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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Managing Several Small Children–Individual Time

When we started this series, a friend asked us to address how we get alone time with our kids. I would imagine this is difficult for any family with multiple kids, whether that be two or twenty. As Bill talked about on Monday, much of our time together requires the kids learning to love one another and a big part of that is teaching them to talk less and listen more. So when do we really get to hear them out and find out more deeply what’s going on in their little hearts? The Bells attempt to do this in two main ways listed below, and I’ve listed another idea I’ve heard about but don’t currently do.

Late nights–When the kids reach the age of three,* we let them stay up later than their siblings with Bill and me. This started at 30 minutes, but we recently extended the time to an hour. Though we’ll sometimes make suggestions, usually the child gets to choose what we do. This in and of itself helps us see what makes our kids tick. One of our children will almost definitely include puzzles in our time, one will include books, one games, and one art. One thing that’s off limits with very few exceptions is technology. We want this to be a time open for lots of talking, and usually they have plenty to say! Each child gets a late night every other week, and I find myself wishing they could last all night long.

Date nights–Once a month, each child gets a date night with either Bill or me. Bill gets the younger ones one month, and the next month we switch. We usually go out for a couple of hours and do something super simple and free or almost free. For instance, this month I took Liam to Toys R Us to simply look around and play with toys that are set out for that purpose. I’ll be repeating that date with Ariana next week.

Special Occasions: We haven’t done this yet, but I think it’s a great idea and one worth noting. I know of families who will set up babysitting so both parents take out one child for a special occasions like birthdays. Often they will stay gone all day. I think that would be super sweet event for both parents and child.

We usually don’t have a problem getting our kids to talk when we get them alone, but if you have a child who needs some probing, we love the book 201 Great Questions for Parents and Children.

*We find that trying to fit in much individual time with kids under three ends up being a bit of a waste. For one, they end up getting more individual attention naturally simply because they’re so dependent on us as the parents. Second, God designed them to simply discover during this time. More often than not, our tots are good if we’re simply in the room available but tend to get frustrated if we try to engage too much or too long with them. Though we talk to them, play with them, and read to them often, for the most part they want their freedom.