Parenting for the Long Run

My 12-year-old son is a promising sprinter. When running on his school track team, he lines up at the starting line with his eyes fixed on the finish line, 100 meters down the track. When the starting pistol goes off, he pours every ounce of energy into racing the stretch ahead of him, and within seconds, the race is over.

My wife on the other hand, is a marathon runner. In nearly 15 years, she has competed in five 26-mile races, and numerous 13-mile half-marathons. Unlike a sprint, marathons require careful attention to pacing. In fact, it’s not uncommon for first-time marathon runners to start the race too fast, pushing themselves to stay near the front of the pack. But a marathon lasts 26 miles – and if you haven’t conserved your energy early, you risk a slower time, or not finishing the race at all.

Parenting isn’t a Sprint!

So, do you parent as a marathon runner, or a sprinter? Sometimes when we are swept up in the dull routine of sorting the dark laundry from the light, or answering the millionth question our two-year-old asks before breakfast, or chauffeuring our middle-schooler from band practice to a friend’s house, or grounding our teenager for violating curfew, it’s tempting to treat parenting as a sprint. We look for short-term solutions, and we expect quick results. So, treat behavior issues with short-term fixes rather than training our kids towards a long-term outcome. We seek comfort for the moment, instead of making short-term sacrifices that will produce long-term growth in our children.

For example, if you consistently tell your talkative two-year-old to stop asking questions because you would rather have some peace and quiet, you may succeed in returning your kitchen to a normal decibel level. But, in the process, your inquisitive child learns that her questions don’t matter. Or, you may decide that forcing your teenager to attend church isn’t worth all the complaining, so you let them sleep in on Sundays. A short-term gain--you don’t have to deal with a grumpy teen while singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”--but it comes with a long-term loss when your young adults lose interest in the church.

Marathon Parenting

The writer of Proverbs offers this instruction to parents: “Train a child up in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). The wisdom of this saying is that it works from a “marathon” approach to parenting. Parenting, according to the writer of Proverbs, is setting your children on a path towards a goal that takes a lifetime to reach. So, begin by reflecting on your goals as a parent. Talk to your spouse or others that you respect for insight on what to aim for. What kind of character do you want to see develop in them? How do you hope to see them mature emotionally, mentally, and spiritually? What sort of work ethic do you want them to embody? Answering these questions gives us a good idea of end goal of your parenting--your “finish line” as it were. Most importantly as you discern the kind of person you desire your children to be, prayerfully consider the biblical portrayal of godly, Christ-like character.

Pacing Yourself

Then, spend time considering how you are investing yourself in your children. Are you developing healthy habits as a family that will lead to this outcome? Some of these habits will require short-term sacrifice, like saying no to sports that practice on Sunday in order to participate in church, for example, that will produce long-term fruit. Evaluate your means of disciplining your children: “sprinting” is reactive and emotional, lashing out in anger, or handing out punishments that are vindictive. On the other hand, if you see discipline as a means of character formation, consequences will be given as a means of instruction, and correction to lead your child towards maturity.

Live it out

Consider how you will respond to the daily demands of your children. As I was writing this, my 10-year old daughter ambled into the room where I was working, and began asking a series of random questions. Part of me felt that I would have been justified in politely asking her to leave me to work in peace and quiet. That way, I could have sent her on her way to do something more productive, and I could have completed my task. A short-term gain! On the other hand, I recognized that her need to connect with me in that moment might come with a (small) cost, but these many small “costs” paid out over the days, weeks, and years of parenting will lead to a stronger bond between myself and my daughter.

So, are you running a marathon or a sprint? My wife reports that when running a marathon, proper pacing feels somewhat unnatural, almost like being restrained. But that lasts for only the first portion of the race. Later on in the course, the energy conserved allows her to persevere and ultimately to finish the race. Parenting works like that too. It feels unnatural sometimes, but parenting for the long-term produces pleasing results in the end. So will you put up with momentary hardships (whether those million questions before breakfast or the effort of shuttling your kids from one activity to the next) in order to see long-term growth (like an inquisitive mind or a well-rounded adult)? The goal may not be in sight, but each day, you are stepping closer towards it. Seek God’s grace as you run the race of parenting!

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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