What does it mean for a parent to effectively lead a family with young children?
The answer to that question has come to me through years of trial and error (mostly error). As a young mom, I didn't give leadership much thought — I was just trying to get through the day. But as my kids grew beyond the toddler years, I realized something important: Kids do what they see. They believe what is prioritized at home. That meant I was a leader whether I liked it or not.
My leadership grew right along with our three kids. Then, when those kids became teens and young adults, my husband, John, and I adopted seven children and started all over again. Seeing what worked — and what didn't — the first time around made me more confident as a leader the second time. Also, seeing my older kids as adults confirmed what we did right.
Setting Family Priorities
The values and priorities you model in good times and bad are likely to become the values and priorities your kids adopt as adults. These are the things they will pass down to their kids, too. So we want to make sure they pick up the right things! Here are six ways I have found to effectively lead little ones:
Yes, it really does matter if you go out for ice cream after naptime if that's what you promised. It's easy to follow a leader we trust. Kids are quick to follow when they know you care about them, consistently meet their needs and keep your promises. The more instances where we do what we say, the more our children become willing to follow. Also, trust built in the early years forms a strong connection that will help kids to turn to you in the tumultuous teen years.
What is your family about? What makes you a special group of people? Let your kids know they are an important part of your family. Be sure to point out their best qualities, and let them see how you need them and they need you. Of course, words are not enough. Make your child a part of the team by giving her simple chores, such as setting the table, sorting the laundry and pulling weeds in your yard. Point out how her small efforts benefit the family as a whole.
Where you place your focus will direct how your family spends their days. John and I worked together to determine what things were important for our children's futures. Then we decided how to make those things important now. Because we want our children to have a relationship with God as teens and adults, we have a time of daily Bible reading and prayer with our kids now. We attend church and serve other Christians by volunteering in children's church. We collect baby items for our local teen-mom support group to model helping those in need. These small but consistent acts demonstrate that we put God first as a family and build a strong foundation for our children's future faith.
As children grow, priorities change. It's important to set routines, but it's also important to be flexible. Nobody enjoys being around a rigid leader. If something you did last year doesn't work this year, be willing to try something new. Different strategies may work with different personalities of children, so be prepared to change things up.
Leadership isn't just about where you go, but also what you protect. I've learned to say no to a lot of good things to protect the best things. For us, we value family dinners, evening togetherness and reading together. To do these things, we've had to say no to a lot of outside activities. We believe that, at some point in the future, it will be more important for us to have a family bond than for each of our kids to be part of a different activity that fills up our evenings. There is plenty of time in our children's future for them to pursue leisure activities, but these childhood years — with everyone together — are fleeting.
Finally, as parents, it's up to us to create a vision for the type of family we want to be. That's why my husband and I explain to our kids that the things our family focuses on may look different from what other families are emphasizing. This also provides us with opportunities to talk to them about how the priorities of those who follow God should look different from those of people who don’t.
Maybe your focus is on debt-free living rather than extravagant vacations. Perhaps you choose to give to your church instead of buying brand-name clothes. Use these practices to talk to your children about the charge to believers found in Romans 12:2: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Ask your children to join you in making these decisions, teaching them what God's Word says.
Being a family leader means choosing where you want to lead; once you make good choices, you've already done half the work. There are so many decisions we have to make on a daily basis as parents, but when you make solid decisions based on God’s Word while your children are young, it will be easier to lead well in the seasons to come.