Jonathan is also the author of forthcoming Gospel-Centered Discipleship and writes regularly for The Resurgence, Boundless, and The High Calling. He blogs at jonathandodson.org, enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, and following Jesus.