Society doesn’t regard parenting as an occupation. It occupies our time and energy, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as a career. After all, it doesn’t pay. Culture doesn’t always to see the benefit of its labor, either. Being a parent doesn’t always pay off, as we’re clued into from just about every blockbuster.
The church seems hitched to this wagon. We have discipleship programs, centers for theology and work, institutes for church and culture, think tanks for religion and society. We have all sorts of vocational programs, initiatives, and organizations. But whither the family? Whither the parent? Whither the stay-at-home parent?
“What is a mother that you care for her? What is a stay-at-home dad that you are mindful of him?”
I was a stay-at-home parent this summer. Hanging out with other full-time, year-round, stay-at-home parents, I heard stories and watched interactions. I had a few of my own. From the park to the coffee shop, many ask what you did before watching your kid. (Catch that? “Watching.” We “watch” our kids.) Others quickly slide to other subjects or dream with you about what you’ll do after. Almost all ask what your degree is in -- a tactical move that helps them get to the bottom of what you really want to be and reminds you that you still have options.
Parenting is watching kids. Waiting for them to grow up. And getting to release a little frustration now and again. Stay-at-home parenting may be necessary in some circumstances. Like when you can’t afford a nanny. And it’s definitely transitional. No one in their right mind would consent to this. The only reason the nanny does it is because she needs the money. Indeed, it’s her job.
It’s clear in Scripture that God cares about parenting, and that he has a plan for it. He gives us instructions, guidelines, principles, and suggestions to do it rightly and purposefully. One of my favorite passages is found in Deuteronomy. Right before he was to give the law, Moses tells the Israelites to remember and recollect what God has done for them in bringing them out of bondage and slavery and providing for them in the wilderness.
Only take care, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children . . . (4:9)
We often gloss over, however, what he says right before.
Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ (4:6)
Keeping the law has as much to do with witnessing to those who don’t worship God as it does with obeying God and living in healthy and sustainable ways. I think the same holds for parenting. Raising a child has as much to do with the benefit it can have for others as it does for the immediate family unit. Notice, though, the qualifying “can.” As we know from experience, this isn’t always the case.
Society and culture, many of us included, see parenting as preserving and providing resources. We protect our child’s life and put food in his mouth. Though we would never say this, we implicitly view the home as something of a receptacle for holding these clumsy and irresponsible beasts until they mature and become reasonable adults that can be released into the wild. We are babysitters, and our homes are social incubators at best, prisons at worst.
We have what we think and do, and what Scripture tells us we should think and do. And I think Scripture clearly tells us that what a parent is engaged in, and what the home is meant to be is so much more than what I’ve mentioned.
Deuteronomy tells us, as do many other passages in Scripture, we are to teach our children. We are to train them in wisdom and understanding. We are to form them. But we can’t miss that this isn’t only for our benefit or for theirs. God has the stranger and enemy in mind, too. Others are there to be reached, served, and benefited. And I know this sounds radical, but how we raise our children, and what kind of people we raise them to be, impacts not only the relationship others will have with God, but how they will live in the world. To raise up wise and understanding children that follow God’s word is to not only witness to God and honor him, but to introduce his wisdom and understanding to the world. It is to invite others into just living.
Parenting is a matter of public justice.
By this I don’t mean how we parent. Yes, we must treat our children justly and so forth. What I actually mean iswho we bring forth is a matter of public justice. The word parent derives from the Latin verb parere, which means “to bring forth.” As parents, we bring forth those who either hurt or help, those who are selfish or serve. Of course there is the reality of sin and the fact that we are dealing with another person with his own will, desires, and choices. Still, we are called to raise up just children.
This may sound a little far-fetched, but I think stay-at-home parenting can be an intense exercise in public justice. In the same way the isolated monk still contributes to culture, the stay-at-home mother still works toward public justice.
She doesn’t have the time to start a new initiative that will help alleviate poverty. Nor does she have the energy to volunteer late nights at the homeless shelter. Like the monk, she may remain indoors all day and night being seen by no one. It is not always tangible and it is a long, uneventful process. Despite this, her labor is not only work in and for God’s kingdom, but for the common good. She is shaping a person that will create, reform, and witness to God’s wisdom and understanding outside the four walls of her home. She is working day in and day out trying to bring forth not only an obedient creature and loyal person, but a just citizen. Not to mention, she is creating a culture in her home that other adults and children will experience and benefit from. And with that in mind, maybe, just maybe, she’ll change someone’s view of parenting.
Public justice is not only advanced when one ascends Capitol Hill or enters a “public sphere.” It is advanced in Central Park and in the most “private” of places: the living room. It is advanced where sacrifice, love, respect, dignity and good will are cultivated, encouraged, and lived out. It is advanced around the dinner table. We are not just bringing forth adults, but friends, spouses, managers, and citizens.
To advocate for equality and legislate new policies that seek the welfare of the city we first need well and fareinhabitants of this city. To care for and pursue public justice, we first need just citizens. This may come as a surprise, but they don’t exactly fall from the sky . . .
We should think about that next time we take a walk through the park during our lunch break and find it loaded with strollers.
-Kyle David Bennett received his BA from Geneva College and his MA and PhD from Fuller Seminary. He has taught philosophy, ethics, and religion at Azusa Pacific University, Providence Christian College and The King’s College and lives in Hoboken, NJ with his wife Andrea and their five- year old daughter Elliot.