D. L. Mayfield on Raising Children to Love Like Jesus Did

I am the child of Christian parents who were deeply committed to raising kids who care about others. My dad was a pastor and we were homeschooled, but my parents worked hard to intentionally break open our lives to learn and be in relationship with diverse communities. We volunteered in special ed classrooms. We spent multiple weeks in the summer in tiny indigenous villages. I grew up believing that every family invited a hodgepodge of lonely and isolated people to every holiday gathering. And yet, for all that was modeled to me to be outward looking, as a young adult in Bible college I struggled to find theological language for what seemed to be a fairly straightforward concept: that Christians have a responsibility to care about their neighbor, especially the most vulnerable.

When I was in my 20s, I read The Long Lonelinessby Dorothy Day (who started the Catholic Worker Movement) and was electrified by the language of the common good. This, I thought, was what my parents raised me to believe in, and it was something I wanted to pass on to my own children. But now, as a mother, I realized I underestimated the challenges—both cultural and personal—to modeling for my children a life that is lived with our neighbors in mind.

What Do We Really Want?

It is hard work to parent well in this, or any, age. Consumed by busy schedules, technology, and the desire to do it all perfectly, many of us can feel overwhelmed and go into autopilot. This is why it is helpful to step back consistently and ask ourselves: What is it that we really want for our children?

Judging by blogs, sermons, and Instagram posts, what many in our culture desire is to raise children who are safe, happy, and loved. These are admirable and incredibly important goals, and ones that are often affirmed in the church. Indeed, in an age when child abuse and the long-term consequences of it constitute a crisis in our own country, it certainly makes sense that a Christian call to loving our families is seen as being of the utmost importance.

And yet focusing primarily on raising securely attached children can quickly become myopic, warping our values of safety and success. As studies have shown, American parents in particular continue to press achievement and success as harbingers of happiness for their children, valuing good test scores and college placement over empathy and involvement in the community. Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd found that middle and high schoolers he surveyed shared similar values as their parents: 48 percent ranked achievement as their top value, while only 22 percent prioritized caring for others. CT science editor Rebecca Randall explains, “The study found that American adults do want kids to be decent and caring, especially in their immediate communities, but that they are far less concerned about a commitment to the greater society’s well-being.”

I suspect that, if asked, most parents would agree that we all want children who are outward focused and who are able to care for and empathize with other people. But do our lives actually match up to this value? In my own life, it has taken ongoing intentional efforts to get off the moving escalator of upward mobility—which itself is filled with materialism, segregation, homogeneity, and self-centered individualism.

Elastic Walls

In their book Belonging and Becoming: Creating a Thriving Family Culture, authors Mark and Lisa Scandrette say a family must maintain a balance between a common vision and routine practices in order to live out their values. Deeply committed Christians, the authors posit that a good starting place for a vision of what makes a thriving family is “a place of belonging and becoming where each person feels safe, cared for and loved, and is supported to develop who they are for the good of the world.”

Lisa grew up in a family that modeled radical hospitality. “The walls were elastic,” she told me, referring to the numerous Bible studies in her home, foster children that joined their family, and other avenues of community engagement her family did together. Now Lisa, a mom of three, sees this approach as an ongoing practice. “We have the opportunity to model the way of love to our kids,” she says. “Part of the work we do as a family is to encourage each other to extend the sort of belonging we hope to cultivate to the people around us.”

The Scandrettes’ vision aims to strike a balance between focusing on the nuclear family and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–39). Ministers, incarnational practitioners, and various lay leaders within Christianity agree that it is of utmost importance both to pour into your children and to model for them what it means to be outward focused.

The Bubble

Lindsy Wallace—a missionary with the organization InnerCHANGE, which works among the urban poor—believes in integrating family life and spiritual life. She notices that Christian culture can often pressure us to raise our children in a protective bubble full of church and Christian schools and friends and Bible stories but lacking the lived experience of a life that looks like Jesus. “It’s difficult to imagine how a deep love for Jesus and neighbor will develop in our children if all they have is book knowledge of Jesus but have never seen him in the eyes of the poor and have never witnessed their parents visiting him in prison,” Wallace says, referring to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:35–36.

As Wallace states, it’s one thing to raise our kids to be kind to one another and quite another to think about what it might mean to have our entire families be looking for ways to live like Jesus did on earth. What would it mean to examine our values in the light of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, for example? Do we believe Jesus when he told us that it is the poor, the sick, and the sad who are blessed? That we should not store up treasures for ourselves here on earth? That we should not worry about the next day but instead be present and grateful and attentive to how God is taking care of us today?

Wallace, along with co-hosts Shannon Evans and Kayla Craig, runs the Upside Down podcast, which focuses on what it means to live out the upside-down values of Christianity. They regularly discuss the practical realities of trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, and each of the hosts regularly receives questions concerning how she parents her children and lives out these values. The questions point to what appears to be a common belief: It’s fine and good to pursue lives of ministry and justice and mercy … up until you have a family.

Love and Fear

My husband and I have committed to raising children who take the words of Jesus seriously. We continue to wrestle with what it looks like to live out passages like Micah 6:8—to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God as a family. In our life, this commitment has involved living and working in low-income refugee communities in the US for the past 13 years.

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Source: Christianity Today