Last Thursday, during the Thanksgiving meal we hosted at our house, my son, Daniel Jr (age 4) had an epic meltdown over a superheros costume. My brother, Tim, was the recipient of much of this. After dealing with Daniel's tantrum, we both went our way, sharing times with our family members, eating more pie, and watching football. About 30 minutes later, something wonderful happened. My son, Daniel voluntarily walked up to my brother, Tim and said, "Uncle Tim, I'm sorry for my attitude before. Will you forgive me?"
Nobody forced Daniel to do this. He just did it. For me, it was a proud moment as a father. Because it tells me that Daniel is learning one of most important lessons in life: How to apologize when you have wronged someone.
It seems to me that Christian parenting can often be so caught up in behavior modification that we forget to instill in our kids the real and important things they will need to live a healthy spiritual life. The tools for dealing with their own sin. Because, brace yourrself parents, our kids will sin. They will sin today and they will sin for the rest of their lives. Hopefully they will come to faith in Christ and experience His sanctifying work so that they sin less. But as fallen creatures, they will sin.
Sadly, much of our parenting techniques miss this important point. We parent as if we can actually iron out sin, as if we could just stumble onto the right system so that we'll produce perfect little angels. In doing this, we rob our children of the most important truths they will need to succeed: the reality of the gospel.
You see, it is good that we have rules and laws in our homes. After all the law was originally given by God as an act of grace toward his children. And good parents demonstrate their love for their own children by having laws. Not running in the street is a pretty good law that protects their welfare.
However, if we are only about law and talk and model and enforce nothing of the gospel, we are crippling our children. We are giving them no mechanism for dealing with the inevitability of their own sin. I think much of this is the due to the tragic misapplication of Proverbs 22:6 (Train up a child in the way he should go . . . ) which is a proverb of wisdom, not a promise of perfection for kids.
We must, as parents, embed the gospel in our parenting. We must first evangelize them so they come to Jesus in repentance and faith. Then, we must teach them to apply the gospel in their lives: the vital cycle of repentance and forgiveness. In other words, we must teach them to live life as it really is, not as we often wish it would be.
We all know the dangers of a lawless, boundary-less household. But we seldom think about the impact on kids of a childhood that sees no grace. Parenting simply fixated on behavior modification--with no gospel-based mechanism for dealing with sin, failure, and weakness--has two equally devastating effects. Kids either reject the legalism of the law and live a miserable life with no boundaries or they embrace a lethal mixture of Phariseeism and perfectionism, holding themselves to an impossible standard and thumbing their nose at anyone who doesn't live up to their standard. In both cases, you have children who are shocked by their ability to sin and have no idea where to go with it.
The point is this. We are not simply training our kids to be good kids. We are modeling for them the relationship God has with us. We're introducing them to Christ, who is their sin-bearer, the champion has defeated sin and death, and their only way of victory over sin.
A parenting model that focuses only on right behaviors, at the expense of the gospel, is a parenting model that treats every offense as Armageddon, that is horrified and surprised when their little angels commit sin. It's a parenting model that ruins parents with dangerous introspection (what did I do wrong). It's a parenting model based on fear, not faith.
But, a parenting model that features a mix of grace and law looks much different. It applies and enforces God's law in the home, but introduces the concepts of grace, repentance, and sanctification. And what it celebrates is not necessarily little Johnny's ability to not throw tantrums, but little Johnny's voluntary expressions of remorse and repentance afterword.