Article May 23, 2018

Parenting and work: Helping our children gain a sense of belonging

If you asked me for a symbol that best sums up discipleship in our house, I would hand you a Bible. But, if you asked me for another, I would probably point you to a garbage pail. The Bible speaks for itself, but the garbage pail might need more explanation.

Our children each have chores around the house, and this is where it starts. When they are old enough to walk about, each of them has been assigned that initial job, to carry scraps from the kitchen down to the compost pile in the backyard. For us, this is about more than discarding trash.

Gaining a sense of belonging

Some would assume that what we are attempting to do is to teach a work ethic, to enable our children to one day take on bigger responsibilities as they care for their own families. That’s certainly part of it. The book of Proverbs has much to say about sloth and the cultivation of hard work. But that’s hardly the whole of the matter.

Our main objective is not about employment but about eschatology. In order to get to that point, we have to teach our kids about family. Work is a part of helping our children see where they fit in our family, in order to gain a sense of belonging.  

Perhaps the first challenge in all of life is finding a sense of belonging. We want to know not just whether we are loved, but also if we are wanted and a part of the world around us. In the broadest sense possible, God defines that to us in his kingdom in two ways—through identity and through inheritance. The fundamental questions we ask are, “Who am I?” and, “Where am I going?” Both are questions of belonging, and work has a prominent place in both.

In the biblical world, this sense of belonging was, in some ways, more easily conveyed because children were with their parents working in the field or constructing a house or fishing a lake. A child could see how he belonged to the family because he was not just a “consumer,” but also an actual part of the household economy. The reverse is often true in our context. Parents are absent from much of their children’s lives, and they compensate for feeling guilty by buying their children more and more consumer goods.

That’s one of the reasons many of us find it hard to understand why the gospel hinges upon the idea of inheritance. We are children of God, the Spirit tells us, and if children then heirs, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). The inheritance, though, is not, in the ancient context, a pile of cash reserves. More typically, the inheritance is a way of life. If a man’s father were a farmer, he would inherit a plot of land, a plot of land that had been cultivated and improved by his father’s labor.

The inheritance wouldn’t appear out of nowhere at the father’s death. The children would have been involved, all along, cultivating the land with the rest of the family. This reflects something true about the very fabric of the universe. Jesus told those around him that he saw what his Father was doing, and did likewise (Jn. 5:19-20).

A modern American family will not, of course, usually have the same sort of family burden-sharing as an ancient Middle Eastern family (and in most ways that is for the better). Even in terms of our vocations, our children probably don’t ever see what most of us do all day in our jobs, much less apprentice under us to do the same. There are nonetheless ways that a family can include every part of the household as part of the family’s mission together. This can start as soon as a child is old enough to do almost anything at all, with him being given a small chore that is his responsibility.

A very small child might be given a trashcan in a bathroom to check and empty every day. It would, of course, be easier to just do that yourself than to teach him to do it, cleaning up the trail of refuse he leaves behind in the trek from one room to the other. But as the child grows in age and ability, the child’s responsibilities grow too. The main point, though, is not to get a task done, and is really not so much to teach him to work (although that’s of course important), but to say to him, “You’re one of us. We need you.”

Training for God’s kingdom

Our Father disciplines us in this way, by gifting us for service in the church, by inviting us into his mission. In fact, one of the most important aspects of discipline from our Father is our learning to do small things in order that we may one day be given more authority over bigger things (Luke 16:10; 19:17). As important as we often think our careers or vocations or ministries are, they are really just a means of training us to do what we could not imagine now in the coming kingdom of Christ. God is just having us empty the little trash can into the bigger trash can in order to say to us, “You are part of this family; you belong.”

After all, God has saved us to be part of his kingdom. This kingdom is active and expansive. From the beginning of the creation, God granted to humanity an inheritance and then charged them to work, to steward and cultivate it for the generations to come (Gen. 1:26-30). In the life to come, we have a mission before us. We will rule and reign with Christ (Luke 22:29-30). Our lives in the meantime, even in the work we do, are just internships for the eschaton, ways of preparing us for an unimaginable future. God has given us a pattern of work and rest, modeling in some way his own creativity. Part of our job in parenting is to communicate this rhythm to our children.

Ironically enough, though, to teach our children to work as part of the family, we will have to restore to them play. Children and adolescents are often in an unceasing frenzy of activity—shuffled back and forth from drama rehearsal to ballet recitals to soccer practice, not to mention the ever-pressing demands of homework. Much of this is due to parental pressure—thinking we must schedule in all the right “extracurricular activities” so that our child will make it into college. Is it any wonder then that so many children and young adults are burned out and exhausted before they even make it to their 20s? As you teach your children to work, remember that work is a means to a different end, and allow them to enjoy childhood and adolescence.

Learning to serve

Encouraging work within the household also must have the goal of teaching our children to work on behalf of others, not just for their own achievement or acquisition. Find ways to assign responsibilities for your children that will tangibly benefit other siblings, and then the broader world. One of the most important ways this happens is through churches including children in the service.

Too often, we think of the church’s ministry to children as providing activities to teach them the Bible and to give them a positive experience of church. Every believer, though, is called to be a priest to the rest of the body of Christ (1 Pet. 2:9) and is gifted for the task of building up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-16). This starts at baptism.

Churches that find ways to include children and teenagers in ministry and mission are serving the cause of discipleship, even if that is as simple as asking technologically-gifted teenagers to maintain the church’s soundboard or asking others to help take up the offering or distribute bulletins at the front door of the sanctuary. In this, the church parents the next generation toward serving the church in the commission of Christ.

We live in an era that simultaneously fears and idolizes work. Our call in maturing the next generation is to teach our children to work “as unto the Lord” (Eph. 6:7), while, at the same time, showing them that no matter how important work might seem, we are just training for our ultimate callings, in the age to come. Above all, we are to teach them that we are not ultimately consumers but disciples who belong in the family of God. And sometimes that starts with a garbage pail.