Let Joy Guide You

Good parenting begins within your child, not yourself

By Winn Collier

Last winter, while my wife Miska was traveling, I tended to the house and our two boys. I was downstairs early one morning, enjoying a quiet house and fresh coffee. I heard the pitter-patter of feet on the hardwoods above, the wild tribe arising.

Soon, my quiet space was overcome by raucous energy. Then came breakfast and the rush-to-school madness. No one would mistake me for being proficient at such things. My instructions evolved into a flurry of questions and commands: Brush your teeth, put on your socks, grab your backpacks. Did you brush your teeth—where’s your hoodie—did we eat breakfast? Socks, boys, socks. Brush. Your. Teeth!

Exhausting.

I finally herded the boys to the front door. When I followed, I noticed Wyatt standing underneath the coat rack, mostly hidden by scarves and jackets and hats. Looking closely, you could make out two little legs and two little tennis shoes. Wyatt was holding his breath, convinced he was invisible.

I didn’t play along. The clock ticked. My nerves were sufficiently taut. I tapped his shoe and, more gruffly than necessary, said, “Come on, Wyatt, let’s go.”

He did. Wyatt piled out of the mound of clothes, grabbing his bag. But before heading to the car, he said, “Dad, you didn’t even laugh.”

Oh how I wish I had. In that moment, what my son needed most was not to arrive at school on the dot, keeping my schedule in tact. Rather, Wyatt needed his dad to join him in his joy, to take pleasure in his boyish antics. Wyatt’s heart was awake and open in that mischievous moment, and I missed it. I missed him.

Good parenting requires paying attention to a child’s unique heart and to the particular moments when we are offered a peek into his soul.  Paul tells parents not to “embitter [their] children,” or else “they will become discouraged” (Col. 3:21 NIV). This word embitter means to provoke or irritate. There are many ways this manifests, but I’m attuned to two. We irritate our children when we prod them but don’t truly see them. We provoke them when our commitment is to adjusting their behavior more than cultivating their joy. Joy is a word that dances and sings. It suggests freedom and play.

While we often note Scripture’s instruction to discipline our children, we may need to broaden our sense of what Scripture means by this. Discipline need not evoke grainy images of rigid schoolmasters with harsh words and unyielding temperaments. To discipline means simply to teach or train. We train our children toward good morals and wise judgments. We teach them respect and diligence. Most of all, we teach them to love God.

However, love without joy isn’t love but lifeless obligation. Teaching our children to love and follow God means guiding them in the art of joy.

The Gospels tell us that joy provides one of the sure signals that we have encountered the true life of God’s kingdom (Matt. 13:44). When God’s life runs free in our heart or our home, joy brims over. Joy was no small matter to Jesus. For Him, it was a prime directive. In fact, Jesus taught truth, died on a cross, and rose from the dead, all for the sake of joy—all so that our “joy may be full” (John 15:11 NKJV).

This means we have a powerful clue to help us nurture our children toward their unique way to know and obey God: we look for their joy. We watch for the ways their heart comes alive, for those tender occasions when they simply can’t restrain delight.

My son Wyatt believes that if five words will do, then fifty will do better. He loves to explain and question and talk around a thing, from every possible angle. Sometimes it’s hard on my weary ears. However, there’s something for me to discover about my son amid this joyful expression.

What does it tell me about who Wyatt is and where he might encounter God? What does Wyatt’s joy ask me to surrender? For him, spiritual instruction won’t be primarily me teaching while he’s listening. Rather, I need to ask questions and provoke his imagination, and most importantly, sit back and listen to what he offers in response.

With our younger son Seth, it’s music, painting, and physical exertion that unleashes his joy. Leading Seth into faith means helping him encounter our God of beauty and action, a God of mysterious grace as well as stunning power.

Watching for joy allows me glimpses into the unique life God’s Spirit has crafted in my sons. Leading my boys toward joy is, in fact, leading them toward God.

Copyright 2012 In Touch Ministries, Inc.

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