“Hello, Grandma.” Those were the first words I said to anyone other than my wife the day I officially became a father. It seemed like a fitting way to tell my mom that there was now another generation of our family. On June 9th, 2012, my wife gave birth to a wonderful little guy that we named Ezekiel. He’s pretty rad. Always has been. But from that day on – as every parent knows – my life has never been the same.
I still remember when it came time for us to leave the hospital, I was FLOORED as to how simple and easy it was. I was sure that they were going to make us sign a bunch of papers and take a test or something. It only made sense that since we had walked in a family of two adults, mostly capable of taking care of themselves, that walking out with a family of three, including a tiny human incapable of even rolling over on his own, would require some sort of legal documentation and proof of competency. Shockingly, there was no such exam, nor did we have to sign our lives away – they simply let us take him home – and we were off.
Since that day, every decision I have made, every dollar I have spent, every car I have driven, and every day I have gotten out of bed has in some way been about him. I guess when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure I remember too much about myself before he was around, and I’m not sure I want to. He has made me a better human being, but it didn’t happen on accident.
Early on in life (perhaps even before adolescence), I decided I wanted to be a dad. I was blessed enough that God allowed this dream of mine to come true, something that I realize is not true for everyone who has it – and I am forever thankful He did. From the time I decided it was what I wanted, I had been considering what kind of parent I would be. I watched others and tried to learn from them. I picked out the things that drew me to some and became aware of the things that made others less appealing. By the time I got married, I think I truly believed I knew exactly what kind of parent I would/wanted to be, and equally as important the kind I wanted to avoid being. Then the weirdest thing happened, they let me take my son home.
My son is a lot like me. Like, A LOT a lot. Some of it is genetic, and other parts are because of the time we have spent together. He loves sports, which will happen when your dad watches them constantly and brings you to them starting at age 2 – but he’s also into baking, which if I’m being honest, I hate. He enjoys a good bike ride, which the two of us have shared many of – but also can be found pretending to play house with his little sister (more on her in a second), which is something I would have loathed as a child. He is his own unique little person, and I am, to this day, trying to figure him out.
Speaking of being unique, in February of 2016, Esther Jillian Steffen arrived into the world, in a giant bathtub of all places. Truth be told, she took my understandings and ideas of parenting, and shattered them all. Somewhere inside of her, there is the sweetness that every little girl seems to have, but it is accompanied by a will so strong it threatens to destroy you. She is happy. Like ALL. The. Time. That is, until she’s not – and then you’ll be the first to know about it. She has adopted her father’s love of television and my disdain for large groups and overwhelming situations and she has her mother’s – well, everything else. And yet I am still experiencing the joys of trying to figure out where every little part of that adorable 3 year old person came from, and where it might be going.
The thing about babies is, they don’t come with instruction manuals, and no two are exactly alike. No matter how many books you read, videos you watch on YouTube, or other parents you talk to, there are still going to be unique challenges about raising your child. And so at some point early on in the process of rearing the kids, I discovered something that I think is true in both the Biblical and secular worlds. The act of parenting, is much more about the parent, than it is the one being parented.
In a letter that he wrote to early Christians, the Apostle Peter is very clear that mature believers are called to model their faith to those in their care. He puts it this way;
1 Peter 5:1–3 (ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.
It’s quite a task when you think about it. Look after them, watch over them, not because you HAVE to, but because you GET to and WANT to. Don’t be too overbearing or domineering, but don’t let them walk all over you either. Above everything else, SHOW them how to most correctly follow Jesus. You know… no pressure – just make sure that your life is an example to your kids and the kids of others of following Jesus in everything that you do. When you’re happy and healthy, but also when your stressed and sick. When things go as you planned, and when the plans are falling apart.
And there, in that last line, comes one of the things that I have found to be most important about fulfilling the call of God on my life as a father – planning. Intentional, purposeful decisions about how to raise my kids, and impact the kids of others I come in contact with. SO much of life can become about going through the motions and reacting to what is going on around you. Parenting is no different. There are a multitude of things that influence our kids and beg for their attention. A list including; school, friends, sports, extra-curriculars, television, music, social media, the internet and somewhere in there – you and me as well. If we really want to make sure that our kids know and hear the truth, about life, about faith, and about everything in between – then we have to attempt to be as PROACTIVE as we can about getting to them first, being available to them, and demonstrating a propensity to be honest, authentic and vulnerable.
Let me give you a few examples.
Emily and I made the decision pretty early on in our marriage, that we only wanted to have a certain number of kids. We both love our jobs, and while they offer us a ton of freedom, we also knew that they could potentially keep us from being the kind of parents we wanted to be if we had too many responsibilities. We wanted to be at “most” of our kids’ games, concerts, shows, recitals, etc. – and so we made an intentional decision. Am I saying you shouldn’t have more than 2 kids? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I am saying WE knew our own limitations and desires, and were intentional because of them.
We also decided pretty quickly, that because of the importance of our faith and community in our lives, we would make Sunday and Wednesday nights with “church stuff” THE priority above all else. We don’t plan on signing them up for things that demand their attendance on those nights, and we try like heck to model the importance of being a part of our church community, even when we don’t want to or something else might be easier. It’s not because we think “being there” is the most important thing – it’s because we believe that good habits are a good thing, and that our community is where we draw strength from and grow the most. Will our kids ever miss a youth group? Yes. Have we ever skipped church to go on vacation? Rarely, but yes. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being purposeful.
Along with that comes the last thing I want to say about intentional parenting here. Our kids not only need to know what we want them to – but they also need to hear the why, so when the world comes at them with differing opinions and ideas, they can be armed with the information necessary to make an informed and intelligent decision. When we discipline our kids, we ALWAYS explain two things. First, how much we love them – and second – WHY we are disciplining them. When Zeke got old enough to ask and understand, we explained WHY we go to church so much and are so involved there – with the hope that someday, when he has his own choices to make about where and how to spend his time, he will follow our example. Is it a fail-proof plan? Nope. But we think it’s the best chance we’ve got at being successful.
Raising children is an awesome responsibility. I personally believe that all children are gifts from God, and are ultimately His. We are being entrusted like stewards to raise them up and point them towards Him, teaching them as much as we can along the way. Every single child is a unique collection of God-given gifts, talents and personality – and there is no perfect formula for parenting. What works on one, will sometimes fail on another. Will we make mistakes? Absolutely. We will let them down? You know it. Does that give us an excuse not to be intentional? No way.
Your kids may not turn out exactly the way you hope. They might let you down from time to time or make choices you disagree with. Lord knows Essie and Zeke’s Grandma isn’t too fond of their dad’s awesome tattoo sleeve on his left arm. But Grandma raised me on purpose – and I am SO much better for it.
Love your kids. Love them so much. Love them intentionally, the way God loves His children – and I promise, every life involved will never be the same.