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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

our children, our neighbors

If you asked me the single-most important insight that has shaped my parenting, it would be this: “Children are people.”

It seems self-evident. Clearly, they have arms and legs, ears, noses and mouths enough to qualify. But the idea of their personhood goes far beyond just possessing a human body. It goes to the core of their being and speaks to their worth. Children bear the image of God, just like adults. Well, not just like adults – it is true that they are developing physically, emotionally and spiritually at a different rate than adults, but their intrinsic worth and dignity does not increase or decrease depending on the rate or extent of their development. As Dr. Seuss has famously noted, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

If you asked me the single most misleading statement I have heard with regard to parenting, it would be this: “The Bible is relatively silent on the topic of parenting.”

On the surface, this statement appears to be true. When we think of “parenting passages” we typically think of those that explicitly mention parents, children, authority and instruction: Deuteronomy 6, the fifth command in Exodus 20, spare the rod and spoil the child, train up a child in the way he should go, children obey your parents in the Lord, and a smattering of other verses. We may even throw in the example of the Prodigal Son or the parenting woes of the patriarchs for good measure. But other than these, few passages mention the parent-child relationship specifically, leading many to conclude that, for the most part, the Bible must leave us to figure out this parenting thing on our own. An understandable conclusion.

Until we remember that children are people.

Because if children are people, then they are also our neighbors. This means that every scriptural imperative that speaks to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves suddenly comes to bear on how we parent. Every command to love preferentially at great cost, with great effort, and with godly wisdom becomes not just a command to love the people in my workplace or the people in my church or the people at my hair salon or the people on my street or the people in the homeless shelter. It becomes a command to love the people under my own roof, no matter how small. If children are people, then our own children are our very closest neighbors. No other neighbor lives closer or needs our self-sacrificing love more.

Suddenly, a great deal of the Bible is not silent at all on the topic of parenting.

Recognizing my children as my neighbors has impacted the way I discipline them, the way I speak to them, the way I speak about them to others. It has required me to acknowledge how quick I am to treat those closest to me in ways I would never treat a friend or a co-worker. It has helped make my children objects of my compassion instead of my contempt. I am better able to celebrate their successes without taking credit for them, and to grieve their failures without seeing them as glaring evidence that I’m a terrible parent. Recognizing my children as my neighbors has freed me up to enjoy them as people rather than to resent them as laundry-generating food-ingesting mess-making fit-throwing financial obligations.

Except for the days that it hasn’t. And on those days, I must be reminded again what Scripture teaches about loving my neighbor, confess that I haven’t loved my child that way, and begin again. And Scripture provides ample help. Here are just a few "unlikely" parenting verses that point me back to neighborliness on the days that don’t go as they should:

When I want to correct my kids with harshness:
Proverbs 15:1
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

When I want to lecture them:
James 1:19-20
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

When I want to make them make me look awesome:
Philippians 2:3-4
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

When I find meeting their needs to be an imposition:
Matthew 25:37-40
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

When I want credit for how hard I’m working as the mom:
Matthew 6:3-4
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When I don’t want to extend forgiveness for their offenses:
Ephesians 4:31-32
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

When I’ve completely lost sight of the forest for the trees:
2 Timothy 2:24-26
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

That last one is on a note card on my fridge. 

It is true that our children are God-given responsibilities we are to steward. But we will only steward them as we should by remembering that, first and foremost, our children are people we are to treasure. When we treasure our children as our neighbors, we remove from our discipline any hint of condemnation, shame or contempt. We alter our language to communicate love and value, even when we must speak words of correction. And we replace our prayers of “please fix my frustrating child” with prayers of “please help me to love the little neighbor You have placed in my home, even as You have loved me.”

Fred (“Mister”) Rogers understood well the value and dignity of children. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he spent his life preaching the beauty of neighborliness on public television to small people: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…Won’t you be my neighbor?” His message is a good one for parents as well. Children are people. Our own children are our closest and dearest neighbors. Mom and dad, use each “beautiful day in the neighborhood” to show preferential love to the neighbors who share your roof. And be encouraged: the Bible overflows with help for you.

What passages of Scripture have most benefited you as a parent? I’d love to know.


  1. This is a great post! One of the best things about treating my children as my neighbor is that, over time, I've been able to see them treat others the same. For example, instead of saying, "Don't be late for car pool!" I instead said, "Do you understand why it is important to not be late for car pool? Mrs. Jones' time is valuable and we need to honor that." I've actually heard them police themselves with this same kind of thinking. I heard my middle child tell my youngest that he needed to not run at church because he could run into a mommy with a baby. So, treat your children as your neighbor and hopefully they will in time learn to treat others the same way,

  2. This mom-to-be greatly appreciates this post!

  3. This is so wonderful - thank you, Jen! Great insight. I remember early in marriage feeling like the "marriage" passages weren't getting me through the day to day gritty of married life, and then realizing that all the neighbor passages and brotherly-love passages applied to our marriage too. Colossians 3:15 in particular, was a word in season for me as a wife! I hadn't particularly thought of the application to my children - but you are SO right, and this is SO helpful.

    1. Bronwyn, I applaud you for connecting this idea to marriage. If more of us did, marriages would look very different, wouldn't they? You win "favorite comment of the day". :)

  4. Most recently I have been struggling with anger toward my 3 year old. I probably don't have to explain why other than he is exactly like me and we butt heads constantly. I was recently convicted while reading through Galations that I need to be the fruit of the Spirit to him. When I'm tempted to be harsh or yell, I'm reminded to be gentle, kind and self-controlled. I had never though of how the fruit of the Spirit can be applied in my actions toward another person, just that they are something I should seek in general. It has really done a number on my heart and my actions, or should I say my reactions.

  5. Wow. This was so relevant to what Ang and I were talking through last night in parenting our four year old. Thanks for posting. The cumulative effect of those scriptures you mentioned are very powerful.

  6. Thank you,
    member of Gateway Church

  7. Thank you...I was a fan of Mr Rogers...it planted 'good seeds'...who would've known...but God!