10 Lessons on Parenting Big(ger) Kids

We did it! Aileen and I successfully got one of our children through childhood and into adulthood. Today Nick, our oldest, celebrates his eighteenth birthday. He is now an adult, and a pretty good one, too. Pretty good? Nah, far better than that. He’s amazing. He is intelligent and witty and mature and well-read and interested and engaging and godly. We are immensely proud of him and confident that he will do well in life. We know there’s lots of parenting left to do, but for now we’re enjoying the moment. It’s a good feeling, this.

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When my youngest turned 10 and graduated from the little kid stage, I wrote 10 Lessons on Parenting Little Ones. Now, with my oldest turning 18, I thought it would be fun to compile some thoughts on parenting bigger ones. So here are a few things we’ve been learning along the way (all of which we pilfered from the parents we have admired and did our best to imitate):

Encourage your children to develop friendships with adults. In other words, let your friends be their friends. I’m sure I said this in my other article as well, but time and older kids have proven all the more why it’s so important. Give your children the privilege and the benefit of access to people who are old and wise and godly and not their parents. As mom and dad you’ve got a huge influence on your children, but sometimes it’s wise and helpful to joyfully hand off influence to others. Learn to say, “Here’s what I think, but why don’t you ask [Friend’s Name] as well…”

Don’t be too easily dismayed or too easily impressed. Some children have a natural temperament that can mask all kinds of sin. Some children have a natural temperament that cannot mask even the least sin. Don’t be too easily dismayed by kids who happily display their badness; don’t be too easily impressed by kids who mostly display their goodness. In Jesus’s most famous parable, neither the older nor younger brother was outside the need or the reach of the Father’s love. Your best and worst child equally need Jesus.

Make time for them. This is hardly original advice, I know, but it’s advice I needed often and advice I still need today. I’ve long prioritized taking my kids out for breakfast on Saturdays to get a little one-on-one time. I’ve always told them that, in so far as possible, I’ll try to take each of them anywhere in the world they want to go before they move out. These are dedicated times alone with dad. But I have been surprised to learn that the best conversations seem to just happen along the way. Some of the most significant conversations happen while doing errands together or driving them to or from a friend’s house. I’ve learned: If you’re out doing errands while your kids are sitting at home, you’re doing it wrong. Invite them to come with you “just because” and you’ll have a context in which conversations will just happen.

Help your children learn to depend upon godly pastors. Train your children when and how to rely upon pastors. When your children have big questions or big doubts, talk to them about those things, but also encourage them to speak to a pastor. When they want to be baptized (or make profession of faith, depending upon your tradition), talk to them and help them think it through, but also quickly direct them to a pastor. Teach them: When your body needs care you talk to a doctor, when your soul needs care you talk to a pastor.

Prioritize the local church. This one seemed easy when our children were tiny, but has grown more complicated as they’ve gotten older, as they’ve gained independence, as they’ve gotten jobs. The way such prioritizing looks may change as circumstances change, but few lessons will better serve your children that this: Worshiping with the local church is a matter of high priority.

Believe in family devotions. I have said this a hundred times in a hundred different contexts and don’t expect to stop saying it anytime soon. Family devotions matter even though it doesn’t always feel like they matter. Family devotions make a difference even though it doesn’t always feel like they make a difference. We are prone to give up on things that don’t deliver immediate results and family devotions don’t deliver immediate results. But stick to them and plug away year after year and I think you’ll look back and see how they were a major factor in the salvation of your children, in their spiritual growth, and in your family unity. Ask your children later in life and I bet they’ll tell you that few things you did were so significant even though neither you nor they recognized it at the time.

Stay the course. Parents receive lots of messaging, some of it subliminal, that kids are easily ruined. Unless you educate them this way or discipline them that way or give them freedom the other way, you’re going to have deep regrets later on. Sometimes that’s true, but not often. We tend to way overestimate the significance of a moment or a phase and way underestimate the significance of 18 or 20 years of influence. Flip a coin 10 times and you may find that you’ve got 30 percent heads and 70 percent tails. Flip it a thousand times and you’ll inevitably find it’s much closer to 50/50. Kind of like that, it seems that in the end most of the things we thought would make our break our kids kind of even out in the end.

Don’t rush them to a profession of faith. Children who grow up in Christian homes feel pressure to formally declare themselves Christians. While such pressure is inevitable, it can also compel children to make a profession not because it’s genuine but because they wish to mollify mom and dad or to keep up with their peers. Most children raised in the church seem to face a kind of crisis in their early- to mid-teen years—those years when they begin to experience a measure of independence—where they have to decide whether they truly believe all this Jesus stuff or whether they are just following along behind mom and dad. We’ve found it’s important not to rush children to that point and not to rush them through it. Be patient, be prayerful, talk to them a lot, but allow them time.

Pray, pray, pray. Prayer is key to raising little ones; prayer is key to raising bigger ones. I guess that’s no surprise, since prayer is key to all of the Christian life. What you pray for will change and at times the earnestness of your prayers will change. But you must pray for them constantly. God chooses to work not apart from those prayers but through them and because of them. Parent, pray!

Focus more on sharing experiences than exchanging stuff. The things you and your children remember and celebrate as the years go by are far more likely to be experiences you shared together than gifts you exchanged. Those family vacations matter more than the birthday gifts, the breakfasts alone with mom or dad more than the trinket you brought back from your business trip. Those trinkets matter—I bring my kids something from every country I visit. But nothing replaces or displaces the precious gift of time, and especially time spent playing, traveling, exploring, and just plain being together. Shared experiences make the most precious, most irreplaceable memories.