Growing up, I always figured I’d be an amazing Dad. So when a Christian mentor in college told me, “You’re going to screw up your kids—the hope is to not screw them up too much,” I filed that tidbit away under Things Bad Parents Say.
“I’ll never screw up my kids,” I told myself haughtily.
Arrogance endured right up until my daughter dropped into my sweaty hands, and I quickly found myself drowning in failure.
Now, I get my mentor’s point: Every parent brings dysfunction to the table. Romans 3:23 creates the world’s least exclusive club: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” There’s no version which adds, “…except for Andy. Keep up the good work, Bro!”
Paul himself (author of Romans) laments our predicament later in his letter: “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me … What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me…?” (verses 21-24, NIV). Paul, a bachelor ‘til the rapture, gets parenthood. We don’t wake up planning to mistreat our kids—to take out frustration on them or ignore them in favor of a screen. Yet our dysfunction inevitably bubbles up like the awkward burp of the office water cooler.
A case of the “I-wants”
I’ve found two foundational problems in the way I parent our kids: I see them as barriers to, or benefactors of, my desires.
Ellie, my 2-year-old, usually starts the day by telling me all the things she wants. “Sounds like you have a case of the I-wants,” I scold her. But I wake up with I-wants too. I just don’t say them out loud. My list starts with “one more hour of sleep” and goes on from there. Some nights, I can’t wait for my kids to go to bed so I can get some time with Netflix. In my mind, the fun only starts once they’re down and I press play. And once they’re in bed, I pray earnestly they’ll stay there as long as possible, because I’m a sleep hoarder.
On the other side of the seesaw, I expect my child to satisfy my needs. When my 14-month-old, Bodie, wriggles out of my arms to get to his grandpa, a spark of jealousy ignites. “Bodie, you’re supposed to like me the best!”
God help me, I’m trying to find my security in my toddler’s hands. And they’re covered in jelly.
Both problems have the same root issue: I’m installing my kids on God’s throne, expecting them to do what only He can. Replacing God with something else is a great way to define “sin.” Usually, for me, it leads to one of two dysfunctional reactions.
Fight or flight
My dysfunction manifests in anger or escape. The kids run wild at church, so I lash out angrily to exert control. It only adds to the chaos. I become the one making a scene as I yell Ellie’s name louder and louder like a live reading of Will Ferrell’s “Get off the shed!”
Other times, overwhelmed by the constant energy drain of keeping our kids alive, I scroll through social media, present but completely disengaged. The other day, I pulled out my phone while pushing Ellie on the swing to hear her say, “Daddy, can you put your phone in your pocket?” She could see the problem better than I could—I’d given my attention away.
Putting God in His place
My dysfunction begins when I put my children in place of God. He’s the One who provides me with happiness and fills my life with good things. I mean, He gave me my kids!
When I look to God for what I need during the day, I become the one who gives good things to my children, not the other way around. And when I’m angry, stressed, or overwhelmed, He is the one who can solve my problems. He’s way better at it than I am—I just end up making things worse.
It’s helpful for me to realize this at the beginning of the day. I usually wake up at least a minute or two before my child’s first cry of “Ouuuut!” So I’ve been trying to take a moment to ask Jesus to help me, to commit the day to Him. It takes less than a minute, but connecting with God before I connect with my kids has been incredibly helpful.
Rinse and repeat
Once at a triple-A baseball game, I saw a “quick change” act. A man and a woman trotted out onto the field and proceeded to transform from clowns to cowboys to gymnasts in the blink of an eye.
Spiritually speaking, I’m an amazing quick-change artist. In the blink of an eye, I can transform from satisfied in Jesus to enraged at a messy kitchen. Blessedly, changing back is nearly as easy—apologizing to the Lord, accepting His mercy, and inviting Him to satisfy me again. The hardest part is realizing that I’m being dysfunctional. Often, it’s my wife who helps me see I’m reacting with more intensity than usual (slamming a door, raising my voice) or that I’ve disengaged—(scrolling through my phone unconsciously).
Sometimes I can course-correct quickly, but it’s okay to take a moment with Jesus. Heck, if we can go to the bathroom while handling toddlers, we can connect with God. Popping kids in the crib with books for five minutes so you can reorient with the Spirit won’t hurt them. Though that can often feel like a failure. When my wife graciously tells me to take a break, I’m more likely to dig in my heels than acknowledge I’m in a bad place. Acknowledging my failure, though, is the first step to growth.
Here’s a recap:
- Start the day by taking 60 seconds to ask God to lead you through the day.
- When you find yourself angry or disengaged, acknowledge it. (What are your warning signs?)
- If needed, take a moment away to connect with Jesus.
- Ask forgiveness from God and from anyone you hurt.
Trust the process
We’re going to fail … over and over. Miraculously, our failure isn’t necessarily a setback.
I’m my kids’ father, not their God. I don’t need to model perfection to them. Instead, my failures give me the chance to model repentance, faith, and growth. When I snap and yell at the mess or blatantly ignore my child’s polite request for a snack, those are great opportunities to ask forgiveness. It feels crazy and surprisingly difficult to ask my 2-year-old to forgive me—especially when she usually responds with, “yes, fow-give me.” Yet our kids absorb our behaviors, just like we did when we were their age.
Ultimately, we don’t need to be afraid of our dysfunction. The Bible predicts (and provides grace for) our failings. Amazingly, our mistakes can serve as portraits of gospel beauty to our children as we embrace the bumpy road of progress. I’ll commit to starting the day inviting Jesus to satisfy me, and keep at it all day, until Romans 3:23 no longer applies to me. LOL.
Copyright © 2021 by Andy Allan. All rights reserved.
Andy Allan provides care and logistical support for Cru missionaries serving abroad and writes for FamilyLife and other Christian ministries. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and two kids, Ellie and Bodie. You’ll find him biking Lincoln’s trails or watching the latest Fast and Furious movie. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @KazBullet.