Parents as pastors
What might grace-infused parenting look like?
- Good girl! You shared so nicely with your brother just then.
- Your sister's ready for school now, and you're not even dressed! Please get ready quickly like your sister does.
- It's 9:30! Go to sleep! It's not that hard - just lie there still and quiet!
- If you can be really helpful while we tidy the house up, there'll be a special treat for afternoon tea!
- Stop tormenting your brother! Can't you see that he doesn't want a cuddle? How hard is it to think of what he wants for once?
- You've hurt your sister now! Go over there and say you're sorry, and give her a hug to make up.
Does this sound familiar?
The endless variations of these phrases form the background track to most of my home life. My wife and I try to teach and instruct our kids. We try to set clear boundaries on their behaviour, and to enforce those rules fairly. We work hard towards the goal of releasing them from our care (eventually) as loving, honest, competent adults.
We've read all sorts of parenting books by Christian authors, describing tools and techniques to help us in our task of shepherding our children's hearts and guiding their energy and behaviour. We've used sticker charts, and time out, and 1-2-3, and count downs.
It was a shock to me to see a description of my parenting as non-Christian parenting by Christian parents!* Yet the more I thought about it, the more that description rings true. Are there any of those opening statements that could not have been made by a Muslim parent? A Jewish parent? A secular or atheist parent?
But what is actually wrong with the statements at the start? My constant repetition of those themes conveys these messages:
- You can earn approval (or goodness or righteousness) by your own efforts.
- Obedience is easy. Other people manage to obey to an acceptable standard.
- You can make up for your own wrongdoing.
I would never say these things that plainly to my children. In fact, I spend most of my working life saying exactly the opposite to other people's children! The good news is all about how we can't earn God's approval, that it is hard to obey, that we can never make things right ourselves, but that we don't have to! Jesus obeyed perfectly, and that is attributed to us. Jesus died to atone for our wrongdoing, so we are freed from that obligation! The promised Holy Spirit gives us God's power to obey.
Some of the content of my parenting litany is a problem, but the biggest shortfall is what I don't say (or don't say consistently). I don't make the connection for my kids between Jesus, the gospel and their day-to-day life. I don't give grace any air time.
So what could I say or do that would make my parenting distinctly Christian?
What might grace-infused parenting look like? I would want to reinforce for them that I love them regardless of how they behave.
That I know they will constantly do wrong, constantly disappoint, constantly struggle to obey or constantly fail to think of others before themselves. That they can be free of the crushing burden of their own imperfections because of Jesus' perfection. That, if they trust in him, all that sin is forgiven. That, if they trust in him, he gives them the strength to love and obey. That their goodness is a sign of God at work in their lives.
Even as I write this, I know that I will fail to practise it. I know that I will get tired, or grumpy, or pre-occupied, or selfish. I know that when that happens, I will want immediate obedience, without wanting to take the time to show grace. I know that I will feel guilty for not practising what I preach - for once again relying on something or someone other than Jesus. And once again Jesus' grace will somehow be enough to cover my own parenting failures.
Even worse, I know that I will get it right sometimes. And then I will be tempted to attribute the success to my own effort or insight. I will be tempted to believe that I can touch my children's hearts and turn them to Jesus. I will swell with pride (although, very modestly, I won't admit it), and will usurp God's job. And in that instant when I give in to that temptation, I know that, once again, Jesus' grace will cover me and set me back on the path of humble dependence on him.
*The book I was reading was Give them grace: Dazzling your kids with the love of Jesus by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, Crossway Publishing, 2011.