We, as do most Beliefnet readers, consider parenting a sacred trust and a proven path to God. The world is in debt to those mothers and fathers who have the courage to swim against the present tide of selfishness and cynicism. To do this effectively, they must turn to the stillness of their own hearts and follow their love for and understanding of their particular children, rather than to blindly apply some uniform philosophy in the name of consistency.
If parenting is holy work, it can be approached happily, peacefully, and patiently. It can become a common experience to feel a Divine presence with us as we change an infant's diapers, answer a five-year-old's question about God, or drive a car full of adolescents to soccer practice. It is always possible to enjoy our children if we are humble, ask for help often, meet our personal needs, and trust in the gentle urgings of our spirit. If we approach parenting in this way, we can be free of the fear so prevalent today that any decision we make may have unforeseen and disastrous consequences. If we parent in peace, we can trust that peace will accompany the outcome.
Our guiding ideal as parents has been respect for our children. We try always to think of them as God's children, not ours. This makes them honored guests placed in our protection to support and nourish, but never to bend and mold. They are already created. Our function is to see clearly what they already are.
This ideal translates into listening carefully to our children and admitting our mistakes to them quickly and easily. We wish to model openness, not stubbornness; gentleness, not harshness. All children need firm boundaries and reliable rules, but no child was ever helped by being bullied, lectured, or intimidated. Fear, aggression, and self-righteousness teach fear, aggression, and self-righteousness, and we have tried hard to avoid all three.
In our opinion, it is as important to respect a child's mind as it is to respect his or her needs. As non-denominational Christian ministers, we have always agreed with each other on basic religious beliefs, but as parents, we very early on decided that we would set the example of faith but would not insist that our children learn and accept our theology.
We have seen "religious instruction" abused by too many parents, and we have seen far too many adolescents and young adults throw away their own faith along with their parents' belief system. This was not because the belief system was bad but because the parents insisted that their children accept and trust it completely. Faith, belief, and understanding come from within, not from without. So we have always answered our children's spiritual questions, but we have never told them what they must believe. Their religious instruction came almost entirely from observing the effects of our faith on us.
Our children have grown up seeing us pray and meditate daily, and the effect on us has been so apparent that on several occasions when we said "no" to one of their requests, they asked us to check our decision with God. Once, when we were having an argument, our son John, who was four at the time, kept telling us that we were tired and should just go to bed. Finally, in frustration, he said, "Will you at least ask God what to do?" That got our attention. We closed our eyes and turned to God. God said, "You're tired. You should just go to bed."
When we started our first church, as ministers and leaders of the church, we set up the Sunday school as a place where children could play and have fun, but our instructions to the very talented adults who ran the Sunday school were that no religious concepts would be taught, not even indirectly through stories. Naturally, we discussed many concepts in our sermons to the congregation and any child of any age was welcome to attend the service. In other words, we never refused to teach concepts, but the children in our lives had to want them and seek them themselves. There were two what might be called spiritual practices that we encouraged but never demanded that our children use. The first was letting go of the day at the end of the day. The whole family would get on our big bed and talk about how the day went. All of us would then suggest ways that our concerns and upsets could be released. Our kids, being boys, would often employ images of front-loaders, backhoes, rockets, and such to dispose of the offending memories.