Guideline #4: Lead Alongside



“Immediately. Exactly. With the proper attitude.”

The guest speaker at church gave a good presentation on parenting.

“It’s that simple,” he said. “Expect obedience from your children and don’t accept anything less.”

My husband and I left church that evening invigorated. We had this parenting thing in the bag.

We would get our boys to obey immediately, exactly, and with the proper attitude.

How many times did the boys hear those five words? Dozens? Hundreds? I don’t know the exact count, but it was a lot — before it fell by the wayside.

I made a lot of mistakes parenting — and this was a big one.

Because children aren’t dogs to be taught to sit and stay. They’re people, created in the image of God.

Jesus didn’t bark out orders to the disciples, He washed their feet.

He said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…” (Matthew 11:28-29)

Oxen at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown where Mary volunteers

I’ve heard that one training technique is to yoke a trained ox with an untrained one, so that the one can learn from the other. It involves leading from the side, learning alongside, yoked together.

Parenting was making me weary — all this demanding obedience and wanting my children to behave like Stepford wives — or rather Stepford children. Coming alongside involved sitting down and coloring together. Or building Lego together. It involved emptying the dishwasher together and decorating cookies together. It involved talking and listening, going to swim meets and soccer games, singing badly together, and going for walks.

It involved me relaxing. A lot.

One of my other favorite Bible images involves Roman soldiers and the armor of God in Ephesians.

When we read that passage, our mental image may be all wrong.  We tend to picture a gladiator whose armor was far different from that of a rank-and-file soldier.  A gladiator’s shield was small and round, meant to be easily manipulated in the ring, because the attacks could come from many directions.  A soldier’s shield was large and rectangular, extending roughly from the chin to the knees of the soldier.

Roman-Shields.This shield was large and heavy, but served a very important purpose.  When a company of soldiers, called a century, usually numbering from 80-100 men, went into battle, they could close ranks, and the men could hoist their shields over their heads.  The men in front or on the sides held their shields to protect the body.  The overhead shields partially covered the heads of the men in front and behind, overlapping in a way that made the unit virtually impenetrable.  The men had to work together for it to be strong.

When parents work shoulder to shoulder with their children, they form that type of unit, extending protection (and grace) over each other.

Obedience is good — don’t get me wrong.  But expecting blind obedience doesn’t lead to thinking, creative, functional adults. And obedience can come through other channels than demands.

If I could go back and change one thing, it would be those days of authoritarian parenting.

Immediately. Exactly. With the proper attitude. Phooey.

Love. Love. Love. And then a little more love.


Guideline #3: Listen

I was going to say that it began at birth, but I think it began before that.

I think it began with the first butterfly flutters across my lower abdomen — the ones that weren’t gurgles or gas, but that marked the presence of a living being inside me.

As the baby grew in there, bigger and bigger, he or she pushed a little foot against my tummy, so I could almost see the outline of heel and ball, and I would push it back with a word or two, like, “There, there,” or “Settle down.”


Baby Laurel

But when each baby was born, and I held him or her in my arms for the first time, my study began in earnest, looking at the little face, feeling the peach-fuzzy hair against my cheek and the baby-soft skin.

And listening.

To newborn cries because they were beckoning me. Me!

But newborn cries grow and change into a variety of cries — some signifying hunger, some tiredness, some pain.

Eventually they add in coos and oohs.

Then first words.

Then sentences.

Then concepts and original thoughts.

Parenting begins with listening  and not just listening with ears.

Helen Keller said, “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”

Intuition guides a mother to hear what is really being said beyond the words, but we have to listen. We have to focus.

Mothers are the most amazing multi-taskers in the world, but there are times when they need to stop folding laundry and give full attention to the child speaking to them. Just as a mother studies her newborn’s face, she needs to study her older child’s face, to look in their eyes when they are talking, to watch their hands and their posture, to try to understand what they are trying to convey (or mask).

I know this is true, even though it is a weakness I have.

MVC-032F (2)

Focusing on the Gateway monster, our first computer

A one-eyed monster came into our home in the 1990s. It started demanding my attention.

I can resist the lures of the television, but something about that keyboard and the interactiveness of the beast make it nearly irresistible.

I stare at the screen while pecking away at the keyboard and say things like, “I’m listening. I’m just finishing this up.” But my attention is divided. And the larger part of it seems to be being sucked into the vortex of technology, while a flesh-and-blood person is in the same room with me trying to talk.

Trying to talk to me.

“Mhm,” I say, absentmindedly, clicking on something.

I have to force myself to stop and close the lid.

Because even though I may be in the midst of getting a great deal on Priceline, my children are more important.

Even though I may be about to score big with an 8 letter word on some word game, my children are more important.

Oh, certainly I have times when I’m working on something and I can say, “Can you wait until I’m done here?”

But pretending to listen when I’m really not, that just seems wrong. They deserve better than that.

Laughter — an addendum to Guideline #2

Karl placed 2nd in tennis doubles at sectionals. SECOND!

A great finish for my soccer-playing boy and his soccer-playing partner.

Karl and Michael

Karl and Michael

Sectionals at Camp Starlight

Sectionals at Camp Starlight

Last week, we had spent a sunshiny day on a Pennsylvania mountain for round one of sectionals. That was the day both Karl and I forgot sunscreen, but I had the luxury of sitting in the shade while he and his partner bobbed and weaved on a full sun court, easily winning all three matches. He was sun-burned, but moving on.

Sectional finals took place on indoor courts. He and Michael won their first match there less easily. Their opponents played in cargo shorts and won the first game. You can’t judge a tennis player by their shorts.

Karl and Michael won the match, though, and advanced to the championship.

Wow, I thought. Could he and Michael possibly be sectional champions?

The first serve by the kid in the backwards hat put a crack in that dream. Whoosh! I barely saw the ball.

Karl started laughing.


The server switched sides.  Karl stepped forward, while Michael moved into position to receive the next serve. The dance of doubles tennis.

Whoosh! Michael just shook his head.



Karl at the tennis center

Karl was better prepared for the next serve. He changed where he stood and crouched in readiness.

Whoosh!  The first serve hit the net. The second serve lobbed over for an easy return.  After a few back-and-forths, the server got his racket on the ball and smashed it into a far corner.


Michael was ready for his next serve.  When it came directly at him, he put up his racket defensively.  The ball bounced back to the opponents’ side and they had a short volley which ended in a point for Karl and Michael.


One more serve at Karl. Once again he was crouched and ready. Once more the gold sphere flew.


I watched Karl as they changed sides of the net. He was smiling and laughing. Part of him was enjoying this crazy game of tennis where he ultimately lost the match 6-1, 6-1.

As I told my father about it the next day, he said, “It’s a good thing he can laugh about it.”

Yes, it was. I had watched other players angrily whack their rackets into the padded walls in frustration. I watched them scowl and get angry. I wondered if any of them knew who John McEnroe was — masterful at tennis, but also masterful at the tennis tantrum.

Last night Karl said, “Somebody at school asked me why we lost so badly. I told him that he hadn’t seen that kid’s serve. No matter where I stood, he got it past me.”

And Karl was still laughing about it.

Laughter is sometimes the closest thing we have to grace.

Thankful for my son.

Guideline #2: Laugh

The cottage cheese ceiling. My first exposure to it was when we lived in Cheyenne, WY. Our apartment there came with thickly textured ceilings like nothing in the Northeast.

The only reason that we sprayed that stuff on the ceilings of our house in Cheyenne was that we were trying to hide flaws. Bud purchased a bucket of the white powder that he mixed with water to spray on the ceiling, not for cottage cheese texture, but smoother, like an orange peel.  The leftover plaster was stored in the garage.

And forgotten.

Until one day, when I was babysitting a friend’s little boy who was about the same age as Philip, and the two boys were playing in the side yard. I turned my back on the two two-year-olds for about two minutes. That’s it. And they were gone.

My heart stopped.

The fenced yard, roughly the size of a postage stamp, had three exits: the house, the garage, and the gate. I was at the house door and could see that the gate was still latched.

I felt relief when I saw the open door of the garage and heard the laughter coming from within.  That is, until I saw what was making them laugh.


Not exactly snow. White powdery stuff that, when mixed with water, can be sprayed on a ceiling. Plaster powder.

And two little boys reaching hands into the bucket to grab handfuls and throw it in the air so that it fell on their hair and noses and eyelashes, just like real snow.

I may or may not have screamed.

I probably did, because Bud came running out to see what was happening. Instead of being angry at the mess, he ran back in the house for the camera.

He took pictures, which, of course, I couldn’t find for this post, and he laughed.

In fact, Bud taught me to laugh at the funny things children do. I hadn’t been around children much before I had my own. I didn’t know that they would squirt all the toothpaste out of the tube and into the bathtub, or put batteries down the drain, or dam up the creek so the neighbor’s yard would flood, or color on freshly painted walls and woodwork.

My initial response to things was anger.

But the appropriate response is laughter — and a camera.

James 1:20 says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Angry parents are scary to children.

Laughter diffuses all that.

Karl Barth said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.”

We teach our children grace when we laugh.

Plus we end up with some awesome pictures.

Two artists

Two artists

Jacob2 cropped



Strength in the Journey

An old post that had been taken down — posted for Anna who missed a flight.


A few years ago, my son,Owen, was travelling to the Solomon Islands to do some work with Wycliffe Associates.  IMG_3713He left Binghamton at 2 PM on a Sunday with the plan that he would go from Binghamton to Philadelphia to Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia and finally to Honiara, Solomon Islands.  Things, however, don’t always go according to plan.  At 2:30 AM, Monday, Owen called to tell us that he had missed his connection in LA.  Thus began a saga that would have me leaning on the Lord.

After that 2:30 AM phone call, I was worried.  I called US Airways to see what they could do, but they told me the ticket counter at LAX closed at 11 PM (Pacific).  Owen could either go to baggage claim to speak with a US Air representative or wait until the ticket counter opened at 4 AM (Pacific).  Owen didn’t have a phone with him, so I couldn’t call to tell him that; I had to wait until he called again.  In the meantime, I started to pray.

I have memorized many Bible verses for just such a time as this.  “Lord,” I prayed, “please bring to mind a verse that I can hold onto.”

The response was almost immediate:  Psalm 34:1 “I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

“No, Lord,” I said, “That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.  Could you give me a different verse?”

An invisible hand flipped through the rolodex of verses in my mind and stopped at Psalm 8:1 “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”

I couldn’t believe that God had gotten it wrong.  Where were all those comforting verses I had memorized?  I knew they were in there somewhere, verses like

  • Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
  • Or John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”
  • Or even my favorite stand-by in troubled times, Psalm 94:19 “When the cares of my heart are many, thy consolations cheer my soul.”

None of these verses would come to mind, only verse after verse of praise and worship.  Somewhat resignedly, I began to meditate on those verses – a rather reluctant praiser – and eventually drifted off to sleep again.

When we had first started talking about a trip to the Solomon Islands, I was probably more excited than Owen.  We had looked up pictures of the Solomon Islands on the internet. It looked beautiful, exotic, remote, primitive, exciting.  IMG_3677For those who don’t know, the Solomon Islands are in the South Pacific.  They were the site of some of the fiercest fighting in WW2.  Guadalcanal is there.  “What a place to go to serve God and have Him change your life,” I thought.

In my mind, the Solomon Islands was to be the classroom for Owen, not LAX.  I wanted Owen to get to a tropical paradise, albeit somewhat primitive, to have a life-changing experience.  I pictured him arriving there, a little tired, but after some sleep and good meal, ready to serve and grow.  I never imagined the plaintive, “Mom, I just want to come home” that I got in one of the phone calls from LAX.  “I’m tired.  I haven’t slept in 30 hours.”

I looked to God.  “This isn’t how it was supposed to be,” I cried.  “He’s exhausted and alone!”  I felt so helpless.

Over the next twelve or so hours, Owen trekked from US Air to Qantas to American Airlines and finally to a different Qantas ticket counter that didn’t open until 2 PM (Pacific).  He saw LAX, which is not beautiful, exotic, remote, or primitive.  He would call every few hours.  He sounded tired and discouraged.  Finally, around 5:30 PM (Eastern), he called to say he had a boarding pass from Qantas and was going to the gate even though the plane wasn’t leaving for another 9 hours.  He sounded tired but overall okay.  Owen had persevered through a trying experience — I knew then that God was helping him to become a stronger person by getting through this situation.  I had envisioned the Solomon Islands as the training ground, but God used LAX.

This whole Solomon Island trip was supposed to be about Owen.  He didn’t have a summer job, sort of lacked in motivation, and needed a clear direction for his life.  I thought going on a trip like this might help bring things into focus.

As I made phone call after phone call the next day – I had to call a friend to pick up Mary for play practice so I could stay by the phone; I had to call Time-Warner (our digital phone provider) to find out how to make an international call; I had to call Virgin Blue in Australia (to change his connecting flight in Brisbane); and, I ended up calling several different people at Wycliffe to alert them to the changes in his itinerary – I was surprised at how many people asked how I was doing.  The people from Wycliffe came right out and said it, “We’ll be praying for Owen and we’ll be praying for you.”This wasn’t a trip about me; this was about Owen.  Yet, God is so much bigger than our little pea-brained ideas.

Although I couldn’t see it at the time, God was giving me strength and teaching me through the whole situation.  These are the lessons I learned —

1.       God wants us to praise Him in all situations, even when we don’t feel like it.

2.       God uses anywhere and everywhere to teach us and grow us.  We don’t have to go to a remote tropical island to meet with Him.  We can do it in a busy airport or a small town in upstate New York.

3.       God is at work in each one of us.  He doesn’t just care about the ones on the mission field or in ministries at home.  He cares about a tired, worried mom in a messy house with a bunch of kids.

Thank you, Lord!

Guideline #1: Love

As a young parent, I was keen on learning everything I could about parenting. Early on, I took a parenting class taught by the wife of one of the pediatricians.

Of course, being the wife of a pediatrician does not make a woman a perfect mother. I figured that out the day that she brought her daughter to the church nursery with the warning, “I’m not sure she’s feeling well.” She wasn’t gone five minutes before the little girl vomited. Hot dogs. She vomited hot dogs. Not only had she brought a sick child to church, she had given her hot dogs for breakfast. Once we got done cleaning things up and sending her home, I laughed. We all make parenting mistakes. Some people even give their children hot dogs for breakfast.

But this isn’t really about breakfast foods. This is about love.

The parenting class covered four types of parenting: Authoritative, Authoritarian, Permissive, and Neglectful. She set it up on a grid. The way I remember it is this:SCN_0159

Where I wrote “rules”, I should have written “structure” or “boundaries”.  It’s just how I remembered it.

The parenting types were then ranked to show which types resulted in the happiest, most well-adjusted children. Authoritative was the “best” kind of parenting, with lots of love and lots of structure. Then came Permissive, lots of love, but more child-directed. Then Authoritarian, and last — I know you all are surprised by this — came the Neglectful parent.

My take-away from that parenting class was that the love side was the best. If I was going to make mistakes, I wanted them to be on the side of loving too much. I would rather be a marshmallow than a drill sergeant.

Because right about that time in my parenting, I was being quite authoritarian about things like breakfast. My oldest son can attest to this. When he didn’t finish his bowl of Life cereal, by gum, I was going to be sure that he ate it. I viewed it as a battle of the wills and was determined to win. I stuck that half-eaten bowl of cereal in the refrigerator and pulled it out at lunch-time.

“When you finish this, you can have some lunch,” I told him, thrusting a disgusting soggy mess in front of him.

Meanwhile, a short distance away, a little girl was getting hot dogs for breakfast because that was her favorite thing to eat.

Probably the right answer in the battle of breakfast wills would have involved reasoning followed by rewards for good choices.  At the time, I simply knew I wasn’t getting it right.

Erring on the side of love allowed me to say yes more often and no with good reasons. It made me more compassionate. I knew I would make mistakes, but I also knew where I wanted to fall in the case of an error.

Love wins.

Especially in parenting.

Parenting Advice

A young friend asked me for parenting advice. My first thought was that I am totally unqualified. I have made so many mistakes parenting.

But I’m a learn-by-mistakes person, so I have learned a lot over the past thirty years.

Yes, I’ve been a parent for thirty years. Wow.

Parenting is a broad road with lots of room for maneuvering and changing lanes. Too many books on parenting are narrow and have rigid boundaries.  Following them can be like driving on a road with no shoulders, or worse, with concrete barriers.

Any parent who has more than one child can tell you how different each child is. A mother with four children is raising four unique individuals. A mother with eight has eight individuals. A mother with seventeen has seventeen individuals. What works for one child may or may not work for another.

The other thing is that “the experts” sometimes change their minds. Like how a baby sleeps.

IMG_3693Thirty years ago, newborns slept on their tummies. That probably sounds blasphemous to some of you, but it’s true. I was told that if baby slept on his back, he may aspirate — at least, I think that was the reason.

Twenty years ago, newborns slept on their sides. Mothers dutifully rolled up blankets to prop around baby. Marketing geniuses manufactured wedges to put into cribs to hold babies on their sides.

Now newborn babies sleep on their backs. With nothing else in the crib. Experts are pretty adamant on this one.

But, this is not intended to be parenting advice on positions for babies to sleep.

I believe that God puts in mothers something for which we don’t have a good English word; for lack of that word, I’ll call it mother’s instinct.

Today’s culture has so many voices clamoring to be heard that it’s hard for mothers to hear those inner God-whispers.

If I had one piece of advice to give new mothers, it would be to pray for your child every day and learn to listen to that still small voice which may be God or may be a mother’s instinct, but it’s probably both.

In response to my friend who asked for parenting advice, I also came up with six more guidelines — not hard-and-fast rules, like concrete barriers, but more like a little greenery along both sides of the road, defining the road in gentle terms.

Six guidelines.

They all begin with L.

Stay tuned.