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21 Years of Parenting

Fred Harrell

My eldest son turns 21 tomorrow.  I love the man he is becoming and thank God for him every day as he is such a gift to me.  He has honed my soul more than he knows, and made me think and reflect and take inventory of my own life on more than one occasion.  He has done this in his own way, with the particular gifts and personality that God has given him, as have my other 3 children in their own particular way.  Each child, so different, so unique, and deeply impacting. Parenting is the greatest challenge of my life.  The physical exhaustion of the early years turns to emotional exhaustion as they grow older.  And here's the deal: there's no manual, and we are not prepared for the job, no matter how old you are or how many books you read.  You build the bridge as you walk across it and as they grow older you start to think how you might do things differently if you had another crack at it.  But then you remember that you are still parenting, and have the chance to adjust right now because our kids need us for as many days as God gives us.


So after 21 years of parenting and being around a lot of children during the process I have a few not particularly profound suggestions.


1. While there is no manual, there is a Bible that informs us God loves our children more than we do, that He is a God not only to us but to our children.  He is sovereign, and I will trust Him with my children and this is what my children need me to do so I don't try to play God in their life.

2. Don't do it alone, but within community. Our children need to know that they and their parents are part of a community, that there are other adults and peers who are safe places for them to process life. The contributions of other adults in the lives of my children are irreplaceable and invaluable.

3. Focus on helping your child learn how to think for themselves versus telling them what to think. Certainly you will instruct and educate, but as they grow older they have to individuate and own their beliefs, their faith, their values, for themselves. This means your home needs to be a safe place to process and (gasp!)  disagree with you.  You must hold your convictions with grace and charity, and they need to see you model that because the world they are growing up in is global.  My 13 year old was video chatting with her friend in Tokyo minutes after the recent earthquake. That is a different world.  And it's a world that often tells them  Christian communities are not places where questions, dissenting opinions, and struggle are welcomed. Counter that message or else they'll process their life another place.

4. Focus less on behaviors and more on the heart. Try (and in some seasons of their life they may not let you in... return to point 1 when this happens) to find out what's keeping them up at night, and I can tell you it's not behaviors they are fretting over, but fear. Fear of the future, fear of becoming an adult in a world that changes so fast on them they wonder if they can keep up, fear their parents are going to crash and burn, fear they won't make their grades, fear they don't look a certain way, fear someone will find out they have been traumatized by another adult and haven't told anyone, and the list goes on and on.  This and other issues of the heart should be your focus and it's where the good conversations, however brief, take place.  Fears, dreams, longings, hopes, disappointments... run with those themes and resist the impulse to make your parenting only about behavior and performance.

5. Listen to them. I know they are kids, with still developing brains, and don't know their up from down and can be ridiculously naïve.  They are also ridiculously intuitive and have so much to teach you if you will slow down and listen and be present. Most parents with adult children I know wish they had done less talking and more listening. I'll always have lots of things to teach my kids, but have you discovered how much they have to teach you?


"They grow up so fast" I was told so many times when my children were young.  I didn't believe them in the midst of sleepless nights and diapers.  I believe them now.  Cherish the children in your life, yours and others.  Craft a life that includes them.  You impoverish your life when you filter out the enormous gift of children.


The list is far from complete.   These are the May 19th ramblings of a dad whose life changed forever on May 20th, 1990.  Happy Birthday John Mark, my beloved eldest son.

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May 20, 2011 12:44 PM

Thanks Fred for the great words - esp. about listening and the heart. 

Fred Harrell

May 20, 2011 12:29 PM

@Taylor - was just talking with someone about you and Nate the other day... a pastor at a conference I think? Great to hear from you and glad this post was an encouragement.

@Jessica - you are one of those adults who have contributed to all my children. Thank you! 

@Fran - wow I'm honored! There is a lot of dogma and opinion... parenting is nuclear material and it sometimes brings out our worst in the form of creating rigid formulas that will make our kids turn out the way we envision (but is actually about our fears and creating a strategy to temporarily soothe them).  

@Ann and @Daniela - you are both GREAT moms... and I love what I read and see on FB and at church... enjoy each phase and chapter

@Mike - thanks for the encouragement dude. It feels like a crapshoot doesn't it? But God is at work...thankful to be your pastor.

@Brett - You will receive a blog post in approx. 15 years reminding you of this. By then however it will be ridiculously dated and phrases like "videochat" will seem like "turntable" at the rate our world is changing.






May 20, 2011 12:23 PM


Taylor Day

May 20, 2011 12:08 PM

I hear you loud and clear down here in Florida, and need to read this weekly so that I don't forget.  Oh, God, please change my selfish, sinful heart to give up my own control and trust you fully with Kelly and Emily...I pray pray pray that I will cherish the next 21 years with them, and be able to listen more.  THANKS FRED!  You pastor across the country.  Kelly already reveals his fears about becoming and adult...recently, by asking, "why can't I just live with you forever? I don't want to ever move or ever go to heaven."  He's 3.

Steve Wilson

May 20, 2011 9:57 AM

What a privilege it was to watch John Mark grow up through the years as he spent much of his summers in our home. And we are still crazy about him. Our children are richly blessed to have him as their cousin and friend. And I won't even go into how much help he's been with any Apple/technology issue we've had...

Ann Moon

May 19, 2011 8:31 PM

i will save this and reread again and again for many years to come.  thank you.


May 19, 2011 8:20 PM

Dear Fred,

You win. 


I have a 6-month-old. When you have a child people give you lots of advice, mostly unsolicited, mostly strongly colored by Dogma, Opinion, and Hearsay; and most of which leaves me cold.  But you win the award for Best Parenting Advice Thus Far. 


Congratulations. I will try to remember this advice for the next 20.5 years. 



Daniela Meyer

May 19, 2011 4:07 PM

Thanks Fred. Made me cry. Still in the late nights and diapers phase but I appreciated so much your thoughts on finding out their fears. Going to take it to heart.

Jessica Thompson

May 19, 2011 3:56 PM
Fred, this is wonderful...and brought tears to my eyes. I can't believe JM is 21! What an amazing man I've been privileged to witness grow up. For me, to be part of his "community" and the community of V, L & L has been one of the most wonderful treasures of my life. I'm better because of them! Xoxo.


May 19, 2011 3:53 PM

Great thoughts on parenting ;-)


May 19, 2011 3:13 PM

Nice post Fred! I'm not a parent yet, but I enjoyed your thoughts and found them helpful. Would you mind re-blogging this in 15 years to remind me?