Do you know what is likely the most valuable gift you can give your children? It's not your old pickup, a college education, or even your reputation for integrity. They'll benefit from all of those things—but your children ultimately want more than your stuff, your wealth, and your good family name. What they want and need most is a relationship with you. They want to know your heart. They want you. And if they don't get you, they are less likely to know and give themselves to God.
This truth about what children want applies to all ages. I (Dennis) remember my first "date" with Ashley when she was just three years old. I called her from the office and said, "Hi, Princess, this is Dad. I would really like to have a special date with you tonight."
She giggled. Then I heard her say to Barbara in an excited voice, "Daddy wants to take me out on a date!"
A short time later I pulled up in front of the house, walked to the front door and knocked. When Barbara opened it, I said, "Hello ma'am, is your daughter home?" Ashley pranced out in her finest dress. We held hands as we walked to our old station wagon. I opened her door and she scrambled in.
As we drove away she slipped her little arm around my neck. We went to a restaurant and ate chocolate pie and chocolate ice cream—washed down with chocolate milk. Then we drove to a theater where Ashley had a great time crawling over the seats and occasionally watching Bambi. We ate popcorn. We spilled popcorn. We drank soft drinks. We spilled soft drinks.
On the way home, the faint green light from the dashboard lighting our faces, I asked, "Ashley, what was your favorite thing about tonight?"
She patted me on the arm with her little hand and said, "Just being with you, Dad; just being with you." It's too bad we'd spilled all that popcorn, because right then I turned into a pool of melted butter.
I continued this practice of "dating" my daughters into their teenage years. It was my chance to have fun with them, catch up on how they were doing, and stay connected.
Allowing the love of Christ to flow through us
A parent who lavishes love on a child through intense involvement mirrors what God does for all of His children: "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness" (Jeremiah 31:3). When we give ourselves without reservation to our children, we draw them to us. A child who knows the love of a parent through a multitude of shared experiences receives a taste of the beautiful relationship God wants to have with each of His precious ones.
Children often see God when they look at their parents. Our influence in this role—and our responsibility—is great. When we model qualities of our Father in heaven by allowing the love of Jesus Christ to flow through us and into our children, we're succeeding as parents.
We do not propose a complicated, deeply theological set of practices to make this happen. Our advice is simple and summarized by three Ts: time, touch, and talk. These three Ts make a relationship with our child a reality. And through this relationship our child begins to grow the roots of a spiritual life. We have yet to meet a child (or an adult, for that matter) who feels deeply loved when he is given only occasional bursts of "quality time." Children don't seem to understand this concept. When they want mom and dad, they want mom and dad.
Parenting children just takes time. How that time is disbursed varies as they grow older—and when your little guys and gals become teenagers, you may want them to give you some quality time! But their need for you to be available and flexible with your time never changes.
This creates a definite challenge in today's fast-paced culture, especially if you are a single parent. Since time is finite, we must set priorities for our schedule. We encourage you to carefully consider how you spend your time and whether or not you are available to your children.
My (Dennis's) schedule has always been demanding, but by the time we had graduated four children from high school, the responsibilities of a daily radio program, writing, speaking, and travel began to take me away from home even more frequently. It was Barbara's gentle and persistent admonishment that ultimately caused me to adjust my schedule and focus so that I could have a better relationship with our two teenage daughters still at home.
As a result, I am more involved in their lives and the issues they face—dating, peer pressure, boundaries, and more. The bottom line: My teenage daughters need a dad who will love them and speak the truth to them. They know I care because I am there—all there!
You can also make your children feel loved by giving them plenty of physical touch. Regular hugs, kisses, and hand holding all say "you are loved."
When they are little, make sure your tykes have plenty of time in your lap to cuddle. And although you should be hugging your children for no reason at all, be sure to create special moments of affection each day—like bed-time kisses. We still kiss our children good night, even though they are teenagers and adults.
Your arrival at home after a day at work or an afternoon of running errands presents another great opportunity to offer affection. When our children were smaller, we turned these greeting times into "The Bear Hug Routine." I (Dennis) would get near Deborah, for instance, and say, "Do you want a baby bear hug, a mama bear hug, or a daddy bear hug?" The answer would be a giggle and "a baby bear." So I would give Deborah a light squeeze and say "eek, eek, eek"—the sound a baby bear might make.
Then Deborah would say in a little voice, "I want a mama bear hug, too, Daddy!"
So this time I would wrap my arms around her, squeeze harder, and say, "Mmmmmmmmmm"
"Now I want a daddy bear hug!" Deborah would hold very still, arms straight at her sides, eyes shut tight. I would pick her up, squeeze like crazy, and yell, "Growwwwwwwwwwwwwl" amidst shrieks of laughter. Even now, years later, Deborah laughs and smiles when I ask if she wants a bear hug.
As a parent you must never back off from giving this affection. When your sons and daughters are teenagers, it may feel awkward—but don't stop. They still need your loving touch.
I (Barbara) learned this one day from Benjamin, one of my teenage sons. My "baby" now towered above me; I had to reach up to plant a kiss on his cheek. The scratch of his emerging beard on my face reminded me that this almost-adult would soon be leaving home for good. I hugged him, let go, and tried to step back—and was pleasantly surprised when he held on tight. He seemed to be thinking, Don't stop. I may look grown up, I may look like I don't need it, but please don't stop. I love this more than I can let on. I didn't let go!
We often hear adults say things like, "I think I would have gotten along better with my mom and dad if we had just talked more."
Now is your chance to create a new model. A spiritually strong family is built on a foundation of "relational concrete." Tell your children your values, expectations, goals, and dreams for them, your family, and yourself. Ask them about their worries and their own dreams and goals. It's not words by themselves that communicate love—it's talking with your children in a way that shows deep interest and a strong desire to be involved in their lives.
Talking became even more important during the days following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Laura, then sixteen, wanted to know if this was the beginning of the Tribulation. And Deborah, then eighteen, asked if World War III had begun. Both questions led to a healthy discussion about their fears and the future. We also took the opportunity to remind them about the character of God—His sovereign rule, mercy, love, and desire that we share the Gospel with others. All these discussions took place because we have a good relationship with our daughters.
This loving conversation begins while your baby is still in the womb. It grows and matures throughout a child's development; when your child reaches adulthood you can communicate like friendly peers.
Talking may be a challenge during the teenage years, but it's more important at this time than ever. Many teenagers—boys especially—just do not seem to want to talk. But don't give up. You must pursue them—a persistent, gentle priming of the conversation well. Be prepared for that moment when the mood shifts and the words literally gush out of your teenager's mouth. Give your teen your full attention; listen well before you respond.
We'll never forget the struggle we had when one of our teenage sons didn't want to talk to us. It was a constant challenge to initiate a relationship because he felt he could do just fine without us. Over and over we reminded each other that we were the adults and the teenager was the child, and that what he needed from us was mature, adult love—not immature rejection.
It's easy in such situations to feel hurt and withdraw, but that is the opposite of what your teen needs. We loved our son and kept on pursuing a relationship. It wasn't easy, but it kept us connected and involved in his life. In the end our son benefited because he had two parents who never stopped loving and believing in him. We feel that our relationship with him may have kept him out of a lot of trouble.
Our model in being available and giving ourselves to our children is a good one. Jesus said, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me" (Revelation 3:20). That picture of a loving God knocking and waiting, eager to enter a life, is how our children should perceive us.
Adapted from Growing a Spiritually Strong Family © 2002 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.
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