Starting and raising a family is easier with a guide.

Hot mess. That’s exactly how I would describe my parenting style. I have two sons, ages 10 and 12, and although I love them with every fiber of my being, I often feel like I’m messing up this whole parenting gig. I used to always complain that kids should come with an operating manual and qualification test. Instead, you just get sent home from the hospital with a new baby and you’re expected to figure it out.

Through trial and error, some things have worked out well. For instance, unlike my house plants, my kids are alive and thriving (Go me!). There’s also a lot of laughter and love in our home. Snuggling, too. We love exploring new trails and outdoor places together. My kids are not afraid to stand up for what’s right and help others in need. They still tell me they love me.

But raising kids has come with some hard times too. Being overwhelmed, overscheduled, and exhausted. Learning how to navigate the world of ADHD and learning disabilities. Bickering in the backseat between brothers. Figuring out how to get a 4-year-old’s hand and wrist unstuck from the toilet bowl. (We both cried on that one.)

So without a standardized parenting manual to follow, what’s a solid plan for raising our kids? How do we modify and energize that plan to work best for our family? What are some major focus areas we should have our eye on?

I asked some folks around town who really know their stuff to give their input on this parenting journey. I think their advice might just surprise you.


When I was pregnant, I read tons of books about getting a jumpstart on childhood learning, including how listening to classical music increases the baby’s IQ. I listened to Mozart for months. I also read book after book at bedtime to my boys. I fell asleep during most of them, but at least I tried.

Nicole Langston, principal at Southwest Early Childhood Center, knows a thing or two about starting kids out on the right learning track. The school serves at-risk kids in our community from infancy to kindergarten and third through fifth grade. It’s not what’s taught in the classroom, however, that makes the biggest difference.

Before kids can learn the ABCs or 123s, they must start with a strong connection, which starts at home with the parents. Langston outlines the four key points that lead to connection — presence, eye contact, caring touch, and playfulness. All four help set a strong, straight path to trust and lifelong learning.

“One of the big things we promote here is to carve out nine minutes of your day and make them ‘super-connection minutes’ with your child,” says Langston. “You are intentional about connecting the first three minutes they get up, the three minutes when they get home from school, and the three minutes before bed.”

Langston also suggests tailoring your child’s learning experience to fit the personality of your family. It’s important to individualize what works best for your kids and tweak it to also work for you. In Langston’s house, this means rap music.

“Anyone who knows me knows I love rap music, so anything I do with my own kids I’ll change into a rap because it makes sense to my kids and fits our family culture,” she says. “If I wake up my kids with a song and a smile, it’s going to make their day.”


I love to take my boys hiking and, most weekends, you can find us outdoors. While being outside is incredible for your health, I’ve not done the best job of keeping my kids on a healthy diet. While I can blame the Cap’n Crunch, Kool-Aid, and mac ’n’ cheese of my childhood, there’s a bigger culprit — an overly scheduled, super-packed family calendar. Fast food in the family fast lane.

Ashley Varner, healthy communities coordinator at Capital Region Medical Center, spends her daytime hours making healthier food options for our community and her evening hours modeling healthy food choices for her three kids. It’s a passion that shines both personally and professionally.

“As a parent, I am the most powerful tool as a role model, but the next most powerful tool is communication,” says Varner. “I can include my kids in the process from farm to table. They can help with the garden, come in the house to know how to cook it, and then they get to try it.”

Kids aren’t known for loving veggies, especially at an early age. Varner says it takes multiple times of tasting something to know if you really like it, and it’s important to give your kids a choice. Have them pick between blueberries and strawberries, or perhaps between green beans and corn. It can become less of a power struggle when they have a choice.

“Kids develop a relationship with food at a very early age,” says Varner. “I’m a huge proponent of eating together as a family around the table. I’ve got to walk the talk. It’s so important to be talking to our kids, knowing about their day, and connecting with each other.”

Varner also promotes all things in moderation, which means talking to your kids about what it’s like to feel full after a meal.

“Every healthy diet has 90 percent health and 10 percent fun. If you can make healthy choices most of the time, you can also enjoy other things,” she says.


Kids are expensive. I learned this firsthand through hospital visits, years of braces payments, and trying to keep a fridge full with growing boys. While saving for college is a top priority for parents, it sometimes feels like life keeps throwing curveballs. Through your windows. Which you then have to pay for.

Kevin Callaway, financial advisor and second vice president with Central Investment Advisors, recommends starting to talk about finances before the cradle and after the wedding vows. It should be an honest conversation that can set your family finances on a positive track from the beginning.

“People bring their spending biases into any relationship,” says Callaway. “When you start a family, if you have bad spending, it will only exacerbate the issue. We talk to a lot of folks about the ‘B-word,’ which is budget.”

He mentions the importance of lining up expectations and agreeing to a budget, even if you have to give yourself some latitude on meeting it every month. Trying to free yourself of bad debt, including credit card and vehicle debt, is ideal before starting a family.

“Just like the oxygen mask on an airplane, you need to resuscitate yourself before you can save for others,” Callaway says. “You aren’t doing your kids any favors if you retire and become a drain on them.”

A financial advisor can also help you get to your goals, helping put a game plan in place for your family. The budget is a great starting point to help you know where your money is going — before, during, or after kids.


Each of my boys bears a middle name taken straight from the Bible. My hope is they will always remember to whom they belong and how much they are loved. I want them to feel God’s tremendous love through the joy and the sorrow, including the tough teenage years.

Melissa Hatfield, pastor of youth and missions at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, has spent the last 17 years ministering to youth and walking with them through their faith journey. The youth ministry, called Refuge, is a safe place for youth to belong and come to know our ultimate refuge, God. It also teaches them about going out into the world to love and serve as Jesus did.

“Our prayer is that every teen involved in or visiting Refuge would hear and believe that they are loved by God. Period. God’s extravagant, unconditional love for us is what we are desperate for and what transforms,” says Hatfield.

Becoming part of a church family, no matter what your age, is critical to nurturing your faith because God made us for relationships. Hatfield points out that faith does not survive or thrive in solitude.

“No church family is perfect, and ours is certainly messy, but we are better together than we are on our own,” says Hatfield. “We love each other. We also get to model and practice what it means to forgive one another as God forgives us.”

As parents, I think we could all take some lessons on forgiveness, including being kinder and more forgiving to ourselves when we mess up. Parenting is not a science (or there would definitely be an operating manual!). It’s more of an ancient art form. Some days, it’s a masterpiece; other days, it’s scribbles. But I feel blessed every day I get to call my kids mine.


Varner shares the greatest wisdom I can pass on to any parent: “Breathe. Give yourself some grace. Embrace the chaos and say, ‘Hey, it’s okay that you don’t have it all figured out.’ Everyone is trying to keep their nose above water. Life happens while you’re busy living.”