This post was originally seen in the August issue of HomeLife Magazine. Order your copy today!
Burying a student is almost as unnatural as a parent burying a child. It changed me as a teacher and parent in that it focused me on what matters most. Because I’ve attended funerals of students, I’m increasingly convinced that each minute I’ve spent seeing and knowing each student has been the most valuable time I’ve spent. Understanding teaching and learning isn’t that complicated. I contend that it is only about three things: feedback, engagement, and well-being. This is easy to remember because these three words form the acronym F.E.W. (See the graphic on page 40.) As parents entering a new school year, we need to focus on the foundation of these three which is well-being. Well-being is grounded in purpose-driven flourishing. How do we help our children find their purpose and flourish this school year?
Research is a great way for us to know God. Research reveals truth. Truth reveals God. Even research from secular scholars reveals God’s truth, even when its authors are unwitting ambassadors of that truth. I’m constantly amazed at the biblical truth they uncover. I’ll never judge the state of another person’s soul, so I don’t know that these researchers aren’t believers. One example is positive psychology. Positive psychology has emerged as a humanistic approach to flourishing that focuses on strengths instead of weaknesses. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, wrote a book called Flourish.
In the book, Seligman asserts that flourishing consists of five pillars: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. As a Christian parent, I know where my children can find these. Positive traits like gratitude, resilience, and compassion come from our orientation to the Creator of the universe and lead to the positive emotions Seligman prescribes. We experience these emotions through deeper engagement with ideas and others in relationships. Our relationship with Christ has primacy and our relationships with others develop through the overflow of God’s love for us. Meaning and accomplishment flow from living in community with others while we ground ourselves in communion with God.
What does this look like in real life? Our children have meaningful, stabilizing relationships with us that help them flourish. My mother passed away right before Christmas 2021. While they knew she was in heaven, this was their first experience of losing a close family member.
However, this loss has resulted in their flourishing. My children have grown in all five areas that Seligman describes. When my father — their grandfather, whom my children refer to as Poppy — came to stay with us after the loss of my mom, my 13-year-old daughter gave him her room. He found a hand-painted card on his pillow with a note on the back welcoming him to her room. My wife and I were concerned about how our middle school daughter would respond to being asked to give up her room, and she found positive emotion that allowed her to engage her Poppy in a relationship that had meaning. While she might not see the accomplishment, as parents, we see a Christ-follower who is flourishing by serving others with her talents and limited resources.
Identity and Habits
In James Clear’s bestselling book, Atomic Habits, he identifies two major themes for how to become better versions of ourselves. We can root the change in our identity instead of willpower and build habits rather than set goals. First, if we want our children to become all they were created to be, we need to help them root their identities in Christ because that is stable, secure, and true. When we see ourselves as followers of Christ, we don’t want to do the things of this world that take us away from Him. Certainly, we’ll need willpower along the way, but if our identity reorients what we love, then we are more likely to want what God wants. We have the capacity to grow our passions for what God loves. Willpower, on the other hand, tends to wane through the course of a day. Just think about how much harder it is to make good decisions about what to eat at the end of the day compared to the morning. Second, if we truly want to be like Christ, we don’t set a New Year’s resolution that says, “This school year, I will be more like Christ.” That’s a noble goal but doesn’t provide clear direction to execute on that goal. Spiritual and practical habits put us on that path toward well being through Christlikeness. If we can model this for our children, they’re much more likely to be well themselves this school year.
The spiritual disciplines are all about habits. To support spiritual habits, we need to cultivate practical habits as well. For example, if we want to start our days focused on what Christ has done for us, the night before, we need to go to bed at a decent time, set a Bible in a place that is conducive to reading and praying, have a pen and journal ready for notes, and have our prayer plan organized and ready to go. Our pastor also recommends putting a clear parameter in place to prioritize Christ each morning. “No breakfast. Bible before.” These habits will place us and our children firmly in God’s hands each morning and will equip them to deal with any challenges that they will face throughout the day.
Bob Goff offers truth about well-being from life lessons in his book, Undistracted. He contends that the world has never been more distracting, and joy has never been more possible. We find joy through undistracted purpose. Goff reminds us, and we can remind our children, of who we are. We have “permission to live with an unreasonable, unthinkable, totally absurd amount of purpose, joy, and fulfillment” by not paying attention to things that don’t matter much.
Having almost survived parenting three children through middle school, I can tell you that trying to keep the focus on what matters most has always been hard in these years. Social media and smartphones have made that so much harder. As our kids become more connected, they also seem to feel more isolated. They see filtered versions of what they’re missing out on, and they fear missing out on even more. If we want to know how they feel, we just have to reflect on how social media can make us feel and magnify that by a scale of at least 13.
By focusing on purpose-driven flourishing, grounded in our identity in Christ through habits will focus us on an adventurous life lived for the One who calls us. We perform for an audience of One. When He looks at us, He sees His Son who covered our sins with His perfect life and sacrifice. We’re beloved, and John 10:3 tells us He calls us by name.
Funerals bring focus. My mom’s and my students’ funerals have done this for me. No one is going to care how many Twitter®, Facebook®, or Instagram® followers we have when we die. All that is going to matter is that we were undistracted followers of Christ. That’s it. That’s the adventure.
At my mom’s funeral, a friend shared a story that has been a helpful reminder about life and living it well. My mom hadn’t had the use of the left side of her body for 20 years due to a massive stroke. Because of this, she always struggled to get into a car from her wheelchair. Her friend had helped with this transition many times after church and recalled one of the last times she assisted with the transfer. My mom would always talk through the transition and would need to grab the handle on the ceiling of the car above the door. Once she had this handle, she was home free. On this occasion, simultaneous to the handle grab, with her fist clenched over her head, she announced triumphantly, “Life is a celebration.”
This is a good reminder for all of us as we begin a new school year. Focus on our identity, and our habits will lead to flourishing. In John 15:7, Jesus reminds us of how to do this — not as a way of propagating the prosperity gospel, but as a way to maintain focus on Him: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” This is my prayer for this school year — that my children, my students, you, and I will remain in Christ, and that we’ll flourish for His glory.
About the author
Jon Eckert, Ed.D., is a professor at Baylor University as the Copple Chair
for Christian School Leadership. He contributes monthly to HomeLife magazine’s School Zone department.