Don’t buy into the myth—pastors’ families can raise emotionally and spiritually healthy children
What do Marvin Gaye, Denzel Washington, Condoleezza Rice, Alice Cooper and Jessica Simpson have in common? If you know anything about their backgrounds, you can probably guess. They are all “PKs”—also known as “preacher’s kids.”
Often thrust into the limelight and weighed down with unreasonable expectations from an early age, PKs frequently struggle with unique challenges. Thankfully, most of them manage to become emotionally and spiritually healthy adults. However, it requires skill, insight and discernment to parent a PK and help him navigate the sometimes-rough waters of being the child of a minister.
The most important goal in raising a PK is to attend to his spiritual life. Ironically, parents in ministry, without realizing it, often fall into the trap of assuming that other people, including Bible-study or Sunday-school teachers, are passing on spiritual values to their children.
But cultivating a child’s spiritual growth is first and foremost a parent’s responsibility, not someone else’s. Praying for your children, talking through their doubts and questions, explaining the “whys” of your own church traditions and helping them mature in Christ is the heart of the exhortation to “bring them [your children] up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
As the old saying goes, “God has no grandchildren.” Although we cannot pass on our salvation to our children, we must faithfully nurture them in their own walks with Christ.
During our child-raising years, certain sayings caught our attention and quickly became part of our parenting philosophy. We noticed that each saying reflected a valuable principle for both parent and child.
As our children grew and moved through the different stages of life, the sayings helped us remain focused on certain truths. They also related well to the PK’s world and his place in a ministerial culture. Maybe they will help you in raising your own PKs.
“Kids are people, too” (respect). When our daughter Wendy was 5 years old, I bought her a T-shirt that read, “Kids are people, too!” This little phrase was quickly incorporated into our family conversations (especially when she and her sister were protesting something). It reminded us that all healthy relationships must have respect as the cornerstone.
Respecting your child simply means that you give him the space to be an individual within the family. Every child is born with his own personalities, gifts, desires and interests. Each one is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). Respecting who God made him to be as a person is fundamental in developing a healthy, lifelong relationship.
Yet the element of respect takes on an added dimension in the PK world. Ministry parents may need to be more protective than other parents regarding their child’s privacy. When ministers share family illustrations, it’s good for them to remember that their children may not appreciate having things about them told to the whole church. (My daughters gave me permission to use references to them in this article.) Additionally, it is the parents’ job to protect their children from well-meaning people who ask too many questions. And parents must never use a child as a negative illustration or demean or ridicule him in any way.
Respect is the foundation of all healthy relationships and crucial to the connection we make with our children—because kids are people too!
“Accidents will happen” (grace). Children make mistakes, as we all do. The Encarta Dictionary defines a mistake as “an incorrect act or decision, an error or a misunderstanding.” Distinguishing between childish carelessness or mistakes and willful disobedience is important during child-rearing years. We used the phrase “Accidents will happen!” on numerous occasions to convey to our children that a childish mistake could easily be corrected—with no sense of shame or parental anger.
There is a tension in every area of life regarding grace and the law, especially when correcting children. A biblical parenting philosophy, guided by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit and solid counsel, will help parents discern the right response to their child’s behavior. If we want our children to grow into men and women who know how to show grace to others, we must show it to them ourselves. And we certainly want them to give grace to us in the future.
A large part of our responsibility to our children involves discipline. We do not give “grace” to our kids in the sense of excusing their poor behavior. But grace involves training them, walking beside them and teaching them daily.
In Ephesians 6:4, Paul exhorts Christian parents to bring up their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord.” The word training (Greek paideia) carries the idea of complete training and education of the child. Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as “the cultivation of minds and morals.”
The second word of verse 4, admonition, is from the Greek nouthesia. This word relates to correction, admonition and exhortation. The challenge comes in consistently implementing teaching, training and appropriate punishment.
As we give grace to our children, they will learn to give grace to others. I have found that people will say things to the pastor’s wife that they don’t have the nerve to say to her husband. They will say things to the pastor’s kids that they don’t have the nerve to say to their mom. Helping children and young people navigate these issues with grace and humor is invaluable to a PK.
Laughing with them about the craziness of ministry life and refusing to take things too personally is an indirect way of giving grace. Being the recipient of God’s grace enables us to give it to others and teach our children to do the same. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:8, NASB).
“Proud to be your dad and mom” (self-esteem). “Proud to be your dad!” How many times has my husband written those words to his children in notes, birthday cards or e-mails? His standard closing illustrates another vital principle in raising emotionally healthy children—that it is the parents’ job to build their self-esteem and sense of security.
I believe that other than instructing a child regarding salvation and encouraging spiritual growth, building his self-esteem is one of the most vital things parents can to do to prepare him for an emotionally mature adulthood. Proverbs 17:6 says, “Children’s children are the crown of old men, and the glory of children is their father.” This verse indicates a child’s built-in need for the parents’ attention and approval. I am convinced that if a child misses this element in early childhood, he will spend the rest of his life looking for it.
How parents relate to a child will determine how well-developed his sense of security is. A preschool teacher once told me that we should always tell our children we are proud of them, especially when they do something obedient, thoughtful or well. We should then add, “Aren’t you proud of yourself?” This provides the satisfaction of not only receiving approval from others but also feeling good about oneself.
Affirming children’s interests, gifts, efforts and behavior helps to establish a strong sense of self-worth. When a child hears a parent’s praise, a deep emotional need is satisfied that helps him become a secure adult, with a sense of self-respect and worth. The security he feels will be an underlying factor in every decision and relationship he has in the future.
PKs are especially vulnerable to feeling insecure. If they hear criticism of their parents and the church, they will likely take it personally. Unfortunately, they usually hear criticism directed toward them and their parents much more than other children do, and dealing with that criticism will require extra attention and communication. Look for other authority figures in the lives of your PKs, such as teachers, coaches or parents of friends, who will help provide the affirmation your children need.
“It takes so little to be above average” (excellence). Years ago I had the opportunity to attend one of Florence Littauer’s CLASSeminars on developing leadership and speaking skills. I came home with a little phrase that was quickly incorporated into our family life.
Florence spoke on the topic of her book It Takes so Little to Be Above Average. She challenged us to think above average, lead above average, care above average, pray above average and so on. Her premise was that most of the world settles for the mediocre in life. As Christians, motivated by our desire to serve God, we should pursue excellence in every area of our lives.
Aspiring to do all things in an above-average way is akin to “going the second mile,” as Jesus encouraged us to do (see Matt. 5:38-42). Paul refers to this principle when he describes Christian behavior as “not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).
“It takes so little to be above average” soon became a mantra around our house. When preparing a report, project or something for church, we asked ourselves, “Is this above average? Have I have made an extra effort to do it well?” Whether others recognized our effort was not important. What was important was giving 100 percent.
This principle will serve anyone well throughout life. Whether it’s put to use while attending college, establishing a home, raising children, entering the workforce, showing hospitality, or anything else, learning to think “above average” pushes us toward excellence.
Colossians 3:23-24 says: “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.” If we want to work and live “as to the Lord,” then we will give it our all and encourage our children to do the same because we do everything we undertake in service to Him.
“Always remember ...” (unconditional love). When we were raising our children, we began repeating a phrase whenever we dropped them off somewhere or left them to go on a trip: “Always remember something: I love you very much.” Because children squirm when their parents express love for them in front of others, we began to use only the first part of the phrase, “Always remember.” Others may not have understood what our girls were supposed to “always remember,” but they certainly did. It was our code for “Don’t ever forget that we love you.”
The need for unconditional love is the most primary of human emotional needs. Children will inevitably do things that don’t please their parents, and those will need to be addressed. But poor behavior does not change the fact that we love them, accept them as they are and seek the best for them.
In Old Testament times God spoke through the voice of His prophet Isaiah, reminding Israel that He had not forgotten His people. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, yet I will not forget you,” He told them (Is. 49:15). What a stunning statement of love. God uses an illustration of one of the most powerful forces of nature—maternal love and care—to describe the intensity of His love for His people.
Of course He is asking a rhetorical question. It is unthinkable for a mother to forget her nursing baby. But God says that even if a mother did forget, He would never forget His chosen people. The relationship of God with Israel shows the ultimate in unconditional love. Though His people failed Him time and time again, He continued to forgive, discipline and draw them back to Himself. May God give us the grace to do the same with our own children.
Raising spiritually and emotionally healthy children takes wisdom, energy and a great deal of prayer. But your task will be easier if you include the principles of respect, grace, self-esteem, excellence and unconditional love in your training—no matter what sayings you use to incorporate them.
Susie Hawkins served as the director of women’s ministry at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas and has 30 years’ experience as a minister’s wife. She is the author of From One Ministry Wife to Another and is married to O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources.