Parenting as Discipleship, Part 1: Address Both the Heart and the Behaviors

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Editor’s note: China Partnership recently spoke with Hong Laoshi (a pseudonym), a Chinese American biblical counselor living in a large city in China with her family. She hopes to transform Chinese culture and communities through the gospel of Christ. She is actively involved in her local church, and enjoys having personal relationships and deep conversations with women in her community.

Last month, she shared about why biblical counseling is a need in Chinese society. In this two part series, she shares about how she encourages and comes alongside modern Chinese parents, walking with them in the difficult but joyful journey of raising and discipling their children.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


China Partnership: You do a lot of encouraging, training and supporting of parents. What are some of the issues with which Christian families in China struggle?

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 Hong Laoshi: A lot of people in my generation, Gen X, were brought up by their grandparents rather than their parents, because their parents were being sent to different cities for employment, or they went willingly to work in other places. Although they grew up knowing there is such a thing as a core family, they do not really know how families work. Then this generation grew up and became Christians. They understand it is important to parent their own children, but did not grow up in a traditional family themselves. It is really hard—they do not know how to parent their own children.

Chinese families not only need people to tell them what to do, it is crucial for them to have a model to know how. The parents I encounter love their kids very much and want to give the best to their kids, but when it comes to specifics, they have no idea what to do. There are a lot of books about parenting being translated, and there are a lot of workshops or talks on this topic. But to live with these parents, to wrestle with them, and to be able to discuss deeper specifics about how to parent—specific things, not only principles—is what they really need.

There are so many issues young families need to navigate: for instance, in-laws. Nowadays parents only have one or two kids, but [because of the one-child policy] they have two sets of grandparents hovering over them. Sometimes grandparents exhibit love by giving a lot of comments, and they expect the children to follow their parenting strategies. This gives adult children a lot of pressure in parenting their own children. The adult children need wisdom in how to love their aging parents but yet set boundaries from grandparents’ “invasion.” 

The second issue is to wrestle with the idea of being a good parent in a non-Christian friendly culture. The culture has the tune of, if you do not start early, your kid is going to fail. Parents have a lot of pressure from many sides, and they have no idea how to deal with it. They have the principles, but they do not know how to live them out. This is challenging because it reveals parents’ heart: what do I value more? 

That is one of the reasons my husband and I decided we wanted to move back to China. It was not just to throw in proper teaching or theology, but to live with people, wrestle with them, and model for them. We wanted to show them that we cannot be perfect parents. There is no formula in parenting. Although there are some basic principles to guide us, faithfully living out a Christian life needs much wisdom and a community to ponder and wrestle together. 

For example, we open our house. I homeschool our kids, and the families know I homeschool. Educational issues are one of the things they struggle with. They ask, “Can I come in to see how you homeschool your kids?” I say, “Sure.” I am pretty laidback with homeschooling. In the beginning, I thought my kids had to finish this and accomplish that. But I realized that that is not what homeschooling really is. I need to see where the needs of my kids are. It is not just learning; I want them to love learning. I want them to be able to connect God’s words and God’s creative world and God’s truth. I want to foster the relationship between the parent and child.  Homeschooling isn’t just to pass down knowledge, but to teach children how to be a good stewards of their relationship with God.

One Chinese sister came and observed how I did it. She adopted the education philosophy from the public system, and thought the kids had to sit in front of the desk for six hours straight. Her kids were having issues sitting and doing work the entire day. Her schedule was for them to sit and do work from 8 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. Seeing me teach gave her a new understanding of how kids work, and we had extended conversation about the purpose of education. That is what I mean by modeling.

This is not just for homeschooling. I invite people to my house and they see my house is not perfectly in order. That gives the wives of ministers or Christian workers a lot of comfort. They thought that to serve God, you had to maintain a perfect life in front of people. I share with them that you do not have to do this. I share about our failures and struggles, and that actually helps much more than just teaching rules or what you need to do. They need Christian parents that are struggling together, maybe a little bit ahead of them. My kids are a little older, and they can see what it is like. Every life and every family is different. But when they see that I do have my failures, but even with my failures I am able to be happy and peaceful, that helps them understand they do not have to be so perfect all the time.

They really worry about what happens if they fail as a parent. I encourage them that it is okay to fail. We are destined to fail some of the time; that is where Christ and the gospel comes in. You do not have to be the perfect parent in front of your kids, because that is not true. Kids need to see that you can apologize. Your kids need to see the gospel working in your heart. That is how kids can know Christ personally, too. Not because you are perfect—but because you are not perfect, but God still loves you.

A lot of families struggle connecting those strands of theology and life. They need modeling in how to navigate the world. We have books talking about biblical discipline. But if we do not have modeling, a lot of times parents just infuse traditional Chinese legalism and morality into the faith. That is not the gospel.

Sometimes you see parents saying: “I am using God’s rod to discipline my kids.” But if you look at their actions, it is more that they use discipline to accomplish their wants and desires. Kids are not really learning about obeying God’s given authority, but they are learning to fear their parents. They do not disobey because their parents will beat them. They are not really learning about obedience or a relationship with God. I challenge this a lot in a parenting class I teach. I ask parents to think: “Am I doing this for me, or for my kids to know God? Am I doing this out of my own evil desires, to accomplish what I want? Am I parenting out of my good desires, but wanting this too much, so that it replaces God?  Or am I doing this for my children to know God personally?”

Because parents focus a lot on wanting their kids to have good behaviors, sometimes they miss the opportunity to understand their kids. Kids have different personalities; they have gifts, they have weaknesses. Sometimes I help parents to navigate whether the child is showing this behavior because they are limited—they are five and cannot sit through the service for an hour—or because they are in sin and are actively disobeying. We help parents to understand where their kids are developmentally, and the strengths and weaknesses of each kid. Limitations do not equal sin, but there is a higher tendency those limitations will develop into sinful actions. We need to understand and distinguish between the two. When kids have weaknesses due to their limits, they are struggling. We need to help, guide, teach, and correct them rather than discipline them.  They also need to know they are not alone in their weaknesses. God is a loving God who is with them always. Parents and loved ones are here to wrestle together with them. When kids engage in sinful behaviors, we need to address both the heart and the behaviors. We do this by helping them understand the problems of their behavior, the connection between their hearts and their behavior, how the behaviors reveal their relationship with God, correcting them, and inviting them to rebuild their relationship with God. Discipline (this is not the same thing as spanking) is also used, not as a means of punishment, but to help the children to realize their sinful actions break down their relationships with both men and God. Consequences that fit the crime are given to help the children remember the effects of sin. However, the conversation needs to continue, to help the children realize the cross is much bigger and covers their sin. Parents need to help children to realize there is hope after admitting their sin, and our merciful, patient, loving Father invites them to go back to him. Discipline of sinful behaviors is not the final solution—inviting them to rebuild a relationship with God is. 

In the U.S. there are a lot of resources for special needs families or children, but there is not much in China. In churches, people do not know how to deal with special needs children. There is always a taboo for kids with special needs, whether the needs are physical or autism and ADHD. It is hard for families, because they do not have resources or community. The culture looks down on them and thinks, “This is the parents’ problem.” But sometimes it is not. We want to help the church be aware of different types of kids, different types of issues and needs in order to help the families—the parents as well as the children.

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Further Reading

Witness in Persecution: I Am Grateful
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Witness In Persecution: Heart Struggle
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How I Prayed For Instruction
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