preparing our children for marriage

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It occurred to me that since my last entry was more or less from the perspective of “my” generation, that it might come across as critical of my parents‘ generation, which wasn’t what I meant at all.  This cultural shift away from “responsible twentysomethings” and early marriage doesn’t seem to me like it’s going anywhere anytime soon, and it’s been in the works since the 1970s or so, based on what I’ve read.  I’ve actually been thinking about it as a parent more than I have as a participant, and it might be more balanced if I talked about it from that direction, huh?

In short, as it’s becoming ever more clear that society is arrayed against young marriage, what can we do as parents to help our kids bridge the gap?

The biggest thing, I think, is to raise them to be married.  Not, in other words, to raise our daughters to be career people, or to raise our sons to be single wandering types who can barely provide for themselves, much less a family.

The American “track” for kids and teenagers goes something like this: do well in high school, participate in sports and extracurriculars; get scholarships to college, do the whole college scene with at least a year on-campus to get the “experience”; graduate after four or five or six years (or maybe go to graduate school); get a job, settle down, maybe marry that boyfriend you’ve been toting around since senior year; after five years of marriage (and entering one’s thirties), have kids.  And woe to those who get off the track–how many high school drop-outs end up at law firms?

But we want our kids to glorify God.  Full stop.  That’s what we want, and all we want, right?  How much of this American “ideal” do we really need?

Not excepting the possibility that a child may be called to celibacy–and not underemphasizing that parents need to be aware and discerning of that possibility–the general expectation is that our girls will want to get married and be moms some day.  So what is the very best preparation and support that we can give them to serve and glorify God in that role?

I find myself planning their academics and asking myself what will be most useful to them as a wife and mother rather than what will help them succeed in a career–or even in college, although I definitely think that a good homeschool education should be more than sufficient to prepare them for college in a coincidental sense.  It is more important that they be able to run households well more than that they can discuss the leaders of the French Revolution.  This is one type of preparation: basic life skills to live without Mommy and Daddy.

There’s also emotional preparation: to be the type of mature twenty-year-olds who have the discernment and knowledge to choose good mates, and be able to take the challenges and blessings of marriage in stride.  A wedding changes your life, no mistake about it, and teenagers aren’t quite “done baking” yet on the maturity front–but when society expected them to get married and stay married, they managed–with minuscule divorce rates.  I want our kids to have that kind of maturity and understanding of things larger than themselves (i.e. the sanctity of marriage!) so that they don’t want to “sow wild oats” before they feel ready for marriage.  Somehow we’ve got to help kids have some confidence in their ability (by God’s grace) to make marriage work, even when the world is telling them they’re way too young to pull it off.  We can help them have reasonable expectations (and aspirations) and to build relationship skills to help it all come together.

And then there’s financial.  I don’t see a practical way, honestly, to have a large number of children and still support them with great scads of literal money after they’re grown up… but there are many young people whose parents are giving them the advice and friendly urging that they need in order to find a little business niche of their own, even in young teenagerdom, in the grand tradition of the Proverbs 31 woman.  Parents can help their kids discover their marketable talents and give them the sound business advice to actually get a small work-at-home operation off the ground and running with some degree of reliability before the child ever marries and leaves for their own house.  It’s also gigantic if parents can help their kids stay debt-free before marriage–I haven’t seen diligent, frugal couples very often who can’t make it work financially… unless they’re struggling under a mountain of debt, which sometimes is their fault through poor judgment and sometimes isn’t their fault at all.  But I don’t think anything keeps you debt-free as much as good advice.  Lastly, parents should teach and model frugality.  It really is an acquired skill!  Not only because we grow accustomed to certain spending habits and then have massive culture shock when we have those habits without our parents’ pocketbooks attached–but because living frugally is largely a matter of simply knowing how to do it!  Knowing which corners to cut, how to stay entertained and have fun without expending large amounts of money in the process, which items to invest in and which not to buy at all, knowing how to cook on a budget without resorting to pre-processed foods (which are sadly cheaper than fresh ones) or an unbalanced diet: these are all valuable pieces of knowledge, skills, and discernment that we can teach our children!  We can also teach them as many money-saving talents as we can, and encourage them to pursue them on their own–things like knowing how to fix things around the house yourself, or your car; how to sew, and so on.

This is by no means exhaustive.  We’ve only had girls so far, and so I’ve thought about it almost entirely in the context of daughters.  I’m only now really beginning to wonder how to help our soon-to-arrive (Lord willing) son learn to provide for his family, and I imagine that is going to look very different in significant ways from teaching daughters how to care for their families.  And I’m still learning so much of this myself.  I am sure, though, that I want our kids to achieve success in God’s eyes–and I’m unconcerned about how that looks compared to success in the world’s eyes.

Money for (Young) Marriage

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The New York Times Magazine article “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” has been popping up all over the place since it was published, and I’ve been thinking very deeply about the points it makes in reference to another widely-quoted article that was published in Christianity Today a full year prior–“The Case for Early Marriage.”  Both are very important articles about a single particular cultural shift, and despite their length, both are worth the time to read and ponder.

There are many, many good points in the CT article, but there was one that is particularly justified in light of this recent research.  Author Mark Regnerus writes:

[T]he economic domain remains an area in which many parents are often able, but frequently unwilling, to assist their children. Many well-meaning parents use their resources as a threat, implying that if their children marry before the age at which their parents socially approve, they are on their own. No more car insurance. No help with tuition. No more rent.

This doesn’t sound very compassionate toward marriage–or toward family members. This is, however, a two-way street: many young adults consider it immature or humiliating to rely on others for financial or even social support. They would rather deal with sexual guilt–if they sense any at all–than consider marrying before they think they are ready. This cultural predilection toward punishing rather than blessing marriage must go, and congregations and churchgoers can help by dropping their own punitive positions toward family members, as well as by identifying deserving young couples who could use a little extra help once in a while. Christians are great about supporting their missionaries, but in this matter, we can be missionaries to the marriages in our midst.

In the newer, secular NYT article, the stark financial reality of my generation is more detailed: twice as many of all twenty-somethings (totaling two-thirds) have received financial aid or literal task assistance from their parents in a given month. Richer parents give their children more money, but poor parents give their kids money too; whether rich or poor, the total is equivalent to roughly 10% of the parents’ income during the beginning of twenty-somethings.  Countless news articles attest to the astounding unemployment/underemployment rate of this age segment, and it seems to be a growing certainty that, for whatever reason, the average twenty-something can’t quite manage to support themselves financially.

Enter the question of marriage into this scenario.  Your peers are busy doing internships, “finding” themselves, or trying and failing to find a bread-winning job in a struggling economy.  Two-thirds of them cohabit but don’t actually marry; very, very few have children.  (And if we exclude the lowest social classes, the number of us with children will drop even more.)  Yet we read articles and books that sound like they’re based on very biblical teachings, telling us that with marriage should come children, that women are to be keepers at home–and even in more secular churches, there is still often the idea that we should keep our children away from the (free) public schools, or that daycare is evil… in other words, the Christian idea of marriage is even more expensive than the secular idea of marriage, so should it really be a surprise that Christian young people are joining the world in delaying marriage?  Marriage is expensive.  And we live in a very non-community-centered culture where young people usually are financially expected to be very much on their own–if they’re married.

I understand where the idea comes from; it’s the whole “leave father and mother and cleave to spouse” thing; married people are supposed to be a good deal independent of their parents.

At the same time, though, I’ve seen so many young couples genuinely struggle to make ends meet (if they even get married in the first place), and so often their biggest problems are ones that would be reasonably trivial to fix.  It’s a gap between the maturity, resources, and wisdom that they possess, and the maturity, resources, and wisdom that they need to make their home look like the ones we read about in Christian marriage/family how-to books.  How many couples could figure out how to let the wife stay at home with their children if they only had someone giving them accurate piercing financial advice, or even a garage or basement or guest room to stay in for a few months so they can pay down their school debt and start putting what income they do have towards actual maintenance of their family?  How many young couples without any credit on the books could buy a house if another family (their parents, mayhaps) who knew them to be responsible, genuine, hardworking people would give them a loan towards a down payment, or a second mortgage so they wouldn’t have to throw away money on PMI every month?  How many hard-working husbands could learn and do excellent work in a new field–if a Christian small bushiness owner would trouble to give them the job in the first place, or if their parents’ network of friends could find a job within their ranks and connections?

It all sounds very obvious.  This is a tremendous and important ministry opportunity.  In all seriousness, however, I don’t see it happening very much.  I see a lot of young couples who just struggle.  Too many send their children to daycare because the paltry couple hundred dollars that’s left over from her income after paying for the daycare is still a couple hundred dollars that they can’t make up any other way.  And I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me they “can’t afford” to have children, even though they’re working their tails off.  School debt is a real killer, but there’s also plenty of instances where the couple just needs some really sound (and occasionally brutal) advice.  But it doesn’t seem like anybody’s handing advice out to young couples these days.

I’m very passionate about people getting married.  I think it’s silly and perverse that churches promote “purity pledges” and “True Love Waits” faux-wedding rings instead of urging marriage.  At the same time, though, I understand why so many of my generation are holding off: society as a whole seems dead set against  helping us figure out how to make marriage financially feasible–especially if we care to follow the biblical command to have children along with that marriage–and too many other Christians, even parents, don’t seem to regard it as a very high priority, either.

Early Marriage and Maturity

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Something that has been much on my mind lately–and much on the blogosphere for the past year or so–is early marriage.

Seth and I got married when I was twenty.  Most of the rest of the kids I went to church with that were my age got married years after I did.  At the time I thought it was more or less luck (aka the sovereignty of God) that I met someone that early, but lately I’m wondering if our wedding came so early because that was really what I was looking for.  I wasn’t interested in dating, I was interested in getting married!

And never for a moment have either of us regretted getting married when we did.  In fact, I’ve often been very thankful indeed for the various life circumstances that transpired so that we could get married without forfeiting anything we, or my parents, thought was important.  We would like to be able to present our children “ready for marriage” at a similar age.

It isn’t really socially acceptable, however.  I’ve had plenty of people tell me I was too young, or bemoan all the lovely opportunities I’ll never have because of settling down so early.  But by far one of the biggest objections I hear is: “well, that may have worked for you, but most twenty-year-olds don’t have any idea who they are yet or what they need in a spouse or will want in a marriage when they’re forty.”  Usually followed by the person telling me that their child, for instance, of my age or even older, is certainly not ready to make such a big decision.

I’ve read a lot of really good responses to that concern, many of which center around the necessity of parental involvement, discernment, and community participation in the young person’s dating decisions.  And while I don’t disagree with that, I think there’s a much more important point to be made: we don’t marry someone to satisfy ourselves, we marry someone to glorify God.

Our youth pastor when I was in high school used to say that he wanted to marry somebody who was so focused on serving God that their trajectories were so similar that they couldn’t help but being drawn together–because they were both being drawn toward Him.  I don’t think that ideal is what’s on people’s (parents’!) minds when they think about their children being unable to figure out what makes a good mate when they’re twenty!  Personalities change.  Hobbies change.  Passions change.  But God doesn’t change.  If He is our all, our only obsession, our only desire and our only focus, then in a very real sense, we will always have everything in common–because He is our everything.

Seth and I are very much an illustration of this, at least as much as that we are very different people from very different cultural backgrounds with very few interests in common, at least at the beginning.  Over the years it’s been quite remarkable how much we’ve both adapted bits of pieces of the other into ourselves–and I don’t think either of us could deny that our differences have definitely made marriage harder at times–but we’ve also never regretted making a shared (and similar) passion for Christ our “only thing.”

In short, I’m very happy to have married someone who was obsessed about following the same One I follow, rather than someone who I knew, after living a few more years, would have “suited” my personality and interests and the “direction” I was going with my life.  And while I can certainly agree that I am far from being the same person I was six years ago–enough different, in fact, that our marriage might indeed be rocky if those transient things were what it had been based on–I don’t think my powers of discernment as far as recognizing a brother in Christ have really increased that much.  I’ve never been disappointed in what my twenty-year-old self made of Seth, and I don’t think many twenty-year-olds are too dumb to have discerned the same thing. 

Twenty-year-olds might not know who exactly they are yet, but they can surely know who He is, what He says about marriage, and what He thinks makes a worthy spouse, and not hesitate to jump when they meet someone who fits the bill.