Shaping responsible behavior takes time

Shaping responsible, Christ-like behavior in children takes time.

Somehow my father added several hours to his already busy day to drive me around to selected classmates’ homes. The trips were made so I could render apologies to them and their parents. I had shared something inappropriate with several students and been caught. Part of making the situation right involved my dad giving up his valuable time to make sure I followed through on my tour of atonement. Later that night I gave the eighth-grade valedictory speech at my grade school. I’m pretty sure I had a red face as I shared “The value of a Christian education.”

This is only one example of how my parents were tasked with trying to raise children who would behave responsibly. There were five of us, but I’m pretty sure I gave them the most practice.

No matter how hectic the pace of their daily lives, they not only addressed irresponsible behavior but gave us opportunities to foster responsibility. There was an assumption that we were competent beyond our own expectations—and most of the time we lived up to them.

Take three city buses to get to school? You can do it! And we did.

Go to college and pay for it yourself? Sure, why not?

Travel abroad on your own dime and come home in one piece? Piece of cake!

Shaping responsible behavior takes the kind of faith that realizes our children are just on loan to us from their true Father.

My own children were tasked with daily chores that were part of their preparation for real life. Self-esteem starts with knowing you are a child of God, and conquering skills is an important addition.

Responsible behavior grows when responsibility is given to a child. In my years in the classroom I observed well-meaning parents cripple their children’s growth by assuming responsibilities that could have been given to their children. I was reminded of this myself when I was about to pick up my grandchild’s breakfast dish. My son said kindly, “Never do for a toddler what a toddler can do for herself.”

Follow-through on responsibilities is important. Very early on our children knew that bringing needed books home from school was their responsibility. The first time our daughter forgot a book she knew that even though we lived next door and had a key to the school, we weren’t going to go and get that book for her. It was a hard pill for all of us to swallow but one that would help achieve the desired effect.

At one of the Lutheran schools in which I taught, a very basic lunch was provided for children who forgot theirs. We knew something about the parents when we saw a child pick up that unglamorous lunch without a request to call home. And we saw the growth in responsible behavior as that same child remembered to bring his own lunch in the future.

The motivation for this never-ending job of raising responsible children is simple, powerful, and comes with a promise. Children in our care are a gift from God, and they actually come with instructions: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

Talking about homosexuality: Follow Jesus’ example

Even difficult topics can be broached with Scripture as our guide, and the issue of same-sex relationships is no exception. Christian parents are often caught unprepared to give an answer to an inquiring child. But God’s Word has a definitive approach.

If your inclination is to start with Scripture’s unequivocal stance against same-sex coupling, stop and remember Christ’s example. First, we are told repeatedly that God wishes for all to be saved. We are commanded many times to love our neighbor. If your viewpoint towards the weaknesses of others is one of self-righteous condemnation, stop and adjust your attitude. If you have been tolerant of other sinful lifestyles yet find this one intolerable, stop and realize your own bias. If you gossip about people—especially in front of impressionable children, stop and train your tongue to speak well of others.

Christ led with an attitude of love and compassion and we can aspire to do no less. John 8:3-11 is an example of the way Jesus handled a real-life situation. Jesus was preaching in the temple courts when a group of Pharisees brought a woman in front of the group. There was no doubt as to her sin of adultery as she had been caught in the act. These men of God wanted Jesus to pronounce punishment on her in this very public forum. When pushed for an answer, Jesus reminded these sanctimonious Pharisees of their own sin. He then waited until he and the woman were alone. He didn’t condemn her to death as had been suggested. He told her to go and leave her life of sin. What relief she must have felt when she realized her life had been spared! And how much more receptive she must have been when a simple directive was given by her Savior. No invectives, no finger pointing, just truth.

Discussions with children arising from organic events are usually more effective than contrived lectures. Today’s social climate provides plenty of openings on this issue. Age-appropriate answers to honest questions don’t need to be lengthy. We take our cue from God’s commands and lovingly apply them.

When Jesus met Zaccheus and recognized his many sins, he could have had him dragged from his perch in the tree. As a tax collector, Zaccheus would not have received much empathy from the crowd. Instead Jesus did something that gave the crowd fodder for gossip. Jesus told Zaccheus he wanted to go to his house. In so doing he honored Zaccheus with his presence and took him to a private place to talk about his erring ways. No public ridicule, no cheap shots, rather a one-on-one talk in Zaccheus’ own home. Facing the Savior’s love, he changed.

We remind our children of God’s love and of his desire for all people to be saved. We recognize this sinful inclination as a cross to bear. We acknowledge the forgiveness for all sins—including our own—and praise God for his goodness.

We give life to our words by our loving interactions with all people. Being motivated by the gospel opens doors that could otherwise be closed by the sting of the law. Friendship without compromising our beliefs gives truth to our love for all of God’s people. Our brothers and sisters who struggle with these wrongful desires often have an aching need to worship. We must own our uneasiness with those who are different and pray for guidance and a heart for souls.

Children learn far more from our actions than our words. Walk in love. Stand firm in the Word. Give thanks for a forgiving Savior.

Teaching children to navigate the world as Christians

Raising children to have compassion for this tainted world without undue fear and feeling love for God’s blemished people without prejudice is a monumental task. Scripture gives us guidelines, not a “Dos & Don’ts” list for living in this world yet not being of the world.

It is this perilous journey that my husband and I saw as we raised our children. Or as my very wise Christian father said to me, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” We wanted to raise our children to function as children of God and lights in this world without falling prey to its sinful temptations.

Scripture makes it clear that God is to be first in our lives. This will most likely evidence itself in the priorities we model for our children. The frequency of God’s name and Word may range from mealtime prayers to regular devotions and Bible study. Connecting our children to God’s Word outside of the home is also a directive from Scripture. Studies show that what we do as opposed to what we say has a greater impact on children. Consequently, living our Christianity as parents, husbands, and wives becomes our children’s textbook. Our hunger for God’s Word and the application of its tenets are a powerful example.

In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul tells us that he became all thing to all people so that some might be saved. His fellow disciple John wrote that we are not of the world. The balance of being approachable Christians versus being different in a way that others know we are Christians is difficult in application. A sense of inclusion for all of God’s people is engendered when we reserve judgment and open our arms instead. For some families, a child who has successfully straddled these two worlds might include an MLC professor; an openly Christian neuro-intensive care nurse; and a pink-haired, pierced, and tatooed behaviorist for autistic children who is on her church’s Board of Education.

Self-righteous segregation is not a good witness tool. Neither is allowing our children to participate in questionable activities for the sake of fitting in. In John 15:19, Christ tells his disciples, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own: but because you are not of the world, I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” Helping our children cope with the reality of the persecution and mockery of Christians in this world is the inevitable, yet necessary, role of the Christian parent.

When we as parents have a sense of true joy in our faith, it evidences itself in our parenting and in our homes. A guilt-ridden sense of obedience can produce fearful, resentful children who are quick to rid themselves of what they perceive as an unloving church or system of values.

A hurting world out there needs what we have. A gospel-filled heart teaches our children by example how to navigate this world, how to live a godly life, and how to share this good news with others.

Parenting ground rules

My husband and I were both raised in Christian homes, which made for many similar views on parenting. We were not, however, raised in the exact same home. So there were just as many differences.

My husband grew up with one studious sister and a stressed single parent who was a university professor. Their idea of fun around the dinner table was discussing comparative wars at the time of the Incas. I was raised in a two-parent parsonage with five raucous siblings. A good time at our house involved counting how many grapes we could stuff in our mouths. The list of variables in any home is endless. When two people come together to form a family, they bring their pasts. This includes the way they were parented. The sooner my husband and I were able to respect those differences, the better off we were in coming to a common parenting style.

The ground rules that we came to after much trial and error were actually fairly few:

  • Hash out differences away from the children, and present a united front in the presence of the children.
  • When differences arise, compromise may entail trying each other’s method.
  • If an impasse occurs, always defer to Scripture when possible.
  • Use great parents as resources. Fellow church members are a wonderful reference library. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice.

Having said this, our children definitely knew that Dad was the “good cop” and Mom was the “bad cop.” They tried to play us against each other occasionally but were usually caught at that nefarious game. Children feel most secure when parents work together. God put the structure in place, and I reminded my children of that often. My rough paraphrase was, “Dad’s the king, I’m the queen, and you’re the serfs. You don’t get a vote, but we take care of you.”

Blended families face a whole different set of difficulties when it comes to parenting styles. There are now multiple people with a voice in the matter. The general principles still apply, however. Respect for the other persons involved while putting God’s will above all may not make everybody happy but is the best way to go.

We aren’t born knowing how to parent. If we were blessed to have fine Christian parents, we are truly blessed. We can certainly take away some great lessons. But think about it. We’re required to have a license to drive. Yet we’re allowed to have children without a permit or a written test. It just figures that when you try to get two sinful human beings together on the same page, there are bound to be disagreements about the rules of the road. The best roadmap is always Scripture.

Holding our children accountable

If you were to ask my now grown children, they would tell you that my husband and I held them responsible any time they were caught in gross disobedience. They might even tell you that we held them responsible for small and imagined infractions.

What they don’t know is that there were times when one of us wanted to believe our children’s versions of events rather than that of the accuser. Against all reason, common sense, and sometimes our conscience, we wanted to diminish or dismiss a major offense.

One incident in particular came to haunt me. My son had been reported to have been extremely unkind to a child, “Jack,” in my care. Jack was a very challenging child in terms of behavior and had himself bullied other children in my presence. When I questioned my child, he assured me that he had done nothing wrong. I accepted my son’s version of events even though I had nagging doubts.

As the day wore on, I noticed that my son got very quiet and had no appetite for lunch—this from a child with a voracious appetite. He then told me he had a tummy ache. Fortunately, my son was not a very accomplished liar. His guilt was written all over his little face and had even started to manifest itself in his body.

Reality finally hit me in the face. I asked my son if something was bothering him. He tearfully confessed that he was indeed guilty of the unkindness. The words rushed out of his mouth as though he’d been holding them in. He wanted to apologize immediately to the child he had wronged. I, too, wanted to apologize. I felt terrible that I had not believed Jack and had done him such an injustice.

Later, when I paused to reflect on this whole incident, I realized the great disservice I had done to my son. By not holding him accountable, I had denied him the chance to repent and then feel the healing balm of forgiveness.

Had I denied my child forgiveness? If you were to have asked me if I would refuse to forgive my child, I would’ve protested. And if you had asked me if I would tell my child God did not forgive him, I would’ve been appalled. And yet, that’s the promise I was withholding from my child when I did not firmly and lovingly turn him to face his sin. For without acknowledging his trespass, he carried it as a burden of guilt. I was complicit in strapping that burden on him. Only when he laid it down did he feel the relief only repentance and forgiveness can bring.

In the following years, I would have occasion to remember this incident. The remembrance was not of my son’s misdeed but mine. It helped me to be firm in my resolve to hold my children accountable. When a friend told me she didn’t think I was an “advocate” for my children, I shared this story with her. When we as parents advocate for the truth, it may sometimes mean we are faced with our child’s transgression. When that happens, we have the greatest answer to any sin, forgiveness.