Josh from Bel Air, Maryland — the same Josh with the great question about digital and print Bibles — writes in to ask, “Pastor John, in a recent podcast you mentioned the role fathers have in homemaking. I get annoyed with trivial activities such as watching TV, playing board games, and playing UNO, but my family loves these activities. Is it better to suppress my annoyance and participate in these activities, or is it better for me to leave and just do the things I love like reading, writing, and playing music? Am I selfish because I do not care for these activities? What role does a father play in engaging in home activities regardless of his interests?”
You are not selfish for enjoying reading over UNO, but you would be selfish for reading in the bedroom while the kids want you to play UNO in the den. In other words, of course, most of us would find a deeper, more lasting kind of pleasure in a significant book than in an insignificant game, but that is really not the issue here.
Does Dad Play with Me?
I think the most serious theologian in the world who has children at home should play with them all kinds of play that are age appropriate, and here is the main reason. When children are little —immature physically, emotionally, and spiritually — they don’t have a lot of categories for interpreting dad’s joy. They don’t have a category for deep joy immersed in John Frame’s Systematic Theology.
“Parenting really is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
They just do not have it. Someday they may. Hopefully they will. To them that simply looks like withdrawn boredom. It is not what they need to grow up and see. They will grow up and see that eventually.
Right now the category they have for “Is daddy happy?” or “Does daddy love me?” is pretty simple: Does he play with me? And when he plays with me, does he enjoy it? Their categories are very narrow. On the floor with the blocks at one year old. A simple card game at three years old. And so on right up through the high school sports and the performances.
Kids Need to See Dad Happy
The children need to see daddy as happy — happy with God, happy in being with the family, and, of course, happy in worship at church and happy in devotions at home. If dad is morose, bored, withdrawn, he is saying that is what it is like to know God, or that is what it is like to be God. These little children are learning: Dad says he knows God. Here is the kind of life and relationships it builds in our home.
So the hope is that later, when they see that board games are unimportant on a scale of global and eternal realities, they will transpose dad’s humble play into a symbol of God’s condescension to his children, to bless his children. The hope is that they will take daddy’s happiness in play with them and see that our heavenly Father is not begrudging of his time and his attention to his children.
Of course, the balance between playing and working and reading and meditating isn’t simple. Children have to be taught that life is not all play. Daddy can’t stay at home all day and play. Gradually, children need to be brought into the real world of pain, pressure, self-denial, service, and sacrifice. But joy must be the bedrock of it all. Little children need to see that. This is daddy’s greatest challenge.
“Do all things,” as Philippians 2:14–15 says, “without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.” That is the challenge.
“Right now, the category they have for ‘Is daddy happy?’ is pretty simple: Does he play with me?”
Is daddy doing all things without grumbling and disputing to show the children how to rejoice at all times because of Christ? And to show them to be aware that, yes, there is great suffering in the world and also, yes, there is sacrificial love to be performed, but underneath it all is a God who says, “I make known to you the path of life; in my presence there is fullness of joy; at my right hand are pleasures forevermore” (see Psalm 16:11)? So that is the bottom line. Parenting, Tony, really is impossible. But with God all things are possible.
Yeah, so true. I think I remember hearing you say that you relax by being productive. Did you struggle with this when your kids were small? I mean, was it hard? Was this a battle for you to give up the more serious pursuits in the evening — the intellectual pursuits of writing, reading, poetry — and just get on the floor and play blocks?
You should ask them that. I loved 5:30 to 7:15 every night, which was play time — from 5:30 to 7:00, actually, because I allowed the church to make committee meetings starting at 7:15. I said, “Don’t expect me before 7:15, because I am committed to playing until 7:00. And we ate at 5:30. So we could eat, say, in 20 minutes and then we have a good, you know, hour and a half of play together. And then I pack up maybe and head off to an elder meeting or whatever.
I loved those times. I mean, I really did enjoy the kinds of things that my boys seemed to enjoy when they were little. You know, all kinds of things on the floor in the living room during the winter and outside every kind of sport possible when the weather was tolerable.
Work Hard to Be Accessible
But to be honest, I think I would say they might have looked for me to be more accessible, say, on the weekend when I was getting ready for a sermon, or other times. But as far as the play times go, God gave me the grace to really enjoy those times.
“Joy must be the bedrock of all life. Little children need to see that.”
I think the boys probably look back and say, “Daddy really worked a lot, you know? He probably could have been more accessible. He probably could have been there more often.” But as I look back, not only did I enjoy those times, but I think I went to just about every game there was to go to in soccer and baseball and football, and I loved it. I did not go out to those games begrudgingly — I really didn’t. I mean, I was the only parent there at three o’clock in the afternoon for a typical soccer game and could get myself in trouble at the excitement with which I cheered for my son Ben, for example.
So yes, to be honest, there were times, seasons during the week or during the year, when I wasn’t as accessible as a typical dad might be or might have been wise to be. But given what I thought I should be doing in terms of times of play in the evening that were sacrosanct — that really belonged to those boys, and then to Talitha when she came along, and then the games and the performances and dramas and so on — I loved those, and I hope they know that.