Like most mothers and fathers, we are acutely aware of our own flaws and shortcomings as parents. Compounding the problem, we are facing the fact that our small children will soon be adolescents and, before we’re ready for it, they’ll be grown and off on their own. So, in light of how precious our children are, and how short our time with them will be, we sat down to write out the things most important for us to do with our children. In other words, the things we will never regret doing with our kids. Here is our list:
1. Reading to them
When our family has “down time” at the house, we are often tempted to let them watch television. But, in retrospect, we are happiest when we resist that temptation and instead read to them. The most important thing we read is the Bible. There is absolutely no substitute for our children hearing their parents read the Bible and talk with them about it. But we read other things also, such as the Little House on the Prairie series, National Geographic magazines, children’s biographies, and children’s fiction. Reading helps us to expand our children’s horizons, expose them to other people’s lives and experiences, increase their vocabularies, and stimulate discussion.
2. Praying for them
Children need to hear their father and mother praying with them and for them. No time is a bad time to pray with our children. But there are two times we find especially conducive to praying with our children: dinner time and bedtime. At dinner, there is no set pattern for who prays. It might be one of the parents, one of the children, all of the children, or the whole family. But it is a great time to be thankful together, to talk with God together. At bedtime, we have the happy opportunity to pray with each child individually, listening to their concerns and watching their little minds whirl as they try to communicate with God.
3. Working with them
Children need their parents to work with them and alongside of them. One way to do this is to assist them with their work such as homework assignments or extra-curricular projects. Another way to do this is to ask them to help us with our work. One of my (Bruce’s) best recent memories is watching my six-year old daughter go “all in” to help me plant 50-60 flowers in our front yard; she had potting soil on her hands, in her hair, on her cheeks, and even in her socks. She was flush in the face with happiness that she had actually helped daddy with a real outdoor project. A final way is to assign chores that they can complete while we complete our own tasks.
4. Playing with them
We don’t play with our children often enough. But when we do, we are happy we did, even if play time cuts into our other tasks or our own personal time. I (Lauren) have realized that my four-year-old son likes to play with race cars and rescue vehicles when he is with me, while the girls want to play dress up, arts and crafts, or legos. When they are with Bruce, they like to play some of the same things, but also want him to get on the floor to wrestle and tickle the children. Sometimes we play with a child individually, getting down on the floor to play with cars or to play “house.” Other times, we play together as a family. It doesn’t matter so much what we play; it matters that we play. Playing together not only helps us to bond; it gives us happy memories to share for years to come.
5. Talking with them at the dinner table
Research confirms and illumines what people have always known intuitively, that dinner time conversation is immensely profitable for children. It boosts their vocabulary, improves their school grades, makes them healthier, decreases their chances of clinical depression, and strengthens the bond with their parents and siblings. Fortunately, it can also be a lot of fun for the parents. In fact, dinner time is one of our favorite times of the day.
In addition to sharing a meal and having informal conversation, we usually play conversation games with our children: “What was the best part of your day? The worst? What is the most interesting thing you learned at school?” Now, it doesn’t always work out like we planned. Sometimes the primary thing they want to discuss is what we’ll have for dessert. But it is a crucial part of the day, and we don’t want to miss it. (We feel constrained to say that dinner table conversation didn’t, er, work out so well when our children were under the age of 4.)
6. Having “family time” after dinner
We usually have dinner between 5 and 6 p.m. Right after that, we clean up the kitchen, brush teeth, and put on PJs. By 7 p.m. or so, we are ready to sit down for “family time.” We always read the Bible and pray together, and sometimes we act out the Bible stories (believe me, it is worth your time to act them out, and even more worth your time to record it on video). We almost always play some sort of games together, such as charades or hide-and-seek (our kids are still small). It is a great time to be serious and silly together.
We work hard to ensure that other things don’t cut out family time, even though other responsibilities (and parental exhaustion!) mean that we usually manage to have family time only 4-5 times per week. Even if there are dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and dirty bathrooms waiting to be cleaned, we want to guard our family time. There will always be chores to do, but there will not always be moments like these when we can lay the foundations for their adolescent and adult years.
7. Tucking them in at bedtime
Whereas the dinner table and family time help the family to bond as a whole, bedtime offers some one-on-one time. We’ve found that it is always a good time to tell the kids we love them, to kiss their cheeks, pray for them, and to make some small talk. And we’ve found that sometimes, the kids want to open up to talk about more important things
8. Taking them out for “mommy-daughter dates” or “man-time”
One of the most profitable things we’ve ever done is spend one-on-one time with the children. I (Lauren) am able to do this at home, but sometimes I take the girls out for a meal or dessert. I (Lauren) might take my son out for pancakes or my daughters out to get their nails painted. Bruce likes to take our son out for “man-time” to Home Depot (to stare at tools and machines) and our daughters out for “daddy-daughter dates” (to eat dinner and dessert). These times are treasured and irreplaceable moments of one-on-one interaction, going even deeper than we can during bedtime conversation. Bruce uses this to build them up and encourage them, but also to talk with them about things they need to work on (such as their, um, attitudes ).
9. Telling them we love them
Every day, we try to slow down and hit “pause” long enough to look each child in the eyes and tell them that we love them. That we will always love them. Whether they obey or disobey. Whether they succeed at a task or fail at it. No matter what. We will always love them. Our children know that this is meaningful; we hope it will be etched in their memories and remind them of God’s love.
10. Disciplining them
As much patience and emotional energy as it takes to discipline our children consistently (and as often as we fail to do so), we know it is very important for their future well-being. We want to steer them away from sinful desires and toward their need for God. We are especially concerned to discipline them for lying, disobedience, and disrespect. Through the discomfort a child experiences when they are disciplined, they might be persuaded to refrain from sin in the future when the consequences of sin will be much more painful. We know that if we can discipline them consistently and lovingly—reminding them that we love them no matter what they do or don’t do—we will never regret it.
11. Affirming our children
As often as we can, we try to articulate to each child the things we recognize in them, including their unique personalities, gifts, and abilities. Sometimes we follow that up by also pointing out some of the unique challenges they face given their particular personalities and sin-patterns. This can be done at bedtime, during one-on-one time, or, sometimes, even when the whole family is together.
12. Affirming each other in front of our children
Children benefit greatly from knowing their parents love and respect each other. We find ways during the week to emphasize that fact. We say “I love you” to each other, hug each other, and compliment each other. We try not to call each other out or argue in front of them, but if we do, we make sure to let them also hear us reconciling. It helps them feel safe and secure and stable.
13. Bringing them into the community of Jesus
We like what our children learn at church. They learn Bible stories and truths at church that we haven’t yet taught them at home. They learn to love God in a room full of people, many of whom are different from us economically, socially, culturally, or racially. They build friendships that will encourage them in their walk with Jesus. At church, they learn who God is, who they are, what went wrong with the world, who will fix the world, and how they can be a part of the greatest story of all—God redeeming humanity and restoring the world.
14. Reminding them of the gospel
We want to find as many ways as possible to remind them of the gospel. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus Christ’s birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection give us a glimpse of, and opens up to us, God’s coming Kingdom. Jesus will return one day to overthrow evil and establish his perfect kingdom for eternity. The gospel calls for us to believe in Christ, trust Christ, and repent of our sins; if we obey this call, we will live with him eternally in his Kingdom.
The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus “traded places” with us. He lived the sinless life that we should have lived, and died the death that we deserve to die. He took our guilty record, died for it, and offers us his perfect record in return. That is why the apostle Paul declared that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
In relation to parenting, that means that he does not condemn us for our flaws and shortcomings as parents. We—Bruce and Lauren—are often made aware of our imperfections as parents. (We’re not even consistent with these “dozen things we will never regret doing.” Schedules change at the last minute. Children get sick. Parents get tired. Et cetera.) So we put our trust in him, rather than in ourselves, as we try to make the most of these moments before our small children become adolescents. Because, before we’re ready for it, they’ll mature into young adults and go off on their own.