As a mother, I've come to realize that while I don't necessarily know what God will call my children to do with their lives, my parenting should equip them to be effective wherever he chooses to use them. And that means helping them discern and develop their unique gifts.
Proverbs 27:23 says, "Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds." My children are my flock, but I've found that to "know" their condition, I must pray continuously: "Lord, help me discern my kids' needs, and give me wisdom to help them grow in the path you've prepared for them."
But besides praying for our kids, what else can we do to discover and cultivate their gifts?
Distinguish between character training and gift development. Oh, those dreaded thank-you notes. One of your kids is great about writing to relatives for the gifts she's received, but the other never gets them done because he's too distracted with various projects. Do you rationalize that letters just aren't his "gift"?
Writing thank-you notes isn't a "gift" issue; it's a character issue. And while the character traits you try to develop in each child—honesty, self-discipline, courtesy—will be the same, each child's gifts, or natural talents and abilities, may differ. Don't confuse the two.
Suppose your children take piano lessons. While practicing scales and technique is boring, you insist they put in their practice time because you want to build self-discipline into their character. However, over time it becomes obvious one has a knack for music while the other would rather be playing sports. That might be the time to let the sports-minded child quit piano and focus on developing athletic gifts.
Build on your child's gifts. One of the best ways to discover your children's talents is by letting them try different things and allowing them to fail. Along the way you'll not only find out what they aren't good at and don't like, but what they excel at, too.
Once you've determined your children's interests, try to build on them. When my friend Kay had an addition put on her house, her teenaged son became interested in carpentry, so Kay arranged for her son to panel his room by himself while the carpenters were available for advice. In the process, Kay's son learned problem-solving skills, persistence, and a valuable trade!
What creative ways can you use to stimulate your children's abilities? Consider the use of mentors. Why not arrange for your animal-loving son or daughter to follow a vet around for a day? Also, keep in mind that grandparents—or surrogate grandparents from your church family—often have the time and patience to encourage your children in particular areas of interest.
Often gifts have a corresponding weakness. Your sensitive child may be the first to notice when someone else is hurting, but she may also be easily hurt. So take some time to explain the "down side" of a gift, then boost the advantages. If your child has the gift of sensitivity, ask his or her teacher if it's possible for your child to cultivate it by becoming the guide for new students or a helper to a disabled student. Give your child a vision for how God might use his or her gift, and provide positive role models.
Teach appreciation for each other's gifts. My friend's son Mark was jealous of Jeff, a class clown at school. "Everyone likes him because he's so funny," Mark told his mom. "I wish I were funny like Jeff."
"Mark, not everyone has the gift of humor," my wise friend responded. "What if no one laughed with Jeff? God's given you the ability to enjoy his jokes. That's the gift of laughter and encouragement!"
Appreciating others' strengths, rather than competing with them, is a sign of maturity. We've cultivated this in our family by making a point of cheering each other on. When our twin girls played basketball, their two very busy teenage brothers went to at least two of their sisters' games. Make sure your young kids attend older siblings' events—and that the older kids support the younger ones, too.
While intellectual gifts may vary in a family, there are different types of "smart." A child who scores in the top percent on standardized tests may lack common sense. Another may test poorly but have incredible leadership skills. Neither is better, merely different. Emphasize how boring it would be if everyone were alike.
Be patient. Today's teens feel incredible pressure to know what they're going to do with the rest of their life. But we can relieve some pressure by reminding them it's okay to change careers, colleges, and majors. And God is often full of surprises. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be a writer! It wasn't until my early forties that I began to write, yet my different life experiences were all preparation for what I'm doing now. God isn't in a hurry. He does what's best, not what's fast. Nothing in our life or our children's lives is wasted. We never stop growing.
Remember, God's chosen exactly who should be in your family. A couple I know has two daughters. Their eldest, Lauren, ten, is severely mentally handicapped and cannot speak or care for herself. Her younger sister, Emily, five, is unusually bright. Recently their mother said to me, "Susan, I know God chose us to be parents to both Lauren and Emily. They've enriched our lives and each other's lives. Emily stimulates Lauren in play and helps dress her. From Lauren, Emily's learned sensitivity and compassion."
Loyalty, acceptance, and love characterize this family. They depend on each other and realize each has something to teach the others.
It's reassuring to know God has a special plan for each family member, and he's given us exactly the children we need to become the women he created us to be.
Susan Yates is author of A House Full of Friends: How to Like the Ones You Love(Focus on the Family), and coauthor with daughter Allison Yates Gaskins of Tightening Your Knot: Couple-Tested Ideas to Keep Your Marriage Strong (Pinon). The Yates have five children ranging in age from 16 to 23.