What I’ve Learned About Intentional Parenting

When I arrived early at my daughter’s basketball game, I figured this might allow us some quality time together before everyone else arrived. Needless to say, teammates were already in the stadium and I was promptly directed to a lonely ‘parent bench’ on the other side of the court. It reminded me just how intentional our parenting impact needs to be in the small window of opportunity we are have before other influences seem to take over. What does this look like?

Naturally, many great parents will offer many more useful tips than mine for producing outstanding young people who are shaped with purpose. It is fair to say, too, that the best of efforts can sometimes be undermined if challenging kids opt to deprive themselves of the best their mums and dads have to offer through heartbreaking choices and friendship associations. This can be painful for many parents and warrants empathy rather than pride. But, for the grace of God, …

Parents can’t always control outcomes, no matter how noble or tireless their efforts. But several things I’ve learned as a dad have certainly helped to improve the odds of ensuring some optimised outcomes in my own kids, knowing full well that the journey is not yet over for me, either. Here’s three important lessons I’ve learned about that intentionality.

1. Intentionality is not the same as intensity.

A parent can be so right, and yet so wrong, when it comes to their own choices around shaping their kids. Intentionality can wrongly be traded for intensity, and kids don’t handle this well. They are not miniature adults. They don’t respond with the nuanced patience or verbal skills that might be expected of someone older. Kids will generally be very forgiving, often modelling the ability to see the best in others, but their resilience can mask a sensitivity that can easily be damaged.

A parent who reacts too strongly in conversations will often betray an inner fear that some loss of control is at stake, or else might perhaps exert an excess of control. It is generally our measured and consistent action that is needed in a child’s life.

Just as one child might be more accepting of a blunt directive while another is more instinctively defiant, it is also probably true that both will need more patient processing of their choices in ways that might generate different levels of exhaustion in us.

If I am busy, though, and then respond to my kids impatiently, I will tend to be dismissive of their needs and invite more long-term trouble.

If I speak with a tense voice, my kids will hear disapproval even when that is not intended.

When consistent follow through is what is simply needed in order to reinforce discipline or boundaries, this cannot be substituted with voice raising or anger as an instinctive quick-fix. I need to own my response and not make my extreme reactions somehow become my child’s fault.

When that is clear, then calm and unemotional conversation will bring firm, but fair, resolve.

Intentional and not intense.

2. Intentionality is not someone else’s responsibility.

Life lessons require some focused attention from parents. Parents need to be systematic as well as opportunistic. Clearly, problems at school or with friendships need attention as they come up, but proactively addressing issues needs some thought.

For example, friendship choices sometimes need intervention. This is easier at a younger age and when it is policy-driven and not personal. My kids didn’t often sleep over or spend extended time with others unless we trusted the values and supervision of the parents.

Challenging a child’s choices and restricting their freedoms needs to be much more tightly regulated at a young age so that a little more freedom is granted, rather than reined in, later. The ‘mean parent’ who doesn’t allow what everyone else supposedly does will helpfully set boundaries that will be appreciated later, as long as these are lovingly and relationally established.

Back yourself when you have this right balance. You are the only parent that your child will ever have. Perhaps consider the question of whether your fourteen-year-old child really needs a mobile phone, especially at 9 pm at night. Is social media more of a help or a hindrance at the same age? While age surely matters, even eighteen-year-olds are not quite the adults they sometimes say they are when they remain dependent upon parents more than they like to admit.

To help promote intentionality, exploring hypotheticals or purposefully discussing typical problems of others can offer a great chance to explore morals and influence behaviours. Although these discussions need to be age-appropriate, many parents are caught out by waiting too long, often chatting in reaction to a problem when their emotions might be overly involved.

Problems at fifteen are often predictable at five.

Discussing sex proactively with children, too, needs parents to process television shows, overheard attitudes of friends, and important parental values. As a Christian, my biblical convictions can’t be imposed as dogma, but need to be moulded by helping my kids understand why I believe what I believe. Tough topics, like sex, death, investment, commitment, and many more, begin to be discussed quite early.

The faith-shaping of kids, too, is not the ultimate responsibility of a pastor, a Sunday school leader, a Christian school teacher, or grandparents. Mums and/or dads, as primary disciplers, can recruit wider family and friends, of course, but they also need to swot up and speak up. Any parent can and must apply simple biblical truths to everyday life behaviours if they say they believe them. Parents can also pray, no matter how imperfectly they might do so.

Staggeringly, some parents believe that kids should not have spirituality pushed on to their children, even though they will quite naturally indoctrinate them elsewhere. Kids choose preferred sporting practices or allegiances because of parental influence. Imagine, too, how ludicrous it would be to suggest that children only go to school when they feel like it, lest we damage theme by imposing an education!

3. Intentionality needs unique application.

Each child is wired differently, so relating to any child requires a parent to understand and love them as a unique individual. What works for one, does not always work for all. Adapting conversations about friendships, choices, discipline or habits will flow more naturally from an understanding of their makeup.

Respecting individuality can bring conformity without enmity.

A child should naturally be challenged to change, where needed, but good parenting empowers children to make healthy choices in pursuit of that change. The first half of Proverbs 22:6 encourages the training of children in ‘the way they should go’ and the Amplified version of the Bible rightly indicates that this involves teaching them to seek God’s wisdom and will for their own abilities and talents.

This involves initiating them in conduct that pleases God, thereby helping them to make the beneficial choices they really ought to make. Such shaping, however, is necessarily mindful of the specific gifts and character of the child so that it can optimised.

Love is shown, given, directed. This implies purposeful provision for each child, where the child becomes the recipient object of the parent’s affection. Loving a child in the way that he or she needs to be loved is not according to a parent’s desires any more than to a child’s whims. It is focused on the child, sourced from the parent, but inspired by both.

Parents understand the way that a child needs to be catered to. Whether a more reflective internal processor or an action-oriented extrovert, intentionality is tailored. Whatever the individual differences, care will be shown when time is invested one on one, accompanied by plenty of listening and engaging for which there are no short cuts.

To respect a child as a person created in the image of God is to help bring out their best with well-considered responses, challenges, or investments. Being actively present with them in their triumphs, their struggles, their pitfalls and their milestones helps to create the context in which deep and abiding relationships are built.

In the few years in which I have my children’s captive interest and attention, I want to maximise the chance to play my part in ensuring that the good that is sown and refined becomes natural in its outworking. This needs intentionality to be practised and perfected.

Only then can I be confident in the realisation of the second half of that verse in Proverbs 22:6, which declares that they – my kids – will therefore not depart from my investment in them when they eventually grow older.

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