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Karyn Henley: Family First

How one mom's decision to reprioritize her life has impacted her kids, her career, and even her world.

It's lunchtime, and Karyn Henley, author of the popular children's Beginner's Bible (Mission City/Zondervan), is serving seconds of her delicious homemade soup around the big oak table in her sunny Tennessee dining room. But suddenly everyone stops eating. Her two teenage sons, Raygan (called Ray), 17, and Heath, 13, break up with laughter as they listen to their dad recount funny family bloopers. Soon, everyone joins in. "Is this a typical meal in the Henley house?" I ask, but only Ray hears me above the din. With a broad grin, he nods vigorously.

After lunch, Karyn, 44, chuckles about her family's antics as we settle into comfortable rocking chairs. "Our life is kind of crazy, but it's always exciting," she says, clapping her hands to break up a mild skirmish between her cats, Nip and Tuck.

The exciting life Karyn refers to includes the myriad children's products and home educational resources she's written—such as My First Hymnal (Sparrow), Snip & Tell Bible Stories (Group Publishing), and Great God, Grateful Child (Allen Thomas)—as well as a jam-packed schedule of seminars and family concerts that keep Karyn, husband Ralph, Ray, Heath, and musician/puppeteer Sheri Smith on the road nationwide and overseas. Their family-run ministry, which included performances in churches and at conferences twenty-five weekends last year, equips parents and educators to become more "child-sensitive." At each presentation, Karyn sings songs and tells stories from her books and tapes, Heath plays a mime called Mimic, Sheri plays keyboards and performs with her puppet, Monica, and Ray and his dad run the sound. Ralph, 45, works full-time producing Karyn's products at a nearby office/studio.

Despite Karyn's passion for children, fourteen years ago she found her work as an up-and-coming music writer often taking precious time away from her young family. She met frequently with other writers on songwriting projects and attended exciting but time-consuming writers' meetings with the likes of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith.

When she became pregnant with Heath, she realized she had to make a choice. "I knew I couldn't be the mother I needed to be and pursue my career full-time," she says of her decision to back away from a promising career. "If I couldn't take care of my family, I had no business trying to take care of anything else. I told the Lord, 'I don't know what you want me to do, but I only want to do what you want me to do.' My life hasn't been the same since!"

Karyn began changing her priorities, started homeschooling her older son, and slowly found herself writing books to help her as a mom. One such project eventually resulted in the best-selling Beginner's Bible, which has sold 2.9 million copies and been translated into seventeen languages. New this fall is Karyn's latest project, God's Story (Tyndale), a chronological verse-by-verse Bible for children who've "graduated" from the preschool Bible storybooks. And to follow up the popular video Five Little Ladybugs (Allen Thomas), she's added two more to the series—I Feel Like a Giggle and Kitchen Band Parade, both out in May.

As we talk, Karyn shares the keys to good parenting, her secret to balancing work and family, and how she's learned to be sensitive to children's needs.

How did you get the idea for The Beginner's Bible?
Back in 1984, when my younger son, Heath, was a toddler, I went to a local Christian bookstore to find a devotional book I could use with him and Ray. But none of the books I saw held my kids' attention. So I went home and began writing and drawing Bible stories on an art pad. As I completed each story, I'd read it to the boys before bedtime. One day it dawned on me to make some audiocassette tapes to go along with the stories. So Ralph and I began developing a set of sixteen paperback books and tapes called Dovetales. After the boys went to bed at night, I'd sit over a drafting table and typeset the books. We hired an illustrator for the art and recorded my voice on the tapes. Although these stories are no longer individually in publication, they eventually were compiled to make The Beginner's Bible.

Since statistics show children are most open to the gospel between age four and fourteen, writing that Bible was my way of encouraging moms and dads—even grandparents—to pay attention to those early years.

What are some things parents can do to help their kids know God better?
The first step is to pray specifically for your children. It wasn't until Ray was seven and Heath was three that I first heard a mother at church talking about how she prayed for her children. It dawned on me that I needed to be more specific in my prayers for my boys. I began to pray for my children to develop character qualities like honesty, kindness, and compassion. I also began to ask God to make up for my deficiencies as a parent, because no matter how hard I try, I make mistakes. There's not a parent in the world who doesn't look back and wish she or he had done something differently.

Another request I make is for wisdom to make the right choices for my family's particular needs. For instance, one choice we made was to homeschool our kids.

Why did you choose homeschooling?
Because our schedule is literally "up in the air," we need the flexibility homeschooling provides. Initially I wasn't interested in doing it. However, when Ray turned five, he didn't seem ready to leave home yet. As I looked for alternatives, some friends suggested homeschooling. I just laughed at them. "Are you kidding? Teach my own son? I think he'd respond a lot better to somebody else." But after reading up on it, I thought, Well, maybe I'll try it for a semester and see how it goes.

After just two weeks, I was completely sold on homeschooling because of the one-on-one time with my son. It did so much for both of us. Later I had the same experience with my younger son, Heath. That first week of homeschool, he blossomed.

Since we travel so much, public or private school really isn't viable. Recently we've gone to New Zealand and Russia to lead teaching seminars and concerts. This fall we're going to Australia for six weeks.

How did you get the opportunity to work overseas?
Several years ago, I started leading local seminars on what parents and teachers need to know about children. Ralph began publishing books and educational resources to sell at the seminars. Then, two years ago, we struggled financially when some income we relied on for our publishing operation dried up due to a situation beyond our control. I know Satan would have liked to damage us through this situation, which was not our fault, by discouraging us from continuing our ministry. But the Lord used that experience to expand our ministry.

We felt God saying, Don't give up! Trust me. So I said, "Lord, I'll go anywhere, do anything, speak to anybody—as long as you're there and you tell me what to say. Put me wherever you want to."

At that time, I attended a Christian Booksellers Association convention and spoke about my new book My First Hymnal, which I wrote to help children understand the hymns and Sunday school songs they sing. Afterward, a man from a Christian company in New Zealand came up to me and said, "I'd like you to come to New Zealand to speak." He didn't know me, but he scheduled our family to come in the spring of 1995 for five weeks to do seminars. The boys took their school books, I did seminars almost every day and spoke in churches on Sundays. We performed in family concerts every week. It was awesome.

After that, we began actively promoting the seminars and concerts, advertising them, thinking up products to write, and seeking partners to help publish the products.

Is it hard to work side-by-side with your family—particularly your spouse? Some people would go crazy!
Well, my opinion and Ralph's opinion don't always match … and that can cause tension when you're trying to run a business. But one of the rewards is that we communicate all the time!

What do you do when you disagree?
We don't have many arguments because we've learned to listen to each other. Ralph and I have begun to realize God put us together for a purpose. Even after twenty-two years of marriage, we're still learning each other's strengths and weaknesses and how we complement each other. That's why it's sad to see people get divorced in the first few years of marriage; they don't know each other well enough to work together. But the Lord does bless you when you commit to each other—for life.

With such a busy life, how do you keep focused on what's important—your faith and your family?
I pray the first thing in the morning, usually while I'm in motion, like riding my exercise bike, ironing clothes, washing dishes, or walking. Moving around seems to free my brain to think. I also pray as I pace the floor in my bedroom. I think I'm starting to wear a path in the carpet around my bed! I can do it with my eyes closed. The cats have learned to get out of the way if I'm pacing!

I'm thankful God knows my personality. He knows I'd work all the time if I had the opportunity. But I've learned through the years that when I put God and my family first, he provides the time to get a project done in another way, takes away the need to do it, or gives it to somebody else. We all have busy schedules. However, I've discovered that when we take time to play with our kids, we give them a sense of value and worth. That's what makes a home kid-friendly!

Why is play so important?
Play is a way to get active and have fun together, but it also opens an avenue for talking, listening, and building trust. It's important to get down on the floor, eye-level, and play with your child. Playing doesn't have to include lots of shiny toys. One type of play is what I call "make do." Young children can be taught to "make do" by playing with boxes, pots and pans, even shoes turned into cars to drive their little dolls in. Paper cups turned upside down can become people.

We have to trust the Lord to work in our children's lives—even through the mistakes they've made or we've made.

The only truly effective way to influence your children's values is to communicate. But communication sometimes becomes difficult as children grow older. That's where play comes in. Even though my boys are teens, we still play with them. Heath and I enjoy going out and throwing a baseball or playing badminton in the driveway. Or we'll all be sitting around the table playing a game, and all of a sudden we'll be talking to each other. That's what I've discovered doesn't happen a lot—even in Christian families.

What do you mean?
Some time ago I gave an assignment to the kids in our homeschool co-op to write a paragraph on "who I am." Well, one little girl wrote an insightful paragraph. Two sentences in particular grabbed my heart: "I am just a voice coming from behind a wall that nobody ever listens to" and, "I'm just a painting on the wall that nobody hardly looks at." And she's from a good Christian family.

If our kids aren't causing problems and are doing well in school, we assume all is well. We ignore them because we're too busy, and when we're with them, we're continually reminding them to pick up their socks, or to do this or that. But we need to enjoy them, spend time with them, play with them, listen to them. Listening is key to good communication.

How did you learn to listen to your children?
I learned the hard way—and I'm still learning. For example, a couple nights ago at dinner when my older son was talking, I felt compelled to interject my "parental wisdom." As soon as I finished, my husband looked at my son and said, "I think I hear what you're saying, Ray." Ralph's subtle message was directed to me as well as to our son; I should have been understanding my son's viewpoint instead of trying to make him understand mine.

Although there's a time for a parent to sound off on a particular situation, I'm finding the place to do that is after I've listened to my child's viewpoint. And to do that, I have to start by closing my mouth.

Too often we want to tell our children how to fix their problems. But when kids know exactly what their parents are going to say, they'll clam up or stop going to them for advice. If we'll just stop saying those things they know we're going to say, they'll keep talking. At first, they'll be surprised. Then they'll start coming to us more, talking more, and sharing more. And sometimes, they'll figure out what's right without you giving them advice! Many times all they need is a sounding board.

How can we be effective role models for our kids?
We should act to be copied and speak to be echoed. Now that my sons are older, I can say from experience that they act like their parents act, and they speak like we speak. Our sons do some wonderful things that just delight us. I'll say, "Oh, they have some of Ralph's best qualities, like his sense of humor. And from me, they picked up a sense of organization, flexibility, and thinking." Other times I think, Oh no, they've picked up my stubbornness. So children echo the good and the bad. That's why I've prayed all along that God will make up for my deficiencies, just as my parents prayed to be role models for me.

What did your parents do right?
They acted to be copied and spoke to be echoed. I grew up in a Christian home and was baptized when I was ten. My parents sent me to a Christian camp every summer for several years, so I could grow closer to God.

My mother was a school teacher and a supervisor for our preschool department at church. She always let me help her cut out materials in Bible school. When I was fourteen, she asked me to teach the eighteen-month-old class, and I said yes. That was my first teaching assignment, and I've been teaching ever since. That experience gave me confidence. My mother also prayed constantly for my three younger sisters and me. From the time I was six or seven, I remember hearing her pray for the boys we would one day marry.

My dad taught me that life is filled with options. "Don't ever feel as though you're backed against the wall," he'd say.

When Ray had just picked up his learner's permit, I handed him the car keys. "Hey, you're going to drive home," I said enthusiastically, but I was really thinking, You're crazy to let this child drive home! Then I remembered: This is what my dad did for me my whole life. He'd just turn to me and say, "Okay, your turn." My dad had complete confidence in me, and he knew when to let me go.

Thinking about that even now chokes me up, because I know how hard it is to let my own children go. But as parents, we have to trust the Lord to work in our children's lives—even through the mistakes they've made or we've made.

Maybe that's why I'm so passionate about working with people around the world, especially children. God has done, and is doing, awesome things, and I want to inspire people to open their life to him and say, "Lord, I'm your servant. Just take me wherever you want me to go." I know he'll do it. I'm living proof that with God, nothing's impossible. I'm convinced the more we become like Jesus and raise our children to be like Jesus, the better influence we'll be in our community, country, and the world.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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