Everyone who has children thinks about the question: How can I be an effective or even successful parent? I have yet to meet a parent who simply wanted to pass children off into the next stage of life with basic physical health in tact but nothing more. (Reminds me of the time I babysat a friend’s goldfish while he was on vacation–simple survival—that was my only goal.)

We want our children to thrive, and we want to contribute whatever we can to make that happen.

Parenting, of course, is not a precise recipe. Follow the steps and…voila, out pops a fear-of-the-Lord, covenant-keeping, wise young adult. Such parenting would actually oppose the way God does things. All we would have to do is trust in our steps and everything goes fine. Instead, the (much better) system we have received is one where we parent by faith. We trust in Christ every step of the way. We pray tons and love the best we can. Yet, there are some basic directions available to us.

As I get older I have the opportunity of watching many children grow. Some do well, others don’t. I have a mental file of hundreds of conversations about parenting and have observed almost every kind of parenting style imaginable. Here are some of the tendencies that I have noticed in successful parenting.

Successful parents are always learning about Jesus. This is a no-brainer. A pastor once said that his congregation’s greatest need was his [the pastor’s] sanctification. The same goes for successful parenting. God can use blatant hypocrites, but, as a general rule, parents who have a growing knowledge of Jesus do best.

To be a little more specific, successful parents are able to answer the question: What are you learning about Jesus? “Learning,” in this case, like “knowledge” is no mere academic accumulation of facts. It is the intimate knowledge and learning that take place in the closest of relationships and inspire us to love the other person more deeply. This means that these parents are talking about how they are learning about Jesus rather than lecturing their children about Jesus.

I was in a conversation recently that was headed toward that question: What are you learning about Jesus? I had probably thirty seconds to consider my answer.

It was one of the more painful thirty seconds of my life.

My mind was blank. Nothing to say. I might have been a little embarrassed, but I was more grieved by the dryness of my own heart. So I asked the person to pray that I would never have that experience again.

Successful parents can tell you how they are personally learning about Jesus. Hopefully, that group also includes those who want to be personally learning about Jesus but miss a few days here and there.

Successful parents talk about Jesus with their children. If you are learning about Jesus, you talk about him. Successful parents talk about Jesus naturally in the course of their day. In this, they are following the earliest of biblical guidelines.

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, “Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10)

Jesus is a part of their everyday life and their children hear about it. Some children might suggest that the parent is being a little over-spiritual, but my observation is that children’s – or, more often, teen’s – complaints about references to Christ are akin to children’s complaints about parental affection in that they don’t like it but they don’t really want their parents to stop doing it.

Successful parents don’t mind imposing tight boundaries. I want to be careful on this one because “tight boundaries” can become an excuse for parental fear and anger more than parental love and wisdom. What I am thinking of has more of that Proverbs feel to it. Children are prone to foolishness and they don’t do too well at establishing their own boundaries, so we help them. There are times we say no to requests to sleep over at someone else’s house. Other times we call the other parents before we let a child or teen go to someone’s house. We want to know where our children are, and we are willing to get evidence that they were actually there. When boundaries are done in love, and parents listen to the advice of other wise people, I have never seen a child permanently scarred by tight boundaries, though I have known many children declare that they would be forever harmed by a parental no. I have seen children who lived with loose boundaries indulge in sins that had long-term consequences.

Successful parents love in a way that leads toward a friendship. Friends enjoy one another. They have a genuine appreciation for each other. They like each other. We are warned that we are our children’s parents, not their friends, and I think I understand what that warning is addressing, but my observation is that parents who aim for friendship with their maturing children are the ones who have the most successful spiritual influence on them. Children share their hearts in such a context. Parents ask forgiveness. Parents even seek advice.

As a recent example, I know a young man who anyone would be proud to have as a son—late-twenties, faithful to his wife and friends, pastoral and caring in relationships. I just met his father. He had flown to see his son so that they would be able to drive one-on-one to a vacation area where the families were staying. This father clearly loved his son. Most fathers do. Yet his expression of love was most striking. He admired his son. He felt as though he was watching his son surpass him in spiritual understanding and growth, which wasn’t the case but it is a good thing to think. And he had a list of questions for the twelve-hour drive.

How are you really doing? What are you learning in life… as a father, husband, friend, worker? What are you learning about Jesus? What books are you reading? Tell me about your church.

These questions weren’t an interrogation. The father was prepared to answer the questions too, so that both father and son would be sharpened (Proverbs 27:17). But mostly, he just wanted to savor the growth in another person. And as I listened to him further, he had all the qualities of a successful parent.

Successful parents know there are no guarantees. You can do all the things I’ve talked about and still have wayward kids. There is no formula or one-to-one correspondence between faithful parenting and “success”– that would violate the creative and grace-filled ways of the Spirit. God calls us to provide good soil conditions but He alone gives the increase. As we lean on Him, He teaches us how to participate in creative and grace-filled ways with our kids as we give unexpected gifts, become servants rather than masters, extend patience and kindness toward them, and walk with Him in one of life’s great adventures.