The Education of a Parent


A few days ago my daughter turned 10.

It’s quite a milestone for both of us. For her, it means finally passing into “double digits”—that mysterious world that few of us ever pass out of. For me, it signals a decade of motherhood. When my Phoebe came into the world a little after 3:30 on a rainy South Carolina Thursday, it wasn’t simply the beginning of her life; it was the fundamental altering of mine.

Looking back, I can see how much motherhood has changed me, how much it has forced me to grow beyond myself. I realize now that when folks spoke of me as a “young mother,” they weren’t talking about the age of my daughter so much as about the fact that I myself was new to the game. I had a lot to learn.

Those first few years were spent learning to make the “right” choices; choices about…feeding and sleeping habits, immunizations, potty training, and pacifiers. And once I’d figured how to actually keep her alive (and not alienate all my friends and family in the process), it was time to learn how to “train her up in the way she should go.” Suddenly the questions were about when to let her to use electronics and where to send her to school.

Ten years later, I’m still not sure of the best way to get toddlers to eat their food; I never really figured out how to potty train in a day, and I’m pretty ambivalent about whether or not kids should watch television when they’re two. But I have learned one thing:

Parenting is as much about the education of the parent as it is about the education the child.

If you talk to seasoned parents, they’re likely to tell you that parenting (like marriage) is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Young parents often think that the difficulty lies in finding just the right path, in navigating the narrow way, in discerning between good and evil. To them, the challenge of parenting comes from a lack of knowledge, not from a lack of wisdom. But after ten years, I can tell you that the thing that makes parenting so difficult is realizing how immature you actually are. The hardest thing about parenting is coming face to face with your own weaknesses.

One of the remarkable things about children is that they reflect the nature of the adults around them. It’s like having a 4-ft-tall mirror walking around in front of me. As quickly as I see flaws in my daughter’s life, it’s certain that those same flaws are present in mine. When I point my finger in the mirror, it’s pointing right back at me. So that while books and theories and schooling choices and finding just the right church do shape children’s development, nothing shapes them more than the character of the adults they live with.

  • If a parent is undisciplined, all the chore charts in the world won’t teach his child to be disciplined.
  • If a father lacks self-control, don’t be surprised when the son throws a temper tantrum.
  • If a mother doesn’t speak kindly about the people in her life, her daughter is likely to be the “mean girl” on the playground too.
  • And if you are not pursuing God, odds are that your children won’t either.

Once you understand this truth, it’s natural to become discouraged. It’s humbling to realize that your flaws are being exposed. And if you’re like me, you may want to just give up altogether. How can we call our children to maturity when we ourselves are not mature?

But before you throw in the towel, remember this: While nothing shapes our children more than their mother and father, nothing shapes us more than our Heavenly Father. Because as much as we are parents, we are also children. We are children of a perfect Father who is faithfully parenting us. A Father who is kind and generous and just and wise. And just like our children will reflect our character, we are destined to reflect His.

This will happen the same way it happens in our homes. How do our children end up as little carbon copies of us? By spending time with us. By living in the same space we do. By sitting down and rising up and walking and talking with us (Deut. 6:7). So that as you spend time with our Heavenly Father, as you live in His presence, you will become like Him as well.

And as you do, as you grow, your children will grow too. As you model His character, they will model His character because they have seen it in you first. And as His Holy Spirit wells up inside of you as a fountain of life, it will overflow, bringing life to all those around you. So that, in the end, the best way to learn to be a good parent is to learn to be a child who reflects the goodness of our Heavenly Father.


One of the bigger challenges for me as a parent has been the fact that I only get to be each child’s parent once. My two are different enough from eachother that I’ve often felt that what I’ve learned for parenting one doesn’t translate to the other.

I think that when the parenting task is complete (so to speak), I’ll have learned enough to do it right. But there is only one go, so it’ll have to do. I suspect I’m not alone in seeing it this way.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

If we allow it, parenting definitely teaches us humility. The responsibility for someone else’s life, the sacrificial love we feel - even though it is tainted by our sin, it gives us a glimpse of our Heavenly Father’s love for us.

It can be discouraging to think that just when you’ve got something tackled - potty training, walking and talking, reading, bickering with siblings - another unpleasant character trait or habit pops up, apparently to remind us ‘in my flesh dwells no good thing’! When my kids were little, I kept thinking at some point it would get easier - when they can do more for themselves, when they can speak English, when they can be reasoned with … but my oldest is 26, and it still isn’t easier. Now I have to stand back and watch while they make decisions for themselves and forge their own path, and I long for the days when they couldn’t walk or talk and the worst that could happen was that they had given themselves a spaghetti sauce facial. It all reminds me that we aren’t supposed to be longing for our lives to be easier, but to long for more grace and wisdom.

There’s a lot of truth in the article—I see a whole lot of my flaws in my children—but they also have their own personalities and unique strength-weakness sets. So there are definitely things I keep modeling and hoping will catch on one of these days. Along w/the humbling effect, the experience teaches patience.

It’s fascinating to me that there is so much out there today on the general approach to parenting—high level, philosophical stuff questioning the wisdom of many generations. But really the approach is the easy part. It’s not hard to identify, because 98% of it flows from what we know from both Scripture and experience about human nature. The hard part is the teaching, how to produce genuine understanding, and that part increases in importance as kids mature.

At 6, it was not important to know why brushing your teeth and cleaning your room and not picking fights is important. It’s enough to get in the habit. But eventually lots of lights have to come on if there is going to be enduring faithfulness and wisdom.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Allowing our children to be unique individuals is hard work. I think parents sometimes confuse their child’s natural expression of their personality as an affront or act of rebellion. For instance, if they aren’t very talkative, then answering questions briefly is not rude or dismissive. If they don’t want to learn an instrument, play sports, or perform on stage - these are choices that are IMO acceptable for children to make (generally speaking, disclaimer, exceptions, blahblahblah).