When we returned from vacation this summer, my nearly three-year-old daughter resisted bedtime like someone going to an execution. She screamed “I’m not tired! I’m not tired!” and got out of her bed every time I left the room—for hours. Our usual techniques did not work. After a few nights of this, I was so tired and frustrated I slammed her door on my way out of her room. The morning after the door slam (and my apology), while doing the breakfast dishes, I asked Jesus with some desperation, “what does she need? How can I help her?” I sensed Jesus saying, “spend some time with her,” and saw an image of us playing together in her room.
Jesus’ response surprised me. It seemed too simple and obvious. I already spent almost all day with my daughter, though granted, not usually one-on-one. (She has a four-year-old sister with a big personality.) I felt I was giving everything I had. Nevertheless, when naptime came around, I tried spending a few minutes alone with her. I sat with her as she rearranged furniture in the dollhouse. I then tried talking with her about her day—the high points and low points. When I asked about her least favorite part of the day, she said, “my sister took my bubbles.” Ah. This seemed important. They’d had a fight in the bathtub the night before. I asked her more about it, and was able to comfort her about the challenges of being the youngest. Spending a little bit of one-on-one time gave me a window into her heart.
Feeling encouraged, at bedtime I planned to spend more intentional time with her, instead of just trying to get it over with. We talked through the day again. Out of the blue, she said, “When my friend came to visit, I did not like sleeping in the teeny tiny bed.” (When guests had stayed with us a few days before, she gave up her room.) I gave her a big hug and sympathized with her. She cried when I left the room, but this time she stayed in bed. After a few days of this, she went to bed much more peacefully.
The simple response from Jesus—“spend time with her”—helped me shift my posture toward both my daughters in a way that has slowly transformed our relationship. I began to see that I had fallen into a pattern. During a demanding day of parenting, I was often so tired, or honestly, so bored, that my main objective was to get them to play independently so I could sneak a few pages of my book, or unload the dishwasher, or check the news on my phone. Encouraging independent play is important, but I realized that I almost never gave my daughters my full attention. I wasn’t thinking of them as full persons with God-given needs for connection and emotional expression. Changing my posture from distraction to engagement has brought deeper intimacy with my daughters, and even joy that energizes me for a day of parenting.
As I press into this invitation to “spend time” with my girls, I see that Jesus is inviting me to experience his kingdom more fully. As we learn in the gospels, Jesus was never too busy or too important for children. When his disciples tried to keep children away from him, he said, “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14). Children, in their natural dependence and trust, teach us the way to God. The world sometimes disparages the work of caring for the weak and vulnerable. But Jesus, who came to us as a helpless infant, shows us that parenting–in all its challenges and joys– is a holy vocation. Even the most mundane tasks of parenting, from changing a diaper at 4am to reading Go, Dog, Go! for the thousandth time, can be acts of worship. So, tired parents, do not leave this article thinking there is yet another thing to do. Jesus meets us right where we are, just as when he heard my frazzled prayer over the breakfast dishes. This is simply an invitation to recognize the holiness of our calling and to receive the care we were made for. As we experience the loving attention of Jesus, we are transformed into parents who can offer the same care to our children.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra