Before Bill and I started a church we worked in high school youth ministry. At various times, both of our kids have also ministered to students. Time and again we’ve all heard students say, “My parents don’t ‘get me.’ They don’t understand me.
They’re so busy trying to make me who they want me to be, they can’t see who I really am.”
Many parents behave as if they are the gold standard of humanity and their job is to conform their kids to their image. Though that attempt has disaster written all over it, it’s easy to get caught up in it. I know, because I did.
At 24 I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She was sweet and perfect and I was determined to keep her that way. I clothed her in dainty dresses and outfits perfectly coordinated from head to toe. Day after day she looked just the way I wanted her to.
Then, at age two, Shauna discovered the motor skills necessary to dress herself—and she used them. Whatever I put on her, she took off. To whatever extent I coordinated things, she happily uncoordinated them. All the perfectly matched outfits I picked out ended up on her little body in a wildly mixed up mess (in my opinion) of colors, prints and styles. Many times when I took her to church I know people were thinking, “Why did Lynne let Shauna wear THAT to church.”
If they only knew!
And then there was the tornado that swept through her bedroom on a daily basis. I thought that as she grew older she would learn to pick up after herself, but as time went on the chaos in her bedroom only increased. Because I preferred neat—okay, because I believed neat was morally superior to messy—I had a huge problem with the disaster in her bedroom. In her best interests (I told myself), I committed myself to making her neat.
But it wasn’t just the way she dressed or kept her room. Sometimes it seemed to me that Shauna simply liked to be naughty; she actually liked to make me mad. Having been the ultimate compliant child, I had no frame of reference for her strong will. What was wrong with her? How could I make her behave better, like me?
My attempt to shape Shauna in my image lasted until she was in junior high—at which point I entered a time of personal emotional crisis that sent me to a counselor. Through counseling I realized that I had been raised to be a “nice girl”—to keep everybody happy, make no waves, follow all the rules, look good, act good, be good. I wore this niceness like a coat; it’s what everybody saw. But underneath there was another me. Because that coat of safe, predictable behavior was so heavy and I’d worn it for so long, it wasn’t easy to discover and release that other, more authentic me.
As I began to understand my own self better, I was devastated to realize how hard I’d been trying to wrap that same dull, restrained, constricting coat of niceness around Shauna.
So I stepped back and started to really look at her. What I saw was a creative free spirit who loved to sing and dance and act, so of course she turned every carefully planned outfit into a dramatic costume. She was funny, warm, expressive, strong—yes, uncomfortably strong at times—but that strong will was an incredible source of positive energy. The more I looked at her the more deeply I fell in love with her—with her, not with my image of her. And—wonder of wonders—I began to let her influence me.
The more I let her be her, the more I found little parts of her in me.
I’m still more reserved than she is, less funny and less feisty, and definitely neater. But I love to be around her. She delights me. What a loss to me, to her, and to the world had I succeeded in my attempts to remake her in my image.
Then along came Todd, three years younger than Shauna. He was quiet, laid-back, sensitive, very content to be in the background. I “got him” totally. I knew exactly how to nurture his gentle little spirit. But my high-energy, fast-paced, type A, public husband was mystified by this little boy.
Todd was a natural athlete and started playing soccer when he was four. Bill would watch Todd play and just go crazy. Todd had the talent but he didn’t have the “killer instinct.” Bill had far less athletic talent, but he had succeeded at sports by sheer determination. He couldn’t understand why Todd didn’t seem to care that much about winning. In 8th grade, Todd was one of the best players on his basketball team, but against the prodding of his coach and his dad, he quit the team. He liked the game but didn’t enjoy playing in front of people.
Fortunately, Bill was willing to adjust his thinking so he could free Todd to be himself.
Todd loved to put things together, build things, drive things, fix things. Our garage became a workshop filled with nuts and bolts and tools, and with boats and cars and motorcycles in various stages of repair. Bill likes a neat garage even more than I like a neat house (some people might say he’s obsessed with a clean garage), so he hated this garage full of clutter, but he’d sit out there and ask Todd details about his latest project because he knew that was important to Todd.
Because Shauna loved travel and new adventures, Bill took her on ministry trips to India, Spain, Scotland, Australia—wherever he was headed. While he spoke at conferences she’d go off on her own to explore and meet new people. For her, the more people she met the better. The more time zones she crossed the more energized she felt.
Todd hated trips like that. What he wanted from Bill was time alone, just the two them, doing something together. So every winter Bill—who has never been fond of cold weather—took Todd snowboarding in Colorado. They’d sit on chairlifts together, traverse slopes together, eat meals together. Todd loved it. He needed it.
We always used to say that Shauna never had an unexpressed thought; you always knew what was going in her mind (which is what maker her such a great writer today, http://www.shaunaniequist.com). But Todd was never a big fan of words; we just had to hang around him a lot so we’d be there when he decided to talk.
When it came to church, Shauna’s natural leadership and creative ability was obvious at a young age. She would sit by Bill during services at Willow and together they would analyze the service. She was raised to be a leader because that’s what was in her.
Todd preferred staying in the background. One of his Sunday school teachers was worried because Todd didn’t sing and he always sat in the last row during class. I said, “Yes, so what’s the problem? He’s rather shy; he’d rather sit where he’s not being watched and he doesn’t like to sing in a public setting. I do the same thing. Just leave him be.”
Sometime later Todd approached the volunteer leader who ran the sound system in his class and asked if he could help. The volunteer asked us if that would be okay, given that Todd might be paying more attending to decibel levels than the actual words being spoken. Of course we said yes, knowing that was a perfect fit for Todd (and confident that he would, in fact, be monitoring more than decibels).
I think the greatest task of parenting is to truly get to know our kids.
We have the opportunity to observe our kids more closely than anybody else does and then to reflect back to them, to mirror, to honor and affirm what we see. What is she interested it? What does he learn quickly? What motivates her? What’s his passion? How did she play as a child and how might that inform her choice of vocation later on? When do you see his eyes light up?
My second grandson is seven months old. Mac can’t tell us who he is and what he needs. So we watch, listen, and pay attention to the smallest details of his behavior. Slowly we learn to discern the meaning is this particular kind of cry and that particular expression of delight. And every time he learns something new—to sit up, crawl, pull himself up to a standing position—we clap our hands and cheer him on. We tell him how great and smart and wonderful he is.
I believe that we parents should never stop doing that—never stop observing, affirming and delighting in who our kids really are.
My children are now 35 and 32 years old—and I still get a kick out of telling them how great and smart and wonderful they are!
Lynne Hybels and her husband started Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. Lynne has been an active volunteer in Willow Creek’s ministry partnerships in under-resourced communities in the Chicago area, Latin America and Africa. Since getting involved with Casa de Luz, Willow’s Spanish-speaking congregation, she has become an active supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. After traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo, she established a personal fundraising initiative, Ten For Congo, to support the thousands of women and girls brutally raped during Congo’s ongoing civil war.
In 2008 Lynne began traveling regularly to the Middle East to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She has spoken at conferences in Bethlehem and co-hosted evangelical leaders traveling to the Holy Land to better understand the conflict. Lynne has written inspirational books and articles on personal healing, global poverty, HIV/AIDS, immigration, multi-faith relationships, peacemaking, and Christians in the Holy Land. She served as a board member of the Africa Advisory Board at Willow Creek Community Church and on the U.S. Board for World Vision. Lynne holds a B.A. in Social Sciences from Bethel College.
Lynne and her husband Bill have two adult children, Shauna and Todd, one son-in-law, Aaron Niequist, and two grandsons extraordinaire, Henry and Mac, who run the family.
Lynne, thank you for saying yes to this opportunity to reach so many moms and know that you at least touched one girl’s heart. I cried at my kitchen table when I received this post. I am so guilty of creating little mini me’s in my girls and I needed to read this. I have attended many Leadership Summits at Willow Creek and have the utmost respect for your entire family and what you have done and will do for the world and His kingdom.
Happy Mother’s Day to one great mom!
Thank you for your time and transparency.
I KNOW many will be blessed today.
Hoping some will have the courage to tell you how.