Ever marveled over how your child is different from the one you’d pictured? Or different from you in general?

When I found out I was pregnant with my firstborn, I was over the moon. I remained over said moon even after discovering he was a horrid baby. I think he loved me (hey, food source!). Not sure he liked me.

When he hit 9 months and began to crawl, he was finally able to dictate his own life. It would be the first sign of how independent he was wired to be.

To be fair, he was an adorable, compliant toddler; a brilliant, creative elementary schooler, always leading the other boys in games of battle. (I grew up with only sisters. It felt weird to hold the line at “No Nerf weapons at the table.”)

He was (is) also distinctively not the firstborn I anticipated. All that birth order stuff about people-pleasing, compliance, rule-following, achieving? (All the stuff I was as a firstborn?) My son is far more internally than externally motivated. Grades, parents, and the rest of society has minimal effect.

Though my family has no military background, my son’s enrolled in the Marines’ Delayed Entry Program. In contrast, I am peacekeeping and diplomatic, sometimes to the point of passivity. I can count on one hand the times I’ve shot a gun, and most were at summer camp.

But months ago, God seemed to tap me on the shoulder. What if I created your son as a warrior? David, a man after God’s own heart, was a warrior. God describes Himself as a warrior. What if for my Kingdom, I need exactly his strength, his independence, his love for justice and protection of the vulnerable?

Get together with your friends and learn the Art of Parenting.

When the child you expected becomes too important

When we attend baby showers, there’s so much joy for new life. We delight in the supposed blank slate, a life ready to guide into greatness.

But like gardening in the high desert here in Colorado, the doctored image on the seed packet rarely matches any real-life plant. For that matter, like, 10% of all parenting is what I thought it would look like.

But then again, so much of it is better.

My hope doesn’t lie in my will accomplished in the form of a child. That will, that expectation of a perfectly imperfect child, could easily become any parent’s idol: what we look to for legitimacy, satisfaction, or fulfillment.

In fact, God may not share my vision or timing or pictured journey for my child. At times, I have loved my own image for my son more than God’s image in him.

Pastor and author Tim Keller writes in The Insider and the Outcast, “Everybody has got to live for something, but … if that thing is not [Jesus], it will fail you. First, it will enslave you … If anything threatens it, you will become inordinately scared; if anyone blocks it, you will become inordinately angry; and if you fail to achieve it, you will never be able to forgive yourself. But second, if you do achieve it, it will fail to deliver the fulfillment you expected.”

3 ways to connect with a child who’s different than You

It can be tough to connect with a child who’s different from you in their interests, passions—or even their core. Where could you start?

1. Ask them to share their interests, project, music, movies, etc. with you—something at the center of their attention.

If you’re willing, dig into that world with them. Seek to understand the “whys” behind their fascination and passion. (The more you understand your child’s “whys,” the more you understand your child.)

I’m not into conflict, but I love attending my son’s speeches and debates. His ability to articulate and think on his feet floors me. He practices his speeches for me, and since I’m a writer, allows me to comment on his drafts.

Even if you’re not into Pokémon or basketball or oil pastels or makeup—you may find a beautiful discipline in sifting through your child’s interest for ways to share their pleasure and cheer on the ways they’re made. Flip through their collection, get tickets to a game or an art show, take her to the Clinique counter to get dolled up.

Get relentless about discovering the God-image in your child, even if it feels shallow or frivolous or a waste of time. (None of those accurately describe the time to connect with a child, right?)

You’re displaying a God who entered our world, even when it jarred the senses and brimmed with fallenness (see John 1:14). When it came to the odorous world of fishermen or the shady career of tax collectors, He didn’t say, “No, thanks. I’ll stay over here.”

2. Find a mutual activity for enjoyable quality time.

Could you laugh and connect with a child, no matter how different, around Marvel, strategy games, specialty ice cream flavors? (Bonus points if your activity can be repeated.)

Teaching my son to drive—while occasionally harrowing—was a great time for us to chat for the 50 hours of training required by our state. We’d sometimes end at Starbucks, laughing over frappuccinos on the sunlit patio.

3. Make sure your relationship takes priority over your disagreements.

Conflict can easily sour even the best moments trying to connect with a child who’s different from you. It became important that my son never thought he had to perform at a certain level, become like me to a certain degree, or change his core for us to be close.

Yes, I set boundaries for respect, for healthy interactions. But particularly on his dark days—like on my own—I want to telegraph the message of God’s unconditional love: “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7, NIV).

Proverbs counsels, “My son, give me your heart” (23:26). If we lose passport into our kids’ hearts over nonessential issues—say, blue hair we fear makes our kids look like rebels and us look like bad parents—we lose every chance to not only create change, but express love rather than isolation and shame.

A strong relationship forms the bridge to our kids’ hearts, supporting the weight of the most critical truths.

4. Take the Kindness Challenge.

Social researcher Shaunti Feldhahn created the 30-day Kindness Challenge, known to cultivate change in relationships. The challenge embraces that a person isn’t the sum of their weaknesses.

Every day for a month:

  1. Don’t say anything negative to or about your child.
  2. Find one thing that is positive and praiseworthy. Tell your child and one other person.
  3. Perform a small act of kindness or generosity for your child, even when you don’t feel like it.

Romans 2:4 speaks of God’s kindness leading us to repentance—not His nagging, podcaster Brian Goins points out, nor His manipulation, stonewalling, or yelling. Kindness helps us release control of changing our child’s heart.

Dream Bigger

My son, a challenger and leader to the core, will always be diametrically different. I may have to work harder to connect with a child with such diverse perspectives, passions, and priorities.

Yet parenting remains an act of patience as we acknowledge we are not the leaders, but the lovingly led. And within that leading, God is parenting us toward holiness.

What if our kids get the idea they’re a colossal disappointment to us? Could we shoehorn them into plans God never intended? What if our expectations cause us to miss the sheer joy and wonder of who they are?

Having a child so different than myself–what some might call our incompatibility–has sculpted me every day of the last 18 years. It means a constant effort to reach toward one another. To understand, appreciate, listen rather than argue and contend (or fear). To advocate the man God’s created my son to be, rather than the one I’m sure he should become.

Work along with me, friends. Let’s not miss loving our kids as God created them. Let’s help them dream bigger than the vision in our heads.

Copyright © 2022 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.