I’d like to share the best parenting decision my wife and I ever made. We have been married 25 years and have seven kids, four of our own, and three we adopted. Six of them are in college or recent college grads. Two are married – one grandkid on the way (yes!) We have been host to dozens of their friends over the years and have been involved in leading jr high, high school and college kids for some 14 years now. So, we have a lot of experience dealing with kids.
We have enough experience with kids growing into adulthood to see the full circle impact of some of the decisions we have made as parents (and not made), and that other parents have made – and not made. We are happy with many of our parenting decisions, and would do some things a little differently if we had it to do over again.
But one decision in particular stands out as being especially important. We made that decision, not because we knew it would end up being the best one we made, but because we felt it was the right thing to do. It was a difficult decision to make, and keeping that decision took a great deal of work and effort over almost two decades – and it continues to this day.
Some 20 years ago now, I started a men’s small group. I didn’t know any of the guys who signed up, and when they showed up for the first group, I noticed they were all about 10-15 years older than I was – and they all had kids that were 10 or more years older than mine. At first, I was a little bummed out about the age difference. It felt a little awkward and I didn’t feel like I had much in common with them.
Over the course of a couple years, my attitude changed. I became pretty close friends with those guys, and really respected their experience and wisdom. Towards the end of our time together, I asked them what their most important advice would be for parenting kids would be. They unanimously agreed on the following (paraphrase) –
“Your kids are little now. When they get into middle school, your influence on them will begin to lessen, as will their desire to listen to what you say. That trend will continue into high school, and by the time they get into college, you will have much less influence on them than so many other people. Over the course of 6-8 years, you will move from being the primary influence in their lives, to one of many, to one of the smaller influences in their lives – in terms of how the behave, what they feel is important and not important, the choices they make, etc.”
They went on to say, “Because this will happen, your best move is to make sure that your kids form friendships with some other adults besides you that can began building into their lives. These adults should be people who have the same beliefs and priorities you do, and who care about what you care about – and care about your kids. As your kids get older, the fact is, they will be much more likely to turn to other adults when they have issues, minor and serious, than to come to you. You may not like that, and may not believe it now, but it will happen. If you do not participate in the choosing of these adult influences, they will form anyway, through luck of the draw.”
That was some hard to hear stuff for me at that time. My kids were toddlers and preschoolers then. My wife and I were the absolute centers of their lives. My daughters wanted to marry me when they grew up. They would dance and sing when I came home from work. We didn’t really believe that there would ever come a time that we would no longer be the primary influences in their lives.
But, because I had so much trust and respect for these guys, we went ahead and followed their advice. We looked for opportunities to connect our kids with other adults whose beliefs were similar to ours, who really wanted to make a difference in our kids lives.
The first and easiest choice was the kid’s church and small groups at our church. We knew most of the parent helpers and knew they were good people – and they had a solid foundation for mentoring the kids. As our kids got older, this transitioned to the student ministries (STUCO for us). STUCO has weekly evening services for students, and then small groups which are led by a couple adults. Additionally, the various leaders and STUCO staff invest in the kids as well.
It wasn’t always easy getting our kids to go. We had to “force” them to go on many, many occasions. We had to force them to go to the first few group events like the camps and the retreats. We had to make sure they got their homework done early – or we had to help them do it late, after STUCO.
We even made the decision to coach many of our kids sports teams so that we had control of the schedules and could make sure STUCO night was free. We made some tough calls missing some practices, games, events, etc., outside of church. We weren’t completely inflexible, but, our kids knew that STUCO was the priority.
We made sure that our kids were getting music lessons from adults in the church. Most of our kids contributed musically for years, some still do. We took advantage of plays, acting, and dance when it was offered by leaders in our church, or people we trusted. Our kids were on stage quite a bit when they were younger, and I remember people asking us if we were proud to see our kids on stage. That part of it was OK – but our primary motivation was steering our kids towards friendships with other quality adults. The stage really was not even a consideration.
The truth is, every single one of our kids has been tremendously influenced by the adult relationships that have formed over the years – through the hard, intentional, ongoing efforts of me and my wife, and the blessing of God on our desires and efforts. The adult musicians, actors, small group leader, student ministry staff, and other adult leaders have contributed to deep character formation within our kids. That doesn’t mean they didn’t or won’t make mistakes, but they have a foundation, and role models that expand well beyond their parents – and our shortcomings.
There is a cost. It was difficult. It cost money. It cost time. There were tears of not wanting to practice, not wanting to sing, not wanting to go to church, fighting with other kids at the church, not liking the leaders, etc., etc. It was a long row to hoe at many points in the last 20 years – but it was by far the most important thing we have done for our kids – outside of loving them and doing the best we could to raise them as parents.
I forgot about another thing those guys from my small group said so many years ago. It was this, “Since you are going to be relying on other adults to step up and build into your kids, you should be willing to do the same. Step up, get involved in the lives of other kids, and be good influences on them and good friends to them.”
I am happy to say my wife and I have taken that advice as well. We have been intentionally investing in other kids for the last 20 years and hope to continue to do so for many more years to come. It has not always been easy – life is messy and there are always difficulties that come with the joy that comes from making a difference in people’s lives. In hindsight, we can honestly say we would do it all over again. In fact, taking that advice is what put us in a position to adopt the three kids that are now even a bigger part of our family than they were before we adopted them.
So that’s it. I would encourage you to count the cost of helping your kids develop some other adult friendships with people you trust and respect – and, I would encourage you to count the cost of not doing it. You will lose influence with your kids – whether you are even aware of it or not. Make sure they have other wise, adult counsel they can turn to when they get older. And, do the same for someone else’s kids!