When our children go out on their own, having landed their first job and signed a lease for their first apartment, we hope that we have trained them to: respect authority, think for themselves, drive a car, hold a job, make dinner, pay bills and carry on mutually respectful and loving relationships. And that's the short list.
Parenting is a big job; serving as a child's personal ATM or behavior umpire isn't enough. We need a relationship where we can tell Johnny it's wrong to hit Susie but then find out why he struck her. We need a relationship with enough emotional strength to share hopes, dreams and convictions and be heard when we do so. We need a relationship that makes it easy for them to come to us with questions and concerns. We need a relationship where there's not just respect, but also love.
This kind of parent-child bond doesn't just happen; it takes wisdom and intentional effort. Here are some tips I hope will encourage you in one of the greatest pursuits of your lifetime — building a relationship with your child.
Pray, pray, pray.
There are moments when I'm completely baffled by my kids, ages 15, 11 and 5. I ask God to reveal His wisdom about their behavior, their problems with friends, their spiritual lives. Then during a quiet instant between my prayers, God will disclose a question to ask or a strategy to try.
For instance, I found myself refereeing a dispute between David, my oldest, and Bethany, the middle child, over David's video game console. As the words grew heated, my frustration level shot up like a thermometer's red line in August. I was ready to click off the power button and send them their separate ways. But the Holy Spirit said, Pray. So I did — and gained insight.
I asked David why he didn't want Bethany playing his video games. It turns out she had made negative comments about his game playing, which he viewed as relaxation from schoolwork. My daughter apologized, and David forgave her. Because I prayed instead of adjudicating, my children quickly reconciled and our relationships were strengthened.
Get into their space.
From infancy through about age 8, kids spend a lot of time on the floor. We should be down there, too — playing games, pretending with dolls, building block forts. Fight the feeling that you're acting stupid; crawl through those embarrassed feelings and meet your kids.
Be careful not to transition into buddies, however. It's good to enter their world, but you're still the parent. You may need to set time limits on this kind of play, and if whining ensues, a time-out might be necessary.
Getting into the world of older kids is different. Watch their TV shows or movies. At first your kids may wonder if you're spying on them, but explain you just want to hang out.
You may need to resist the strong impulse to get up and do something else. Even if you're not fascinated by Robot Warriors 3000 or The Princess Posse, ask questions about characters and storylines to start conversation with your kids.
Keep it real.
As hard as it may be, recounting our missteps can help kids who are 12 and older learn from our errors. They also get to see we're not perfect.
One day I shared with David some history about my friendships. I told him about my best friend in elementary school and how we drifted apart in high school, and about my two best friends in college and how we've lost touch. The point? Friends come and go, but don't let a friendship die because of bitterness or lack of attention.
Such personal information can be embarrassing to tweens or teenagers. If your kids feel awkward, try talking in the car, where the conversation isn't face to face.
Enjoy family time.
A simple way to connect with your kids is eating together as a family. This is easy to do when they're little, but as kids get older, sports and other activities compete with the family mealtime.
Our family is committed to sharing dinner together, even if it's only 15 minutes. Each of us tells a highlight and a lowlight from the day. Usually someone's highlight or lowlight is a springboard for other discussion.
The difficulty we have is keeping kids on track. David gets restless and begins to wander away from the table. Mark, our youngest, acts silly. My wife and I have to pay attention and guide the conversation.
There are other kinds of shared time, of course, such as going to a ball game. But don't assume you've connected with your kids just because you were at the same event. Shared time involves asking questions ("What did you think about that referee's call?") and exchanging ideas ("I remember coming here with Grandpa").
Do projects together.
We all have things we want to do — alone. Even if we're not thrilled about cleaning the garage, we'd rather do it by ourselves than supervise a team of rowdy kids.
Last year, I planned to paint a room in our house by myself but realized this was an opportunity to teach and connect with all the kids. We transformed painting from a chore into a wonderful memory.
You'll need to think and pray about the right level of involvement for your children based on their ages and experience. Count on this: The project may take longer, and your children will not do things like you would. If you can accept these facts, you'll discover an endearing, enjoyable time.
This isn't just for small ones. Older kids like it when you act silly, too — even though you might hear, "Oh, Dad, stop it" or "This person is not my mother."
Embarrassing children in public is not a good idea, but having fun in private keeps things light and makes you approachable. So go ahead, do the goofy dance, make funny faces, sing silly songs, talk for the dog.
The means to build strong, durable bonds with your kids is within you. Just ask God to show you the way, and start connecting with your kids today.