For Fathers of Young Children

Lessons from the Last Graduation

I love to listen to my younger teaching colleagues at Desiring God when they describe their lives as fathers of young children. I smile (sometimes inwardly) to hear of the short nights, the energy-demanding days, and the challenges of discerning how to fulfill their callings as fathers alongside their other demanding callings as husbands, vocational ministers, and significantly invested members and leaders in their local churches. I smile because I remember. That was me two decades ago, though it feels like yesterday.

When our twins were born in December 2004, our other three children were eight, six, and not yet two years old. I was in the thick of learning how to be a father while also overseeing a rapidly growing ministry (Desiring God) and also serving as an elder, worship-ministry leader, and small-group leader in our church. I remember all the wrestling, counsel-seeking, and book-reading I did as a young father. I remember the second-guessing, the trials-and-errors, and what must have been thousands of conversations with my wife, Pam. I remember times we felt in over our heads. I remember all those difficult decisions and course corrections we made together along the way. And I remember many — only God knows how many — earnest, sometimes desperate prayers we prayed together.

Those were full, busy, often trying years. But what makes me smile as I listen to my godly young colleagues is remembering mainly how wonderful those years were — a perspective one tends to see clearer in retrospect than in the messy, muddling middle of it all.

Fresh Reflections of an Older Father

A few weeks ago, our twins graduated high school, ending more than a quarter-century of shepherding our five children from birth to adulthood. Which makes me something of a veteran father (though certainly not an expert). So, my colleagues wondered if I’d be willing to write down some words of counsel for fathers of young children. While I could say many things, here are three lessons that I find myself frequently reflecting on these days.

1. Teach them with your life.

The most memorable things you are likely to teach your children are the beliefs you clearly embody. Let me share two ways this has recently hit home.

My wife and I both have parents who recently celebrated milestone birthdays: my mother turned ninety in 2022, and Pam’s father turned eighty this spring. And both of us prepared tributes in their honor. In mine, I described the incalculable impact my mother had on me as I watched the ways she sacrificially loved and served disabled people in Jesus’s name — typified in how she loved the vulnerable little disabled girl that she and my father adopted into our family. In Pam’s tribute to her father, she described the incalculable impact his deep, manifest love for Jesus had on her — typified in the worshipful tears he shed as she sat next to him during Good Friday services when she was very young.

“The most memorable things you are likely to teach your children are the beliefs you clearly embody.”

What’s revealing about these tributes is that, among all the intentional ways our parents sought to teach us when we were young, what stood out to us were ways they unintentionally taught us. My mother didn’t sacrificially love and minister to disabled people in order to teach me. Her love flowed out of her heart; it was part of who she was. Pam’s father didn’t express his tearful, grateful love for Jesus in order to teach Pam. His love flowed out of his heart; it was part of who he was.

Now that our own kids have reached adulthood, they’ve been reflecting on their childhoods and describing ways Pam and I influenced them. Their descriptions are similarly revealing. For all the intentional time and effort I put into our morning Bible times and family devotions, none of my children (yet) have included those in their descriptions. What stands out to them are memories of our imperfect faith and love as they manifested in the unprogrammed, unpolished, unscripted moments of life — ways we unintentionally taught them.

That neither I nor my children highlight intentional Bible teaching times when recalling our parents’ influence doesn’t mean those times were unimportant — they were important. It’s just that most of our intentional teaching times serve the slow, gradual, cumulative process of our children’s knowledge acquisition, and those times usually don’t imprint as clearly in their memories as epiphany moments, when they see ways we actually live what we believe.

Therefore, your most powerful and memorable teaching moments are likely to occur when you’re not consciously trying to teach your children at all. They will most clearly remember what flows out of your heart as part of who you are. Your children will most clearly remember the Bible teaching you embody.

2. Be patient with your green peaches.

My daughter Eliana is among the most patient, even-keeled people I know. She has a faith in Jesus that functions as a substantial ballast in the boat of her soul. As a result, she’s a calm, stabilizing presence when there’s relational conflict, and a tranquil, reassuring presence for anxious souls. Not surprisingly, then, as a mother, she’s a remarkably patient and wise presence for her three young children.

But Eliana wasn’t always patient and even-keeled. When she was young, her precocious mind, determined will, quick wit, and extensive vocabulary could make her a formidable force. When she didn’t agree with a parental decision (which was often), she had an innate ability to argue like a skilled courtroom lawyer. And when she got angry (which was not infrequent), she could wield her words like a rapier. Too often, I responded too quickly and too strongly and sinfully to the ways her immaturity and her own sin manifested when she was a child.

Now as I watch Eliana wisely and patiently respond to challenges from her own young, bright, eloquent children, I see more clearly ways I could have served young Eliana more effectively. It makes me wish that as a younger father I had had more of the wise, gracious patience of a man like Henry Venn.

Rev. Venn (1724–1797) was a spiritual mentor to the eventually influential Charles Simeon (1759–1836) and pastored a church not far from the church Simeon served in Cambridge, England. When Simeon was still a young minister, he could be “somewhat harsh and self-assertive.” Once, when Simeon had left the Venn home after one of his frequent visits, Henry’s daughters complained to their father about Simeon’s abrasive arrogance. The wise older pastor responded by gesturing to a peach tree in the back garden and saying,

“Pick me one of those peaches.” But it was early summer, and “the time of peaches was not yet.” They asked why he would want the green, unripe fruit. Venn replied, “Well, my dears, it is green now, and we must wait; but a little more sun, and a few more showers, and the peach will be ripe and sweet. So it is with Mr. Simeon.” (27 Servants of Sovereign Joy, 321)

So it was with Eliana.

“Graciously view your children as green peaches that require patient tending over the years of child-rearing.”

Beware the premature assumptions that your young children’s challenging behavior can produce in you. In my experience, such assumptions have usually been inaccurate. James’s instruction that we be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19) is excellent counsel for fathers. Choose to graciously view your children as green peaches that require patient tending over the years of child-rearing. With time and consistent love (in all its tender and firm expressions), they will ripen with “a little more sun, and a few more showers.”

3. Give grace to their failures.

The longer I’ve been a father, the more I’ve reflected on the father of the Prodigal Son from Jesus’s beautiful parable (Luke 15:11–32). And the older my children have become, the more moved I have been by the way that wandering son thought of his father after his miserable and disastrous failure.

Having broken his father’s heart and wasted the wealth his father had given him, whom did he finally turn to for help after his selfish, sinful pursuits left him destitute? The very father he had dishonored. Why? I think it’s because this son knew his father’s heart. He knew his father was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). He knew that if he turned to his father, he would find a refuge from his self-afflicted misery.

Reading this parable now, as a more experienced father, I hear in the son’s rehearsed repentant speech not the young man’s fear of his father’s rejection, but an anticipation of his kindness — a fundamental kindness that had always been a refuge of safety for this failing son. In his readiness to forgo his sonship, I hear his weight of guilt and shame, how unworthy he felt to receive the mercy he was likely to meet when he returned home. And yet (at least it seems to me), it was his father’s kindness that was leading him to repent (Romans 2:4).

As a father, you will want to do your best to guide your children away from making sinful choices that grieve you. But of course, you will not fully succeed. So, among the most wonderful, Godlike gifts you can give your children, even from their earliest days, is becoming a refuge of mercy, grace, steadfast love, and faithfulness when they fail. This will not necessarily prevent them from someday launching off on some prodigal path. But they are not likely to forget your kindness — and someday, that kindness might be the means of grace God uses to lead them home.

Long Days, Short Time

I don’t remember where I first heard this quote, but it captures a poignant truth: “When our children are young, the days are long, but the time is short.” One day you’re herding them like cats into the car, and then suddenly you look over and they’re driving the car. One day you’re watching your squirmy second grader sing in a school recital, and then suddenly you’re watching him receive his diploma. And you wonder where all that time went.

Though you’ve likely heard it a hundred times already, this will occur faster than you think. Soon, you will find yourself saying it to younger fathers. And smiling to yourself.

When your children are young, do your best to keep the long game in view. If you embody the love of Jesus in your spheres of calling (albeit imperfectly), deal patiently with your “green peaches” as they ripen toward maturity (albeit imperfectly), and seek to become a safe refuge of mercy, grace, steadfast love, and faithfulness when your children fail (albeit imperfectly), you will heap priceless blessings on them. This isn’t a formula that will ensure they embrace Christ. But you will leave them a legacy of Christlike love they will never forget; a fragrance of Christ that will long linger in their memories.