In the years our sons were preschool age, we heard Dr. James Dobson discuss A Checklist for Spiritual Training, from his book Straight Talk to Dads. One particular thought caught our ears. He asked, “Is your child learning of the love of God through the love, tenderness, and mercy of his parents?” We paused and looked at each other and asked, “Is he?”
Our son was frequently ill. Doctor visits, uncomfortable tests, and medications with nasty side effects were a regular part of his life, along with the frazzled parents who were trying to keep up. In addition, we were forever saying no due to his exuberant, inquisitive, assertive nature. It seemed he was always in pain and always in trouble. Although the health problems were relatively minor, they were constant, and life often fell to the tyranny of the urgent.
As we listened and thought about being that example of God’s love to our children we began to converse about what that needed to look like. We decided that the best way to affirm our love to our son was through deliberate face-to-face time.
Perhaps you have heard the illustration of cowboys and shepherds related to parenting. The cowboy herds the cattle, pushing along from behind. The shepherd on the other hand, leads his sheep. With the constant demands of diaper changes, spilt milk and other small accidents, not to mention those quick little feet and hands to catch and guard, it is easy to be a cowboy mommy. And little ones just do not get ‘hurry!’ Add the frustration from herding, illness, and lack of sleep and it is easy to see why a parent might not be sure a child recognized the love.
Based on Scripture
Dr. Dobson based his checklist on Scripture. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .” was the first point and the one that caught our attention. Each point had examples of behaviors that were evidence of the understanding and application of the concept. Love your neighbor? How are your manners?
This was a new way of thinking for us. Like most young parents we each had ideas from our upbringings that we either wanted to be a part of our children’s lives or really did not want to be a part. Like all parents we had to learn to balance and compromise those ideas. Often we were just trying to figure it all out. We loved our children and wanted more than anything to teach them to know God, but looking back I think we were coming at it from a cultural perspective, doing what seemed right by our experience, then adding God.
Each generation has a doctor authority figure that seems to have all the answers. But when there are multiple authorities with differing ideas, and your friends and family have strong opinions with which you are not sure you agree, what do you do?
The value for us in this spiritual checklist was that it taught us to use the Scripture for our authority. We did read books on child training and found we preferred books that just explained developmental stages, or suggested ideas for learning, but more importantly we learned to search the Scripture to get a basis for our direction. We talked together consistently, planning and defining our philosophy for child training and education. Every few months Jerry would pause and say, OK, where are we?
How are we doing? Have the boys made progress in this area? What do we need to do next? Eventually we defined areas in which to work, not just the spiritual goals from the checklist, but physical, social, and academic goals as well and searched Scripture for direction in each.
I think the primary benefit of the focus on purpose and priorities was the marriage building aspect. The turmoil of life with little ones requires a solid base from which to function. A united front is not just for the children; it is the firm foundation and resting place from which parental operations process. Someone has said a good marriage is the best gift you can give your children.
As adults, our children have said that they most appreciated having parents with one voice. Building a strong marriage requires time, effort and risk. In the same way that I learned that teaching my children about God was most effective when I focused on my personal relationship with God, we learned that putting priority on the marriage made all the difference in the parenting.
As we began to apply the principles of the checklist, we did see a change in our parenting, particularly in the area of discipline. I should say here that I was a manic stay-at-home mom and played with my children all the time. It was not that the boys were not getting enough time and attention. And we were very careful and conscientious about discipline, that being high on our ‘I never want to be like my parents’ list.
But focusing from Scripture changed our basic approach to being more proactive. We began to teach the boys that they needed to obey not because mommy said so, but because the Lord God required it of them. With that basis, we had to stop and ask, what does the Lord require of us, and of them? So it was not so much the action as it was the heart of parenting that changed.
Another area from the checklist that needed work in the preschool years was manners. I checked out books from the library to teach manners, rather than simply modeling them. Again, all that was needed was a parental heart change, realizing that doing was more important than telling.
We also addressed fear; “Is he learning to turn to Jesus for help whenever he is frightened or anxious or lonely?” Psalm 91 became a cornerstone for the boys as we turned to Scripture to meet this need. And then we had to teach our very quiet son about heart attitude and recognizing the roots of sin. Of course there was more, but this gives you an idea of how our lives grew using Dr. Dobson’s checklist.
As the time for kindergarten approached we realized school would really cut down on the time we had for the face-to-face shepherding time we knew we needed with our boys. That was not the only reason we chose to homeschool but it was one of the primary reasons. The blessing and benefit came when one night after dinner Jerry put his arm around our son and said, “Jeffy, mommy and daddy love you.” And he responded, saying, “Yes, I know that, Daddy.” Simple words and often said, but that particular time was deeply moving and affirming and one of our most fond homeschooling memories.
Debbie and Jerry Feely taught their two sons at home for 13 years, beginning in 1985. With both boys grown, Debbie continues to work in the homeschool community, serving as CHEA’s Education Consultant, and with CHEA’s Regional Advisory Board. Debbie also works with her local homeschool community as a PSP advisor, group school teacher, test administrator, curriculum counselor, and perceptual motor therapist. She is the author of Preschool at Home.