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Everyday Life

Parenting the Heart

By David Delk

People love stories. From children’s tales to $250,000,000 movie epics, our lives are filled with stories. Neal Postman says, “Human beings need stories to give meaning to the facts of their existence.” The most important “stories” help us make sense of our world. We enjoy them so much because they present ideas that we know or wish to be true. These stories represent fundamental beliefs through which we can sift the bits and pieces of our lives.

Every person adopts a “story” to explain his or her view of the world. All stories that rational people believe claim to explain human suffering and human happiness. In other words, if a story did not have some degree of plausibility and believability nobody would listen to it. Nobody gives their life to a story or a system they don’t think works. And yet many 30, 40 or 50 year-old adults suddenly wake up one to realize they have been giving their lives to a system that had no possibility of making them happy.

What are the dominant stories in our culture today? What is competing with the Christian story for the allegiance of our children? What stories are capturing their hearts? Pat Morley outlined the following stories in his book for high school boys, The Young Man in the Mirror, which he adapted from Postman and Mardi Keyes.

The Story of the American Dream: Remember when you were in third grade and your teacher told you that someone in the class might grow up to be President one day? That’s the American Dream. If you believe it, you can achieve it. There is nothing you can’t do with enough hard work. If you want to be happy, just get a good education, a well-paying job, a nice house and you will have a good life. This is the dominant story of the Baby Boomer generation. Many children are still latching onto this story today. A teacher in a suburban high school recently said, “One of my biggest challenges is deciding how to help students who have been drilled by their parents that they can to do whatever they want—even though they obviously lack aptitude.”

The Story of Human Progress: This was the dominant idea of the twentieth century. It is the story that man is basically good, and we can solve all the problems of the world if we will just try harder and all work together. After two World Wars, Hitler, Stalin, Viet Nam, Saddam Hussein and genocide on every continent, the story of the perfectibility of man is taken far less seriously. Still, the idea of human goodness exerts a powerful pull on our society, especially in terms of the role of government and education. Musicians who invite your children to concerts for world hunger, AIDS, and farm relief often champion this message.

The Story of Technological Paradise: Americans love technology. We are constantly looking for the next gadget that will make our lives easier. Many people live with the hope that machines will ultimately solve the problems that humans couldn't solve, like world hunger or world peace. Today we have a whole generation of people who really think we will create a high-tech paradise. Our children can be lured into thinking that technology will do for them what only Christ can do.

The Story of Postmodernism: Many intellectuals today have built a philosophy around the meaninglessness and futility of life. There is no inherent meaning to life, only the meaning that we bring to it through our own efforts. This philosophy, called nihilism, has made its way into popular culture through music and movies. Nihilism is a dominant story of college campuses today. Because everything is futile, the only thing that makes sense is to get as much as you can.

Jane interned for a campus ministry for two years at a public university. She befriended a young girl who grew up in a home where her mother was a devout Christian, but her father was violent. Her parents divorced at a young age. This young woman went to the campus ministry meeting every week and attended a small group Bible Study with Jane. One day when they were talking, she said, “Jane, I believe in God, but I think he sucks."

This is the essence of the story of futility that many children are learning. Parents truly need to understand this story, because if you don’t explain and debunk it while your kids are still at home, they are going to be completely rattled in college.

The Story of Science: The story of science is ironic. On one hand it tells us everything that exists is essentially a cosmic accident—the result of evolution and chance. On the other hand, science offers “meaning” and “hope” by providing answers that explain how the universe works. Everything must be explained by natural cause and effect, so there’s no place for supernatural intervention and, therefore, no God. Of course, this doesn’t offer much explanation for things like love and suffering and so, in the end, this story is very emotionally unsatisfying to people.

Your sons and daughters are going to be taught that they evolved from a monkey and everything is chance. As parents, we have an opportunity to show our children a much, much bigger reason for our existence.

The Story of Spiritualism and New Age: As a reaction to the inability of science to really meet our deepest needs, a new spirituality has developed in the West. With an emphasis on angels, spirit-guides, communicating with the dead, and Eastern mysticism, this could be called “the anti-science.”

This story asks us to go beyond what science or reason tells us is true. We are summoned to enter the world of the spirit, where what we believe helps determine what is real. Men and women get in touch with their own “spirituality” in order to discover how to become an authentic person. Many scholars believe there will be an increase in spiritual things in the decades ahead, but not necessarily Christianity.

Parents can protect their children’s heart by explaining/discussing “all” religions, then showing their children why the Christian story is superior.

The Story of Consumerism: This is the “yuppie” tale that so many of us are intimately familiar with. Consumerism is the economic theory that an increasingly greater consumption of goods is beneficial. This is the philosophy on which our American economy is based. If the Gross Domestic Product increases from one year to the next, everyone is happy and assumes we are better off. If production decreases or stagnates, that means trouble.

But, of course, if we produce more goods and services, then someone has to consume them! So we are encouraged—no, inspired!—to believe that having more and more things will bring happiness. We want to acquire enough stuff to make us secure and comfortable, and to avoid suffering. This materialism strongly tempts our children. As parents, we have a golden opportunity to father our children’s hearts not to find their satisfaction in “things.”

These stories appeal to the mind of a child because each attempts to give a reasonable explanation for the world we see. But even more importantly, they appeal to our children’s hearts by offering a sense of meaning, purpose, fun, adventure, or worth. Everyone ends up giving their heart to some story. Our role as parents is to help our children choose a story that’s worth living for.

Protection From the Wrong Story

“Stories” are a lot like a ham sandwich that’s been accidentally left in a cooler. The story looks good in the beginning and may even work for a while, but eventually it will begin to rot. Not only do these false stories fail us in this life, but even more importantly, they fail us in the life to come. To parent the hearts of our children means to protect them from the wrong stories.

Why are the stories we’ve described so popular in our culture today? Each of them has three things…

Plausibility: As one of my professors said, "It takes a lot of truth to float an error." If these stories didn’t contain any truth, the only people who would believe them would be people who are completely irrational. So these stories will have some ring of truth to your children, as perhaps they have to you. All stories that are making it in our popular culture have some degree of plausibility.

Promise: All of these stories implicitly or explicitly promise to offer an explanation for human suffering and elusive happiness. Even the stories that are based in meaninglessness and despair promise to explain reality. They promise something to satisfy the longings of the heart.

Prophets: Each of these stories has impressive spokesmen and “evangelists.” These are the men and women in popular culture who articulate the tenants of the story. Each of these stories has “priests” who administer the sacraments, if you will, of the story.

Each of these stories has disciples and followers who want others to join them, so our children get introduced to one of these stories—usually by an adult they admire and trust. In the beginning, the story looks and sounds good. They see their friends going down the same path, famous people they admire tout these ideas, and their teachers try to convince them these ideas are true. As they consider a story, it seems to answer questions they have been asking, perhaps even unconsciously.

Parenting the Heart Means Helping Children Understand How Stories Deceive

One powerful allure is that many of the followers of these stories seem to be finding success. So our children look at them and experience what the Psalmist writes about in Psalm 73 (New Living Translation), “My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone. For I envied the proud, when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness" (Psalm 73:2-3). Many people following the world’s stories are doing well on the outside. Psalm 73 continues....

"For they seem to live such a painless life, their bodies are so healthy and strong, they aren't troubled like other people or plagued with problems like everyone else, they wear a problem like a jeweled necklace, and their clothing is woven and … These fat cats have everything their hearts could ever wish for. They scoff and speak only evil. In their pride they seem to crush others, they boast against the very heavens, and their words strut throughout the earth. And so, the people are dismayed and confused, drinking in all their words. Does God realize what is going on, they ask?" (Psalm 73:4-11).

When Clark graduated from college, he went to work selling large-ticket copy machines. The sales manager dazzled Clark with his new BMW, gold watch, expensive restaurants, great clothes, and beautiful home. It was like a dream—the American Dream—and he was hooked. Clark told his wife, “This is the answer! This is how we can have a happy life and avoid the money problems so many of our friends are having.” Of course, what Clark couldn’t see were the huge monthly payments to keep it all afloat, and his constant bickering with his sales manager and his wife over money.

Clark didn’t see this because he didn’t have parents who helped him get his story straight.
Help your children think clearly about the overwhelming tide of information being forced on them by the culture. We need to help them interpret movies, their academics, their athletic goals, the books they read, the magazines they look at, and the expectations of their peers. We need to help them get their story straight.

Parenting the Heart Means Equipping With a Story That Is Plausible and True

Our children need a story that is not only plausible, but true. And our children need a story that is not only true, but plausible.

The problem is that all stories of this world come to nothing. They may be plausible, but they are not true. So in the end people give their lives to a “story” that lets them down. It can’t keep its promises.

It’s not enough for a story to be plausible; it also has to be true. Christianity has an incredible advantage over all of these stories because it is true. Yet for many young people today Christianity is not even a serious option. They simply can’t bring themselves to believe Christianity is true because they can’t believe it’s plausible. So they’re dropping out. Howard Hendricks says that four out of five children will drop out of church by the time they become seniors in high school. Why? One of the reasons is that they are not receiving enough evidence from their parents and peers to believe that Christianity is really a viable option for life.

Getting Our Own Story Straight

So what can parents do? If we’re going to be parenting hearts, we first of all have to get our own story straight. A lot of us have been giving the best years of our lives to a story that isn't true, and now we are passing this story along to our children. Our children are going to inherit the story that we live out, just as the Bible says in Deuteronomy 6. They will soak in the story that we communicate as they sit at home, as they go along the way, as they lie down, and as they get up. The default story that our children will adopt is the one we are living out on a daily basis.

Become equipped to interpret the stories of our culture and evaluate them biblically. Why not re-read and study the stories we mention above with your own story in mind? Read your Bible on a regular basis to counter the lies of this world. Get into relationships with others where you are being discipled and encouraged to grow. Commit yourself to a church where you can have a significant impact for the kingdom of God. All of these will help you get your story straight so that you can parent the heart of your children.

As parents we need to come to the place where our hearts are passionately committed to Christ alone. We must come to the cross of Jesus Christ and negotiate a full and complete surrender of ourselves to him. We have to ruthlessly and continuously abandon any “other gods” that we think can satisfy our souls. This is what repentance is all about, and this is what it means to get our story straight.

If you don't have your own story straight, how will you give your children something you don’t have? Too many of us have one story on Sunday, one story on Monday morning, and then a different story at the dinner table. Let's have one story, get it straight, consistently show that story to our kids, and pray that in the end they will see that Christianity is a story that is not only plausible, but also true. Their eternal destiny and temporal peace depend on it.

David Delk is President of Man in the Mirror Ministries. He is co-author, with Patrick Morley, of Dad in the Mirror. He has also had articles published in New Man Magazine, HonorBound and The Christian Businessman.