I cannot believe the end of the first nine weeks of school is already here. This school year has flown past, as school years so commonly do these days. Before long, Christmas will be upon us. When we speak of Christmas, we often do so in terms of the Incarnation- that moment in time when the Creator of the universe, the Almighty God, became flesh and lived among us.
Incarnational living isn’t just about Christmas, however. It’s a critical concept for any conscientious parent. The power of living lives worthy of the gospel to which we’ve been called, and representing with those lives what we want our children to become, is a life-long, year round endeavor.
Notre Dame researcher Christian Smith, who has performed over a decade’s worth of studies on the relationships between faith and youth and emerging adults in our culture, notes the power of living out what we say we believe for the next generation. His research shows, to a large extent, “we get what we are.” This means our current realities–not what we say, but how we live–shape and mold our children’s futures more than anything else we can do; maybe more than any other means of spiritual formation, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.
Have you been a parent long enough to see yourself saying and doing things your parents did? Maybe even things you swore you’d never do, before you actually had kids? Maybe you’ve felt dread as you channeled your parents, or perhaps you had a sense of begrudging respect and pride, knowing that, despite your earlier promise to never raise kids like your parents, you realize they actually knew what they were doing all along? What you’re doing now, parenting like your parents did, is living out the power of modeling, of incarnational living.
In I Corinthians 4, Paul urges the church at Corinth to “be imitators of me.” Early on in my faith, I thought Paul’s admonition was prideful; now I realize he just being a good parent, calling his spiritual children to live as he lived, because he was aligning his life with Jesus, and he knew the power of modeling.
I saw this power when I was working on my PhD, and I realized a modeling practice I would urge anyone with adolescent children to prayerfully consider. I realized working on my degree, and having homework every night I wasn’t out with a school event, was actually good for my girls. Our nightly routine became as follows: come home from work or school, have dinner together as a family (only a couple of times a week, because they were teenagers, after all), talk about our day, and then retreat to separate corners to do our work: Mom working on our family business, Dad working on his PhD studies, and the kids doing their homework. What did not happen a lot in my house, that reportedly happens in others, was my kids complaining about how much homework they had. I now believe our kids didn’t complain much, and spent that energy focused on getting their work done, because our family norm was that everyone worked after dinner. We modeled that for our kids.
I actually think it’s a good thing to bring your work home when your kids are in high school. If not work, perhaps you could spend time after dinner learning the guitar, or building something, or getting that seminary degree, or obtaining that extra certification for work, or learning that thing you’ve always wanted to learn, that thing you would really enjoy learning. Rather than binge-watching Netflix or playing Call of Duty, you could use the time your kids are working on their homework to work on things yourself. Doing so models a great work ethic and shows your kids that learning is for life. And, I think you’ll find it significantly reduces homework complaints and prepares them better to develop an independent work ethic in college.
As parents of younger kids, I think incarnational modeling looks like reading something you love, developing a culture of reading, again instead of Netflix or Call of Duty. I believe readers are made, rather than born. I’ve seen kids, including my own, who didn’t originally care much for reading become readers by watching their parents, sisters, and friends read habitually. Plus, you’ll become smarter.
Most importantly, and more than anything else you could say or do, living lives as dedicated followers of Jesus Christ sets your children up for a lifetime of loving Jesus. I’m convinced that the large numbers of Millennials leaving the church, reflected in stark statistics from the Pew Organization and Barna, are due in large part (though not universally) to the sad fact that their parents live only as nominal or cultural Christians, if at all.
If your heart’s cry is for your kids to love Jesus, the best thing you can do is to love Jesus yourself. If you want your kids to have healthy marital and family relationships in their lives, then do the hard work of modeling them in your life. If your heart yearns for your kids to raise their own in a vibrant church community, don’t travel with baseball on Sundays; instead, raise your kids in a vibrant church community. The research seems to show you will get what you are. And, if anything about that terrifies you, the best way to change their future reality is to change your present one.