Ellen White’s impact on my thinking about motherhood and family life began several years before my children were born. I had grown up with some ambivalence about her ministry, and didn’t often read her books. But every now and again, I would pick up something she had written for my devotional reading. One morning, as I read about the childhood of Jesus, I came across these words: “The more quiet and simple the life of the child—the more free from artificial excitement, and the more in harmony with nature—the more favorable is it to physical and mental vigor and to spiritual strength.”
Later that day, as my husband and I went shopping, we walked past a gaming alley, where young teens were playing arcade games. As I walked by, the loud music echoing in my head and my eyes dilated by the flashing lights, I recalled Ellen White’s words. I turned to my husband and said, “If we ever have children, I want their childhood to be different than this. I want them to grow up enjoying simple things, like sunshine and buttercups.”
Reality Check—And Good Counsel
Several years went by, and when at last my first child was born, the picture of Jesus’ childhood that Ellen White had painted was still in my mind. But the reality of life with a newborn was more about trying to survive on four hours of sleep than about sunshine and buttercups. When a friend told me about a Christian parenting program that promised to teach a baby to sleep through the night, I was initially grateful. As I tried to learn how to help my child sleep, I realized that this program was not simply about infant feeding and sleeping schedules. It was also about God’s desire for order and parental authority in family life. Feeling uneasy with some of what I was reading, I searched to understand my new role as a mother. Again I found wisdom in the words of Ellen White.
In her book, Child Guidance, Ellen White counsels parents to “bind the hearts of the little ones to them by silken cords of love.” These simple and yet profound words once again created a word picture that helped me to see what God desired for family life. Love is central to the order of the universe that God created; thus, teaching our children to “love God and love others” must be central to Christian parenting. But where does this capacity to love come from? Research suggests that it is only as children are loved unconditionally, and their needs met responsively, that they are able to internalize love and gratitude. This is consistent with the way in which our heavenly Father “parents” us: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). As I pondered these thoughts, I realized that in this new job that God had given me, love was more important than order. For my newborn daughter, learning to love and be loved was more important than learning to sleep through the night.
As my daughter grew I realized that the “silken cords of love” that bound her heart to mine were the foundation for everything else she needed to learn. By this time, I had read many books on parenting and child development, but the words that made the most impact were these: “As the mother teaches her children to obey her because they love her, she is teaching them the first lessons in the Christian life. The mother’s love represents to the child the love of Christ, and the little ones who trust and obey their mother are learning to trust and obey the Saviour.” These words reminded me that as I learned (often with great difficulty) to put aside my own needs and respond to her needs, my daughter was learning about the love of God. As I was available and responsive (not always consistently) when she needed me, my daughter was learning that she could trust God. This foundation of love and trust would enable her to be obedient, not only to me, but ultimately, to God. I realized that the task of motherhood was more sacred than anyone had ever told me.
As I have journeyed through motherhood, the words of Ellen White have continued to encourage me in different ways. When my children were still very young, there were days when the tasks of my earlier professional life seemed more significant than the dirty laundry and runny noses that I faced each day. On those days I found validation in these words: “The king upon his throne has no higher work than has the mother… An angel could not ask for a higher mission.” Several years later, while serving as missionaries in the South Pacific, there were days when our decision to homeschool our children threatened to overwhelm me. Were we really ruining our daughters’ education and creating social misfits? On those days I was reassured by these words: “Mothers should be able to instruct their little ones wisely during the earlier years of childhood. If every mother were capable of doing this, and would take time to teach her children the lessons they should learn in early life, then all children could be kept in the home school until they are eight, or nine, or ten years old.”
My children are older now, and happily settled into school. There are days when it seems that their world is so much wider, and the influence of our home so much smaller. On those days I am both challenged and encouraged by these words: “To a great extent, parents hold in their own hands the future happiness of their children. Upon them rests the important work of forming the character of these children. The instructions given in childhood will follow them all through life.” There are also days when the bar seems too high, when the standard of parenting described by Ellen White seems unattainable. That’s when I turn to these words: “Watch what God does, and then you do it…. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that” (Eph. 5:1, 2,Message).
As I reflect on these words I am humbled by the enormity of God’s love for me, and I’m reminded that it is only as I behold His love that I can begin to learn how to “love like that.”
This article originally appeared in Adventist World Magazine.