Parents as Teachers - Growing Little Women
Interview by Laurie Beyer
“It seems like just yesterday that my sister and I were at a mother-daughter banquet with my mom and we were all wearing matching outfits,” a 21-year-old Jennifer Miller told an audience of hundreds. This time, Jennifer and her mother, Donna, were the guest speakers at a mother-daughter event, sharing about their relationship – a relationship of love and discipleship which grew into a book entitled, Growing Little Women (published by Moody).
Several years ago, Donna Miller and her husband Don, a pastor, began meeting with a small group from their church to study a course on lifestyle evangelism. Part of the course involved targeting a few people to share the gospel with. If they made a decision to accept Christ, the assignment was to disciple them afterwards. As she prayed for God to prepare the hearts of the people she would share with, Donna’s oldest daughter, Jennifer, kept coming to mind. She continued to pray.
As Donna recalls, “After a few weeks I finally got the hint.” God had asked her to take on one of the toughest discipling challenges of all – her sixth-grade daughter. Donna collected resources and ideas to use during a special year spent with Jennifer. A few years later, Donna did the same thing with her younger daughter, Tracy. As other women heard about the richness of the time and experiences Donna had shared with Jennifer and Tracy, they implored her to compile her ideas into a book. The result has now become two books, Growing Little Women, and Growing Little Women – For Younger Girls. As its subtitle reads, it’s all about “capturing teachable moments with your daughter.”
During her daughters’ sixth-grade years, Donna outlined a plan to spend individual time with them each week. They focused on issues such as knowing Christ and living for Him, learning how to be a true friend, encouraging others, growing in prayer, and learning how to persevere – among others. Jennifer recalled how the time spent with her mom helped her through the challenging times surrounding their family’s move from St. Louis to Greensboro, North Carolina during her seventh-grade year. “When things are good, sometimes we push God aside a little bit thinking, ‘I can do it all on my own.’ It was because of time spent with my mom that I learned that a relationship with Christ has to be an everyday thing, not just something I draw on during difficult times.”
Donna especially wanted to instill in her daughters a sense of delight in being a Christian and a desire to share that joy with others. That zest for sharing her faith was caught, enthusiastically, by Jennifer as she, in turn, shared with her friends at school what she had been taught by her mother. She didn’t struggle as much as many adolescents do with questioning what she believed, because together they had worked through the “what’s and why’s.”
As Donna looks back on God’s prompting her to spend this time with Jennifer and Tracy, she remembers Him saying, ‘Go and share your heart as a mother. Show them who you are in Me.’ She said, “I wanted my daughters to see me inside and out, to see a woman who wants to live for Christ and Christ alone. I wanted them to see my life as an open book in front of them so that I could show them what it is to be a follower of Christ.” She used as her example the words of Paul found in 1 Cor. 11:1, “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.”
As a result, Donna and her daughters were able to grow together in the Lord and in their relationship with each other. The girls learned about their identity in Christ and how to build character for the future. They got to know each other better, and learned more about their mother and how precious her love for them was. As they grew older, this wonderful relationship with their mom grew into a special friendship.
Today, after 25 years of marriage, Don and Donna continue to live in Greensboro where Don is a pastor. Jennifer is now 23 years old, a graduate of Taylor University, and newly married to Jason Huitsing. They reside in the Chicago area, where Jennifer teaches seventh-grade history. Tracy is now a 20-year-old student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In a recent interview with Just Between Us, Donna and Jennifer reflected on what God has done as a result of their year spent together. As Donna looked back on their experience in compiling the two books, she recalled, “It is such a privilege to be part of His plan for furthering relationships between mothers and their daughters. Sometimes we are so busy doing good that we leave the best behind. God’s plan is for us to focus on the best!”
JBU: Assuming that daughters typically spend several hours a day with their moms anyway, why was spending this year together in the way that you did so significant?
Jennifer: It was just the two of us. She did it just for me. It made me feel really important!
Donna: It’s natural for me to disciple other people and be deliberate about that commitment to them. Sometimes, however, we’re not as deliberate in encouraging the spiritual development of our children. I also think that there are certain things you don’t share throughout the day when other family members are in the mix that you would share if you were one-on-one. The structure of having questions and an agenda each week encouraged getting a bit deeper in our discussions. These times often, then, had a spillover effect later in the week. Jennifer and Tracy would mull something over in their minds and then comment on it later as they were able to apply it to their lives.
JBU: Why did you find the nine-to-twelve-year- old ages, and particularly sixth grade with your daughters, a significant time to instill these truths?
Donna: This was just before Jennifer and Tracy started middle school. I knew there would be a lot of peer pressure and I maybe wouldn’t have as much input in their lives. This teaching time was a prelude to those years. It was before the busy teen years set in. We were able to talk about many things before they became issues. Catching things before they happen, being proactive rather than reactive, is good.
JBU: What do you think about the fact that many moms today just want to be friends with their daughters?
Donna: I believe that our daughters should experience us as someone who is fun to be with, but developing a friendship with your daughter is something that’s done over many years. There is a progression from being the nurturer and authority figure to becoming a peer in Christ. In order to have a good peer relationship when she’s older you have to lay the groundwork when she’s young. This involves teaching discipline and respect for authority. We are to model God for our children, being just and loving – showing them that you’ll love them no matter what, but teaching them that in life there are consequences for their actions.
Jennifer: By being a strong mother, my mom taught me that I can be bold in sharing the way I feel; I don’t need to be a doormat. But she also showed me that there is a line not to be crossed in my behavior and speech. Through her example, she taught me self-control and balance. Deciding what’s important and then fleshing it out takes some training. That’s the role a mother plays.
JBU: Donna, why is it so difficult for us to disciple our own children?
Donna: When I would disciple girls in our junior high, high school, or singles ministries they weren’t living with us so they didn’t see me for who I really was. I believe I was a pretty honest person with them, but they didn’t watch me react to many situations. My daughters, on the other hand, saw me take on the challenges of my Christian walk day in and day out; they saw me fall on my face, and observed how I handled making mistakes. They watched for the integrity in which I dealt with family issues, too. If I blew it, I had to go to them and tell them, “This is not how God would have me handle this.” I was accountable for who I was at all times.
JBU: Jennifer, how hard was it for you to be taught by someone whose faults you could witness?
Jennifer: My mom is so genuine. If we have a bad Sunday morning, she won’t greet people at church and pretend. She is just unable to fake it in front of people. She’s not rude – she’s just real! Legitimacy is not an issue with her. It makes her more admirable to me!
JBU: What about the mom who feels that her life has been a poor example to her daughter?
Donna: Each of us has probably made decisions in our past that we’re not proud of. Depending on the point at which we committed our life to Christ, some of these decisions have had greater consequences. We need to be open and honest to the extent that our daughters need to know. These times are perfect opportunities to talk about forgiveness, to tell them about the consequences of poor choices, to instill in them the knowledge that they have the opportunity to choose differently and to let them know about the power of forgiveness and renewal in Christ.
JBU: You have a strong Christian legacy in your family. Do you believe that any woman who has a relationship with Christ can really disciple her daughter?
Donna: I can remember when Moody approached me about doing this book. I said I wanted it to be developed in such a way that young believers, single moms, or even a mentor to a girl could easily do it. Everything would be there before them and all they would have to do is go through it. I didn’t want anyone to risk feeling defeated and abandoning this opportunity. This is not something that should intimidate someone. They should feel comfortable, not in over their heads! Yes, any woman who’s willing can disciple her daughter.
JBU: Are there a few key issues that you focused on as you prepared your daughters for becoming women?
Donna: I knew that it was very important for our girls to know who they were inside. First and foremost, we focused on what it means to be a believer, but I also concentrated on teaching them to love themselves for who they were in God’s eyes. They needed to respect themselves in that way. If they respected themselves, others would too. I taught them who they were in Christ and their responsibilities as a Christian. I taught them about their freedom in Christ as well. I also tried to instill the importance of being genuine, that they be the same person away from home that they are when they are at home. To be the same person all the time, no matter who’s watching.
JBU: What’s something you learned about each other by spending this year together?
Donna: I realized how much we’re alike. I learned about the quality of Jennifer’s commitments. I saw her come alongside us years ago as we made a move that resulted in a new home, church and school. Now I see her come alongside me in a peer relationship in Christ. She knows and lives the commitment to be a sister in Christ.
Jennifer: Speaking of commitments, during our time together my mom was faithful in setting aside this time for me alone. She wasn’t distracted by other things. I also learned about her genuineness. She taught me things not as someone who was perfect, but as a fellow struggler pointing me the whole time toward Christ.
JBU: Jennifer, do you have a favorite experience from all the time spent with your mom?
Jennifer: I would have to say it was a dinner and evening that mom planned for the two of us. Mom just shared about herself and her life: how she became a Christian, how she met my dad and about their relationship. She shared things in her past that were important to her. There’s a chapter in the book about this called, “A Gift From Mom’s Heart.” Getting to know my mom’s life story truly was a gift!
JBU: At the end of your book there is a commitment page. What promise did you make to each other as you completed this year together?
Jennifer: We chose to be intentional about making time for one another. For me personally, I made commitments regarding my walk with the Lord and my devotion to Him, and to live a sexually pure lifestyle.
Donna: We also committed to always be open with each other and to continue growing our relationship through the years – which we’ve done!
JBU: Donna, in closing, is there a thought you would like to leave moms about the importance of building a heritage of faith in their families?
Donna: I would like to encourage moms to realize what a privilege it is to introduce their children to the most important person in life – Jesus Christ. I am so thankful that I was able to do this for my girls and help them form values in Christ that will carry them into and through their adult lives. I loved building a relationship with each of them as they grew through those teen years and, now, beyond. It’s important for your kids to see that you are available to talk to them about what really matters in life.
Most importantly, though, a heritage of faith is not grown by saying, “I’ll always be there for you,” because you won’t. To a great extent, our ability to be with and help our children is limited to the time we are present in their daily lives. So during that time, it is crucial to instill in them the truth that God loves them infinitely more than we ever can because He is the perfect parent with perfect love. And there is no boundary to His presence! That is a truth worth passing on!