My daughter loves to ask me, “Dad, will you tell me a bad story of when you were a kid?” By “bad,” she doesn’t mean she wants to hear a poorly told story. She means she wants to hear about moments in my life that were filled with drama. Like when I broke my wrist, got a concussion, or caused the church toilet to overflow during a Sunday service. She wants to hear me express all the emotions of pain, embarrassment, and silliness that come out in these stories.
Of course, my daughter is not alone in this, we all love to hear “bad” stories. When you pull up your Netflix account, you see countless stories of murder, betrayal, and scandal. We watch the kinds of things on TV that we would never want to actually happen in our own life because we love to get caught up into the drama of it all. We love the way stories pull our emotions through sadness, anger, and joy all in about an hour and a half.
Yet, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are critical for becoming better parents to our children. For instance, recently, I was putting my kids to bed after a long day of work. I had some difficult conversations with people that day and I was exhausted. When I’m tired after a long day, I’m not the most enjoyable person to be around. I tend to be more critical and irritable than normal. So, when my son and daughter both didn't want to go to sleep at their usual bedtime that night, I got grumpy. I was huffing and puffing, instead of responding with grace and compassion. When they finally fell asleep, I laid down on the couch with regret. I began to rehearse the last hour of events and tell myself how bad I was at parenting.
After I grew tired of this negative self-talk, I texted a friend and let him know what was going on. He responded with the most encouraging words. He said, “Even if you feel like it went poorly, at least you were there. Dad life is tough!” With grace, my friend offered me a counter-narrative to the story going through my head. It was just what I needed to get out of my negativity loop and get back into the life God has given me.
When parenting gets tough, we need to tell ourselves good stories. Instead of dwelling on that negative self-talk, we can look back over our parenting careers and be reminded of God’s faithfulness throughout. As the 19th century English priest, John Henry Newman, reflects on King David’s life, he writes,
“Such was the thankful spirit of David, looking back upon the past, wondering and rejoicing at the way in which his Almighty Protector had led him on, and at the works He had enabled him to do; and praising and glorifying Him for His mercy and truth” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 5, 75).
David, the man after God’s own heart, spent countless hours reflecting on past stories of God’s work in his life (1 Chronicles 29:10-20; Psalm 16). This kind of meditation is one that will empower us to face the difficult moments of parenting.
In those moments when we are ready to pull our hair out, we need to slow down and remind ourselves that God’s story is our story. We are God’s children, created in his image to glorify him, as we enjoy him forever (Romans 8). When we ran away from him, he went into the far country to find us (John 1:14). When we rejected him, he offered the other cheek (Isa. 53). When we were ashamed of him, he called out our name in love. When he sees us struggling as parents, he pours out his grace in the Holy Spirit, so that we might rely more fully on him.
One practical way to stay present to God’s story in parenting is by reminiscing with your spouse or another person who has seen your children grow about past memories of God’s mercy in parenting. Recently, I intentionally reminisced about our family road trip last Summer with my wife. It was fun to relive a memorable week and relish all the wonderful family time we had. Reflecting in community provides a valuable perspective when we feel stuck.
Recalling the important family stories reminded me that we strive to create an environment where our children can feel loved and nurtured as well as adventurous. It reminded me that even though parenting is difficult, it’s full of joyful times. God has been so kind to give us dynamic children that know how to test boundaries, but also know how to give and receive love.
As John Henry Newman reminds us, let’s remember God’s grace in our lives. He writes,
“Let us try to gain a truer view of what we are, and where we are, in His kingdom. Let us humbly and reverently attempt to trace His guiding hand in the years which we have lived. Let us thankfully commemorate the many mercies He has given to us in time past, the many sins He has not remembered, the many dangers He has averted, the many prayers He has answered, the many mistakes He has corrected, the many warnings, the many lessons, the much light, the abounding comfort which He has from time to time given” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. 5, 84).
As we remember these stories, we will know that as we parent, we parent as God’s child and with God’s equipping.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster