My mom had many moments of desperation parenting! As I have.
In my mom’s desperation parenting of me, she completely changed her focus in ways that I did not understand at the time. I only knew that Mom started telling me daily what she was talking to Jesus about and how he was answering those prayers.
My mom’s telling me of her first-person encounters with Jesus nourished my faith.
And it grew!
No one-time moment of conversion followed, but I became a believer by seeing her relationship with Jesus and following in her footsteps.
Many years later, a similarly panicky scenario unfolded for me. Though my daughter had publicly professed her faith in Jesus at a young age, preadolescence brought a crisis of faith.
In childhood she had experienced God’s nearness in profoundly personal ways, which she was no longer experiencing. Because of this change in her experience, she began to seriously doubt the existence of God.
My own panicky-mom time followed. For about six months I agonized and prayed. My husband and I prayed together for her faith continually. I also prayed with her regularly before bed, after asking her how she was doing. These conversations involved her telling me her frustrations with not hearing God’s voice and not being sure he was real. After that, I told her stories of my own and others’ experiences of the seesaws of spiritual journeys. I even told her the story of St. John of the Cross and his “dark night of the soul” experience.
In my desperation parenting nothing seemed to help.
Feeling like a total failure as a mother, I just kept trying. Night after night I prayed with her. She did not pray, but she did not object to my praying with her. But she was used to it, having grown up with nightly family prayer time.
Somewhere during our struggle, I began crying out to God, “Please, Lord! Show her who you are. Don’t leave her in the dark! Show her how real you are. Allow her to see you for you are, as she used to do! This is your beloved child. Do not allow her to wander away from you in her pain. PLEASE show yourself to her!”
At some point, she started telling me she was “doing better,” so we stopped having these conversations. But I kept praying for her.
A year or so later she said to me, “Mom, do you know how I finally knew God was real?”
I was stymied. But I had always wondered.
She explained, “Because when I don’t know what to do, I go to you. And when you don’t know what to do, you go to God.”
A wave of relief and amazement washed over me. God had used me—his broken vessel—to show his power through.
Is God using your experiences of doubting as a child? Or of having a child who doubts? Is there a way you can make that more likely?
Are we broken reflections of God’s character?
When our children were little, my husband and I tried to teach them well. We tried to teach them to love Jesus, to behave well, to be nice to each other. Many times that worked well. But what we did not realize until years into this parenting gig is that children do not automatically accept our values. We know that’s true of teenagers. We brace ourselves for that during those years.
But I did not expect it so early. I did not think of the possibility that my five-year-old would not accept the values of honesty and respect of others’ property.
The fact that lying and stealing are wrong does not necessarily matter to a five-year-old. And every carefully thought-out punishment cannot change that. Believe me–we tried everything.
Then I read Josh McDowell’s Right From Wrong–a book based on extensive surveys of churched and unchurched teenagers. Wow! He was right. I too had been trying to teach my daughters right from wrong through turning biblical principles into behavior.
I had been missing the why. The perfectly righteous character of our God is the reason we need to act justly in love and truth. As his children we need to reflect his character to those around us.
But too often we are broken reflections of God’s character.
As are our children. But when we focus on their behavior, as McDowell’s book demonstrates, we reinforce for our children their desire not to get caught rather than their desire to be truly good.
I’m grateful my parents never worried to me about what others would think if my sisters or I misbehaved. But even so, I internalized too much of a focus on good behavior, rather than on the reason for the good behavior.
What I needed to realize is that my experience of living as God’s child should make me want to reflect his perfectly righteous and loving character. We seek to do good not to earn God’s love but to reflect the goodness of the God who loves us.
Reflecting God’s character also needed to be the motivation for my children.
I will never forget the night I sat down with a seemingly incorrigible young daughter–and talked about reflecting God’s character.
This evening after a series of misbehaviors, I asked her, among other things, if she was a child of God. “Yes,” she answered grudgingly. I asked her if God ever lied. “No,” with eye rolling. Did God ever steal? “No,” in an even more exasperated voice.
Then I asked her if children usually look like their parents. Then if she, as a child of God, wanted to look like God. All her answers were easy until the last one. The question that changed her was “What would it look like if you as a child of God were to look like God?”
She probably took two solid minutes to think that over before answering in a bewildered voice: “Not lie. Not steal.”
After she told me she wanted to look like God, we prayed together that God would give her his power to change. God answered that prayer powerfully. The family could hardly believe the change in her behavior. And that it lasted.
But God changed me through that exchange as well. I realized how important it is to strive to minimize broken reflections of God’s character by focusing on him more than on behavior.
My mom realized her five-year-old was missing unconditional love the day she asked her, “Mommy, will you still love me if I go to prison?
Energetic, enthusiastic, full-volume—my little sister had a knack for getting herself into trouble. Sometimes she may have deserved it. But generally she simply had more energy or volume than adults wanted her to have. Her misdemeanors left her with the feeling of missing unconditional love.
Vases may have gotten in the way of her energetic movements. Adults may have stopped napping at the sound of her arrival in the house. Things may have fallen over during her exciting games. Adults may have said their ears were hurting from her excited yelling about whatever she was doing.
But at first my mom failed to see that my sister was assuming her frequent punishments and reproofs proved she was a bad person.
Probably many of us do that as parents. I know I did—and only realized it much later.
Fortunately, my mom’s wake-up call allowed her to change her mode of parenting my sister.
—”Mommy, will you still love me if I have to go to prison?”
—“What do you mean? You’re not going to prison.”
—”But what if I do? Will you still love me then?”
—”No, Honey, you will never go to prison.”
—”But what if I do?”
—“You won’t ever go to prison, but I will still love you if you do.”
—“Honey, I will never stop loving you. If you ever go to prison, I will visit you all the time. I promise.”
That day my sister felt better, feeling unconditionally loved, while my mom felt terrible. My mom realized she needed to completely change the way she responded to my sister when upset. In those moments, she needed to talk about the problems of my sister’s behavior in ways that focused on the behavior rather than on her person.
Mom began to talk about how Jesus loves people in prison and loves all of us, regardless of our behavior.
She also noticed two poison words she had been using a lot with my sister: “always” and “never.”
I wish I could have learned that lesson then for all my future relationships. Unfortunately, I needed to learn the same thing the hard way. Though I never had children assume they would go to prison, I’m sure I sometimes made mine feel that they were worthless.
What Mom needed to focus on with my sister—and I needed to with my daughters—is how much God loves us. No matter what.
Anyone who knows my sister now would have a hard time believing this story. Yet if my mom had allowed my sister to grow up feeling worthless, I’m sure she would never have become the powerful Christian she is today.
Even when we mess up as parents, God forgives us and can bring our children to forgive us too.
How much do prayers matter?
Have you ever felt nervous telling your child about something you are praying for? You know prayers matter, but you’re nervous about sharing a prayer with your child because you’re sure God’s answer will be “No.” I have.
Prayers matter more than we know, as my first daughter can tell us.
One morning hours after taking my baby and toddler to a huge neighborhood garage sale, I panicked. I realized I had left my beautiful, new stroller sitting on the busy sidewalk.
My internal debate began: –Oh, no! I can’t believe I was that stupid when I was packing the kids up.
–Please, Lord, let it still be there.
–Oh, I need to pray out loud, so that Katie can see that you are the one we turn to for help.
–But I can’t pray out loud because I know this was my stupidity and not something you are probably just going to fix for me.
–I really don’t want her to decide that you don’t answer prayer, just because your answer is No on this one.
–But I also don’t want her to think we don’t pray about things just because we’re the ones that messed them up.
As I turned the car back toward that busy corner, I explained all of this to my three-year-old.
Little Katie interrupted me, saying, “Mom, you drive. I’ll pray.”
As we drove, she prayed with folded hands and tightly closed eyes. The only way she knew to pray. She peeked every now and then and finally saw the corner.
Katie said, “There it is! I knew God would put his angels around it to hide it from the bad guys.” Today she recalls this as the first time she was sure God was real.
My second daughter’s earliest memory of prayers answered came with her detachable bed bar.
Somehow we had left it in an unknown motel.
Julia instantly decided she was going to pray and knew God would bring it back to her. Though we didn’t argue with her, we nervously thought that it wasn’t that simple.
“The mail carrier will bring it to me,” she told us. A few days later she looked out of her bedroom window and announced, “There comes the mail carrier with my bed bar!” Sure enough, a motel whose address and number we had never written down had found our address. They had shipped our toddler’s bed bar back to us. This experience created in Julia a simple, absolute faith that her prayers matter to God.
Our youngest daughter’s earliest memory of answered prayer was the recovery of her Angela baby doll.
Angela went everywhere with her but one day disappeared. We searched for hours, assuring Stephanie we would find her. When bedtime came and we had looked everywhere we knew without finding her, we were baffled.
During our family prayer time, we prayed that God would keep Angela safe and out of the rain that night. We even prayed that someone loving would find her and adopt her, if she had to be gone for good.
The next morning, walking our oldest to school, I saw notices tacked up on trees and telephone poles down the street: “FOUND. A MUCH-LOVED BABY DOLL. CALL ###-#### TO CLAIM.”
Someone walking his dog before the rain started had found her, evidently dropped out of Stephanie’s stroller. Stephanie was thrilled and knew at that moment that God loved her enough to care about her Angela doll too!
Each of these instances reminds me that God used my broken ways of bringing my daughters to him to create faith in their hearts. He showed them their prayers matter–even when my own prayers were faithless.