I grew up in a superb Christian home and had some idea what to expect when I became a father. At the same time, however, there were some surprises along the way. Here is a list of what I’d want new fathers to know, some gleaned from the family in which I grew up, some from the one I’m raising.
1. The first decade
Although it's different for many families, I was surprised—and I wish someone had told me about ahead of time—how different the first decade of raising children is from the second. In years 1–10, all the focus is inward, toward the family and the parents. It's extremely intense. A friend told me once he sometimes feels like he has to practically yell at his children, "Yes, I see you! I see that thing you are doing! I notice you! Good job!"
But in the second decade, as children pass developmentally from one stage to another, the focus turns outward; your children are branching out on their own, differentiating, launching out into life. Before, they wouldn't leave you alone; now it's hard to get them out of their rooms, where they're listening to cool music and posting on Instagram and generally being cooler than you. The struggle is to find family time.
The almost total contrast surprised me. The intensity is relentless in the first decade, but keep telling yourself: I have 10 years to pour into my kids, and then the intensity will ease up, and there will be a lot more time to relax, be quiet, and do my own thing. So hang in there. It is over quite quickly.
2. Selfish patterns
A lot of the things I worried about in my kids—recalcitrantly selfish patterns—get worked out as the kids grow. It's God's pattern for how human beings develop. As your kids move from being very young children to early adolescence, it will actually start to occur to them that other people exist and matter. Just give it time.
3. Christian discipleship
If you wait to try to inculcate real Christian discipleship and worldview into your kids in the second decade, it'll be centuries too late. You need to start as soon as they can talk, and do it repeatedly, so that when are awash in the anti-God culture of middle and high school, they don't buy into it too much. The goal is for the world’s culture to feel weird enough to them that they don’t make their home there, and you have some room to speak the gospel to them. (And they will be influenced by and conform to the world; there's no way around it. The point is to have a structure in place so the damage is limited.)
I recommend lots of the "Jesus Storybook Bible," lots of praying with and for them, and lots of thinking out loud with them about obeying Jesus, actually caring about other people, etc., so that as teenagers they can start to run in the way of God's commandments.
4. Hard work
Kids will be absolutely the toughest thing you ever do. Work will be a cake-walk in comparison, and weekends will be more tiring than your work week. Coming home at 5:00 p.m. will be the beginning of second shift for you. It's beyond exhausting. But God sets up human experience in this way (for most of us, anyway) in order to develop and deepen in us the ability to give to others. Everything else, every other problem, will seem so easy in comparison. You'll be better able to give to others for the rest of your life after getting a kid to the first decade mark.
5. A father’s relationship with God
As a father, the attention and energy of the family will be directed at you in a particular way: your wife will need you when you get home, and the relationship with your kids will be one-way: you give, your kids take. It will be very easy to become self-pitying (who takes care of me? who puts me first?) and for the relationships to become adversarial, with you putting up walls to have time alone while the rest of the family demands your attention. It's easy for resentments to build and all parties to feel (with some justification) as if they're the ones who've been wronged; and if it progresses, you may find refuge in an affair or some kind of addiction.
You really need to be connected to God and receiving from him, remembering and trusting that he's the one who puts you first and cares for you, giving you daily bread and manna in the desert (that is, whatever you need for that day). Then the relationships can flourish, and you can give to your wife and kids. But you really have to receive from God daily for this to work.
6. The importance of time
Before I had kids, I thought the tough part of parenting would be difficult disciplinary decisions. I was completely wrong. The main thing is just to be present, hang out, and spend lots of time together. The priority is time—taking time with your kids. If Dad is around as much as possible, most good things in a family will follow. And if Dad's career doesn't allow him to be around much, that's OK: redeem the time you do have by being intentionally present and connecting with each member of the family. Even if it’s only for five minutes, the children will flourish.
7. Liking your kids
You need to communicate to your kids not just that you love them, but that you actually like them—that you like the particular way God put them together. The main way to communicate that is by enjoying them, and showing you enjoy them.
8. Say yes
One of the ways you can communicate to your kids that you like them, that they are not an irritation, is to say yes to them as much as possible. They’ll be asking you for things all the time, and unless there is a compelling reason not to, say yes to them. In a way beyond words, it will deepen their relationship with you and with the world, and they’ll get the sense that journeying through life is an adventure. Being tired and annoyed is not a good enough reason to say no (unless you're dangerously tired and really need to be left alone).
9. Letting teens win
In their second decade, there are obviously some arguments you'll have to win, but if you let your teens win some of the time, generally things go better. For example, you can respond with, "Hmm, that's a good point. I hadn't thought of that." Remember their culture is about as foreign to you as China, and in some ways (not all ways), their generation is better than yours.
10. Loving your wife
Be patient with your wife. You have absolutely no idea what it is to conceive a child, carry him or her, undergo the ordeal of birth, nurse a child, and so on. If she's (re)acting strangely, don't be resentful or critical. Be patient. You don't know what the world is like from her corner.
In other words, a body that can bear a child is a very complicated thing, and especially when that body transitions from child-bearing years to middle age. It can be difficult. The body that responded to you as a newlywed might be palpably resistant for a while. It’s difficult when you can tangibly tell that your wife does not want you to touch her. Be patient, and don't leave your wife or cheat on her. Give it time; most of the time you'll have really wonderful new dimensions of the relationship to enjoy in later decades that you'll miss out on otherwise. If you betray her, you'll spend the rest of your life bitterly regretting it. It will not be worth it, I promise you.
I'm trying to be delicate here, but I wish someone had told me that whatever is missing in the marriage during the first decade of raising children will come back. It can be easy to assume physical intimacy is gone, but it isn’t! All the ways you may be frustrated right now as a husband will get worked out with time, and those dimensions of the relationship will be richer than ever.
This list is not meant to lay a “heavy burden” on fathers (remember Matt. 11:28-30). I am not giving you a perfect list to raise a perfect family. And even if you do everything listed here and more, you will still stand in need of God’s extraordinary grace to save you and your family. The good news of the gospel, however, is that your heavenly Father gives that grace happily, generously, abundantly, faithfully. One means of that grace is learning from other fathers. As you raise your family, you’ll be a similar help to new fathers who come after you. God bless you, friend.
Now go play with your kids.