Start by listening

“I’m no good at anything!”

“Sam is the best. Why can’t I be like him.”

“Everyone else can do it but me!”

Do these words activate your parent panic alarm? These phrases and others like them are a common and normal part of the growing process. However, as a parent I feel the need to spring into action and do something. My child feels like he/she is not good at anything. No way! This can’t happen! My natural instinct is to argue, “You are good at many things.” Enter kid response: “No, I’m not.” Followed by my educated, all-knowing parental response, “Yes, you are.”

Perhaps in my panic of seeing my child hurting in some way, this “No, you aren’t/yes you are” approach could turn into more of an argument than anything else. I have found it a little (maybe a lot) more challenging for me to take a more unnatural approach during times like this. In fact, I have had to tell myself to STOP—and just listen. An expression of feelings associated with not excelling in a certain area can first be acknowledged—then argued with (kidding about the arguing). Here’s my secret template.

“Sounds like you felt a little (insert feeling word here) when (insert event here) happened.”

It feels a bit unnatural to me, but I have found that if I do not give our kids an understanding of how they feel, nothing else I say seems to be heard. It makes me think of the accounts in Scripture when Jesus sat with the woman at the well or walked along the road to Emmaus with the disciples. He seemed to join them and express his understanding before teaching them a new way.

So what’s next? I’ve joined my child and expressed an understanding of how he feels about not excelling in a certain area. Now it’s time to debate, right? Set this child straight and tell him what he is good at and he will walk away with new confidence, right?

Maybe sometimes that approach is needed. Maybe it helps at times to minimize a mistake or encourage hard work and practice. Maybe sometimes it is an opportunity to acknowledge the effort and not the end result. Lots of helpful approaches can be used at different times and special situations.

As I keep my radar up for a teachable moment, one thing I tend to be on guard for in my kids is the sense that Mom and Dad will only love me if I am the best. Wrong! I think there may be a sense of that conditional acceptance in all of us at times. This becomes a great opportunity for a reminder of God’s unconditional love. He loves us all with our successes and failures. That’s how we as parents try to use that as our guide. While we were still sinners (failures, broken, not good at anything), Christ died for us. There was nothing we had to do to earn God’s love. It is unconditional.

As parents, we can remain watchful for opportunities like this to express understanding when our kids experience disappointments and do not excel in a certain area. Let’s ask for the Lord’s guidance to help us use the best tool of redirection at the right time and always be aware of the moments we are given to remind them of God’s unconditional love.

Dan Nommensen and his wife, Kelly, have a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son.

Finding strength in gentleness

How wonderful it is to have the opportunity to teach gentleness and strength to our kids. However, I have to admit, I wonder how my wife, Kelly, and I are fostering gentleness and strength in our kids within a culture that seems to encourage one over the other.  

“Be strong!” “Be assertive!” “Teach your kids not to cry!” “Don’t give in!” “Win at all costs!”  

Gentleness can be seen by some as weak, vulnerable, or cowardly. Kelly recently witnessed this at our local drug store and shared it with the kids and me when she got home. A customer in line ahead of her became verbally abusive to a cashier when an incorrect amount was accidently charged on her debit card. The customer accused the cashier of intentionally trying to steal money and provided some extra choice words to enhance her position. Kelly noted, though, that the cashier was cool, calm, and gently responded to the customer to acknowledge her concern, reassure her, and make the adjustment or refund—and even thank her for shopping at the store as she left.  

When we talked about the event, I asked, “How did that cashier not get angry?” I think that the cashier was using more strength than the customer in that instance.  

We can appreciate our culture’s understanding of strength—but we shouldn’t use it as an excuse to be abusive and go well beyond appropriate assertiveness. As we consider the example of Christ Jesus and are motivated by his love for us, a simple act of gentleness can be an unselfish act of love that so many people are yearning to see.  

Consider the strength it takes to, “Do nothing of out selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3,4).  

The amazing thing about this is that the strength it takes to be gentle and unselfish is given to us by God—it’s a natural result of our faith and love for him. After thinking about Kelly’s experience, I can now better appreciate the essence of a gentle response in the face of what some view as a “strong” approach. I can’t help but apply this to my own parenting and my temptation to sacrifice gentleness for strength or control.  

I’m convinced that experiences similar to what she saw in the store are all around my kids on the episodes of the latest Netflix series, in school, or on the “funny” YouTube video shared by friends. These poor examples of others being strong or selfishly stronger than others won’t teach appropriate boundaries or proper assertiveness to our kids, but they can be opportunities to give to others what is so desperately needed—an example of strength in gentleness as a result of a loving faith.   

Dan Nommensen and his wife, Kelly, have a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son. 

Is it a problem when our kids are silent?

One of the greatest skills of parenting is communicating with our children. Truly hearing them, reflecting their words, giving them an understanding that their thoughts and feelings are heard and acknowledged. Don’t we all want people like this in our lives? What a wonderful demonstration of love to be fully present with another person in close communication. As children grow and develop and experience a multitude of new things, there is a lot to process and understand. What if we get the sense that our child doesn’t want to talk about it? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Parents of young children: Now is the time to set the stage for a lifetime of proper communication. Get them used to talking about the day. Consider making it a bedtime ritual. Share one great part of your day and one not so great part—both child and parent. Then spend time in prayer thanking God for the highs and asking for his help regarding the lows. This early communication sets the stage for the teen years.

Another thing to keep in mind is our children’s temperaments. By nature, don’t some kids seem to think out loud and others internalize? Some kids want/need to be verbal. Others, not so much. We parents have these same natural preferences.

Here’s a recent example in my family. I picked up Kayla from an after-school practice and said, “Hi.” I got a, “Hi,” back, and then I sat comfortably driving with my thoughts. After a few seconds of silence, Kayla said, “Ask me something about high school.”

Boy do I have it made in the communication parenting skill area with her! Not only did my extroverted daughter tell me about her day, but she even interjected questions to herself for me! “Let’s see, what else happened today?”

Now my seventh-grade son, Josh, is a bit different. I picked him up from school and made the mistake of asking him a closed question: “How was your day, buddy?” He replied with, “Good.” Insert silence.

I have come to understand that Josh prefers to process his thoughts internally and needs to be drawn out with more questions such as, “What was your favorite thing today?” “How come?” “What did everyone play at recess?” Reflecting some of his thoughts and feelings keeps the communication going. But, there are times when an introvert simply needs to spend time in thought in order to process effectively. Silence is important.

Is it a problem when our kids are silent? Maybe for some. If Kayla grew silent, I’d be quite concerned. I would check on her for sure. Josh’s silence can be harder to decipher. Is it his natural tendency or could he be troubled? Whichever the case, my wife, Kelly, and I make it our goal to watch for those opportunities to check in and give both kids the understanding that we are here and willing to talk if or when they need. It is our way of demonstrating our love for God in their lives.

God offers unconditional forgiveness–for parents, too

It was a long day at work. I was exhausted. When I finally returned home I stopped by the refrigerator for a glass of milk. I opened the door, grabbed the milk container—empty! There was another full gallon right next to it, but who puts an empty milk container back in the refrigerator?

Aren’t there certain things or certain times when seemingly little things just get you frustrated? That’s what happened to me.

I could have tossed the container in the recycling and moved on—but not that day. Nope. It was time to find the one responsible, and I had an immediate suspect. My wife wouldn’t do it, and my daughter, Kayla, doesn’t drink milk. That left one person—my son, and it wasn’t the first time Josh was caught doing this. It was time to confront.

Here’s how that conversation went.

Me: “Josh, why would you leave an empty milk container in the fridge?”

Josh: “I didn’t!”

Me: “Mom and Kayla wouldn’t do it, so you’re telling me someone else came into our house, drank all our milk, and put the empty container back in the fridge?”

Josh: “It wasn’t me. Why do you think I always do things like that!”

You can imagine how the rest of that conversation went . . . until Kayla (overhearing parts of the conversation) yelled from the basement, “Don’t throw away the empty milk container in the fridge; it’s for school. We are building a raft for science class. I have to wash it out yet.”

At that moment I felt like finding that raft and sailing far, far away. Oh, yes, another example of Great Moments in Parenting by Dan Nommensen.

You might think I’m being facetious by calling this a great moment in parenting, but it really was. In that short exchange with my son, I could probably count a dozen ways I screwed up and offended Josh and crossed the line for what God expects of a parent. Now remember Romans 5:20: “. . . but where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” This truly was a great moment in parenting because I am forgiven by grace through the sacrifice of Jesus.

Praise God that my sins as a parent are not held against me. My joyful response to God’s grace was to tell Josh I screwed up and that I was sorry. This moment in parenting had the potential of creating a rift in our relationship, but it ended up presenting itself as an opportunity for greatness as I expressed my forgiveness and Josh extended that forgiveness to me.

Parents, do we have moments where we make mistakes that impact our children negatively? Maybe you’ve had more than a few? I know I have. The temptation is to not see these times as moments of grace but rather allow these experiences to pass by and build resentment and anger for both parent and child.

Does our sinful parental pride lead us to fall into the trap of thinking we are always right? If so, we are missing opportunities to see and show God’s grace and forgiveness. But fear not, because it’s never too late!

God’s unconditional love for us and his forgiveness never end. In the joy of knowing that by God’s grace we are forgiven and part of his family, watch for your great moments of parenting with your children.

Using law and gospel in everyday situations

What a privilege it is for us as parents to use God’s law and gospel with our kids. It’s a blessing that the Holy Spirit has called us to faith and given us the motivation to delight in God’s law and look for ways to demonstrate our love and thanks. Law versus gospel . . . what a balance as we parent our children at any age!

I have to admit that my natural tendency is a more law-based parenting approach. I thought I’d never use the line, “Because I’m your father and I said so,” but I have. Whenever I get to that point in a conversation with one of my kids, I stop and ask myself if what I am requiring is because of my own selfish desire to have things a certain way or if I am really providing a way for my kids to demonstrate their thankfulness for Christ.

Here’s an example. As a child, I grew up eating at the kitchen table with my family for every meal. When my kids wanted to eat in the family room together, I had a litany of responses.

“No. We eat at the kitchen table because that’s where people eat.”

“No, we’ll spill and stain the carpet.”

Then after these and other responses didn’t seem to satisfy anyone, I pulled out, “Because I’m your father and I said so”—as if that response instantly created satisfaction. It was more like forced obedience.

Obeying parents is a great way for children to show their love for God. I have also found that too many moments like this can frustrate kids, and their delight in the law can fade.

Let’s face it. Eating at the kitchen table is really my own desire to do things the way I did in the past. Can we eat together in the family room? Yes, of course—and we now do. Sometimes we even eat outside on the patio. Where we eat is no longer the requirement, but my kids understand that what I appreciate is the time together. Being together is a way they can demonstrate their love for me and for God. The rule itself is gone, but their understanding of the motivation behind the rule is what brings me joy.

My natural law-way-of-thinking can easily show itself in my parenting. Teaching responsibility quickly can become another selfish rule on my part and cloud the opportunity for gospel-motivated behavior.

As a parent of two awesome kids, I rely on the example of how my parents balanced the law and gospel with me when I was a child. You may recall a previous article when I shared a story from my childhood about driving our new garden tractor into a clothes pole. The grace-filled reaction of my father was imprinted on me. I recently had the opportunity to pay that forward.

My 14-year-old daughter asked if she could pull our car into the garage. It was literally only 15 feet. What could go wrong in 15 feet?

After a complete lesson on driving safety and the rules of “right pedal is go; left pedal is stop,” she sat in the driver’s seat and slowly moved the car forward. Just at the point where the pedal on the left should be used, the pedal on the right was selected instead. Thankfully she only hit the gas slightly, and the car managed to stop after crushing our garbage cans against the front wall.

My first inclination was to get angry. I just told her which pedals to use! However, I knew she was scared. I knew she felt bad. What she needed right then was not a healthy dose of the law and a stern reaction from her dad. It was a mistake; it was not intentional; she was sorry. My reaction was the same as my dad’s reaction when I was her age—nothing but encouragement. The law part of my parenting was done already. Now it was time for the gospel.

Are the muddy boot prints tracked along the kitchen floor an accidental act of a child on her way to an emergency bathroom trip? Or are they an intentional expression of disobedience that expresses an attitude that she doesn’t care about the rules in the house? Each has its own opportunity for the parent to emphasize the law in one case or the gospel in another.

Here’s my personal formula for balance:

1. Remember my natural tendency. I know I lean more heavily on the law, and I know I don’t always put the best construction on an act. Because I know this about myself, I hit my STOP button so I don’t get angry right away.

2. Communicate. After I pause, it’s time to find the facts. It’s time to communicate with my child and find out what happened.

3. Law. Is the particular situation in need of a more law-focused approach? Reinforce the rule? Time for a consequence? Do I need to emphasize the law to have a better appreciation of the next step?

4. Gospel. Is the particular situation prime for a grace response? Perhaps the child already knows she is wrong and already knows consequences will be coming, but she just needs to know you still love her and is forgiven because Christ forgave us.

5. Repent. The last step is to ask God for forgiveness when I skip one of the other steps above and blow it! When I miss the chance God gives me to demonstrate law and gospel in my parenting, I remember the undeserved act of love he showed me by sending his Son to satisfy the requirements of the law for me and by giving me the free and perfect gift of grace.

Let’s delight in our opportunity as parents to demonstrate our love for God by using the law and gospel as we handle everyday situations in our home.

We are helping our children understand the need for their Savior and bringing them the assurance of their salvation and the knowledge that they are loved by us and their heavenly Father.

Cherishing positive role models

As parents, I think we can all agree with the importance of Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The question is, “How do we train?”

This has been what I have most appreciated about Heart to Heart. Parents are sharing their unique experiences on how they have trained their children in the Lord. When I read Proverbs, the word “training” initially brings a picture in my mind of sitting down with my son or daughter and studying Scripture or reading a devotion—perhaps more of an academic experience. However, I’m also quite certain that modeling the application of our knowledge of Scripture is important for my kids and included in the idea of “training” from Proverbs.

By default, parents are natural role models for their children, but we can also rely on other positive role models to reinforce that training in the Lord. I want my kids to see how God’s Word comes to life in what we do and say. I’d like them to see how others bring to life the fruits of the spirit: “. . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

But who are these people who can be role models, and where do we find them? There seem to be many role models out there in sports, movies, television, or YouTube, but are these the people who consistently bring us confidence in their demonstrations of love for God?

As I wrote this article, I couldn’t help but wonder who my kids would identify as their role models. So I asked them, “Besides Mom and Dad, who would you say are your favorite role models—the people you really look up to?” I asked them each separately and both of them had the same top pick. They chose their Aunt Lori because, “She is so loving and patient and kind to everyone.”

Yes! I couldn’t have picked a better role model, and personally I was relieved that the top pick was not a famous YouTuber or sports hero! Another pick was one of their grade school teachers, Miss Bauman, who has devoted her life to the teaching ministry for more than 40 years.

I’d like to think my wife and I intentionally arranged their role models to be family members or called workers. However, it’s interesting that our kids picked the same people that my wife and I would consider our own role models. Maybe the secret to encouraging positive role models for our children is to be sure we have our own first. Thanks be to God that he provides faithful, Christian people in our lives who we can look to as an example. Let our kids see us cherishing them as well.

Grandma is in heaven

Talking to your child about the death of a loved one is never easy. Death is simply not natural. It’s the result of sin. No sin—no death—and no need to talk about it.

Certainly the circumstances surrounding the death can impact a child and family, but as parents, my wife and I have found that preparing for death is a natural part of our Christian life. Starting with baptism we receive the forgiveness of sins and become heirs of eternal life. Death is defeated! As parents we then have the opportunity to help our children grow in the Word so the Holy Spirit can nurture their faith in Christ and they can be confident of life in heaven. Talking to children about the death of a loved one can then bring us the opportunity to comfort one another and be reminded of the certainty of eternal life in heaven.

Nine years ago my mother, Helen, died after fighting cancer for 18 months. My daughter Kayla was five years old. We lived nearby and had many opportunities to see “Humma” as Kayla liked to call her.

Eighteen months of cancer treatments and a slow decline of health gave us all time to prepare. We would specifically plan “Kayla and Humma” days where just the two of them could spend time together. Kayla was always excited to see Humma, and the door to Mom’s house would always open before we could even knock. Imagine the big smile and hug of a grandmother as she swoops up her granddaughter in her arms. That time was not only important for Kayla, but it also gave my mom a sense of peace knowing that she had the opportunity to have a loving relationship with all of her 14 grandchildren.

The only thing that troubled Mom was that she would not be present at Kayla’s confirmation some day. So mom and I pulled out the video recorder, and we recorded a message that could be played on Kayla’s confirmation day. This last May, Kayla was confirmed, and she had the opportunity to have one last Kayla and Humma moment together.

The day did finally come when the Lord took Humma to heaven. How do you tell your five-year-old that Grandma died? The nurtured faith of a child is simply outstanding. It was hard for me to tell Kayla that her grandmother died but easy for her to remind me that my mom was in heaven. That response can only come by hearing the Word that has been shared at school, at church, and at home from family—including from a very special Humma.

Parenting through the lens of the gospel

It was a Friday night. My wife was at an event for church, and my daughter was at a sleepover at a friend’s house. My son and I had a night off together. We decided to go to a movie and looked at the options. There was one superhero-type movie that I thought looked good. My son thought it looked “awesome!” Then I saw the rating: “R.”

My son asked, “Dad, why can’t we go to an R-movie?”

Is there a difference in how a Christian versus a non-Christian parent might respond to my son’s question? Couldn’t we both reply by pointing out that the movie has sexual contact, vulgar language, and extreme violence and that’s inappropriate for young children? I think we could—and that was part of my response.

We all have non-Christian friends who do a great job of instilling basic morals and values in their children. After all, everyone has a natural knowledge of God’s law and can use that in their parenting as they train their children to not hurt others (or watch others do so in a movie), steal, lie, etc.

But as a Christian parent we have something more! We not only have God’s law, but we have the gospel as well. We know that there is no way we can keep the law perfectly, but Christ did for us—and gave his life to pay the penalty for our sin. By God’s grace we are forgiven and are heirs of eternal life. Everything we do now is not merely motivated by God’s law. The law has been fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice. Now what we do comes out of joyful response to the gospel message.

“Dad, why can’t we go to an R-movie?”

We can! But, let’s think about how we can show our love to God—by watching a movie filled with sexual contact, vulgar language, and extreme violence? Or, staying home together with a bowl of popcorn and watching Star Wars? We chose Star Wars—and I ate most of the popcorn.

These teachable moments of gospel opportunity are always before us. Let’s admit that we likely err on the side of being more law-based than gospel-based in our parenting. It’s natural, but it’s truly at the root of what sets us apart as Christian parents. Remind yourself of your overwhelming thankfulness that despite our sin and imperfections, the Holy Spirit has led you to know Christ’s love. Now it’s our opportunity to demonstrate that thankfulness in the lives of our children.

Those little white lies

I’m sure you’ve had a moment when you have “caught” your son or daughter twisting the truth of a story to avoid a consequence, especially regarding school and homework. I had one of those opportunities the other night when I needed to remind my kids about the importance of telling the truth about their homework deadlines. As soon as I finished talking with them, the phone rang.

It was a friend of mine whom I hadn’t heard from in probably three years. After a great conversation, he asked if we could get together the next weekend. Can you see where this is going? Yes, in front of my daughter I gave him an answer that was perhaps not completely accurate. One of those, “We are busy this weekend,” responses.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I heard, “Dad, what are we doing this weekend?”

I blew it! My heart moved up into my throat. Should I try to twist the weekend story so I don’t look like a complete failure as a parent? Should I try to walk away and pretend I didn’t hear her? Could I quickly get my wife to help me create a cover story? What to do!

Surely my “little white lie” is not on the level of Abraham passing off his wife as his sister. And what about Peter—denying he even knew Christ, three times! My weekend excuse can’t be that bad, right?

Who are we kidding? It’s a lie. Clear failure on my part to keep God’s law perfectly. It was intentional deception just like Abraham and Peter. It was a failure with my friend and a failure with my daughter. No excuses.

It’s the same thing that we all complain about in our society. Who is telling us the truth? Have you watched any political debates recently? You know what I mean. It makes me wonder if Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus, “What is truth?” might have been an exasperated response to the politics of his time. Was he exasperated with the lies, betrayals, and inconsistent stories?

We want so desperately for our children to be different. We want them to reflect the love of God by speaking truthfully. We want them to be trusted, successful, and honest. We don’t want them to grow up to live dishonest lives—existing by adding one lie on top of another.

Yes, my weekend story to my friend was a failure, but it gave me the opportunity to demonstrate confession and admit that I made a mistake. It also gave me the opportunity to talk about Christ and the reason we have and need his forgiveness—something I did not emphasize earlier when I was lecturing my kids.

We are forgiven! God’s grace abounded in my family’s failures that evening. It won’t be the last time, either.

Family balance is important

I’m happy to share some thoughts on how my family has adjusted to the myriad of activities and opportunities for our kids. First, though, I want to point out that I believe every family is different and there are no right or wrong answers. I can’t recall ever hearing a magical number of activities that are recommended or required for kids. I think we can all agree that the number of options for activities has exploded.

This is really going to age me by saying this, but back when I was a kid in Lutheran elementary school, it seemed my athletic options were basketball and softball. I also played baseball in a community little league. The only other activity or group option that I can recall was Lutheran Pioneers or Buckaroos. Furthermore, I rarely remember having practices for my teams in grade school. I’m sure we had some, but I really don’t think they were three nights a week.

Now we could fill this page with nothing but structured activity options through school, church, the community, summer sports camps, etc. Our temptation as parents, and on the part of our kids, is to be involved in more than we can handle. Perhaps there is even a bit of worry as parents that if my children are not taking advantage of the plethora of activities that other families are, maybe my kids won’t grow up as well-rounded adults.

Good friends just signed their son up for the community lacrosse team. Now that sounds fun! I didn’t even know that opportunity existed. Should I mention that to my son?

With no easy answers, how do we make decisions on the activities? To be honest, my wife’s and my efforts usually fall on trying to limit participation rather than seeing our kids overinvolved in too much. Here are a couple priorities we try to keep in mind.

Priority #1: Love
Probably the most important thing we have tried to do is make it clear to our kids that their participation and success in any activity is not something they need to do to get our love. God’s love for us through his son was unconditional. We don’t need to perform—or be the best—in order to receive God’s love. What we do as Christians is simply a demonstration of our love for God. So in that light of Christian joy and freedom, priority #1 is that the activity the kids choose can be seen as just another way to show love for God and not a way to win mom and dad’s approval. That comes free!

Priority #2: Balance
This can get tricky. As adults it seems balance in life can be hard to find, and our own activities and responsibilities feel overwhelming at times. I guess if our kids watch us closely and learn from us, are we teaching them to live a balanced life or a life filled with stress and anxiety as we move hastily from one thing to the next, getting short and angry with one another because we always feel late and behind?

I think family balance is important. People tell us that these times when the kids are young will go by fast. I definitely agree! Our family needs time. We need time to simply be together, go for a bike ride, watch a movie, and even do some chores together (or maybe I wish we’d do more chores together!). This is time to just be with one another and nurture our relationships. It’s the time needed to teach and show them God’s love. If the outside activities infringe on the family connectedness, then it’s time for us to pull back.

Looking back in my life, with comparatively few activity options, what did I do with all my time? I wasn’t bored. I have great memories of participating in unstructured activities with friends and family. I’m certainly not calling for us to bring back “the good ‘ole days.” I think all the varied activities offered are amazing now, but developing a few simple priorities has helped our family maintain balance.