Several years ago I offered some advice to parents on how Christian families should think through involvement in extra-curricular activities. My own kids have now been involved in different activities, and our oldest has entered the world of middle school. This has caused me to consider how Erin and I should help them understand their objectives for each activity. What should be their primary goals? What is the WHY that governs their HOW and WHAT, so to speak? As I have thought about this I decided it would be good to put these thoughts into writing as I prepare to formally set this before them. Here is what I have determined should be the top 3 objectives (in order of importance) for them in any and all activities they undertake, in the form of questions:
1. How does this allow me to worship God in a unique way?
God has created us as worshippers. As fallen people, we are still worshippers; sin, however, has caused our worship to be mis-directed. In redemption, he is restoring us as image bearers and re-directing our worship back onto himself. Part of the glorious diversity of humanity is the way in which he has created each of us to worship him in unique ways! Every aspect of our personalities, passions, gifts, and abilities are ways that we mirror his image and bring him glory. So the primary purpose of everything that we do is worship! We must help our kids be driven by that WHY, whether in athletics, dance, band, art, drama, hunting, etc.
Asking this question consistently will help them better understand both the centrality of God’s glory in all things and the unique way that God has gifted them to proclaim that glory. This goes so far beyond adding Jesus on to an activity by praying at the beginning or writing a verse on the bill of a cap. They need to understand that their primary identity in every activity is that of a worshipper enjoying and worshipping the God who created them and enabled them to participate.
2. How does this allow me to love and serve others in a unique way?
Every activity offers a unique opportunity to our kids to love their neighbors. If on a team, our kids’ neighbors include their coaches, their teammates, and even the other team and officials! This is true even for more individual activities like private art or music lessons. In those activities our kids have instructors with whom they interact, but they also have the opportunity to encourage others and proclaim God’s glory by imaging him in the presentation of their artistic ability.
With each activity comes all sorts of opportunities to love others. How should I respond to strife? How should I respond to someone who performs well, even if I am not? How should I respond to another who is struggling? How do I respond to an opponent, win or lose? How should I interact with authority figures, such as coaches and officials? How should I respond if I feel I’ve been wronged? How do I glorify God and love my neighbor even as I compete against them? How should I respond to success? How can I edify others?
Helping our kids ask this important question will guard against (sinful forms) of rivalry and conceit. It will help them view other kids as people who are created in the image of God, and not as obstacles to their own success. It will enhance the way they answer the first question above by loving well others who are created in God’s image. Perhaps these activities will help to set healthy patterns of regarding others as more important than self and bearing with others in love and grace. It will help them treat others with kindness and patience as they put into practice the fruit of the Spirit who is always working to enable them to deny self and follow Jesus. It will give them opportunities to share the gospel with others, both in word and in deed.
3. How does this allow me to grow in a unique way?
Extra-curricular activities offer students various forms of adversity, and therefore, are wonderful labs for growth and maturity. Sadly our culture continues to become more and more entitled. We must guard against our kids entering an activity with that mentality. They will face failure. They will not always succeed. They will have to work hard. As parents it is crucial that we help guide their response to this adversity. We must prepare them for it.
Actually, as parents we will either help them formulate healthy responses or we will aid in shaping unhealthy attitudes toward adversity. Parents continue to be the greatest factor in shaping these attitudes. So we must not only keep this question before them as they participate, but we must also model correct responses for them to see. This is a great question to return to after each participation when debriefing after an event or game. Help kids to think through the various opportunities for growth that they encountered, as well as how to respond should those opportunities arise again in the future.
What Should NOT be our Objectives?
Thinking through this has also caused me to think of some objectives we must actively guard and warn against. These include:
How is my identity shaped by this activity?
Our kids must consistently understand that the activities in which they participate are things that they do, not who they are. Although these activities help to shape certain aspects of identity, and even reveal aspects of identity, they should never become their identity. Maintaining focus on the three questions above will go along way in guarding against this.
How is my performance earning or losing the approval of my parents?
Our kids must consistently understand that the activities in which they participate do not provide the basis for our love or approval of them. With the focus on the questions above, kids will come to learn that their relationship to God is our focus for their lives as parents, not their success. This means that parents must be intentional about creating a new paradigm for success, and celebrate more than just good performance. Celebrate character, perseverance, perceived growth, modeling love to others, respect, and kindness. Celebrate these things when displayed in the lives of other participants, as well. We must also guard against our kids arriving at the idea that their parents’ personal success is contingent upon the success of their children. For this to happen we must first be secure and maturing in our own identity in Christ.
How does this activity shape our family’s identity?
Our kids must consistently understand that not only should their activities not define who they are, but that they also do not define the identity of the family. We must create an atmosphere of healthy participation, priorities, and margins. This is especially the case if our children find great success in certain activities and the temptation arises for that activity, or that child’s success, to become an idol. This activity may very well take on an elevated level of participation, which is OK in some cases, but it will never be central and chief in importance. Looking at Christian families it is alarming to see how easily a home can fall into a child-centered and therefore activity-centered form of idolatry; and children are quite willing to take on the role of idol.
How does this activity shape my hope?
Our kids must consistently understand that the activities in which they participate do not provide the basis of their (or their parents’) hope. This is so very dangerous. So many kids participate in activities under enormous amounts of stress because their hope has been misplaced and projected onto that activity. We want our kids to work hard. We want to see them succeed. Perhaps that activity could provide a scholarship or the basis of a career down the road. But at what cost? Do you truly believe in the sovereignty of God? Do you trust your kids lives and their futures to him? As with all things, setting goals can help our kids work hard, but those goals can never become supreme.
Did you notice that achievement of goals is not in my three questions above? As Christian parents, I truly believe that if we keep those three questions in focus, if we make those the primary goals, we can rest and trust in a God who loves us and who loves our children more than we ever could. We are free then to enjoy our kids activities with them and lead them in the most important aspects of life.