Archive | Parenting

Schooling Our Kids

We were created in God’s image, created to be like Him and to reflect Him to others. Despite the fall, we still are called to be like Him and to reflect Him to others. It is the natural outworking of the gospel and all that Christ has reclaimed for us through the cross.

Eph. 4:32 – 5: 2 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us ….

The Bible gives some instructions specific to parents. Too often, we only think of Christian parenting using the language of those few verses. There are virtually no verses on being a good Christian sister, yet I feel well informed on how to love my sister because there is a larger context to Scripture. Whether it’s loving my sister or parenting my children, I am called to be an imitator of God who walks in love as Christ has loved us.

It is in that context, Christian parents as imitators of God or parenting our children the way God parents His, that I bring up the issue of schooling. Occasionally, I get asked my views and advice on the different educational options available to Christian parents. I must offer this disclaimer – my boys are FOUR and SIX! That means that while I do have 4 years of schooling under my belt, it was preschool and kindergarten. Though they have presented their fair share of emotional situations, I know good and well I have MUCH to learn. However, despite my lack of hard experience on the issue with my own kids, I still feel fairly confident in my core conviction on the issue of the education of our children (under the overarching principle of parenting my children the way God parents His).

Here is my core conviction. BE INVOLVED!

Between my husband and myself, we have attended homeschool, Christian school, and private secular school. I note that we have chosen for our children the only option we didn’t experience ourselves – public school. I think that is telling. If I’m not careful, it can just be reactionary. We’re not going to protect our children from the social pressures we faced in public school by sending them to Christian school. Nor are we going to protect them from the hypocritical Christians we met in Christian school by sending them to public school. You know what protects our children from the social pressures in public school and the hypocrites in Christian school? Parents who have a relationship with their kids who know what is going on in their kids’ schools and their kids’ lives.

Homeschooling can be a great way to be involved in our kids’ education and lives. Or it can be an isolating experience. It’s not the panacea either. And for the parent who is not gifted in educating children who does it out of guilt, it’s devastating for everyone involved.

Our family first chose a secular cooperative preschool in our neighborhood. When you sign on for a co-op, you sign up as a parent to be involved. It’s core to the entire philosophy. I was at a point mentally where I would have LOVED to drop off my oldest and walk away from the building. But I also knew that was my nature and that I needed the accountability to stay committed to my core philosophy of being involved. The result is that after 4 years with 2 kids there, I know my boys’ teachers, their friends, and their parents VERY WELL. I have remained the first discipler of my children even in their secular classroom setting.

Then, we chose our neighborhood elementary school, which is a 5 minute walk up the hill from our house. We chose this because of my core conviction of being involved. It helps that it is a classic elementary school that looks and feels like the ideal you hope for your children. However, because my 4 year old was still at the co-op preschool, I made a mental choice that I couldn’t yet be involved at the 6 year old’s elementary school. Next year, when they were both at the same school, I’d be able to be involved at the elementary school.

It’s funny how quickly my fundamental convictions were overwhelmed by my circumstances. Kindergarten in the public school started off reasonably well. But in January, things started falling apart. My son was having problems getting going in the morning. He was getting in just late enough in the mornings (my fault) to be behind with assignments the rest of the day (and don’t get me started on the ridiculous expectations of kindergartners in the Seattle public school system). But the final straw was that I got called twice in one week because another kid in my son’s class hit him. The kid is a classic bully, and my son is no shrinking wallflower. So the conflicts kept escalating, with my son ending up holding the icepack to his head or arm at the end.

Should I take him out of school?! Go half day? Try homeschooling (heart palpitations and sweat breaking out as I even consider it)? I set up a teacher/principal conference, but we all got sick and had to cancel. When we got well, I decided to walk my oldest to school and stay (with the 4 year old in tow) until I could figure out a better alternative. That was a few weeks ago. Now, most mornings of the week, the little one and I stay for 30 or 45 minutes, or however long I can. My oldest is notoriously slow and easily distracted. So I make sure he gets his stuff in his locker, seated in his class, and started on his first assignment in a reasonable amount of time.

I also made sure I talked to the bully. “Why did you hit my son?! You are a bad boy and you better stop it now!” Just kidding. I know that bullies tend to be bullied elsewhere in their lives. I’ve tried to have compassion on the kid and help him at school. It wasn’t much, mostly just saying hi to him and helping him in subtle ways when it made sense. A few days later, I asked my son as he came out of school if the bully had bothered him. “No, he’s my best friend now.” Huh?! I questioned him up, but sure enough, the bully decided he liked my son and now they are fast friends.

Wow. That was easy. 2 weeks of minor involvement in my son’s class pretty much resolved the crisis. Now this is just kindergarten level crises. I know I haven’t seen anything yet. But it reinforced my core conviction. I can’t give over my sons’ education to someone else, whatever choice I make for their education. I can’t let my circumstances distract me from this core principle. I want to know their teachers and know their friends. And if I can know their friends’ parents, that’s even better. My sister who is a single, working mom has had to go at this from a different angle due to her work schedule. Yet she believes it too. She is involved, aware, and responsive, though it looks very different for her than it does for me.

I have other preferences about my children’s education. I do want to raise them in their culture. I want to protect them from, say, gang violence, but I don’t want to protect them from the general secular nature of their culture. Instead, I want to teach them how the love of God and the gospel equip us to love our community. We are not against the bully. We are FOR him. We don’t want him destroyed. We want him saved from whatever it is in him and his circumstances that causes him to act in such a way. Thankfully, in our very secular Seattle culture, God has given me and my boys good Christian friends at both our hippie preschool and our public elementary school.

Most of all, it is me, the parent, who is called to nurture/disciple/instruct my children. For me, the biggest temptation of all is to be lazy and ignore things until it gets so bad I have to do something. God has called me to be proactive, not reactive. He’s called me to disciple my children, and discipling them as they navigate secular society is one of the most important pieces of that.

Finally, this is my personal application of general Bible principle. Please don’t be constrained by my application. Feel free to be constrained by the general principle of proactive discipling of our children (knowing, loving, and nurturing/teaching our children as God parents us), but let the gospel and your own personal access to God give you confidence in how you apply it in your own life. The last thing I want is someone feeling guilty because they don’t volunteer in the mornings at their kid’s elementary school.

I spent the evening with two of my closest friends in town last week. We talked about the issues all of our kids were facing—social pressures, educational struggles, and their faith. It wasn’t until later when I was contemplating this article that I noted that one home schooled, another had her kids in Christian school, and my son was at public school. Despite our differing choices for our kids’ education, we share the same spiritual burden—to know our kids, to love our kids, and to direct them to Christ and the gospel. Each of us reevaluate our choices in light of our call to disciple them. In fact, one is switching from one form to another next year because, while it worked for a time for her child, something has changed. She knows this because she has a responsive relationship with her child and because she’s aware of her child’s friends and social situation.

So my advice on schooling your kids? Don’t get sucked into a single mentality that causes you to ignore the needs in your kids’ hearts (or in your community). Love your kids as Christ loves you. Be responsive to their needs as God responds to yours. Disciple them the way Christ modeled. Pray for wisdom, and then get up and do as God convicts you.

Psalm 94:12  Blessed is the man whom you discipline, O LORD, and whom you teach out of your law,

Proverbs 29:17  Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.

Watering Seeds and Waiting for Fruit

Ecclesiastes 11:6  In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

1 Corinthians 3:6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

I’m ok sowing seeds. I don’t mind watering them. But I don’t have much tolerance for the wait for growth or the ultimate goal – fruit. And nowhere is this more obvious than raising my children. I’ve written a couple articles on parenting recently (here and here) on principles that are becoming more and more important to me the further I get into this daunting, winding, sometimes very poorly illuminated road called parenting. Here’s the new one God is applying in my heart – sowing and reaping.

I know as a novice gardener that a beautiful, fruitful garden takes time and effort. And I’ve gotten the effort part with my children. I know that lazy parenting is sin. I must stay engaged. I must sow seeds. I must water and fertilize. It’s the time part that is just starting to dawn on me. I don’t mind putting in the effort with my kids … as long as I see the results. Today. But so help me, if I don’t see results within 10 minutes or an hour, or if I’m really being patient, by the time I put them to bed, I’m pretty frustrated. What was the point of all that meaningful engagement with my children? I’m working hard to disciple them, to teach them truth and help them apply it. I’m working hard to expose them to the gospel, both in my words and my actions. But then I put them to bed and they seem in exactly the same condition with the same attitudes (often angry at each other, generally unthankful, or complaining about the day ahead) that started off our day.

Even though I know better, it’s very hard to believe any sowing, watering, or fertilizing I did through the day was meaningful if I don’t get fruit immediately. But I KNOW that is not the nature of fruit. That’s not how gardening works. And occasionally, the Lord lets me see how it really works.

My oldest loves to make projects. He thinks about them in his head for a while, then gets to work with a definite plan. It’s a great strength of his. And it’s a great weakness, for he loves his projects very much and woe to the one who interferes with or, gasp, accidentally trips over a project, as little brothers are prone to do. We’ve been working on loving people more than our projects. We can enjoy our projects, but we have to keep them in perspective. The most important thing is loving God. Then it’s loving others. And projects are good and fun when they come under those first two.

Well, I’ve been trying to communicate that for over a year. But it’s just been the last few weeks that out of the blue, my oldest will offer from the back seat of the car, “Mom, I love you more than my guinea pig roller coaster.” Don’t laugh. That’s my world—guinea pig roller coasters, tiny ant toilets, and so forth. My 6 year old is an entertaining piece of work.

In that moment in my car, I tasted sweet fruit. “Honey, I love you more than my computer,” I responded. I feel a need to tell him that regularly because I am on my computer a lot. And there it is, a tiny sprout poking its head out of the dirt after months of seed-sowing, dirt-watering effort.

I am becoming more at peace with sowing and not so upset when I don’t get to reap. Fruit will come. But it’s not likely to be today. And I don’t need to keep watering and fertilizing on an issue non stop until I see fruit. That will drown a seed. It’s OK to sow a seed, water a little, and walk away. After all, any fruit is a result of God’s light causing the growth. So I stand back and wait for Him to work. At peace in the waiting.

Grace based parenting in the real world

Based on the responses I got from my recent post on Graced Based Libertarianism, it was clear that many of us long for real examples of exactly what grace responses to our children look like. I found a secular article that made me think. Of course, we’re coming from entirely different beliefs on the nature of our children. Yet, I think there is some helpful analysis here. His criticism of manipulative praise gives insight into manipulative punishment as well. His point is that punishment and reward/praise are opposite expressions of the same philosophy. He encourages an entirely different philosophy. The main place I diverge from him is that I need my children to understand what God says is good, so I definitely will be making moral declarations about things to them. But with that distinction in place, his other ideas are worthwhile.

Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” by Alfie Kohn


1. Manipulating children.

Suppose you offer a verbal reward to reinforce the behavior of a two-year-old who eats without spilling, or a five-year-old who cleans up her art supplies. Who benefits from this? Is it possible that telling kids they’ve done a good job may have less to do with their emotional needs than with our convenience?

Rheta DeVries, a professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa, refers to this as “sugar-coated control.” Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people. …

2. Creating praise junkies.

… Mary Budd Rowe, a researcher at the University of Florida, discovered that students who were praised lavishly by their teachers were more tentative in their responses, more apt to answer in a questioning tone of voice (“Um, seven?”). They tended to back off from an idea they had proposed as soon as an adult disagreed with them. And they were less likely to persist with difficult tasks or share their ideas with other students.

In short, “Good job!” doesn’t reassure children; ultimately, it makes them feel less secure. It may even create a vicious circle such that the more we slather on the praise, the more kids seem to need it, so we praise them some more. Sadly, some of these kids will grow into adults who continue to need someone else to pat them on the head and tell them whether what they did was OK. Surely this is not what we want for our daughters and sons.

3. Stealing a child’s pleasure.

… To be sure, there are times when our evaluations are appropriate and our guidance is necessary — especially with toddlers and preschoolers. But a constant stream of value judgments is neither necessary nor useful for children’s development. Unfortunately, we may not have realized that “Good job!” is just as much an evaluation as “Bad job!” The most notable feature of a positive judgment isn’t that it’s positive, but that it’s a judgment. And people, including kids, don’t like being judged.

4. Losing interest.

… an impressive body of scientific research has shown that the more we reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. Now the point isn’t to draw, to read, to think, to create – the point is to get the goody, whether it’s an ice cream, a sticker, or a “Good job!”

In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they had heard “Good sharing!” or “I’m so proud of you for helping,” they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.

Does praise motivate kids? Sure. It motivates kids to get praise. Alas, that’s often at the expense of commitment to whatever they were doing that prompted the praise.

5. Reducing achievement.

… Researchers keep finding that kids who are praised for doing well at a creative task tend to stumble at the next task – and they don’t do as well as children who weren’t praised to begin with.

Why does this happen? Partly because the praise creates pressure to “keep up the good work” that gets in the way of doing so. Partly because their interest in what they’re doing may have declined. Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming.

More generally, “Good job!” is a remnant of an approach to psychology that reduces all of human life to behaviors that can be seen and measured. Unfortunately, this ignores the thoughts, feelings, and values that lie behind behaviors. For example, a child may share a snack with a friend as a way of attracting praise, or as a way of making sure the other child has enough to eat. Praise for sharing ignores these different motives. Worse, it actually promotes the less desirable motive by making children more likely to fish for praise in the future. …

This point, you’ll notice, is very different from a criticism that some people offer to the effect that we give kids too much approval, or give it too easily. They recommend that we become more miserly with our praise and demand that kids “earn” it. But the real problem isn’t that children expect to be praised for everything they do these days. It’s that we’re tempted to take shortcuts, to manipulate kids with rewards instead of explaining and helping them to develop needed skills and good values.

So what’s the alternative? That depends on the situation, but whatever we decide to say instead has to be offered in the context of genuine affection and love for who kids are rather than for what they’ve done. …

If a child is doing something that disturbs others, then sitting down with her later and asking, “What do you think we can do to solve this problem?” will likely be more effective than bribes or threats. It also helps a child learn how to solve problems and teaches that her ideas and feelings are important. Of course, this process takes time and talent, care and courage. Tossing off a “Good job!” when the child acts in the way we deem appropriate takes none of those things, which helps to explain why “doing to” strategies are a lot more popular than “working with” strategies.

And what can we say when kids just do something impressive? …

* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement (“You put your shoes on by yourself” or even just “You did it”) tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: “This mountain is huge!” “Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!”

If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: “Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack.” This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing.

This doesn’t mean that all compliments, all thank-you’s, all expressions of delight are harmful. We need to consider our motives for what we say (a genuine expression of enthusiasm is better than a desire to manipulate the child’s future behavior) as well as the actual effects of doing so. Are our reactions helping the child to … constantly look to us for approval? Are they helping her to become more excited about what she’s doing in its own right – or turning it into something she just wants to get through in order to receive a pat on the head.

Copyright © 2001 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact page at www.alfiekohn.org.

The big point that Kohn is making is similar to my argument in punishment v. discipline. Punishment is reactive and, frankly, easy. “You hit him? Ok, now I spank you.” “You took his toy? Fine, now I’m going to take your toy and put you in time out.” And, to be honest, I take the easy way out way too much. But Biblical discipline (i. e. training in righteousness) is hands on and takes time.

My boys are ages 4 and 6. I have only minimal experience putting this into practice (though I have much experience failing at it). But here is the guiding principle that is helping me to formulate my responses.

Be suspicious of the easy way out. Grace responses (when you choose discipleship over punishment) are not quick and easy. The one grace response that often does quickly help in our home is redirection or distraction—-distracting them from their sin. And I think this is a beautiful picture of what God does for us. He is so merciful to see us on the trajectory of sin and to rescue us from it by moving our attention or efforts somewhere else. That’s helpful when kids are heading toward sin but aren’t quite there yet – it’s making a way out much like God does for us.

But once sin has happened, I need to engage. I have to put down what I was doing, pray, think, and engage. “Son, why did you ruin your brother’s project? Look at his face. That made him really sad. Did you want to hurt his things? Were you trying to provoke him? Do you remember what God said is the most important thing? Yeah, loving God and loving others. Was it loving to tear your brother’s project? What do you need to do? Yeah, you need to ask him to forgive you. You need to ask how you can help him fix it. We need to pray that God would change your heart to love your brother.”

But even that paragraph is short and assumes a lot. There are other things that could be going on. I may need to explain to him what provoking means. Provoking is when you want someone’s attention and you do something mean or hurtful to get it. If you want your brother’s attention, try this instead (and then think with him through solutions when he wants someone’s attention). Maybe he wasn’t being unloving or provoking at all. Maybe he thought his brother’s project would look better if he drew all over it with markers (which is what happened to us yesterday). He wasn’t trying to destroy it. He was just insensitive and unaware of how his brother would receive his “improvements.” Maybe he needs support in thinking about how others will feel before he does something. I need to teach him about empathy. Or maybe it’s a situation that doesn’t demand any of that kind of intervention. As I prayed and thought about it, I realized it was something they could work out themselves. Finally, it may very well be that his heart really did hate his brother in that moment and I need to pray for him (because he’s too angry to pray himself) that God would change his heart.

In terms of character development, I am working on teaching my kids perseverance and endurance. Rather than simply saying “Good job” when they score a goal at soccer, I am trying to emphasize that they didn’t give up. “I saw that you were sad when that kid scored a goal, but you didn’t give up. You kept playing.” My son in particular gets very discouraged and wants to quit when he can’t accomplish something the first time he tries. So encouraging perseverance has been helpful with him. There’s no point in me saying, “You are so good at soccer.” Because, frankly, he’s not. And I don’t care if he is the best at soccer. But I do want him to learn to persevere.

My final thought in this mishmash of ideas is prompted by a line from Amazing Grace, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.” It’s not grace to ignore the sin. But it’s not grace to punish it either. Grace is this amazing third way. And wrestling daily with what this looks like with my kids has been amazingly productive in understanding it for myself. In short, there aren’t easy answers. There isn’t a simple 3 step outline for how to disciple your children in light of the gospel. It takes union with Christ, leaning into Him in prayer, and much self examination as a parent. But mostly, it just takes preaching the gospel to ourselves. As I grow in my understanding of gospel grace for myself, I grow in my understanding of God’s use of it with my children.

Repenting with my children

I have an anger problem. In terms of when it manifests itself with whom, I’d say it shows up 0% of the time with adults, 0% of the time with other people’s kids, and 100% of the time with my two boys. This week, I had a particularly bad round of it. And, to be fair, my boys were certainly provoking me. I yelled at them, calmed down, apologized for yelling, used normal tones for two sentences, yelled again at them (a little louder), calmed down, apologized, used normal tones for one sentence, yelled again at them (louder still), and … well … you get the picture.

Finally after herding cats, I mean boys, into the car (because getting my boys in the car when I’m angry seems so much like herding cats), I told the boys I had an anger problem (actually, I think I yelled it in anger) and told them I needed to pray. So right there, in the car before we drove out the driveway, I prayed. “God help me. I’m angry. Please forgive me. Please help me not be angry.” Then I heard a groan/cry from the backseat, turned around to look, and the four year old was sticking his finger in the 6 year old’s mouth and yanking on his cheek. In that moment, I learned what REALLY makes me angry — boys who don’t respect prayer when mommy really needs it. I’m sure I must have literally had steam coming out of my ears at that point. Perhaps a vein was throbbing in my throat or forehead. Suffice it to say that my anger had NOT miraculously dissipated.

My 6 year old seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. He’s the one who told me last week that he hated God because he prayed for a TV in his bedroom and God didn’t give him one. We’ve been talking with him a lot about God’s love for him and have been trying to cultivate thankfulness for all the many things God has given him. In the car, the 6 year old looked at me sweetly and said that HE would pray. He folded his hands nicely and squeezed his eyes shut. He opted for silent prayer. We waited. And then he opened his eyes. I couldn’t resist asking him what he prayed for, and he said something about thanking God for the many things we have. He didn’t mention help with my anger, so I’m not sure if that was included or not.

Something about that entire scene was like a big bucket of ice water being poured over my head. The vision of my formerly God-hating 6 year old sweetly folding his hands in prayer for me just did me in. But not in a bad way. I didn’t feel shame. I felt grace and mercy. Really, God could have let me back my car into the wall in my anger and it would have served me right. But instead, He ministered grace to me through my son’s prayer. He turned a situation ruined by my sinful anger into a moment of spiritual joy watching my son exhibiting child-like faith. It’s called redemption. Deliverance. And I’m reminded once again that it is something only He can do.

For the rest of the afternoon, my boys and I had a really nice time together doing things that I had not expected to be enjoyable at all. For a few hours, the Kingdom broke into our sin-damaged reality and it was miraculous to behold. By that evening, we were back to the occasional fits of grumpiness and complaining that characterize us on normal days. But I went to bed with a renewed confidence in God’s ability to redeem the worst of what’s in me and instead of ruining my kids with it (which is a life long fear of mine), actually use it for all of our good to transform us into His image. Thy Kingdom come, O Lord.

Grace Based Libertarianism

A few weeks ago, I read an article on child rearing by a somewhat reformed, conservative evangelical in which he distinguished gospel centered parenting techniques from what he called “grace based libertarianism.” It was a classic example of what my pastor calls being “suspicious of grace.” Here was an author who was learning the doctrines of grace, enamored by the concept of gospel centered living, yet still suspicious of the core value of the gospel – unmerited favor. Better known as GRACE.

We are all growing in our understanding of gospel grace and how it applies to the nooks and crannies of our lives. But I will say boldly that you and I haven’t understood the gospel in its truest, purest sense until we stop being suspicious of grace. Or maybe I should say the converse. We HAVE started to understand the gospel in its truest, purest sense when we begin to recognize our suspicions with grace and subsequently start to put them to death. And our children are an excellent training ground for this very thing.

Remember how Jesus defines grace? Luke 6 is the best example. He uses the Greek word for grace, charis, repeatedly here.

… as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. 32 If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

I need to read this again and again, because I leak grace. I get filled up with confidence in the power of grace, but it seeps out as the day goes on. I need this reminder of what I’m called to do particularly with my kids very much this day. I worked through this in depth writing By His Wounds You Are Healed. I’ve led a Bible study on it twice in the last year. And STILL I leak grace. So, once again, because I need to meditate on it anew, here are thoughts on Luke 6 and grace from By His Wounds You Are Healed.

“When you give back what is earned or deserved, it is not charis—it is not grace. It is not favor or benefit, and it is not credited toward you as anything other than exactly what you are expected to do. Instead, grace does what is unexpected, undeserved, and out of line with reasonable responses. Grace is an unreasonable response—unreasonably good, but unreasonable nonetheless. When we give grace, this undeserved favor that does good to enemies and lends expecting nothing in return, then we give evidence of our relationship with our Father in heaven, because this is his calling card. He is kind to the ungrateful and evil. He is full of grace.”

I think, “Really?! I’m supposed to treat my children as I want them to be not as they actually are acting right now? I get that I’m not supposed to give an unreasonably bad response. But what about a reasonably bad response? Shouldn’t they get what they deserve for acting out? But God says instead I’m supposed to give an unreasonably GOOD response. What does that even look like? And why doesn’t that make my children’s sin increase?!”

Here is my suspicion–if I really treat my children with grace instead of punishment, they will sin more. It’s not natural for me to envision a scenario in which a grace filled response to them in their sin and failure actually helps them overcome their sin. First, I have a mistaken perception of what grace looks like. Grace doesn’t mean simply being polite or diplomatic. And most of all, grace doesn’t suggest we ignore sin. In fact, grace is meaningless apart from a stark understanding of the sin in question. Grace engages over the sin. But not with punishment. Grace is what moves us from returning evil for evil with punitive measures (a hit for a hit) to returning evil with good by discipling their hearts and training them in new ways to respond to their own issues.

Second, I am suspicious of grace because I have a shortsighted view of the future. I think if my children don’t immediately change their behavior the moment I engage them over their sin issue, I have failed. If I don’t reactively punish them, I think they’ll abuse my grace. And maybe tomorrow, they will. But God’s view for them extends well past tomorrow. It is of eternity. Every adult Christian friend of mine who gives positive testimony of a parent universally tells me of how their parents ENDURED with them through their hard seasons and how that perseverance drew them to repentance.

The techniques we teach for child rearing are as good an indicator of our understanding of gospel grace as anything. It is interesting how reformed Christian teachers and parents who really should know better still embrace the very techniques that God called ineffective at transformation—law, punishment, and penance—and disdain or mock (as did the author in question) the methods our Father in heaven embraces in His plan for His children—a wooing with grace and kindness that draws us to repentance. We do this because we really don’t believe Biblical grace works. We have for the most part graduated from a performance based Christian parenting model to a heart based Christian parenting model. Almost everyone in my Christian circles (which are varied) over the last decade or so has gotten that external conformity apart from internal heart change is of no value. But we still often attempt to change the HEART by external pressure. Through guilt, manipulation, or shame. “Look at ALL God has done for you! Why don’t you love Him? Why aren’t you obeying Him? He’s so wonderful and you’re just a worm. Your heart is wicked.” We’re trying to get to our kids’ heart, but we’re using the same old tactics legalists use to change externals. Guilt. Shame. Manipulation.

If you feel threatened by what you view of as grace based libertarianism (which actually is a meaningless term), it’s likely because you don’t really believe that grace works and that it’s what is required by you. If that’s the case, go reread Luke 6 and ask yourself if it’s relevant to your children. But even if you are convicted that you do need to parent with grace (as I am), it doesn’t mean you do it consistently in the moment.

Perhaps you simply failed in the moment. You very much wanted to patiently disciple your children in the direction that God is taking them, but instead you got angry at where they were in the moment. I’m there on a regular basis. I am learning that the gospel equips me to deal with this without shame or condemnation. I face it and correct it.  And I have hope that this response won’t always characterize me.

Maybe you did it right, and it still fell apart. Or there wasn’t any perceptable change at all. You’re not sure if your reactions were right or wrong, and you see no noticeable good results one way or the other. What is the point of responding patiently in grace if it doesn’t fix the problem immediately? God’s long term view for His children equips you to deal with this without bitterness or the loss of hope. The gospel gifts you with perseverance and confidence in the eternal results.

I Cor. 13:7-8 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

My Morning Anger Problem

I have a sinful anger problem that manifests itself most intensely in the morning when my children wake me up before I’m ready. I thought it was just because they were waking me before the time I had assigned for them to get out of bed. Then one morning they actually stayed in bed until “seven came back,” and I was still mad at them. I’ve come to realize the problem is not with them. It’s with me. Manipulating THEIR behavior isn’t going to solve MY sin problem.

In each chapter of Counsel from the Cross, Elyse Fitzpatrick takes a real life scenario and works through how gospel truths meet the person in it. I know that is what I must do as well. So today I am wrestling through how the gospel equips me to face my sin and deal with my mornings differently.

First, I feel fearful. I love my children. They are sweet, cute, and tender. I want them as adults to rise up and call me blessed. Instead, I fear they will rise up and call me “Troll.” More than most anything else in terms of God-given goals, I want to bless my husband and children. I want them to remember cupcakes and stories read, not ugly outbursts when I get woken up. I want to do unto my kids as I want them to do to others. I fear that they will remember me more as a troll than as a mom that is FOR them.

Second, I feel shame. I write books and get to occasionally speak at women’s retreats. Really, shouldn’t I be past such angry outbursts? If anyone other than my husband and kids saw my morning anger, I’d be so embarrassed.

Finally, I feel defeated. I’ve been working on morning strategies a long time, trying to be the mom who thinks ahead and prepares her children for a successful morning routine. And I am defeated at every turn. Mostly, I have finally acknowledged that manipulating my circumstances (or manipulating my children) isn’t going to fix my sin problem.

So here I am. How does penal substitution and imputed righteousness prepare me for this struggle—for the sin itself and then the fear, shame, and hopelessness that accompany it? I am tempted to start with lectures to myself on selfishness. “You are so selfish, Wendy.” Which is true. But it doesn’t help much. Today, instead, I am starting with the gospel defined. My sin is truly forgiven. And God has promised the lavish gift of a spiritual inheritance that equips me for every struggle, even in the mornings when I’m coming out of a dead sleep.

2 Cor. 9:8  And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

The answer to my sense of defeat is really my union with Christ. Abide in Him, for apart from Him, I can do nothing (John 15:5). I am reading The Praying Life, and the Lord has used it to give me a renewed confidence in prayer as the natural outworking of this abiding. Paul Miller gives a number of illustrations of prayerful dependence on God particularly when it comes to dealing with angry gut responses to our children. I have a tool when I am faced with frustration and hopelessness in yet another instance of sinful anger. I don’t have it together enough in those moments to pray a theologically informed prayer. Instead, it’s more like, “God, I’m angry. Help me! My will is strong right now, but I want Your will to be done.” And honestly, coming out of a deep sleep, that is about all I have to offer. Just, “HELP!” But I smile to myself as I write this, because God doesn’t shame me for such a cry. He welcomes it. He wants it. He assures me that I can come boldly and confidently to Him in my need.

I really wish I was a morning person. But I’m not. I really wish my boys slept in until 8 or 9 am. But they don’t. My control nature is utterly thwarted by these truths. It’s funny how it takes the utter frustration of my attempts to control or fix a situation before I really cry out to God in desperation. But He receives my desperate cry and binds me tighter to Himself through it. And He answers. Usually, it’s in a quiet way that I don’t at first notice. Though I was woken out of a deep sleep and felt frustration once again, amazingly enough I did not speak to my children in hurtful ways, and an hour later, I realize we are all actually having a good morning together. When I finally notice it, I know beyond any doubt that it was God’s GRACE that made that possible.

I don’t know what your struggle is. But if it’s anything like mine, it’s particularly painful because it manifests itself against the ones you most love and want to support. The gospel invitation is simple—bring this need to your Father boldly and confidently. Every last time, bring this need to Him. When you are devastated by sinning again after all your attempts to control the situation better, bring this need to Him. That’s actually a decent place to be. YOU can’t control sin. But God can. Your efforts to avoid sin are at best coping mechanisms with average rates of success. But they won’t change you. Or when you see the sin coming toward you and desperately want to avoid hurting those you love once again, bring this need to Him. You don’t need a theologically precise prayer, you just need to cry out your desperation. God hears. This is what it means to abide in Him. Apart from Him you can do nothing.

“The Gospel is the Environment for our Parenting.”

Another nugget of wisdom from Counsel from the Cross, this time on gospel-centered parenting. I wrote some about this in a post a while back on discipline verses punsishment, subtitled parenting our children the way God parents His.

What does gospel-centered parenting look like? Here is how Paul put it:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4); and “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21).

Isn’t it easy to see how Paul’s counsel to parents is based on God’s gracious pattern with us? We are not to be harsh or demanding with our children. We are not to provoke them to anger or discourage them. Of course, the obvious question we have to consider is what will provoke them or discourage them, and, by contrast, what does it look like to discipline and instruct “in the Lord”?

Although there are many ways we can provoke our kids in disciplining them, we learn from Paul’s expositions of grace in these epistles that we provoke and discourage our children when we forget the gospel and demand, as a condition of our approval and affection, that they obey the law that “neither our fathers not we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). By itself, God’s law, although it is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12), will serve only to aggravate or discourage them. The law will stir up within them the desire to sin because they are not able to obey it. It won’t furnish them with the power or motivation to obey us or the Lord. The law has its uses with our children, but making them good isn’t one of them. Only the gospel and God’s grace can change hearts.

The proper place and function of the law is something that we might recognize in our own lives but fail to believe when it comes to raising our children. We know that we don’t change and mature by making a list of things we need to do and then scrutinizing our failures when we don’t do them. But, amazingly, we think that’s how our children will change. But when they cry that they can’t obey, we should agree with them, although it is true that we are to acquaint them with the law’s demands.

Rather than telling them that they can and will obey, we must tell them—frankly, gently, sadly—that they cannot obey. They need help. They need Jesus. Making a list and giving stickers and time-outs when they succeed or fail won’t change their hearts. It may make them little Pharisees, knowing how to look obedient so that they can get approval, but it won’t change their hearts. We are to use their disobediences as a gospel opportunity to remind them that they are sinful and flawed, but if they flee to Jesus he will love and welcome them. We must remind them that they “do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with (their) weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as (they) are, yet without sin. Let (them) then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that (they) may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).

Jesus understands their weaknesses. He knows about temptations. When we—and our children—struggle with obedience, we can draw near to the throne of grace where we won’t receive judgment and punishment, but mercy and grace to help. That is the portrait of the Savior that our children need to see. This is the image that will transform their hearts and teach them to run to him, rather than away from him, when they sin.

… The gospel is the environment of our parenting.