Tim Stafford, a senior writer for Christianity Today, writes about a wide range of issues—everything from sex to the church in India. Some of the projects he has been involved in include The NIV Student Bible and The Stamp of Glory. InterVarsity Press has published a new volume from Stafford, Never Mind the Joneses: Building Core Christian Values in a Way That Fits Your Family. Stan Guthrie interviewed him about it.
Why did you write this book now?
The youngest of my three kids was about to go to college, so I thought, it’s now or never. I’m probably not going to learn a lot more about this childrearing business, so I better put down everything I know before I forget it.
More seriously, for years my wife, Popie, and I had been giving talks on raising kids with values. Over time we’d developed our ideas about family culture, and it seemed as though people found it helpful. So it was time to write.
This book was really a group effort, wasn’t it?
Yes, very much so. I’m convinced that every family has its own unique personality and culture. It was important to get input from as wide a variety of families as possible, so I quizzed an awful lot of people about their family style. I’m a journalist, so I used my journalist’s craft to try to bring others’ voices into the story.
What was your family like when you were a kid?
I had a wonderful family growing up. My dad was a pastor, my mom a school teacher. I think you could say we were noisy—we talked a lot, and it was okay to disagree, even with your parents. My parents were very godly, and they showed us how to love loving God. At the same time, they weren’t too pious about it. Especially my dad—he hated the stereotype of the meek parson.
What about now that you are a father?
I see a lot of similarities with my family of origin, but differences as well. Popie is from the deep South, and she brought an emphasis on manners that I never had growing up. She also brought great strengths in relating to others. All three of my kids are naturally shy, as I am, but they’ve all learned how to compensate for that very well, so most people would never guess their shyness. Another difference is sports. All my kids played sports, and became serious runners in high school. I’d say sports activities were a big part of our family culture. Popie and I tried to think how we could emphasize godly values through sports, and also what ungodly values we wanted to avoid.
What are some of the key challenges facing Christian parents in America today?
A lot more weight rests on the parents. When I was growing up, my parents could send me out the door reasonably confident that if I went into one of my neighbor’s homes, they would reinforce most of the values that we believed in. Same thing at school—they never dreamed of a public school system that wouldn’t support their values. In those days, even the TV shows more or less underlined qualities Christians believed in. Obviously, that’s not true today, and it falls to parents to make sure that their kids understand basic Christian values. If they don’t do it, nobody else will.
What are some of the key values that nearly every Christian family agrees upon?
I list 14 of them in my book, chapter by chapter: God first, concern for others, hard work, truthfulness, family unity, boundaries, generosity, sexual fidelity, care for creation, submission, thanksgiving, rest, contentment, and grace. I like to say that every Christian family believes in these values. But building these into your family life—that’s hard.
Why is it so hard to raise kids today—or has it always been hard?
It’s always been hard. It’s hard because you’re dealing with real human beings. Children are not machines that we can control. They have a soul, a spirit, and a mind of their own. Raising children—your children, with their own particularities and peculiarities—is an art form. It’s like learning how to dance.
I probably speak for many parents when I admit that it is very difficult in my home to establish consistent habits for things such as family devotions or service toward others. Sometimes we’re lucky to get our kids—all in the third grade or younger—fed and clothed every day. Trying to do more than that can seem overwhelming. You’re not going to lay another guilt trip on me, are you?
Just the opposite, really. I want to liberate you from any notion that there’s one right way to raise kids. The values we want to communicate—God’s values—are non-negotiable. But people find so many ways to get them across. I don’t want anybody wasting time or energy lamenting that they can’t seem to do it like that other family they know—the perfect family. You have a unique style in your family, and the idea is to try to tap into that uniqueness. If one way doesn’t seem to work for you, try another. And if you don’t quite get it all done for some period of your life, not to worry. The idea is to communicate values, to get those values into the souls of our kids. That’s a lifetime project, but it doesn’t stand or fall on how many times you did devotions.
For example, our family never really did a very good job at family devotions. We tried from time to time, but it really didn’t seem to fit our style or our schedule. So? We communicated the same value—God first—in other ways. We made a lot of church involvement. We read the Bible on vacations. We sent our kids to a Christian camp. They got the point. We weren’t perfect, but the message got through in a way that fit us as a family.
Your book attempts to give parents a certain amount of freedom in building a family culture and inculcating values and standards in the lives of their children. You don’t simply give us a simple list of things to do or avoid doing. Why did you approach the book this way?
If there were one way to raise kids with values, don’t you think God would tell us? But there’s no such list of things to do in the Bible.
Part of my perspective on this undoubtedly comes from living in Africa. Popie and I learned, very early on in our married life, that different cultures do things in their own way. Africans don’t raise kids the way Americans do, they don’t conduct church like Americans do. They don’t laugh at the same jokes or celebrate the same events. We can share the same values—in fact, we often do, because many Africans are Christians—but we live them out in quite different ways.
An African expresses hospitality in a very different way than you or I do. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the value of hospitality. In fact, our differences are a glory. God made us all different.
I would like to encourage parents to stop looking for the perfect way to raise kids—which usually only makes them feel guilty—and instead think creatively. It’s great to learn from other people. That’s where we get our ideas. Ultimately, though, we come up with a style that is our own. Just make sure that style is underlining God’s values, and not somebody else’s.
Would you give an example of what this freedom looks like in practice?
Sure. In our family, we are very strong on church attendance. Our kids went to church, they went to Sunday school, and they went to youth group. When we go on vacations, we go to church wherever we are. It’s very inconvenient, but we think it communicates a strong message: At all times, in all places, worshiping God with God’s people comes first in our lives.
I realize, though, that doesn’t work with all families. Some kids are simply too rebellious. Some parents are divided on church attendance—one believes in it strongly and one doesn’t. Some think it’s fine to stay home from church to watch an important football game. So they need to make the value statement “God first” in some other way.
We never presented church attendance as a moral issue. We made it very clear that other families had their own standards, and that didn’t make them less than us in any way. We just said: “This is our family. When you grow up and make your own family, you can decide to do it differently. Right now, though, you’re a member of the Stafford family, and the Staffords go to church. It’s our cultural identity.” There’s a kind of strictness in that, but there’s also a kind of freedom.
Or let’s talk about hard work. I definitely wanted my kids to learn the meaning of work, and I think they all did. Work is a biblical value, underlined in numerous places in Scripture. As a child, I learned hard work delivering papers, picking fruit, and moving irrigation pipe. I always had a part-time job.
My kids, though, hardly ever had part-time jobs. They were taking really hard classes—much harder than I ever had in high school. They were doing sports. They were involved in youth group activities, which also take more time than they did when I was a kid. I wanted them to do all these things, and do them well. So Popie and I never pushed part-time jobs. Frankly, I don’t know how they could have done a job. They were already working hard.
That’s our family. In other families, school has a much lower profile. In other families, sports aren’t a big deal. In some of these families, part-time jobs are just expected. They fit the family, and kids learn hard work through them. My kids learned hard work more from running cross country, and from doing demanding school work. I know some parents would feel really guilty about this, as though they failed their children by not making them learn hard work the way they did. My feeling, though, is that the end product is what matters. They learned hard work.
What are the biggest mistakes many Christian parents make?
A lot of parents want to be their kids’ friends, and they stop acting as their parents. I see this particularly with teenagers. Lots of parents act as though their kids are grown when they’re 14 or 15. They aren’t. They may not like being corrected, but they badly need correction. They need authoritative guidance, because they look big and strong, but they aren’t.
What do you do if your kids reject your values? Is it ever too late?
It’s never too late. You keep praying. You keep living by faith. Of course, you have to respect their choices and love them unconditionally. But that doesn’t mean you let them go their own way without a word. You keep on reminding them of the values God has given us, doing it tactfully and with a sense of the right timing. You can never know when it might sink in. Our God is a mighty God.