For many years my son Joshua swam on a club swim team. His best event was the 100 yard (or meter) backstroke. This was a sprint. He would jump in the water, hands on the starting block, mentally preparing for the race ahead. When the starting gun went off, he poured every ounce of energy into racing the four laps ahead of him, and within seconds, the race was over.
I, on the other hand, was a distance swimmer. A short race for me was the 500 (20 laps) and my best event was the 1650 (or mile) which consisted of 66 laps. Unlike a sprint, distance events require careful attention to pacing. In fact, it’s not uncommon for first-time distance swimmers to start the race too fast, pushing themselves to stay near the front of the pack. But swimming a mile takes about 30 minutes on average – and if you haven’t conserved your energy early, you risk a slower time, or not finishing the race at all.
Parenting isn’t a Sprint!
So, do you parent as a distance swimmer, or a sprinter? Sometimes when we are swept up in the dull routine of sorting the dark laundry from the light, or answering the millionth question our two-year-old asks before breakfast, or chauffeuring our middle-schooler from band practice to a friend’s house, or grounding our teenager for violating curfew, it’s tempting to treat parenting as a sprint. We look for short-term solutions, and we expect quick results. We treat behavior issues with short-term fixes rather than training our kids towards a long-term outcome. We seek comfort for the moment, instead of making short-term sacrifices that will produce long-term growth in our children.
For example, if you consistently tell your talkative two-year-old to stop asking questions because you would rather have some peace and quiet, you may succeed in returning your kitchen to a normal decibel level. But, in the process, your inquisitive child learns that her questions don’t matter. Or, you may decide that forcing your teenager to attend church isn’t worth all the complaining, so you let them sleep in on Sundays. A short-term gain--you don’t have to deal with a grumpy teen while singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee”--but it comes with a long-term loss when your young adults lose interest in the church.
Long Distance Parenting
The writer of Proverbs offers this instruction to parents: “Train a child up in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). The wisdom of this saying is that it works from a “distance” approach to parenting. Parenting, according to the writer of Proverbs, is setting your children on a path towards a goal that takes a lifetime to reach. So, begin by reflecting on your goals as a parent. Talk to your spouse or others that you respect for insight on what to aim for. What kind of character do you want to see develop in them? How do you hope to see them mature emotionally, mentally, and spiritually? What sort of work ethic do you want them to embody? Answering these questions gives us a good idea of end goal of your parenting--your “finish line” as it were. Most importantly as you discern the kind of person you desire your children to be, prayerfully consider the biblical portrayal of godly, Christ-like character.
Then, spend time considering how you are investing yourself in your children. Are you developing healthy habits as a family that will lead to this outcome? Some of these habits will require short-term sacrifice, like saying no to sports that practice on Sunday in order to participate in church, for example, that will produce long-term fruit. Evaluate your means of disciplining your children: “sprinting” is reactive and emotional, lashing out in anger, or handing out punishments that are vindictive. On the other hand, if you see discipline as a means of character formation, consequences will be given as a means of instruction, and correction to lead your child towards maturity.
Live it out
Consider how you will respond to the daily demands of your children. Take this scenario for instance, just as you are sitting down to get something done, your 10-year old daughter ambles into the room where you are working, and begins asking a series of random questions. The short-term gain would be to send her on her way to do something more productive, and you can complete your task. On the other hand, you could recognize her need to connect in that moment. This might come with a (small) cost, but these many small “costs” paid out over the days, weeks, and years of parenting will lead to a stronger bond between you and your daughter.
So, are you in for the distance race or the sprint? When I was racing the mile, proper pacing felt somewhat unnatural, almost like being restrained. But that lasted for only the first portion of the race. Later on in the race, the energy conserved allowed me to persevere and ultimately to finish the race. Parenting works like that too. It feels unnatural sometimes, but parenting for the long-term produces pleasing results in the end. So will you put up with momentary hardships (whether those million questions before breakfast or the effort of shuttling your kids from one activity to the next) in order to see long-term growth (like an inquisitive mind or a well-rounded adult)? The goal may not be in sight, but each day, you are stepping closer towards it.
Seek God’s grace as you swim the race of parenting!