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What Parenting Has Taught Me About Discipleship

Katie Ignatowski
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June 23, 2022

Being a parent is one of life’s greatest joys AND one of life’s biggest challenges. While it is easy to get frustrated with our kids when they don’t behave the way we want them to, these moments actually offer us an invitation to grow as parents and as disciples of Jesus. In this post I explore how some of the challenges I’ve experienced as a parent are helping me go deeper as a disciple.

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Not What I Expected

I consider myself a pretty easy-going person. 

At no point in my childhood do I ever remember telling my parents that I wouldn’t do something or refuse to listen. I don’t recall having strong opinions or throwing tantrums or ever really asserting my preferences on a situation.

So, naturally, I assumed my kids would be the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with a family activity or game or project I’ve been convinced would result in a lot of fun and some great family memories, only to be met with resistance and obstinance by one or more of my kiddos. I did not get the ‘go with the flow’ children I thought I would.

But lately I’ve been reflecting on my role as a parent. I’ve come to realize that my role is not to make them into the children I want them to be. My role is to tend to my own spiritual and emotional formation as a parent, and, in doing so, learn to embody the posture that Jesus embodies towards me. In other words, it’s not about them, it’s about me.

Focusing On What Matters

I have bought my daughter Millie a special outfit for more than one special occasion only to have her refuse to wear it in favor of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt, patterned leggings, knee-high socks and light-up tennis shoes. She refuses to listen to me regarding any aspect of her outfit and won’t let me touch her hair to save her life. My son, Hudson, will love a certain food one day and refuse to touch it the next, and has never let me change his diaper without a full-out meltdown. Never. And Charlie has an opinion on everything from how tight his jeans fit to the proper consistency his smoothie must have in order to be drinkable. No fruit chunks allowed.

My kids are stubborn. And opinionated. And they are wonderful. But being their parent has required me to undergo some major paradigm shifts. I quickly learned that none of them were interested in becoming the type of child that I had in mind. They aren’t concerned with my idea of what they should eat, what they should wear, what would make for a fun Friday night activity or some great family memories.

Recently, however, I’ve started to make a shift in how I was relating to my kids' resistance to conform to my desires. I realized I could either keep struggling to get them to do what I want OR I could focus on showing up as a parent the way I want to show up. As I chose the latter, I noticed new questions emerging in my mind: How is each child uniquely wired? What desires, qualities, characteristics do they have that I can affirm in them in spite of my frustration? What lesson can I help instill in the small, everyday moments that will resonate with them in future moments? How can I help guide them toward who God created them to be, less as a supervisor and more as a coach?

I realized I could either keep struggling to get them to do what I want OR I could focus on showing up as a parent the way I want to show up.

Discipleship is much the same. We can spin our wheels trying to control outcomes and manage appearances, fixating on the external stuff. Or we can surrender our discipleship journey to Christ and trust him with the quiet, slow work of guiding our formation. We can focus on controlling outcomes or we can focus on our own faith formation.

Formation is a Journey

Being a disciple of Jesus is about undergoing a process of transformation. It’s about becoming more like Jesus by being formed into his likeness. And spiritual formation, like any type of formation, is a long and unpredictable journey.

Sometimes it feels like we take two steps forward and one step back.

One day I feel like I'm totally at peace. Me and God are in sync, and things are going well. The next day can be completely different. I recognize some unaddressed concern in my life that I’ve been putting off that has left me feeling uneasy. And as a result, I find myself being short tempered with my family as the internal anxiety leaks out sideways onto them.

It’s only when I sit back and reflect on these moments that I realize that there are no quick fixes in discipleship. There are no easy answers, no one-and-done solutions, no secret remedies.

There are no easy answers, no one-and-done solutions, no secret remedies.

Rather, it’s in the journey of struggling with God that we’re formed into His likeness. And it’s in the journey of parenting our children, bearing with them in their ups and downs, that they will undergo a process of formation as well.

A Posture of Grace and Truth

One of the most helpful lessons I took away from my year-long discipleship group was the idea that God always meets us full of grace and truth.

His truth is firm, but also gentle. He tells us exactly what we need to hear without guilt or shame or manipulation. His truth always contains an invitation to a better way of living, but is never forceful. He doesn’t exert control over us in a way that makes us choose what he knows is best. He lets us decide how we will live and he is full of grace for all the ways we mess up.

Grace and truth. What a beautiful vision for parenting. So I ask myself:

  • What would it look like to orient towards my children with a posture of grace and truth in the same way that Jesus orients towards me?
  • What would it look like to be a parent who tells my children the truth that they needed to hear, but in a way that gives them plenty of permission to be honest with me when they failed?
  • What if I was so full of grace that I was able to get curious with them when they acted out instead of reacting out of my own frustration and desire to control?
  • What if I cared more about their formation as people than the image they portrayed to the world (an image that, of course, reflects on my image as a parent)?
  • What if I saw the challenges of parenting as opportunities for me to become more like Christ as opposed to a test of my parenting abilities?

That is a picture of tending to my children in the same way that Jesus tends to me. I disciple them by walking with them in the long, slow work of formation, as Jesus does with me.

God Gives Us Everything We Need for the Journey

Each of us would be wise to admit that we are a work in progress- as disciples, as parents, and as people. None of us have arrived and none of us ever will this side of heaven. There is no quick fix to becoming a great disciple and there is no easy solution to being a great parent. We can’t make our kids into who we want them to be, just as God won’t force us to be someone that we don’t want to be. 

So instead we rest in the fact that God is good and he gives us everything we need for the work ahead of us.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. If you are a parent, what are some of the ways that you see yourself acting out of a desire to control your children rather than tending to your own formation?
  2. In what areas do you see your desire to control outcomes or circumstances in your life in tension with your formation as a disciple of Christ?
  3. How do you react when your expectations are not met, whether by a child or someone else? How do you respond to yourself when you fail to meet your own expectations?
  4. How can you embody a posture of grace and truth with yourself today? With your children? With others?
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