In my experience, one of the most difficult aspects of parenting is teaching my children about sin while not discouraging them.
While our firstborn was growing up, we were in church circles that placed an emphasis on teaching children about their sin nature and the consequences of sin. Sounds biblical and reasonable, right? However, the way this played out was to treat children like they were always being deceitful, always up to something, and couldn’t be trusted. Ever. I can’t tell you how many times I heard Psalm 58:3 quoted:
The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.
This use of Scripture rubbed my husband and I the wrong way, but at the time it seemed to make sense. Kids are inherently selfish. They lie to get their way or hide their mistakes. They refuse to eat what’s on their plate, go to sleep at a decent hour, and go potty on the toilet instead of in their pants. They’re sinners, and deserve to be treated as such. Because Revelation 21:8.
Then it got worse—there was an actual file in the pastor’s office marked with every mistake, every failure, brought up again and again by teachers and the pastor whenever there was trouble involving kids in the youth group.
I clearly remember the day we heard a preacher say, “There’s no such thing as a spiritual teenager.” We saw our son’s spirit wilt under this condemnation. Combined with our knee-jerk reactions to all of his behaviors and attitudes, that was the final feather, for all of us.
Unfortunately, we didn’t get out in time. These teachings and methods began to bear fruit, and it was rotten.
My husband and I had three more children to think about by this point, and we knew things had to be different for them. It took time for us to deprogram, and I’ll admit we kept to ourselves for some time, licking our wounds and trying to heal as a family.
We need to figure out how to walk a fine line between graceful parenting and our tendency to act out of fear and anger. How do you teach children about God’s wrath and judgment on sin and the eternal destiny of the wicked, while instilling truths about His goodness, grace, mercy and forgiveness? Plus getting them to eat their green beans and take out the trash?
It’s quite the juggling act—if you are tossing chainsaws and Jell-O. The answer is obvious, right? Reading and discussing Scripture is elementary and paramount—but it’s the application of Scriptural principles to each stage of a child’s development that varies from child to child and situation to situation. Our fatal flaw had been adopting someone else’s One-Size-Fits-All approach to parenting, not listening to the Holy Spirit, our own conscience, or the individual needs of our children.
We started making radical changes, and began to see results immediately. We still taught the law—God gave us the law to show us our wickedness before a Holy and Righteous God. The law points us to our need for a Savior. But we took more time to show our children how the law also serves our own good, and to look inside themselves for their motivations. How could lying ever really work to our advantage? Why would you want to take something you didn’t earn for yourself? What’s so great about betraying someone’s trust or exploiting their vulnerabilities? Why would you risk everything and everyone in your life for a few minutes of pleasure?
Of course, when the kids were little, we had fairly strict rules. We recognize that small children aren’t able to think critically and understand risk and consequences, so we supervised them constantly and controlled their environment, even at the risk of being Those Parents.
Most of all, we talked. About everything. They grew up knowing they could ask Mom and Dad anything and we would tell them the truth. Sometimes we would explain as much as possible, letting them know a topic required more maturity to understand. We read books together, many of them adult fiction and non-fiction because most kidlit felt too shallow, or downright insipid. We watched television and movies together—not as passive couch potatoes, but using media as a tool to explain many hard questions about relationships, responsibility, fear, courage, greed, nobility, love, and lust.
We also opened the door to better discipleship and communication by letting them struggle without condemnation.
This allowed them to tell us they were angry with us, a sibling, a friend. We didn’t demand that they instantly change their attitude. We gave them some direction as to how to handle their feelings, but then we gave them time to work through it. They were able to express regret or sorrow of their own volition, and we knew their repentance was genuine.
They could ask us hard questions about what the Scriptures seemed to be teaching, and even stew about it. We didn’t want them to pretend to believe something they didn’t because they’d get in trouble if they expressed doubt or confusion. This allowed them to be well and truly lost, and their conversions had no flavor of coercion.
They even came to us when they grew curious about loaded topics like race, sex, pornography, drug and alcohol use, and gender issues. We were able to explain the nature of temptation and the consequences of giving in. Sad to say, the news always gave us plenty of real life examples of people who were devastated or dead because they were violent, sexually promiscuous, or substance abusers.
One of the best things we ever did was adopt “I’ll trust you until you give me a reason not to” as a family tenet. We gave our kids their rooms as private property, and as long as they acted honestly and responsibly, their space was not violated.
Except for candy. Mr. Raber has a habit of nabbing the kids’ junk food stashes or questioning them relentlessly until they give up some of their loot. Oh well, no parent is perfect.
Anyway, the fruit of this approach for our kids was a growing sense of dignity, self-respect, and peace. Sure—it could have gone the other way. But they saw the freedom that acting with integrity gave them. It became more painful for them to disappoint or betray us than to give in to temptation. This was also very effective at pointing our children to Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit to convict, guide, and comfort them. It has illustrated to all of us the liberty we have to obey God with joy.
Parenting methods and family dynamics can’t be established based on what other families do. While they can provide us with examples, the ingredients that make up each family are far too unique to copy like a recipe for angel food cake.
All I can tell you is that based on our experiences with our first child compared to our younger three (by the way, there is a gap of eight years between the oldest and his siblings), the change in our attitudes and approach made a discernible difference in our relationship with our children, and how they live their lives.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.