Parenting Essentials: An Interview with Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger
This world is in desperate need of moms and dads who embrace their God-given role as parents and steward that role with humility, grace, tenacity, sacrificial love, and humor. Now empty nester parents themselves, Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger have written Parenting Essentials: Equipping Your Children for Life to share biblical wisdom with parents. The following is my interview with them surrounding the topic.
You recently came out with your new book Parenting Essentials: Equipping Your Children for Life. Tell our readers more about this book and how you came about writing it.
Well, we love being parents, we love our four children—David and Timothy, Lauren and Tahlia—and we believe God has built parenting into the fabric of his creation. Our oldest daughter got married a couple years ago, and our second one is about to tie the knot, so we decided it would be a good idea to pass on some of the things we learned to new, aspiring, or struggling parents (which is all of us, at one time or another!). Many young couples start out their marriage and parenting journey with lots of idealism, but they live largely in the present, facing the challenges as they come. So, what we aim to do in Parenting Essentials is help our readers to develop a vision that covers the entire lifecycle of parenting from infant to toddler, all the way to the teenage years and young adulthood.
In the book you focus on the “3 Rs of Parenting” – Realism, Relationship, Responsibility. What makes these three components essential for parenting?
We provide a framework in our book that lays out what we understand to be God’s design for parenting. We encourage parents to act out their God-given identity and gender-specific roles in keeping with God’s larger purposes. Instead of reacting to the latest crisis, or getting caught up in a plethora of disciplinary issues, parents can be proactive and benefit from a general reflection on a biblical parenting philosophy. So, we developed “3R parenting,” in interaction with three tensions we’ve noticed particularly in new parents. These are: idealism vs. realism; relationship vs. task orientation; and responsible engagement vs. a passive or permissive approach. Within this framework, we suggest finding the right balance in navigating these tensions: accentuating realism (without forsaking ideals), emphasizing relationship (while performing necessary tasks and duties), and taking the responsibility of parenting seriously.
Parenting is about children, but in what ways is parenting about the parents? Why is this important to think about and what are the implications of how one answers this question?
A biblical vision for parenting is so much grander than following the family schedule, keeping our children in line, or getting them to the places they need to go. Big-picture parenting involves recognizing the stewardship parents have for each child’s physical and spiritual development. Therefore, we believe, parenting properly starts with the parents. Many of us tend to focus on the children, and how to best raise them, while underestimating the importance of our own character and example. In truth, the quality of our parenting is directly tied to the quality of our own personal and spiritual lives and relationships. We reproduce after our own kind! Like it or not, our children will do as we do, not as we say. Much of what we pass on to them is caught rather than taught. So, the best way to help develop the kinds of children we hope for is to be those kinds of people ourselves. As a general rule, as we become more like Christ, and as our children naturally imitate us, they, too, will become more like Christ (though, of course, our children must ultimately choose for themselves). Conversely, if we don’t follow through in our commitment to Christ, our children’s character will be missing the necessary anchor to ground them in the storms of life. The mission of parenting naturally unfolds as both father and mother themselves glorify God as the unique individuals he has created them to be. Setting a pattern for life will be an invaluable guide for your children as they seek to determine their own life’s purpose as well.
You write in the book that parenting has an important theological dimension. Could you expand on this?
Yes. Parenting Essentials is not your usual parenting book. It’s a fresh and clear presentation of a well-thought-out biblical-theological approach to parenting; that is, we seek Scripture from beginning to end and canvass the whole of its teaching on parenting. As such, our approach is not primarily socio-cultural (e.g., honing communication skills), psychological (dealing with emotions), or counseling-oriented (addressing sexual sin, drug addiction, teenage rebellion, etc.). While we touch on many of these issues, they are not our primary focus. Rather, we aim to be holistic, positive, and constructive, aiming to build a firm biblical foundation for parenting. By discovering God as he revealed himself in his word, and the purpose for which he created us as human beings in his image—male and female, father and mother—we can construct a positive and constructive framework for parenting.
To explain further, the Bible says that marriage is the foundational institution upon which parenting is built. God created us generally for community and relationship, but designed us specifically for male-female partnership. In this way, we’re called to enjoy each other’s company, including sexual intimacy, but above all, we were created to participate in God’s work in this world through having children. The Bible says, “God created man in his own image … male and female he created them.” And God told the couple, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” Later, Scripture adds, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 1:27–28; 2:24).
So, when we conceive children and raise them up for the glory of God, we partner not only with each other but also with God in reproducing new image-bearers for his glory. Parenting is a profoundly theological and spiritual endeavor. Children are a blessing from God, and a reward from him (Ps. 127:3–5), not only because they’re so adorable but, more importantly, because in them we fulfill God’s calling to reproduce and fill the earth with other human beings who bear his imprint and likeness. Parenting has an incredibly important theological dimension that, if embraced, has the potential to transform our own lives and to impact others with the gospel.
How does reflecting on God the Father allow Christians to see more clearly the foundations of biblical parenting? How does that theological reality shape the roles that both earthly fathers and mothers have?
Parenting well isn’t merely a matter of working hard at the role of a good parent; instead we are meant to reflect God’s very own nature as we love, care for, and discipline our children. This can fully happen only if we first experience a spiritual rebirth through conversion to Christ. In our book, we focus primarily on two passages that explain this.
The first is a passage in Ephesians, where Paul writes, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named …” (Eph. 3:14–15). Here, we see that God is the source of every family. As parents, when procreating children, we join with God to enter into the experience of what it means to be like the Creator. Parenting is a divinely-given privilege and responsibility where God is not only the general source of family by his creation design, he is also the one who enables us to be the kinds of parents he calls us to be.Parenting is a divinely-given privilege and responsibility where God is not only the general source of family by his creation design, he is also the one who enables us to be the kinds of parents he calls us to be. Click To Tweet
Second, the author of Hebrews writes that “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?” (Heb. 12:9). In this passage, we see that discipliningour children is a vital part of our role as parents. This is why we call for a realistic, relational, and responsible approach. Children will inevitably need discipline and correction (realism). This is best done in the context of a trusting, loving relationship by parents who take their responsibility seriously rather than adopting a passive, child-centered approach where children lead the way and parents follow or acquiesce.
As you brought to light, an overwhelming 24.7 million children do not currently live with biological fathers. As such, the world and the church is filled with single mothers. What is it about both a mother and a father’s presence that is so vital for a child’s social and spiritual flourishing? How can a local church and the Christians within it come alongside single-parent families?
Fatherlessness and motherlessness are so devastating because both a father and a mother’s presence is absolutely essential for children’s adequate nurture and stability as they grow up. Simply put, it’s God’s plan! Presence is the essence of parenting. It’s incredible to note that in the US, 4 out of 10 children ages 6 through 18 are fatherless. Children without a father are four times as likely to be poor and twice as likely to drop out of school. Seven out of ten high school dropouts are related to the lack the presence of their father in the home. Girls without a father are twice as likely to be obese and four times as likely to get pregnant in their teens. In terms of racial demographics, fatherlessness is at 20 percent for Caucasians, 31 percent for Hispanics, and 57 percent for African-Americans. The clear message for fathers, therefore, is this: “Accept your parental responsibility, show up, and don’t abandon your family and children.”
That said, the scourge of fatherlessness in society often places heavy demands on single mothers who are left to raise children on their own while providing for them financially. Our message for mothers in a culture that often disparages motherhood is to embrace the role God gave you. Don’t be distracted by what the world says will bring you greatest satisfaction. That doesn’t mean you need to abandon a fruitful life of personal growth. But don’t put short-term or self-oriented interests above your devoted and long-term investment in your children (of course, this goes for fathers as well). No childcare substitute can ever adequately replace the child’s actual father or mother’s presence in guiding their children during their most formative years. While we acknowledge the often harsh economic and social realities of single parenting, we believe that those who abide by and joyfully embrace God’s plan to the best of their ability will be blessed, as will their children.
You noted that human relationships are complex. What encouragement do you have for young parents who are in the throes of parenthood or those who are discouraged in their parenting?
Well, it’s hard to say it all in a few short sentences, but, really, our entire book is about encouraging young parents to develop a biblical approach to parenting and not be thrown off by the various challenges they face as parents. Our entire chapter 3 deals with parenting in the real world, where we talk about the challenges of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and how they affect parenting. We talk about parenting in today’s culture and how to raise culturally astute Christian children. We address busyness, fatigue, and the need for rest, as well as the need for encouragement, support, and mentoring. Of course we also cover the “big three”: sex, money, and in-laws! If you’re reading this, and are discouraged as a parent, we strongly recommend you read chapter 3 in our book. In addition, we deal with the reality of conflict in chapter 6 and suggest a simple yet effective strategy for conflict resolution.
The local church and fellow believers play an important role in the lives of parents and their children. What is this role and how vital are these relationships? How would you challenge single men and women in the church to come alongside these families?
Yes! As husbands and wives, we should keep cultivating our marriage and grow in our support of each other. Marital and parental unity is so very important. Often children’s issues can be the source of major conflict between spouses, and in the family, so, in addition, we need support from others. Ideally, our parents (our children’s grandparents) will help, and in many cases they do. Often, though, they live far away, or are not believers, which means encouragement from friends and fellow believers, especially in the local church, is even more important. Andreas talks about this in his book God, Marriage, and Family in chapter 13: “God, Marriage, Family, and the Church.” It’s very important that pastors and elders are supportive of marriages and families rather than placing undue pressure on church members to be involved in too many of the various programs and activities of the church. At the same time, involving families in wholesome activities is a wonderful way to provide them with ways to serve and be encouraged, so it’s really a matter of balance and of respect for people’s God-given family roles and responsibilities.
In terms of single men and women coming alongside families, we typically think of it the other way round: How can families come alongside single men and women? In that regard, we encourage those who are single to seek role models in their preparation for marriage—unless, of course, they have the comparatively rare gift of celibacy. As far as single men and women coming alongside families is concerned, they can serve the families that bless them, perhaps by caring for a young couple’s children so they can go out on a date (if the parents trust them), or help in other ways in the church, such as by providing childcare at special occasions.
You are now empty nester parents and have adult children. As you reflect on your years as parents, what have been some of your greatest joys and challenges?
Well, we’re very close. Our youngest is about to go to college. But then, our other son will be back living with us as he goes to grad school in the fall. We also have very close relationships with our two daughters. So, what we’ve found is that parenting doesn’t stop when your children go off to college. In many ways the relationships matures and may even get closer through strong rapport built with our children. It continues as they come to us for encouragement and advice, to receive support during struggles, or simply to rejoice and share with us their successes. In terms of greatest parenting joys and challenges we talk about in the book, we’ve found that a focus on building character in our children, over against giving them a good education and/or involving them extensively in sports and extracurricular activities, has been absolutely vital. The challenge, we’ve found, is for parents to make the necessary adjustments as our children grow older and become more independent, and to love and care for them while avoiding overprotectiveness. In the long run, we’ve primarily sought to prepare our children for life—to help them pursue a vocation and find a life partner—in the context of God’s calling for them, as they seek to glorify him and enjoy him forever.