Adventures in Parenting: Trust

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.

Psalm 130:3-4

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.

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There are 18 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


It was painful reading that first half--because it's familiar. Growing up we always attended good churches, but the Christian schools (and churches running them) were not always so healthy. I remember well the elementary years at a school where every sermon every day told us what wicked rebels we all were... and the scowling faces and scolding voices were ubiquitous as well. (With a few glaring exceptions.)

Small wonder so many of the students left the faith later.

The problems in this scenario are at least two-fold: bad theology and twisted leadership attitudes. Maybe they're both bad theology.

a) Born again Christians are new creations. They are not rebels trying to get away with everything they possibly can. They love God and want to grow in grace. They have sin problems, but they want to overcome them.

b) Leaders are given responsibility first and authority only in service to responsibility. Position does not exist for the purpose of lording it over other people and seeing how many people you can get to be afraid of you. Obvious, but it's amazing how many don't get that.

So talking to kids about sin...

First, use "we" not "you." Kids, sinners though they are, are not more sinful than the grownups. Probably less, since they have knowledge. Second, teach them what a thriving believer looks like, what motivates them (the love of Christ constrains me), what hinders them (Heb. 12.1 comes to mind). Believers sometimes need to repent, but they quite often need only to discover and believe and then act on what they have come to understand.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Larry Nelson's picture


Aaron Blumer wrote:

It was painful reading that first half--because it's familiar. Growing up we always attended good churches, but the Christian schools (and churches running them) were not always so healthy. I remember well the elementary years at a school where every sermon every day told us what wicked rebels we all were... and the scowling faces and scolding voices were ubiquitous as well. (With a few glaring exceptions.)


First off, I'm very supportive of my Christian school alma mater.  (As evidence, for the past few years I have organized fundraising & alumni events.) 

Something that seems apparent to me today though (and I've heard similar recollections from other alumni) is that the teachers & faculty members who tended to view us as "wicked rebels" were almost invariably those who were themselves products of Christian higher education.  Looking back, I would have to say that the graduates of the strictest Christian colleges were often the ones who possessed the "scowling faces and scolding voices" of which Aaron speaks.  (I don't like drawing this conclusion, but I can't personally dismiss it either.)  Whether such a viewpoint was actually inherent in the teaching/training they received, or whether it was a by-product of four years in a (micro-managing?) rules-based culture, I couldn't say.  But this outcome seems to me  to have existed.

In contrast, the teachers & faculty members who had attended public colleges seemed to be far more willing in practice to afford students the benefit of the doubt.  Their first inclination or reaction wasn't to believe that students were universally rebellious hellions, always in need of reproof or correction.  To me, these strongly tend to be the teachers that I recall as being personable, approachable, and who displayed a greater concern for my development and individual well being.  (At least that's my perception.)

Two examples:

I was once summarily accused of having skipped a chapel service, and sent to the principal's office.  The accusing teacher was a graduate of a Christian college well-known to many on SI.  Had I skipped?  Nope.  Fortunately not only could I provide for the principal a detailed synopsis of that morning's chapel message, but the speaker that morning also verified my attendance (he had seen me in the second row).  Having been exonerated, did I receive any explanation or apology from the teacher?  I never did.

One bitter, subzero winter morning (this is Minnesota), as the school bus on which I was riding hit a pothole, the window next to me inexplicably dropped open.  "Windows must be closed" was a school bus rule in the winter, which in Minnesota is a no-brainer.  I wanted the window closed just as much as any of the other riders, but my attempts to close it proved futile.  It was simply stuck.  The driver yelled more than once and threatened me that I had better close the window---my efforts at which he apparently thought were some sort of defiant ruse.  As I stepped off the bus when we arrived at the school, he glared at me and informed me that I could expect to be called to the office that day for my disobedience.  (At this point, I'll note that the driver was a Bible college graduate and was then currently a seminary student.)  Well, I awaited that call, but it never came.  As I came out of the school's door that afternoon, the driver stood next to the bus, along with the faculty member in charge of discipline.  I was thinking, "Here it comes..."  To my great surprise though, I got an apology.  As it turned out, he had discovered himself that the window was in fact stuck.  He said it had to be partially taken apart & repaired to ultimately get it to close.  As much as I appreciated the apology, it still hurt that he hadn't simply taken my honest word for it to begin with.  Without precedent, he just assumed I was lying.

It just seems to me that those sorts of things didn't occur with the teachers who had graduated from state colleges or universities.

Bert Perry's picture

....for the thread discussing secular colleges vs. Bible college, I think.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry Nelson's picture


Bert Perry wrote:

Valid points....for the thread discussing secular colleges vs. Bible college, I think.  


I agree.  I thought it relevant here though too since it deals with the issue of "trust" (as it pertains to adults in dealing with youths) that Susan covers in the OP article.  In my (granted: limited) experience, one group of teachers seemed to harbor much greater distrust of their students than another group of teachers, and I find it interesting/revealing where the line of demarcation between those groups appeared to exist.

Bert Perry's picture

....that a lot of ministries around the church at least give the impression of being "all about control".  A smart pastor, principal, or BIble college board member might want to look into that.  I've got some stories I could share myself, and I would have to infer that a lot of it has to do with a lack of real Gospel training on the part of the perpetrators of these events. 

Never been in Bible college or Christian day school except as a guest, but I would have to guess that if a lot of graduates have an extremely rules-oriented view of life, they learned it somewhere.  Might be a great opportunity for some navel-gazing and growth.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I don't know what anecdotal observations are worth on this pt, but I don't really know where the angry and condemning types I referred to came from.

I do know that the wiser & kinder ones I studied under later were mostly BJU & Pensacola grads. Though probably just under half of them were secular-univ. trained.
Later still, the teachers I taught along side of in GA were mostly BJU grads (including myself) I think, a few with some Tennessee Temple background.
Strict-ish environment but nothing mean spirited at all.
(We were way too busy to even be *tempted* to make something dramatic & profound out of every infraction!)

It's not about being "rules oriented" - it has more to do with pride, harsh judgmentalism, faulty theology of sin, and failure to understand how believers grow.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

kirkedoyle's picture

Susan, thank you for this, it is well written and timely for many, I'm sure!  I have always said that I would rather be naive than cynical and that applies to my trust in my children as well.  I choose to trust them, believing that if they are being dishonest God will reveal the dishonesty plainly.  One follow up - if you are "given a reason" not to trust them, how do they earn that trust back?  What type of timeframe?  

Susan R's picture


Kirk, this is hard to answer because I don't like giving specifics about our kids. But I haven't been faced with that question in the sense that our younger children not yet done something I would consider 'major' to betray our trust. There were a couple of occasions when we could tell something was bothering one of them, they were struggling with a burden or a temptation, and we'd let them know that we could see their struggle, and to please tell us what was going on so we could help them. They came clean about their problems, and we worked through it. 

If something happens in the future and we are faced with that question, the answer will depend on which child did it and what they did. At this point, our oldest is 28, and then we have an almost 20 yos, 18 yog, and almost 15 yos. The time frame to rebuild trust would be much different just based on their ages.

It's true that God will probably reveal your child's dishonesty to you, but I'm of the mind that you have to give Him something to work with. And that is a deep and meaningful knowledge of your child - their feelings, their interests, their moods, their body language, and the way they process information. 

One of the flaws in the traditional school system that has affected churches and colleges is the model of the Chalk and Talk for the Sit and Git. It's one person lecturing, telling everyone how it is and what to do. That's not a relationship. Pastors and teachers who spend more time listening and asking good questions will know how to address their class or congregation in a way that informs and nurtures. From my POV it has often felt like the pastor watched the 11 o'clock news on Friday night, spent Saturday building up a good head of steam, and then blasted the church on Sunday with how wicked the world is and 1 John 2:15-17 and "Come to this old-fashioned altar and get right with God."

Parents who follow this model of leadership are doomed to never get to know their own children, and wonder why everything they say bounces off. Which is IMO the saddest thing ever. 

Bert Perry's picture

I once got in trouble for arranging the chairs in a Sunday School class in a circle instead of in two narrow rows--it was "sit and git" to an extreme.  Needless to say, there were reasons that particular "pastor" (who is known to many here, I believe) didn't want much feedback.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Bert Perry's picture

I once wandered into a church in Kiel, Germany, and struck up a conversation with the pastor, and one thing I noted was that, contrary to the usual European pattern of theater-style seating, the chairs were in a circle around the pulpit/baptismal font (it was Lutheran/evangelische).  When I asked about it, he clarified that they were trying to get back to the early church pattern where people could respond to each other and the pastor more intimately.  I know I got to know him pretty well in just about half an hour--learned he'd been a teen conscript who could have used some better gloves in the Battle of the Bulge, and that he was extremely grateful to have been captured by the Americans.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I tend to view the value of intimate personal knowledge of children a bit differently.
First though, other things being equal, I’m all for it. There is no downside.

On the other hand, I have to ask why the emphasis on this? To put it another way, what’s the biblical evidence for seeing this as paramount in parenting?

What I see in Scripture is not an emphasis on how each child is unique but rather an emphasis on how kids are alike. So, while I myself have talked about how different my two kids are, this is all in the realm of personality and learning style.
Through the lens of Scripture as well as experience I have to say that all human beings are far more alike than they are different.
Same is true of kids… and even more so within a family.

So, when it comes to parenting there are principles that work and they don’t require intimate personal knowledge of each child’s inner life in order to implement them well. They do require wise understanding of what human beings are like and some awareness of how to tune them for each individual.

As for sit and git, etc. …. I have three (or maybe more) reasons for thinking very differently from Susan & Bert about the value of this.
a) So, so many positive experiences on the receiving end in my own life, from the earliest years I can remember up to and including the present. Lectures from people who do not know me at all have been positively & hugely transformative in my life.
b) I think I’ve been able to repay that debt to some extent in the hundreds of hours of lectures I’ve personally delivered… mostly to people I don’t really know all that well.
c) Comparatively speaking, the highly personalized teaching I’ve received from the small group off folks who have known me well over the years… It’s hard to compare because it’s a completely diff. kind of influence.

But as for growing up: I learned far more from watching how my parents lived than I did from them sitting with me and listening and asking personal questions and all that. … so I tend to not see it as all that crucial. It was not about them knowing me; it was about me knowing them.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Mark_Smith's picture

Did you consult the Interior decorating committee that you stated you thought was important before you rearranged those chairs into a circle? Who do you think you are?

Bert Perry's picture

I did ask others in the class if they'd like to try that.  Since the class was pretty much every adult in the church who was not teaching kids' Sunday School at the time, the interior decorators would have been involved.  :^)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Larry Nelson's picture


I recommend both of these:

The second I've read several times.  It really opened my eyes in many ways.

In a Filings thread, mention has been made of the book Already Gone.  These books (again, particularly the second one) deal with many of the same issues addressed in Already Gone,  and likewise seeks to answer the question of why many Christian kids walk away from church & their faith. 

Susan R's picture


I'm not for throwing out lectures. I enjoy hearing well-delivered informative speeches. I'm addicted to Ted Talks. But good parenting is based on a relationship, and healthy relationships are based on one's knowledge of the other person. I don't think we have to be able to psychoanalyze kids, but they do things for different reasons. One kid is quiet because they are private and don't like to share, while another is quiet because they are hiding something. We will try to get both kids to open up, but our tactics will be different because of their motivations, their spiritual needs, and the results we are trying to achieve. 

Church relationships are another level. I've talked before on SI about what I call 'spheres' of authority and influence. Sometimes the family and church overlap in areas of authority and teaching, but sometimes there are matters best left to spouses and parents to work out in their own way. 

For example, we gave our kids cell phones around age 8. This completely freaked some people out. Parents got mad because we were making their kids envious of our kids, or they felt like our choice undermined their teaching because they were telling their kids that it was wrong for anyone under 18 to have a cell phone. Church leadership warned us about the dangers of phones and porn and predators and adopting new tech and being like the world... I even heard a statement from the pulpit that anyone who gave their kid a cell phone before 18 was a bad parent and not right with God.


Church leadership can have good reasons for their concerns about certain issues, but their sphere of authority IMO ends at the point where there is no 'thus sayeth the Lord' (in the sense of there being no clear biblical principle by which to draw lines). 

Susan R's picture


I agree that we should role model for our kids. I learned the hard way that you can't teach self control at 137 decibels. We have to show our kids the behaviors we desire to see in them. And they should be able to get to know us. We are honest with them about what we think and feel, and how we deal with our problems. 

We don't hover over our kids and tend to their every thought and feeling. Mostly we spend time together just doing stuff. 

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron asks a great question on where the Biblical emphasis is on relationship in parenting, and I'd suggest most of the book of Proverbs, especially the first ten chapters.  In it, the parent is more or less pleading with his son to teach him "the facts of life."  Now perhaps I'm reading into this, but it strikes me that this appears to be one on one, fairly intimate mood, and he's using some emotional words--a foolish son is the grief of his mother, and the like.  It is written moreover in poetic form, not prose; it is meant to elicit a response on both an intellectual and emotional level.  

And regarding the overall topic of "sit and git", it's worth noting that in a good lecture, there is a TREMENDOUS amount of back and forth between the speaker and the audience.  You can see it in the better TED talks that Susan loves--you find laughter, strategic pauses, call and response....the best speakers really tailor their message for the audience in a way that teleprompter-readers cannot.  So a good lecture is emphatically not "sit and git."

One example of an especially appalling sit and git; the "pastor" I mentioned above once delivered the same message concerning the hypothetical lax commitment of the congregation to two different churches in one day.  The first one was a church where he hardly knew anyone but the pastor, and the second one was to the church he "pastored" at night--when everyone there was active in one ministry or another.  So in both cases, it was something that fit his theological mood, but could not have possibly related to the people he was speaking to.  Any TED speaker would have flogged him with a wet noodle for that. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Thanks, Susan  

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:

I try to speak to my son in the opposite way. I tell him that we are God's children. So we are what He says we are and we want what He says we want. Sometimes it's true that we forget what we really want and we have to remind ourselves. 

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