Editor's note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!
At my niece’s second birthday party, I watched as she and her four-year-old brother played with the yellow balloons floating around in the living room while their parents cleaned up in the kitchen. Innocently enough, my nephew had his sights set on the balloon my niece was holding. Dropping his balloon, he moved toward his sister and took the balloon from her hands. In typical two-year-old fashion, my niece began to cry as my nephew playfully skipped around the room with her balloon.
“Are you sad that your brother took your balloon?” I asked my niece.
“Uh-huh,” she nodded through tears.
“It’s okay to be sad, and to use your words, too, to tell him how you feel and what you want.”
“Brother,” she pleaded, holding out her hand (a respectable effort for a two-year-old).
I watched as my nephew returned the balloon to his sister, clearly moved to compassion by her sadness. He didn’t realize that by acting upon his own desires without regard for hers, he had hurt his sister, whom he loves.
I couldn’t help but see the beginning of their interaction as a metaphor for the breakdown in male-female relationships in Genesis 3:16. I also couldn’t help but be impressed by my niece and nephew’s ability to love, care, and communicate with each other, repairing their brief relational rupture. To me, this is a picture of mutuality in its present form—we still experience the consequences of the fall, yet through Christ, we’re able to be reconciled to each other and work together for good.
Teaching and modeling mutuality takes work. Societally, we’re bombarded with gender stereotypes and cultural conditioning that make living into healthy male-female relationships difficult. As parents, mentors, and other parental figures then, it’s our responsibility to intentionally teach and model mutuality to the next generation. How do we do that? Here are five suggestions to start:
Help Children Develop Strong Identities in Christ
Knowing God’s love begins with knowing a parental figure’s love. When little ones know how much they’re loved and how much their needs are cared for, they’re better able to grasp the concept of a good God who loves and cares for their physical and emotional needs. Children also need to know as they enter their school-age years that God created them uniquely in his image; their gifts, personality, gender, race, and interests all specially reflect the triune God in ways that no other person in the world does!
As adolescents grow in peer-to-peer relationships, it’s important that they develop a sense of identity in Christ, which is facilitated through teaching and encouraging a personal relationship with Jesus. When adolescents feel secure in their identities in Christ, they’re better able to reflect Christ in their context and extend themselves to others.
Call Out Giftedness Before Gender
Think of the kids in your life upon whom you have some influence. Are they curious, strong-willed, sensitive, caring, compassionate, peacemaking, justice-minded, communicative, energetic, inquisitive, steady, or thoughtful? Call out these qualities in them, helping them see their dispositions, developing interests, and natural talents as gifts to be offered in the world. Calling out giftedness instills in young people a sense of purpose, motivating them to act as co-creators with God in the world, serving others and contributing their gifts to the church. As they get older, expose them to vocational and ministry opportunities to build up the body of Christ.
Teach Adolescents to Follow Jesus in the Way They Relate
When we look to Jesus’s example first for the way we relate, what we find is a beautiful picture of mutuality in the way he values, respects, teaches, loves, and empowers both males and females. In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus treated both women with equal respect and dignity, as he shared his heart with Martha in response to her complaint and affirmed and approved of Mary’s sitting and learning from him—just as his male disciples would have done. In the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus exposes the men’s sin as no better or worse than the woman’s sin, as the sins of both ultimately result in disconnection from God. In the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet and serving communion, Jesus humbled himself and became a servant of all, despite the divine power, rabbinic privilege, and position of honor he held.
Looking to the Gospels can point the next generation to follow Jesus’s lead in the way they relate to other human beings. Jesus exhibited the worth, dignity, and value of both genders in each of his interactions. When we start with this premise, we can easily see the ways in which the world has distorted mutuality between men and women. In the stories above, men and women alike are affirmed throughout Jesus’s ministry as equals in service, hospitality, intellect, compassion, evangelism, and discipleship. If young people can grasp this reality— that in Christ there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female—they’ll be able to more readily identify teachings and actions that model a message contrary to Christ (such as harmful gender stereotypes). Moreover, in the face of cultural conditioning and following the crowd, they’ll have the opportunity to become models of mutuality and of what it means to value men and women as equals.
Teach and Model Empathy
Of all God’s commandments, Jesus said that loving God and loving each other were the most important. In Jesus’s earthly life and ministry, he became our walking, breathing, embodied example of this in the way he related to the Father and empathized with us in our human experience. Jesus often looked on the crowds around him with compassion. He wept with others and rejoiced with others. Jesus felt what we feel, suffered like we suffer, and was tempted like we’re tempted. Jesus exhibited empathy throughout his life and ministry, so why would we not teach the next generation to relate to others in the same way?
Thankfully, empathy is a skill that can be taught. First, empathy starts with a recognition of one’s own feelings. By acknowledging and naming how we feel in any given situation, we’ll be that much more able to identify and name how someone else is feeling in their given situation. Second, empathy requires a growing tolerance of emotions and an acceptance of emotional expression. The degree to which we’re able to tolerate emotions in ourselves is the degree to which we’re able to tolerate emotion in others. Third, the skill of empathy is complete when we’re able to name ours and others’ emotions and understand their impact—before moving on to helping or problem solving. Only by first understanding ours and others’ experiences will we be able to truly connect with the next generation, with each other, and truly model mutuality.
Prepare Young People for the Real World
Outside of the safety of your home or discipleship setting, the young people you’re investing in will experience life differently from you. It’s extremely important then to educate those in the next generation (a) about the realities of the world in its present state and (b) how to steward their Christlikeness in their uniquely embodied form—which will look different in every person’s case, based on their personality, gender, race, socioeconomic status, and any privileges they hold because of these.
For example, Esther and Mordecai modeled mutuality as they worked together despite their cultural reality. Mordecai encouraged his niece, Esther, to use her God-given intellect and attributes to change her station in life and position in society by becoming the queen of Persia. However, Esther and Mordecai didn’t work together so that Esther could rule or have worldly influence; rather, Mordecai encouraged Esther as she boldly risked her life to save God’s people, her people, from certain death.
We find a very different example of stewarding Christlikeness and spiritual giftedness in Paul, who through his letter to the Philippians, declared himself a citizen of heaven, encouraging early Christians to do the same. He showed the early church how to consider their good fortune and credentials as worth nothing compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as Lord. Furthermore, Paul modeled how to boast about one’s weaknesses instead of one’s privileges so that above all else Christ might be glorified in his church and in the world.
The goal of discipleship in Christian families and communities is to raise resilient, longsuffering disciples of Jesus who are equipped with Christlike character and gifts of the Spirit. And if as parents, pastors, and spiritual mentors we can teach the next generation who they are in Christ, what they have to offer as image-bearers through Christ, and how, through empathy, to love their neighbor as themselves, then we’ll be well on our way to raising a generation of believers who love God and relate to others with love, humility, and mutuality.
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