The image of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the final Passover meal is powerful and poignant. In recent weeks, leading up to Easter, John 13 has in all likelihood been the basis for many a sermon on humility of service in the church, in mission outreach and in the wider fields of all kinds of social work. None of these are necessarily wrong applications of the passage. But less commonly do we hear of such self-deprecatory service being held up as an example for parents. There’s a tightrope to be walked, I grant you. Nevertheless I understand the example set by Jesus applies to leadership in all its forms, and that includes the leading of our children into adulthood. Think about it: Jesus gave the disciples this illustration of humble service because He knew that He would not be among them for long. It was important to Him to show them how to go forward when He wasn’t around. This was one part of their basic training. As a foundational principle, that’s what we are trying to do when we raise up those little darlings. We want them to be able to take care of themselves.
Now, about that tightrope. One of the most consistent mistakes we make when bringing up children is to be their lackeys – to do everything for them and demand nothing of them. We can be servants for our children without becoming servile to them. Jesus didn’t always wash their feet, and that’s why it was such a surprising lesson, particularly for Peter:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Peter’s resistance stems from the unusual nature of Jesus’ gesture. This wasn’t an example of Christ’s normal activity; as far as we can tell Jesus had never done this before, and they had been with Him for over three years by now. So it was intended as a lesson in the attitude that they would need, not the actions they must do. The attitude of humility was being taught. Humility even in the greatest man who ever walked the earth.
So those who lead (such as we parents) are to keep a sense of humility about us. Servanthood: we must have it; otherwise we become tyrants and bullies. But let me emphasise again, I’m not talking about servility; we need to maintain our authority in the household, otherwise we become doormats to our children, and they quickly learn to bend us to their will.
So how does the attitude of servanthood play out in bringing up Billy and raising Rita? Well, how are children best served? By being sheltered and fed, of course, even cleaned up occasionally. There’s more, though. They need to be taught the basic principles of life. They will not always have you around to hold their hand. According to Micah 6:8 they need to learn Justice, Kindness and (here’s that word again) Humility before God. And they learn these things by watching us, by listening to us, by seeing these principles at work in our lives. When we give them a working knowledge of these principles, we serve our children and set them on the right track for responsible adulthood.
A child will learn Justice when they realise that decisions carry consequences. Choose the right option, and anticipate a good outcome. Choose the wrong option, expect a bad result. Let them know early in the game that the consequences of obedience are pleasant, and the consequences of disobedience are unpleasant. I’m not talking about stringing them up by their thumbs (although there have been tempting times in the teenage years!). I suggest simple, meaningful consequences that are appropriate to age and maturity. A tantrum in the supermarket should never be defused with a reward (actually more like a bribe), and picking up socks should not be ridiculed. Bribing your toddler to stop bad behaviour is a sure sign that they are in the process of training you to give them something nice every time they act up. And humiliating them with sarcasm when they finally get the point and do something helpful will quickly discourage them from ever helping again. Do justice for your children and they will learn it from you. Be harsh, spiteful and arbitrary in your discipline, or mute, sloppy and permissive in the other direction, and you will reap what you sow.
As far as Kindness goes, there are obvious ways to show children how this works. A great deal of television programming nowadays has slumped into simple cruelty. People are shown being mean and vindictive to one another in the interests of “reality” and “entertainment.” If you laugh at this stuff, or let it be known that you are eager to watch it, then your children are learning from you that cruelty and selfishness are actually traits that you enjoy seeing. Make sure they understand the value you place on the dignity of life. Take them on (short) visits to see the elderly neighbours or to your friends in hospital. Do your own acts of kindness within their view. Let them know by example that helping out is a normal part of your routine. It’s the best way for them to find out that this is a good way to be.
The principle of Humility is where we started. Humility allows us to serve without being self-conscious or self-seeking. This attitude will make all the difference in the lives of your children when you are gone and there’s no one to pull them up short for their arrogance. Let them see in you that the universe revolves around God, not us. Explain to them why you do things: how you dress; what you spend your money on; where your values lie; why you don’t always insist on your own way and “keep the best toys for yourself.” In showing this to your children, you will give them permission to be less stressed about their own situation. They might grow up to still be ambitious in their career, or to put a significant value on “things.” But you have the opportunity to show them that these ways are only secondary at best, and that God’s ways of Justice, Kindness and Humility are primary. If you can show them this, then you have served your children well. May they rise up and call you blessed.