We give our children lots of hugs, we teach them good from bad, we take them to soccer practice?all signs of our intense love for them. But how can we know if our love really touches their hearts? According to family life experts David and Teresa Ferguson, we need look no further than God and his love for us. The Fergusons lead seminars on marriage and family life through Intimate Life Ministries and write books, including The Great Commandment Principle(Tyndale), to help parents connect with their kids on a deeper level. We talked with Teresa and David, the parents of three grown children, to learn more about how parents can really touch the hearts of their children.
Your approach is based on understanding how God relates to us, then using that same approach to draw closer to our children. Why is that the place to start?
David: We can't love those nearest to us until we understand God's love for us. Before we start meeting our children's needs, we need to first deal with the awe and wonder of how God has met our needs. Then we'll better understand how we can pass on God's brand of love to our children.
Teresa: Since God is the ideal parent, think about the things he has done. For instance, on the first day of Christ's public ministry, the heavens opened, the Spirit of God descended and the Father said: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17).
How can an earthly parent hope to attain the standard set by God the Father?
David: We can work at showing love to our children in the same ways God shows his love. Not long ago I talked to a dad who was giving everything he had to his job, working 70- and 80-hour weeks. He told me, "I feel more adequate at the office than I do at home. On the job, I can manage and direct and plan. But when I go home, I don't even know what a daddy does."
I told him, "Why don't you do what God the Father did for his Son?" So this man went home and walked up to his 6-year-old, who was outside playing. He said to his son, "Today I was reminded how proud I am that you're my son and how much I love you. I just had to tell you that." He hugged the boy and went in the house to tell his other children the same thing.
Can you imagine the impact that had on this little boy? He was left standing in the yard wondering "What did I do to deserve that?" He didn't do anything to deserve it, of course; he was just the man's son.
When we look at God's example, we realize he was dealing with a perfect Son. How does your idea apply to limited, human parents whose children can be a real challenge sometimes?
Teresa: The Bible tells us what motivates good behavior: "For Christ's love compels us ? " (2 Cor. 5:14). In other words, it's not a set of rules or the fear of God's punishment that keeps us under control. It's Christ's love for us that motivates good behavior.
So even when our children are being difficult, it still gets back to love. It's the love I give to my children that makes them want to follow the rules and do what's best. Just like it's Christ's love for me that makes me want to follow his rules for my life.
How can parents find in God's love a specific approach to use with their own children?
David: It helps to realize that God relates to us by meeting our needs, and we experience his love when he meets our needs. It follows that we love our kids best by meeting their needs. Whenever God meets a need in my life, I can be confident that it's a need I should try to meet in the lives of my children.
What types of needs are you referring to?
David: Let's start with love. We can love others only because God loved us first (1 John 4:19). I know that God has met my need for love, so I can feel good about loving others.
But that's just a start. We all need forgiveness, and God meets that need (1 John 1:9). We need acceptance, and he takes care of that (Rom. 15:7). We need comfort, and he provides comfort (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
God encourages me (Rom. 15:5). He provides the support I need (Gal. 6:2). In every way that God has cared for me?love, forgiveness, acceptance, comfort, encouragement, support? I need to work at meeting those same needs in the lives of my children. God is a need-meeting God. That's what we need to model to our kids.
But doesn't catering to our kids make them more self-centered?
David: It's true that children tend to be selfish, but we won't solve that problem by refusing to meet their needs. There is a popular parenting message that tells us: "If you focus on the child you'll reinforce his selfishness." Well, if God looked down at us and said, "I'm not going to meet your needs because it would reinforce your selfishness" we'd all be in a real mess. Fortunately, that's not how God operates. He freely meets our needs, and we need to do the same with our kids.
Teresa: Often, we are so strict with our children because we don't want their behavior to reflect poorly on us as parents. When our own kids were young, David was always grace-oriented in his parenting. I was the one who said, "We've got to control these children!" I was really more concerned about what others would think than I was about the good of my children. I didn't have the proper perspective of the gracious love of the Father.
How would a clear understanding of God's grace help a parent who is dealing with a rebellious child?
David: Kids have strong emotions, and one of the most common is anger. When a child is angry, the parents often respond by getting angry themselves.
But what does that accomplish? We can instill fear in a child by responding to her in anger, and that might minimize the child's expressions of anger. We've accomplished a short-term result; but we may have also created a fearful child. And that's not what any parent wants.
So what's a better way to respond?
David: Something is causing the anger, and a parent needs to address the underlying need. Let's say Jenny is called in for dinner. She comes stomping into the house, slamming the door behind her, with a scowl on her face. She doesn't want to leave her friends.
How would God respond to her anger? Proverbs 15:1 says, "A gentle answer turns away wrath ? " So let's say Jenny comes storming into the house, scowling and slamming the door. Rather than get angry herself, Jenny's mom speaks gently: "I know you're disappointed that you had to leave your friends to come inside. I know you'd rather stay outside and play. And yet, it's important for us to be together as a family for dinner, too. That's why I called you in."
But doesn't that let Jenny and her bad attitude off pretty easily?
David: What it does is recognize her disappointment and her need for comfort. Jenny is disturbed about being pulled away from the fun she was having. When her mom shows that she understands Jenny's disappointment, that gives comfort and communicates care. Jenny's anger dissipates, and her mom reinforces the family rule about eating dinner together.
In that instance, Jenny's real needs were hidden behind her misbehavior. How can we tell the difference between a legitimate need and a child's basic selfishness?
David: Children and adults both have a need to be in meaningful relationships. That's how God made us. In Genesis 2 and 3, Adam and Eve had a need to be in a relationship with God and with each other?and that was before sin entered the picture. There was neediness before there was sinfulness.
Kids do have a tendency to express their neediness in a less than loving, less than Spirit-filled way. But that doesn't mean their needs are sinful. And when we parents concentrate on meeting our children's God-given needs, we can be sure our love really does get through to their hearts.
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