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The To-Don't List

6 rules every parent needs to follow

You know 'em, you make 'em, you might even ignore 'em. They are to–do lists, and nearly every parent has them. Whether you're a detail–oriented parent who employs NASA–like technology to systematize, prioritize, and synchronize every second of your family life, or a fly–by–the–seat–of–your–pants type who has developed your own hieroglyphics that you scribble on napkins, you likely use these lists to keep track of the who, what, and when of your days.

Interestingly, I've discovered another list that is just as essential to the life of my family. It's the to–don't list.

Over the years, I've created this inventory of missteps to avoid at all costs. I think of it as my insurance policy against colossal parenting faux pas (or is it pases?). Actually, most parents have a version of this list. It's often made up of vows to be different from our own parents ("I will never criticize my kids' music!"), or our pre–kid idea of what parenting will be like ("I will not yell at my children in public—ever!"). (Notice we are always very emphatic about these pronouncements.) But I'm not just talking about a list of the ways we don't want to parent. Really, the best to–don't lists aren't about us at all. They are about our kids and what they truly need from us, things like love, compassion, and attention.

If you haven't developed a to–don't list, there's no time like the present. In case you're struggling with where to begin, I'd like to share a few to–don'ts that have wiggled their way onto my list. So grab the nearest napkin and start scribbling!

Don't expect perfection

(Mark 10:18)

Jesus knew there is a crucial difference between perfection and excellence. Perfection entails mistake–free living. With young children this means there's no room for spilt milk, untied shoes, messy beds, or unkempt hair. With teenagers, it means no loud music, goofy haircuts, talking back, or slipped cuss words. The real kicker is that I, as the parent, can't live up to these standards yet I'm tempted to require them of my children.

Excellence, on the other hand, should be championed. Lofty, realistic standards, in an atmosphere of love and grace, inspire children. When we expect good things from our children, they will likely live up to those expectations—most of the time.

What you can do: For one, intentionally reward the pursuit of excellence. When excellence is achieved, pick up your pom–poms and shout. But cheer just as loudly when children run after excellence. For instance, when I was a kid, school always seemed like an uphill battle. Speech, writing, reading…you name it, I struggled. But one particular writing assignment stirred me to temporarily shed my loser self–image and give it all I had. My parents noticed and cheered me on during the process. The result was a decent grade, but more importantly, a growing confidence. I started believing I wasn't dumb after all. Years later, I graduated from college with honors—no small feat for a kid who couldn't read in third grade.

Another way to combat perfectionistic tendencies is to resist creating perfect little worlds for children. We all know many of life's best lessons are learned through bumps and bruises. I know that's been the case for me. While it's in parents' DNA to protect children, building idealistic biospheres is probably a bit over–the–top. That doesn't mean we stop parenting and let them make terrible mistakes in the name of a lesson learned. Instead, it means letting go of our desire to make all their decisions for them and allowing them gradually (and I mean gradually) to take more responsibility for their choices.

Don't trade quantity time for the myth of quality time

(John 3:22)

I love this passage in John: "After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized." The Greek term for "spent some time" literally means "to rub through the skin." The message? Jesus spent extra time with his followers in order to get into their lives.

Because I'm in youth ministry, parents often ask me, "How can we spend more time with our kids? With working 55+ hours a week, being captain of the neighborhood tennis team, teaching at church, and keeping the house in order, there isn't much quantity left." This is the point where many slip into what I call the myth of quality time. "Sure, I haven't connected with my kids lately, but on Saturday we're spending quality time together."

Have you ever stopped to consider the absurdity of the quality time argument? Quality isn't something that can be planned or willed into existence. It is a natural phenomenon that pops up (often by surprise) in the midst of large amounts of time spent with another person. No matter how extravagant our plans, we can't force children to see them as times of "quality."

What you can do: Concentrate on quantity time; then seize quality opportunities that naturally arise. This isn't rocket science. Consider these examples:

  • While shooting hoops, Mark's preteen son asks about girls and suddenly… quality time.
  • In the midst of a shopping break at Starbucks, Connie's high–school daughter asks her opinion on a career path…quality time.
  • While undercooking yet another cake in the Easy Bake Oven, Kathy's 6–year–old asks if Jesus would want them to bake a cake for a sick friend…quality time.
  • During family devotions, Christopher asks a question that leads to an in–depth discussion about an attribute of God…quality time.

These real scenarios demonstrate how quality time tiptoes in during quantity time. The simple truth is that teachable moments often present themselves in the midst of the mundane.

Of course creating quantity time means actually having time. For some odd reason, we've bought into the propaganda that kids must have a complete resúmé; of experiences by the time they reach age 12. I've met sixth graders who are bored with our youth ministry simply because they've seen and done more than I did through my mid–20s. Simplicity and stability do more for a child's budding character than all the karate lessons in the world.

Don't let children consume your life

(Eph. 5:33)

While it's vital to spend quantity time with children, it is also possible to go overboard. I've met plenty of parents who live vicariously through their kids. One dad lived out his baseball fantasies through his sons. Another parent is already talking about her performance dreams for her daughter and the kid's only 5! In another family, life revolves around Bobby's soccer schedule. Someday these kids will leave the nest and when family life is so tightly woven around the kids' world, there's not much of a nest left.

While throwing ourselves into our children's lives sounds good, it actually teaches children some terrible lessons. They begin to expect the world to acquiesce to their needs because Mom and Dad always did. And boy, does it hurt when the world doesn't cooperate. They can grow to believe that Moms and Dads don't have needs, a belief that will lead them to tremendous internal conflict when they become adults who do indeed have needs. And they can start to think that their call in life is to be served, rather than to serve in the name of Christ.

What you can do: Get a life now! Invest in hobbies, exercise, romance your spouse, develop friendships, travel. Children can be a tremendous source of happiness, but it's unfair to expect a child to be responsible for his parent's well being. The Bible tells us that marriage is about sacrificial love and respect. That kind of marriage takes energy and effort—two things that can get quickly absorbed by our children if we aren't paying attention.

After years of marriage, my friends Dan and Donna decided to get a life. They loved their kids, but didn't want that love to replace their intimacy with one another. So each winter they took a short trip to Florida, just the two of them, to rekindle their romance. Dan says this annual "lovebird" retreat became a marriage lifeline. What's more, now that they're empty nesters, there's been no desperate hunt to reconnect because their life together was already established. What's more, they gave their children a wonderful example of the commitment it takes to build a healthy marriage.

Don't laze out

(Prov. 6:9)

What precisely is lazing out? It's allowing the weight of raising children to cause us to take seemingly insignificant shortcuts in our role as parents. Each shortcut, by itself, is pretty inconsequential. But added together, they pollute the atmosphere we're trying to create in our homes. For instance:

  • Mike and Sharon have given up on set bedtimes, even though they know random bedtimes cause their preschooler's grumpiness to grow from sporadic to standard.
  • Eating in front of the TV has become easier and easier for the Walden family. It was fun at first; but now, mealtime has become veg–time instead of an occasion to nourish family connections.
  • Even at 4, Josh struggles with materialism. When he makes yet another scene in the middle of Toys–R–Us, it's hard for his mom to resist giving in just to keep him quiet.

What you can do: For starters, keep the big picture in mind. Ask, "What's best for the long haul?" Letting kids occasionally stay up or having a "special night" eating in front of the TV is fine. But when exceptions become the norm, we spoil kids (and no child can afford to be spoiled).

Secondly, talk openly with your friends. My wife and I have discovered that other couples are tempted to laze out as much as we are. When talking through this dilemma with friends, we are careful not to allow our conversations to morph into pity parties. Yet the mere fact that others wrestle with similar day–to–day struggles encourages us to hang in there. We also find that talking with other parents prevents our kids from using the "everyone else is doing it" plea to get us to change our minds about something. Our frequent check–ins with other parents tell us that our rules and boundaries are not unusual at all.

Don't forget to laugh

(Prov. 17:22)

Laughter adds value to life. Some of my best memories growing up are of sitting around the kitchen table with my mom, dad, brothers, and sister laughing so hard that milk squirted out my nose! Laughter makes even routine stuff fun.

What can you do: Follow your kids' lead and this one won't be too tough. Smile. Cut loose. Have bedtime tickle wars. Get a puppy. Watch old family videos. Rent silly movies. Let laughter ring in the hallways of your home! There's nothing like a sense of humor to lighten up the stresses of family life.

Don't forget to keep telling your kids they're special

(Prov. 12:25)

Be sure your kids know you believe in them. Let them know that if you could pick from all the boys or girls in the world, you'd choose them. Time with our children flies by, yet we forget to make time to offer them deep affection and affirmation. Even teenagers need to know that their parents' think they're wonderful.

What you can do: Say it! Say it! And say it again! Tell them so often that they know it's coming. I love doing this. When I ask my kids: "You know what?" they respond by saying something like: "We know, we know, you love us, believe in us, and think we're the best." It might be a bit cheesy, but I'm glad the message is getting through. At the same time, don't limit yourself to words. Show your love by listening when your kids talk to you, joining them in wrestling matches and Barbie fashion shows, and noticing them when they walk into a room.

What's more, be specific in your efforts. My buddy Dan's compliments seem to always hit the right target. He knows just which achievements to praise, which character qualities to highlight, and which admirable traits to commend. I'm not sure if it's learned or natural, but I hope someday I can have half the compliment "insight" he possesses.

The Longer I'm a parent, the more I value this list. Trust me, it's one to live by, even if you have to laminate that napkin.

Kent Julian is an 18–year veteran of youth ministry who now serves as the National Director of Alliance Youth Ministries. He is a sought–after speaker at youth conferences and parent gatherings, and he recently co–authored the book How to Get Your Teen to Talk to You (Multnomah). Kent is passionately in love with his wife, Kathy, his son Christopher, and his twin daughters McKenzie and Kelsey.

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

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