Presence: The Essence of Parenting
Presence is the essence of parenting. Parenting is more than accomplishing a task, choosing the most effective method of discipline, or producing a well-integrated contributing member of society. As Scripture attests, and ample statistical and anecdotal experience affirms, effective, God-honoring parenting essentially means developing an intimate, trusting, and growing relationship with a child.
This relationship, in turn, cannot thrive unless parents are sufficiently, even abundantly, present. In keeping with this conviction, we set forth the 3 “R’s” of parenting in our book Equipping for Life—realism, relationship, and responsibility. In this short piece, we’ll focus on what we believe is at the very core of such a relational approach to parenting—a father’s and mother’s continual nurturing and guiding presence with their children.
An emphasis on presence in parenting is properly grounded in none other than God himself. The Bible is replete with references to God’s presence. The narrative of Scripture is essentially a story about humanity, both male and female, being created to live in God’s presence; being expelled from God’s presence; and then in Christ being reconciled to God and, through the Spirit, being enabled to live in God’s presence once again.
Parenting, too, is primarily about presence—the parents’ presence with their children—and, of course, God’s presence with the parents! Yet while most parents genuinely desire to spend time with their children because they enjoy being with them, the pressures of life crowd in, and a variety of circumstances often make it difficult for parents to be sufficiently present with their children.
A Father’s Presence
Recent reports highlight the scourge of fatherlessness in the United States and the serious implications of this malaise for education and many other areas of life. Almost 25 million children live without their biological father; 39 percent of students in grades 1–12 are fatherless. Children without a father are 4 times as likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school, and 7 out of 10 high school dropouts lack a father’s presence. Girls without a father are twice as likely to be obese and 4 times as likely to get pregnant in their teens. Fatherlessness is at 20% for whites, 31% for Hispanics, and 57% for African-Americans.
This data provides compelling statistical support for what is intuitively obvious: A father’s presence is vital for a child’s flourishing, especially during the growing-up years and adolescence, and there are not only tremendous social and economic costs but relational and spiritual ones as well.
The practice of parenting as presence can make a substantial difference in the life of the child. It’s easy for fathers to neglect their children while spending an inordinate amount of time at work or in various other pursuits. This mistake may be made even by Christian men who prioritize their work in a well-meaning attempt to provide well for their family. However, with a demanding career, church responsibilities, and other commitments, the children end up not seeing much of their dad. While it is important for fathers to provide for their families, it is also vital that they balance demands at work with their children’s need for their presence.
A Mother’s Presence
In contrast to fatherlessness, motherlessness is less well documented. The absence of a mother is memorialized literarily in Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Frankenstein, in which all daughters are motherless, reflecting the author’s own experience of vulnerability and fear of motherhood. Shelley’s mother was the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who penned The Rights of Women, written in part as a comment on the bleak prospects of motherhood in patriarchal 19th-century England. Shelly’s mother died soon after she was born, and Shelley herself gave birth to 2 daughters, both of whom also died.
In the United States today, 75% of mothers work full-time during their child’s first year, perhaps reflecting the most obvious form of motherly neglect in American society. Studies show that children whose mothers work full-time before the child turns 3 months old exhibit significantly more behavioral problems by the time they enter 1st grade, though the issues are complex and there are some positive results in the case of single working mothers. Children’s need for their mother is especially acute during their most formative years; a lack of maternal presence at home and in the life of a child has significant ramifications not only for the child but also for the mother herself. A child left to the care of another may fail to thrive, and the mother herself be deprived of the fulfillment possible for her and to others through her.
Yet statistics are not the end of the matter in terms of gauging the value of a mother in the life of a young child. The importance of recognizing God’s design for the family as described in Scripture raises the ultimate standard for individuals, families, and the church community. In a culture steeped in egalitarianism and quest for self-fulfillment, a mother must base her choice to stay home with her children on a settled biblical conviction amidst a sea of cultural influences. Despite efforts to rationalize the decision of a new mother to go right back to work or to employ the services of nannies or day-care centers, even church-based ones, there’s no adequate justification for placing expediency, lifestyle, self-promotion, or other considerations above God’s calling and purpose for mother and child.
God’s Design and Parental Presence
God’s design for men and women solidly undergirds an understanding of parenting as presence. The Bible reveals the divine design in the creation narrative, specifying men’s and women’s unique and distinct roles. The command to “be fruitful and multiply,” given to the human couple at the very beginning, indicates that procreation is at the heart of God’s purpose for marriage (Gen 1:28; cf. 2:24).
The man’s role as leader and provider and the woman’s role as wife and mother resound throughout the entire creation account (Gen 2:15–25; cf. 3:20), even the Fall narrative, where God’s judgment consists in sanctions reinforcing their God-given roles—for the woman, “labor pains” during childbirth (mother) and a desire to control her husband (wife; Gen 3:16), for the man, “painful labor” in working the ground and making a living (Gen 3:17).
Within this overall divine creation purpose, the man and the woman are to partner in parenting, with the man leading the way and the woman nurturing her family and cultivating a home where her loved ones can thrive. Click To Tweet The very way in which a woman is created—her feminine reproductive build—points to her God-given function of nurturing children. It is vital that this function is respected, valued, and even celebrated in church and society alike.
Being There for Them
Parenting as presence doesn’t mean we’ll be constantly by our children’s side. The relationship changes over time. Once our children have grown into mature adults, our role as parents will often simply be that of being there for them when they need us. Our children should know that we’ll always be there for them, no matter what.
While we won’t always be with them physically (and eventually will die), we can remain with our children in form of the values and principles we have instilled in them and through the character and wisdom we were able to impart.
Presence is the essence of parenting. Be there for your children. Cultivate an intimate, growing, and trusting relationship with them. Love them and be their friend. There’ll inevitably be rough and challenging times, but if you’re fully engaged—which takes time, lots of it—you’ll be able to build character and equip your children for their God-given mission in life.
 This article appropriates portions of chapter 5 of our book, Equipping for Life: A Guide for New, Aspiring, and Struggling Parents (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2018).
 See Susan Maxwell Booth, The Tabernacling Presence of God: Mission and Gospel Witness (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2915), chaps. 2–4.
 For the relevant sources, see Equipping for Life, 122–24.
 Lynsey Griswold, “Autobiography, Patriarchy, and Motherlessness in Frankenstein,” Oswald Review 6, no. 1 (2004): 87–101.
 J. Brooks-Gunn, W. Han, and J. Waldfogel, “First-year maternal employment and child development in the first 7 years: VIII. Discussion and Conclusions,” Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 75, no. 2 (2010): 96–113; R. Lucas-Thompson, W. Goldberg, and J. Prause, “Maternal work early in the lives of children and its distal associations with achievement and behavior problems: A meta-analysis,” Psychological Bulletin, 136, no. 6 (2010): 915–42.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Feminism, Family, and the Bible: A Biblical Assessment of Feminism’s Impact on American Families,” Religion & Society Report 23, no. 1 (January/February 2006), http://www.biblicalfoundations.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/34-Feminism-Family-and-the-Bible.pdf. For a survey of the history of feminism, see “The Three Waves: Women’s History Survey,” in Köstenbergers, God’s Design for Man and Woman, Appendix 1.
 For details, see our book God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).