Discipling Our Kids as Individuals

A few folks have raised a question from Courtney’s last post about how we do life together as a family: how do we disciple our kids individually and how do we ensure that get enough individual attention from us? There are a few different ways I want to approach this because I think there’s a lot of clutter and assumptions we need to work through before really getting to the meat of that question. I hope you’ll show me a little patience as I work through that before getting to the answer I think most would expect.

1. How much is enough?

In meeting with people over the years for discipleship and the such, a question I frequently ask is “how often do you read your Bible or pray?” and I consistently get an answer along the lines of “not as much as I should.” Then I follow up with the question, “How much should you be?” which no one can really answer. There’s a deep shame that most carry around where however much time is spent on a worthwhile endeavor such as Bible reading, it’s never really “enough.” It seems to me that individual time with our kids would fall in a similar vein. There’s an unspoken expectation that our kids should get lots of alone time with us, and we never really do it enough.

This Enough Complex really has a set of problems all its own and bleeds into all kinds of areas: parenting, spiritual disciplines, eating well, exercise, serving others, caring for the poor, giving money, and on and on and on. We never do “enough” but we never really know what enough is–just that we’re falling short of it. I’m not even remotely arguing that we should just be content with our shortcomings. But I am trying to question how we have set some unstated standard which is probably impossible to meet and does nothing but drive us into shame and guilt instead of driving us into the Sabbath rest of the Savior, who has both accomplished our righteousness completely and given us his Spirit to make us into a new creation.

To sum up: what would be enough individual time with your kids? If you can’t give a definitive, faith-filled, convicted answer then you have a problem before we even start this conversation.

2. Why individual time?

I think this has become my shtick to ask “Why?” about everything, but here we are anyway. Moving past “enough,” I really want to question the foundations of individual time. If nothing else, we have a pressing biblical question to ask about what God requires of us as parents: Does he expect us to give individual time to each of our children and, if so, how much?

I’m going to go out on a limb here by saying: he doesn’t. So where does this idea for individual attention and the importance of it come from? I can’t pinpoint it, but I can assure you it’s a North American socially driven idea, not a biblical one. Now, the fact that it doesn’t come from the Bible doesn’t make it bad. The Bible doesn’t say to sleep with a blanket and I’m a mighty big fan of that, so that’s not the point here. But I would say that if someone wants to sleep without a blanket, then good for them–because it is not commanded or implied by Scripture.

What we’re really dealing with here is a pressure that exists because of our current social context that is driving our parenting priorities. I love individual time with my kids. I really do. But I am under no conviction that I must do so or that I must do so for a certain amount of time or frequency.

This is probably the point where the gut reaction against what I’m saying is coming out. “Don’t you think that all kids should get individual time? Don’t you think that’s important for individual development?” Again, I’m not arguing that they’re bad, but the assumption that they are necessary is the issue. And perhaps (in my context) our American superiority complex is coming out. There are plenty of cultures that spend almost no one-on-one time with their children–while still maintaining strong family connections. Shoot, the central premise of the British-cultured Harry Potter books is that the children spend 3/4 of the year completely separated from their parents. And no one bats an eye. But in America, one-on-one time is practically a non-negotiable.

I also strongly suspect that much of this comes from the shrinking family size of American families as well. With the preponderance of one- and two-children homes, individual attention for each child is either the norm or very easy to attain. Historically, that certainly hasn’t always been the case, nor is it true for many other non-Western cultures. Regardless of the causes, we’re standing on an expectation that is groundless from God’s perspective. There might be wisdom in it (like taking your kids to the dentist), but we need to place this conversation into the right context before trying to really parse it out.

3. Doesn’t God want something greater?

I think my big issue about all this is to see something greater that just a parent-child relationship. In Deuteronomy 6 after the great pronouncement that Yawhew is one God, we should love him completely, and we do that through obeying his commands, we’re told:

These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

This isn’t a program. It’s not a kid date. It’s not even individualized. Parents are to impress upon their children the words of God. Why? So that they’ll know him, his mighty deeds, and his holy commands. And this isn’t at set times, but all the frickin’ time. The way we train our kids and invest in them is by continually pointing them to the Word, Jesus himself.

We do this at shared meals, while taking walks, on long drives, when playing games, when disciplining, when reading together, when praying together, when going on vacations, when fixing the leaky sink, when sweeping the floor, when cooking dinner, when loading the dishwasher, when getting the mail, when raking leaves, when throwing snowballs. It’s all the time, not just these set one-on-one times.

But more than that, individual time with our kids really needs to be geared toward something other than a deepened relationship with our children–and let’s be honest, that seems to be what most of the concerns are with individual attention. The Shema of Deut 6 is about continually pointing our children toward their True Dad in their True Family. We parent for only a little while. By faith, we believe that those who are our kids will one day be brothers and sisters, all of us sitting at the feet of our great Father. We’re not raising them to a closer relationship with us, but toward the infinitely relational God himself.

The fact is that our kids don’t actually need one-on-one time with us as their parents. We’re striving to raise our kids into Jesus–something far grander than us and our pale imitation of God’s family. And we are bringing our kids into God’s family. This is more than just a God-and-me religiosity, but the fact that God has called himself a people. This people is made up of individuals, but individuals called into a community.

Let’s even draw an analogy from Jesus’ time on Earth. He had his “family” of twelve who went along the road with him. He preached the kingdom to them in houses and along the road, as well as in the morning and in the evening. And as far as is recorded, he spends very little time one-on-one with each of his disciples. He brought them with them everywhere and used the opportunities of day-to-day life to train them toward the Father.

And are we really going to say that Jesus didn’t know his disciples personally and individually? That if only he’d spent a little more individual time with them, Judas wouldn’t have betrayed him or Peter wouldn’t have denied him? Jesus was perfect and he disciples his disciples perfectly.

Wrapping it up

Maybe it sounds like I’m giving very little direction about how to disciple our kids as individuals. In one sense, that’s true–I’m not helping build much and instead am trying to tear down a lot of unhelpful assumptions. Though I think that’s incredibly important, because we’re driven by our core convictions and if they don’t come from God’s Word, then we ought to question them. But in another sense, I’m advocating for discipling our kids in community and for community. I’m advocating for getting to know our kids not so much through individual time, but through the many ups and downs of daily life. I’m advocating for knowing our kids as individuals and discipling them as individual souls, but without feeling like we need all kinds of separate time with each to do that. I would argue that I know each of my kids, I know what they like and hate, I know their preferences, I know their sin struggles–and I know almost all of that from the variety of daily life situations we’re in, not from a kid date here and there.

And lest we be accused of being haters, we’ve posted in the past about how we pursue individual time with the kids. But the point of that time is to fill in any cracks that might come out of our parenting along the road of life. Some months, those individual items might go by the wayside–and we don’t sweat it, because our parenting is built on the gospel of Jesus, not on the quality of our planned one-on-one times.

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How We Do Life Together As a Family

Like many parents, Bill and I tend to feel pulled in several directions all the time. We have work, extended family, personal health, friends, kids’ extra-curriculars, neighbors, and various things we want to learn about or get involved in. That’s all fine and dandy, but when you have kids, there tends to be this low-lying guilt we feel that we aren’t spending ample energy on our kids.

First, stop it! Often that guilt isn’t a biblical guilt but a societal guilt–a guilt that comes from what articles say you should be doing as a parent, what your friends are doing as a parent, what your favorite bloggers post about (wink wink), or your own self-made laws about how much time you should spend on your kids. Don’t turn something into sin that was never sin in God’s eyes.

Second, though, evaluate to see if there’s merit to the guilt. While guilt can come from social pressure, sometimes it’s a reminder from the Spirit that we’re pursuing something lesser than the glory God has prepared for us. Are other things, even good things, putting your kids close to last place on your list of priorities? If so, repent, pray for wisdom to see how that repentance should look, and rest by faith in the blood of Jesus which washes away that sin, too.

For the Bell parents, we’re in both camps several times every day. Especially me. And each year we look at things we need to drop along with ways we can improve our time with our kids.

Enter this past year’s theme: Almost everything we do is centered around discipling our kids, which we then invite others into. 

This sounds so duh now that I’m reading it. But it’s been huge for our family. In the past, the way we decided if we could add something to our calendar looked like this: We had a few things that were priorities for our family. As long as the new commitment didn’t mess with that, we usually said yes. This meant that our core activities involved the kids, but just about everything else didn’t. What we realized was how many opportunities we were missing to teach our kids, because many of those commitments pulled us away from our little disciples.

Now, we ask ourselves some questions to evaluate if we should commit:

  1. Can we bring our kids into this activity? I focus on this below.
  2. If the kids can’t be brought in, will it still be for the overall benefit of the whole family? One instance of this is Bill’s seminary classes. Bill is a better leader in every way when he’s reading challenging books and writing. He gets more geeked about Jesus and bleeds the gospel most when he’s immersed in this kind of deep thinking. He would also tell you he isn’t self-disciplined and that he works best with deadlines. Enter seminary, where he’s pushed to do both of the above. Though, funny enough, he’s even talked about taking some of the older kids to class with him since his professors are usually good with it. A couple of our kids go crazy over this stuff, too.
  3. Is this worth the temporary sacrifice of family for the sake of the gospel? There are some things that will fit here: helping a friend on a house project, counseling a brother or sister in a sensitive situation, very early/late commitments, etc. But I would also say that I think we probably use this question too often to justify the discipleship of others at the expense of discipling our own kiddos. Often we need to understand we aren’t Jesus and can’t save everyone (even Jesus didn’t “fix” everyone he came in contact with, and he was fine with it!), and we may not be in the right season for that. There are also many times we actually can bring our kids into these situations if we’ll think outside the box.

Here are some ways we’ve tried to bring our kiddos more into our world this year. None of this is necessary for any family to incorporate, and it certainly may not be best for yours, but maybe it will help some of you incorporate ways to do more life together as a family. And lest you think we’re a Leave It to Beaver-like family who has their crap together, please let me be the first to inform you we frequently look much more similar to the Simpsons in real life. We strive toward this but fail constantly, mainly because Bill and I prefer to be by ourselves with no kids around and ridiculously often give in to that desire when we’ve committed to be with the kids. Our posts are honestly written more as reminders for us than for you guys.

  • Exercise is important to both of us, and I push myself to run (yes, you can note the absence of the word “enjoy” in that statement). Every time, though, that would take away an hour of my time. One hour is not a big deal, but I was ending up with several hours like this each day or week. We decided to see how our kids would do with the Couch to 5K program. Well, they rocked it! Seriously, even the smallest Bell can run circles around me. Two of our kids had a hard time with it (not the smallest might I add) after a while, so they ride bikes along with us. We run the distance of a 5K 2-3 times per week, and it’s been such a sweet way to learn working together (instead of competing), encouraging one another, and persevering when things are hard. The kids have also learned some life lessons. Ha!
  • I open my bedroom door during my personal Bible study time. The kids are asked to respect me by not being Chatty Cathys, but watching me has encouraged my kids to study for themselves. My girls frequently ask if they can highlight in their Bibles, too, and they’ve come up with some great questions from their own study.
  • The kids sit with us during our church gathering and participate in our church’s Bible study. I know this can seem intimidating for a while, especially if your kids are in tyrannical ages (aka 3-5; OK that’s not a rule, just my own personal opinion of 3- to 5-year-olds). We’ve found that our kids, even the little ones, catch a ton of what’s going on. Our church has welcomed our kids to the adult Bible study we attend, too. They treat them like mini-adults instead of under-humans. They let them read the Bible passage aloud, answer their questions without mocking them, and even humble themselves to learn if one of my kids has wisdom they want to share. It’s been beautiful. We almost always talk as a family after both of these. Since we’ve shared the experience together, our talks go deep quickly since we don’t have to ask what we all did in our separate classes.
  •  We bring the kids with us to music practice. They don’t participate here, but they learn the songs by listening and sing them constantly since we shared the experience.
  • I used to teach a neighborhood women’s Bible study. Some of my daughters began attending, and they were treated with respect there, too.
  • This one’s probably obvious, but if Bill or I have an errand to run, we almost always grab a kid so we can get some one-on-one time, or we just all pile in the van just for kicks.
  • We take neighborhood walks when the weather’s nice to see and meet neighbors together.
  • We throw block parties with our friends. The kids help plan, cook, and set up. They are wonderful hosts–better than I am, actually.
  • If we’re hanging with another family, we encourage our kids to be part of the adult conversation. One of my sons recently told me he prefers talking to adults, and he’s my most social kid who fiercely loves his friends.
  • One way we’re trying to push ourselves more is simply inviting others along to our everyday stuff. Outings, game night, watching a movie together. We have much room to grow here.
  • If a woman asks me to mentor her, I almost always just invite her to come be part of my everyday world once a week. She simply comes over to hang, let her kids run around with mine, help out where needed, and chat when we can. This has proven to be much more effective than sitting down privately once a week over coffee to discuss a good book.
  • If Bill goes to play sports with friends or a meeting with other men in the area, he takes our oldest boys.

If your children are very young, this is going to look different for you. We found with the very little ones that out-and-about commitments were next to impossible to accomplish as a family. For instance, our church building at the time was in a low-income neighborhood. Every once in a while several members would walk around the neighborhood offering to repair gutters for free. We loved this idea but couldn’t imagine how we could actually help with four kiddos under the age of four. Um, no. And at a time when it was already hard to connect as a couple, the idea of one of us leaving the other to do this good deed felt horrible. As I mentioned above, I generally think this season in your life isn’t right for tons of things that will take you away from each other. Rest in Jesus as Savior, knowing he put you here in this time. And that’s beautiful. Even in that season, though, Bill and I spent much time with friends, counseled many couples, mentored friends, and trained small group leaders. It was just all in our home after the kids were in bed.

Let it be said that I DO NOT think every moment of your life should be with your kids. In the words of Luke Skywalker, “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” There’re still many things I do apart from them. Date nights with the man, coffee with friends, weekly walks by myself, personal prayer, and doctor’s appointments to name a few. The kids also have their own things. I’m a selfish mom, though, who’s always looking for ways I can get away from my kids to do the things I want, dang it! And I find there’s always room to include them more.