June 2004 – About a dozen years ago my pastor had the bright idea of asking four couples in my church to participate in a panel discussion on rearing teenagers. As I remember, only one couple had the good sense to decline. It wasn’t my wife and I.
At the time I thought I had a handle on fathering. After all, I had spent four and one-half years as a houseparent at a Christian children’s home. Plus, as evidence of my skills as a dad, my oldest son was a respectful, obedient and compliant 13-year-old. So with some pride, I accepted the opportunity to share with those less enlightened in matters of parenting.
I don’t remember a thing that was said that Sunday evening. But what I do remember is that within a month, a child from each of the three families proved by an overt act of rebellion that whatever parenting wisdom we thought we possessed was little more than pious puff.
It was a lesson in humility – but sadly, not the last one. It took several more episodes before I began to understand that Christian parenting is more about relationships than rules; more about spending time than spending money; and more about pursuing authentic faith than pretending to be perfect.
Seven veteran dads who work at American Family Association have reached similar conclusions. For this article, these men, all of whom have at least one adult child, share the failures and successes of their own fathering experience.
Redeeming the time
“Despite hearing all the talk from older dads about how quickly your kids grow up, I did not grasp fully enough the ramifications of this fact with my two daughters,” said Fred Jackson, American Family Radio (AFR) news director. “Many times I allowed my work to rob me of time at home when my girls were little.” Fred is the father of two daughters, Valerie, a 21-year-old college student and Megan, who graduates from high school this month.
Too little time spent with his children is also a regret of Don Locke, father of three young adults. “I wish I had taken more time to talk with each child individually about the deeper things of God.” Don, a bi-vocational pastor, is 57 and works in network development at AFR.
Ed Vitagliano’s older child, Lindsay, 20, is leaving home this summer for college. “If I could do it all over again,” the AFA Journal news editor reflects, “I would have insisted that we eat dinner as a family at the table, rather than watching television together. This was the most foolish thing I ever allowed to happen in my home, because some of my best memories of growing up were the times my family shared around the dinner table.”
Three of our AFA dads say their deepest regrets of fatherhood came by their own personal failures as husbands and weak leadership in the home. And yet, through weaknesses, God brought repentance. And through repentance God “restored what the locusts have eaten (Joel 2:25).”
Durick Hayden, AFA benefits coordinator, has four children. His daughter, now 33, was born when Hayden and his first wife were in college. The marriage lasted four years.
Later God saved Hayden though the Christian witness of his future father-in-law. “God provided me with the wife of my dreams. Life should have been great,” he said. But instead of learning from his past mistakes, Hayden says he chose to “wallow in them to the point of distancing myself from my wife and family.”
Along the way, three sons were born, but Hayden remained disengaged from his family. He was soon drawn into pornography and sexual sin. “I missed a lot of the early years of my boys’ lives because of my selfishness and sin.” Hayden said. “But praise God for His forgiveness.”
Today Hayden says he has a wonderful relationship with his sons and his wife of 29 years. However he is quick to say that sin has consequences. One of those is that he has no relationship with his daughter.
“Regrets? I have dozens of them,” says Marvin Sanders, AFR General Manager. One of the main ones, he says, was the lack of family devotional life. “By the time family devotionals became important to me, my daughters were already old enough to rebel against the idea, and I was afraid to force it on them for fear of driving them away from the Lord.”
Sanders confesses that although his children have seen him “drunk and foul,” by God’s grace, they don’t seem to remember it. Ironically, his daughters say that among their fondest memories are times that their dad spent playing with them. “Imagine how wonderful their childhood would have been if I had actually made that a priority,” Sanders laments.
AgapePress Editor Jody Brown, 50, says he let his sons down by not being a stronger spiritual example. “For my two girls, I have been a pretty good example of a husband, but probably not a strong example of a Christian man to my sons.” Brown’s four children range in age from 12 to 25.
Despite his flawed example, Brown says God has redeemed that shortcoming, particularly in his relationship with his older son.
“If I could do it all over again – with the first time around as a dress rehearsal – I’d learn more of the script, that is the Bible,” said Jerry Bacon, 55, AFA’s Internet webmaster. “I’d know my lines much better. I’d know when and where to be on stage. I’d learn when to listen. When to sing, when to talk and when to exit.” Bacon is the father of four from age 24 to 30.
The nineteenth century Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne once said that the mark of a hypocrite is to be a Christian everywhere except home. When it comes to fathering, our AFA dads agree that authenticity is more important than the appearance of perfection.
“I always tried to lead by example,” said Larry Durham, 56, AFA’s data processing manager. Durham is the father of two grown children, Tamsin and Britt. “And I expressed love to them every chance I got.”
Vitagliano agrees with the importance of consistency between belief and practice. “I tried to maintain my integrity as a Christian before my children,” he said, “and I think I succeeded, however imperfectly, in avoiding hypocrisy.”
Part of that consistency in their families, our veteran AFA fathers say, was simply a commitment to be among God’s people. “We took them to Sunday School and church. That was just a part of our lifestyle,” Locke says.
The pattern in the Durham home was the same. “We took our children to church early and kept them in church,” he says. “It didn’t make them perfect, but it sure helped.”
In addition to church involvement, Bacon says Christian parents must know what they believe and how to clearly communicate their values to their children. “The world’s influence is stronger and more prevalent than you can ever imagine,” he said. “It’s a major factor in molding the character and destiny of your kids.”
For Jackson, home schooling provided a major opportunity to pass on their Christian conviction to their children. “My wife and I have never regretted teaching our daughters at home,” he said. It has allowed us to instill Christian values in all areas of their lives and maintain a remarkably close relationship.”
Love lived out
Several AFA dads stressed the importance of modeling for their children the love between a husband and wife.
“They see us holding hands, hugging and kissing around the house all the time,” Brown said. “I still open the car door for her and we go on dates regularly. It’s not only because I love and respect my wife, but so my kids will come to expect the same thing from their future mates.”
“One thing I did right was love my children’s mother unashamedly before their eyes, so that they clearly understood how a man is expected to treat a woman,” Vitagliano said. “Besides God, my wife is the love of my heart, and my children grew up knowing that.”
Mole hills and mountains
Wisdom demands that Christian dads keep a cool head, particularly during the teen years when conflicts are more likely, according to our AFA fathers.
“I think my patience was a big asset,” said Durham, whose children are now in their early thirties.
“Due to the wise counsel of a close friend, I learned not to take everything so seriously as my daughter became a teenager,” Vitagliano said. “I have a tendency towards an unyielding strictness in life, but I chose to avoid the trap of making every issue a hill to die on. The payoff has been a great honest, open relationship.”
Locke said, “If I could do it all over, I’d try to be gentler in dealing with my kids when they didn’t meet my expectations. I expected a great deal from them and didn’t always handle it very well when they failed to live up to my expectations.”
The beginning of wisdom
One of the goals of Christian parenting must be to solidly ground our children in the knowledge of God. However, it’s a toss up who learns more in the process – child or parent.
“I learned a lot about the love that God the Father has for His children from seeing the change in my life when our two girls came along,” Jackson says. “I learned about patience, about forgiveness, about giving and about the wisdom of withholding things even when they don’t understand. And I’ve learned to avoid trying to live up to the so-called expert books on child rearing. The real expert is God.”
Guys only. When Durick Hayden’s sons were ready for the straight scoop on the facts of life, he decided a “guys only” camping retreat was in order. Hayden recalls that memorable trip:
“I will never forget that weekend. It stands out as being one of the greatest events of my life. I was at once apprehensive and excited to be able to share such intimate things with my boys. You see, my dad had never felt comfortable enough to talk with me about such things. I found out like a lot of young men do by slipping around and hearing all the wrong things from others guys who were as ignorant as I was.
“At first the boys were real shy and a little embarrassed, but they soon warmed up. After some giggles and “no-ways,” they began asking questions.
“That day opened a dialogue that has lasted until now. They understood that no question is off limits as long as it is asked with sincerity. Although I let them know that I would never be judgmental, I did reserve the right to be their father first and their pal second.”