Everyone is looking for joy. Parents, this includes our children.
The search for joy lies behind all of our kids’ desires. It informs and directs all of their hopes, feelings, and actions. It is the proverbial carrot hanging in front of our kids’ hearts. It’s why they make that face when you remind them that dessert belongs only to those who eat their vegetables, and why their world seems to hinge on having five more minutes of video-game time.
Once we recognize joy’s formative power over our kids’ hearts, we are well on our way to knowing our children better and our role as parents better too.
When God calls us to be fathers and mothers, he calls us to be stewards of our children’s joy. Which means that a lot of what we do centers on helping our joy-obsessed children find their greatest joy.
Now, this might sound strange to many of us. Most parenting books and podcasts don’t spend a lot of time accentuating the influential power of joy in our kids’ lives. Yet, whether you see it or not, you are more than likely already stewarding your children’s joy toward some end.
Just think about this week. What did you say to your daughter about her run-in with the school bully? What did you do when your middle child didn’t make the high school team? More than likely, you sought ways to replace their hurt with joy. And it doesn’t just have to be hurt that we exchange — we seek all the time to replace good with better, and better with best, such as when we tell our kids to power down their screens and pick up a book.
These instincts show us that much of what we do as parents is driven by our innate commitment to help our kids find joy. This is a good thing, but it’s also where we can get into problems.
Settling for Less
The pursuit of joy itself is good. God created all of us to seek true and lasting joy because he knows that this search ultimately leads us to him. This is why Jesus uses parables to liken God and his kingdom to buried treasure and a beautiful pearl (Matthew 13:44–46; cf. Philippians 3:7–8). He knows we would sell everything to makes these priceless riches our own because of the happiness they promise us. Jesus then helps us see that the real treasure, and the real pearl of great price, is God and his kingdom. This is where joy ultimately resides, and making this joy our own is worth giving up everything.
Pursuing joy, then, isn’t the problem. The problem is with where and how we find that joy, when we look outside of God for our delight. To be specific, the problem is with how sin twists our pursuit. Sin is, in many ways, simply misplaced or shortsighted joy. Sin works because it peddles counterfeit joys off as the real thing. Sin sets out to confuse and corrupt joy, and to make our hearts settle on anything other than God.
This is exactly what the serpent did to our first parents in Genesis 3. He promised that the forbidden fruit was better than God and his promises. So, in taking the bite, Adam and Eve settled for a lesser, broken joy — a fruit that was good and delightful, but paled in comparison to the utmost good and perfect delight of knowing God as they once did (Genesis 3:5–6).
So what does this have to do with parenting? Well, it redefines it. It means that God calls parents to more than just helping our kids discover any type of joy, anywhere. It means that God calls us to help show our children where and how they can find him, the very source and reason for every joy ever known (John 15:11; Psalm 36; Psalm 37:4).
Now, if we let it, this can change everything about the way we raise our kids. For example, if we see ourselves as stewards of our kids’ joy, then our parenting finally has a destination. Everything we do — teaching, talking, commanding, loving, correcting, comforting — can be a step toward helping our children find their greatest joy in our great God (Psalm 16:11).
This doesn’t change just our parenting strategies, however; it changes us as parents too. When God becomes the target of our children’s greatest joy, we no longer have to be. When we see every interaction with our kids through the lens of helping them find delight in God, our work as parents is bigger than just having well-behaved kids with perfect test scores.
Which means we don’t have to be perfect moms and dads. Our calling is a better one. What we are called to do is lead our kids to joy in their perfect heavenly Father. And with that as our goal, we find freedom, and so do they. We are free to make mistakes, and so are they. We are free to live in God’s grace, and we want our children to live with us there too.
Getting to the Heart
How do we do this? How do we help our kids find their ultimate joy in God? Here are a few tangible ways to be good stewards of our children’s hearts.
1. Start with your own joy.
Remember, everyone is looking for joy. Parents, this includes us. So before we can guide our kids’ hearts, we must first know the way ourselves. We as parents have the privilege to hold our kids’ hands on the way to our greatest joy. So before diagnosing your kids’ idols, make sure to face your own. Ask yourself, What have I put all my hope in today? What am I worshiping? What stands between God and my real joy?
2. Reshape the do’s and don’ts.
If you are like me, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds as a parent. Sometimes we don’t have a good reason why we say no to our kids, and sometimes we say yes out of sheer pragmatism or exhaustion. But setting our sights on joy helps us recalibrate. Our do’s and don’ts should have distinct and eternal reasons behind them. We’re after more than behavior modification; we’re after our kids’ long-term happiness. Our commands and instructions don’t have to be speed bumps to our kids’ happiness; they can be signposts that point them to their ultimate joy. So take a moment before your yes or no and consider how your response will affect your kids’ search for joy.
3. Ask why.
As your kids grow, teach them how to spot joy’s formative power in their lives. One of the best ways to do this is with the question why. “Why did you hit your sister?” “Why didn’t you study for that exam?” Now, of course, you’ll have to wade through their “I don’t knows” and “just becauses.” But when you do, you’ve helped them to drill down into their motives, where they can finally see how their joys affect their feelings and actions and begin to evaluate them rather than just be enslaved to them.
4. Make connections.
One of the most important things we can do as parents is ask our kids what makes them happy, and then just listen. Getting a bead on your kids’ joy is like having an all-access pass to their hearts, and when you know what your kids love, you can help them put their loves in the right place. God isn’t in the business of simply removing our kids’ earthly joys, which means that shouldn’t be our business as parents either. Instead, God calls us to help connect our kids’ earthly and temporal joys to him, the divine and eternal one.
So play basketball with your kids and, when you can, help them see how this earthly gift points to greater joys. Sure, Legos and American Girl dolls can become idols, but they can also pave the way to conversations that can help our kids hope in their heavenly Father. And when (not if) our kids seek joy through sin, we have the divinely given privilege to help them see they’ve actually sold joy short by seeking it outside of God and his ways.