Pages: 240 (Paperback)
Growing up in the U.S. Evangelical church during the 1990s, I learned that being a Christian meant (1) having a regular Bible reading/prayer time, (2) not lying and generally living morally, (3) holding particular beliefs about key issues like abortion and evolution, (4) being willing to take a public and somewhat aggressive stand for my beliefs, (5) not dressing promiscuously, and (6) kissing dating goodbye. In short, “being a Christian” really meant “acting like a Christian” by following a set of rules.
While this list is not exhaustive and is (a bit of) a caricature, the legalistic and moralistic approach to faith formation that I experienced has haunted my own parenting journey. Everything I have learned in the years since childhood about the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through the grace and love of God does not resonate with a strict set of moral rules that one must follow to be a Christian (though to be clear, like bumpers on a bowling lane, guidelines for behavior can be helpful). God’s saving work in my life isn’t about shaping my behaviors to make me a perfect person, it’s about shaping my heart to know and love Him. And the same should be true in faith formation with my children. I want to shape my daughter’s heart to love Jesus and love others, not teach her that wearing spaghetti strap tank tops is immoral and un-Christian.
If this goal of shaping my children’s hearts (instead of teaching them a set of rules) feels unattainable, that’s because it is. Only God can shape our hearts. Perhaps you share this feeling with me. However, lest we despair on the journey, we should remember that Christianity has a rich and deep historical tradition to draw from. One of those strands of tradition is the regular, repeated practices of the monastics. In recent years authors, both secular and religious, have picked up on this thread and been writing with renewed vigor about the power of habits to shape us. For example, in Atomic Habits1, author James Clear gives poignant examples of how small personal habits compound to make a big difference over time, pointing out that to be effective we don’t need to be perfect, just perform a habit more often than not. Clear’s book provides helpful practical guidance, but is perhaps most helpfully viewed through the lens of philosopher James K.A. Smith’s work on habits and desires. In You Are What You Love Smith2 makes a compelling argument that our little repeated actions (habits), like visiting the mall or standing for the national anthem at the start of an NFL game, shape the longings and desires of our hearts.
“God’s saving work in my life isn’t about shaping my behaviors to make me a perfect person, it’s about shaping my heart to know and love Him.”
All of this suggests that my best chance to actively participate in the Holy Spirit’s work of shaping my children’s hearts is through the habits (not rules!) that we cultivate in our daily life together. This is the space that Justin Whitmel Earley, a lawyer and father of four boys (ages 2-9 at the time he wrote the book), seeks to enter in his book Habits of the Household. Earley is, in his own words, “a tired, confused, impatient, guilt-ridden, and regret-prone father whose only hope is that Jesus actually did live, die and rise again”3 and who, because of this, is seeking to reimagine “household habits as Gospel liturgies”4. It’s You Are What You Love (James K.A. Smith) meets Atomic Habits (James Clear), for parents.
The book begins with a short introduction to the idea of habits as liturgy. Earley begins (as he does most chapters) with a descriptive story illustrating a moment of daily life in his house—his sons resisting bedtime and his own reaction to them—then pauses to unpack what repeated practices are revealed in the vignette. He is the first to admit that his house and his life are messy, but he is a parent who is convinced (through his own lived experience, which is shared in more detail in his first book The Common Rule) that habits matter and since “we become our habits, and our kids become us…who our children are becoming is tightly connected to who we are becoming–personally and communally.”5
After introducing readers to the ideas of habits in the introduction, Earley launches into ten chapters, each describing an area of life and considering how habits may already be present and shaping that area before proposing new habits to consider. The order of the chapters is structured around the rhythm of the day: Waking, Mealtimes, Discipline, Screentime, Family Devotions, Marriage, Work, Play, Conversation, and Bedtime. Each chapter is rich with engaging examples and suggestions for habits, the latter being summarized at the end of each chapter.
During the early chapters he also spends more time unpacking the importance and power of habits in our daily lives. In the chapter on Waking, he suggests that habits are “grooves of grace.” He then observes that, “we don’t cling to habits to show how good we are at this thing called parenting, we cling to habits because we know we are otherwise so bad at it. As the grooves of grace called the spiritual disciplines become habits, they take moments where we would otherwise be tired failures and guide us towards God’s strength and love. This is, of course, the hallmark of God’s grace: it meets us in weakness and protects us from ourselves. And this is exactly what a parent needs, morning after morning after morning.”6
“The liturgical lens…allows us to see all of our normal moments for what they really are: moments of worship to someone or something.”Justin Earley
All of the chapters resonated with me, and there are many habits that my family will be considering purposefully in the months and years ahead, but perhaps the most convicting areas (for me personally) were the ones on mealtimes and screen time. In the mealtime chapter he introduces “the liturgical lens,” which he says, “allows us to see all of our normal moments for what they really are: moments of worship to someone or something. This pushes us to ask, ‘What exactly are we worshiping when we suppose we’re not worshiping anything at all?’.”7 My children are currently in lower elementary school, and I can already begin to feel the many pulls that will challenge family mealtimes on the horizon. So I appreciated his observation that “family dinner is not in any sense practical”8 but rather something that must be made a priority because of the ways relationships grow and flourish at the table. He emphasized the importance of conversation habits at the table citing research from the Barna Group and noting that “the difference between people who happen to live together and families who befriend each other are rhythms of conversation at mealtimes.”9 All of this (and more) provides much food for thought (pardon the pun) as we continue to craft our family rhythms around the table.
In the Screentime chapter, Earley emphasizes the power of limits as guardrails for the good life. Screens, he observes, “are incredibly formative because they convey stories and images that captivate our imaginations. This doesn’t make them bad; it makes them powerful, and the power can be for good or bad. But the fact is, for both us parents and our children, we will either form our screen habits or our screen habits will form us.”10 In addition to the (probably obvious?) habit of “off times”, Earley recommends habits of regular and (importantly!) communal “on times,” suggesting possibilities like family movie night, Saturday morning cartoons, and sick days. Within the on-time limits he also recommends curating content yourself (making a watch list, watching classics, paying for quality content, rewatching, etc.) instead of letting autoplay curate your watchlist for you. As an example, he includes a link to the list his wife has curated for their family. Finally, he emphasizes the importance of watching difficult content with our kids, observing that “an essential skill of growing up is knowing how to react to explicit language, violence, sex, or dangerous ideas. It’s far more wholesome to know what to do with those things rather than imagine that we can somehow avoid them entirely.”11 This idea of limiting media may sound particularly difficult, especially if you haven’t been doing much of it. Even if you have been doing it, it’s hard; especially as your kids grow and their needs change. But, as Earley notes, “We don’t sacrifice our kids’ formation so that we can have an easier life. We sacrifice the ease of our lives so our kids can have biblical formation.”12 Screen time is one of the big challenges in my household, and I appreciate the concrete suggestions in this chapter.
“I need to not (legalistically) avoid rules but instead remember that habits that grow out of the liturgical lens can bear much fruit.”
Overall, Earley has created a broad and adaptable framework for habits in the household packaged in a quick-to-read book. Habits of the Household is practical without being prescriptive. However, even excellence has its limitations and while minor, a few are worth noting. One limitation is the young age of Earley’s children, as all of his examples draw from his own life, so it’s up to the reader to imagine how they might change as toddlers become teenagers. Furthermore, not everyone’s household situation looks like Earley’s. He acknowledges this early on and repeatedly goes out of his way to note that you may need to adapt these suggestions based on your particular circumstances, though generally he does not give suggestions for adaptations noting that he can’t presume to understand the nuances of someone else’s situation. There are also a few places where he seems to paint a somewhat rigid vision of what “normal” should look like—in particular emphasizing dinner as the family meal and insisting on date nights. For me, this did not take away from the big picture principles he is emphasizing, but the reader should keep in mind that there are many creative ways to adapt to your particular situation. Finally, there’s no denying that Earley’s vision of parenting habits require A LOT of connection with the members of your household, which may seem overwhelming and off-putting for extreme introverts.
I once asked my mother why we were raised with such a legalistic form of Christianity, and she replied regretfully that she and my dad were drawn in by the promise that there was a step-by-step way to raise Christian children. This is a warning for me. I am like my mother. I too like lists, plans, and step-by-step instructions. I need to remember that habits on their own, for their own sake, can quickly turn into legalism. As Earley observes at the end of his first book, The Common Rule: “Place habits before love, and you will be full of legalism, but place love before habits, and you will be full of the gospel.”13 At the same time, I need to not (legalistically) avoid rules but instead remember that habits that grow out of the liturgical lens can bear much fruit. At the end of the introduction to Habits of the Household Earley sums up my conundrum well, saying, “Caring about how habits are shaping your family is not legalistic. What would be legalistic is saying that God loves you more because of your habits. Or that you can earn your salvation by picking the right habits. You can’t. And thank God, you don’t need to!”14