January 25, 2009 by

Teaching Our Children to Live (or, "Barb Asks An Intelligent Question")


Categories: food for thought, life, The Director

Commenting on my recent post “Confessions of a Recovering Self-Righteous, Legalistic, Judgmental Hypocrite (part 1)”, the following question was posed by Barb:

“Jeff, in all that you write I would love for you to address this question. How then are you teaching your son to live. It would seem that Christianity and struggling with, “compulsive and sinful behaviors in secret,” sets our sons up for this kind of feeling of continual failure. How do we instruct and encourage our sons so they don’t have to endure what we did with the guilt and shame following us continually? I’ve never heard anyone address this from a guilt free stance of grace. How do you do this without making the addictions that we have seem not important?”

First, let me say that the best I can do with this is put some thoughts on the table. I’m far from being an expert at child-rearing, and as I said, I am a recovering self-righteous, legalistic blah blah blah, so there are still kinks being worked out. 🙂 Every parent makes mistakes with their kids, and we’ve made some doozies with The Director. That said…I’ll open a discussion here by putting some ideas down, and if anyone has any helpful thoughts to add, feel free to leave them in the comments.

I think the question Barb asked comes as a natural outflow from people who are in the process of being set free by the grace of Christ. As we begin to find freedom and healing from the past, we naturally want to help our kids walk in that, too. We want them to avoid the pitfalls that ensnared us. We want them, as it were, to get on the fast-track to freedom, to learn from our mistakes, to benefit from the truth we’ve received…to be that much more ahead of the game.

But here’s the thing. I think we can do that…but only to a point. And I think there’s a bit of Divine wisdom in that.

I look back at my own journey, and I realize that as a Christ-follower, every bit of healing, freedom, and recovery I’ve experienced has come as I have followed Christ. He has led me on the path of healing. Yes, that path has included wisdom imparted to me from others along the way…but ultimately, following Jesus for myself caused me to own the truth that has made me free. And although everything inside me wants my son to receive all the benefits I’ve received from that journey…he has a journey of his own to walk. He already has wounds in his soul, some of them inflicted by me in my own ignorance. But he has to choose Christ for himself, and his path of healing will come the same way mine did–as he follows Christ. The healing I’ve received, and the subsequent healing that has come into our relationship…all of that can equip him for the journey, and it certainly helps. But the journey itself is his to make. We impart all we can to our children, but as they mature, they must own that truth for themselves if it is going to make a difference in their lives.

So generally speaking, how we see it is…we follow Christ in front of our son, and encourage him to join us on that journey. And he is. We’ve “instructed him in the way he should go”, but never forced our faith down his throat, and we’ve given him the latitude to question, so that his relationship with Jesus is his own.

How that plays out specifically in raising our son with grace, and freedom from shame and legalism and all that…this is a little bit of what it has looked like for us. (And bear in mind, these aren’t things we’re perfect at, but things we believe to be true, and are trying to live out.)

  • Keep the moral compass, lose the shame. Part of the legalistic vicious cycle is that we have this idea that shame is a preventative to sin. I have found that exactly the opposite is true–especially if the sin involved is being used as a medication for pain. The shame actually drives us deeper into the quagmire, if we allow it to. So when our son has sinned, we don’t waver from saying the line has been crossed, but we want to assure him that he is of no less value because of it, that we all struggle with sin in some way, that this is no surprise to God, and that he does not have to stay in the place of shame. In discipline, we’ve tried to focus more on consequence than punishment, so that the negative consequence, rather than shame, becomes the deterrent.
  • Eliminating the “shock value” of sin not only reduces shame, but also reduces the allure of “forbidden fruit”. Let’s see if I can unpack this… We realized that the more we emphasize “forbidden fruit”, the greater the curiosity and interest about it. So when we talked with The Director as a teenager about things like drinking and drugs and smoking, we shared clearly where we stood, but left out the part, “If I EVER catch you drinking, I’ll…” Even when he tried to get a rise out of us by joking about drinking or doing something stupid (because he LOVES shock value), we refused to act shocked; we just joked back. I don’t know if this would work for everyone, but for The Director, I believe it has lessened his desire for the wrong things. He just lost interest. And to the extent that sin cannot shock us, the freer he feels in talking to us about what is bothering him. The less sense of shame or shock value in sin, and the less taboo a subject is, the less someone feels the need to cover it over or struggle with it secretly. The blackmail factor is removed.
  • We admit when we have made a mistake, and repent. If we are walking with Christ in front of him, that also means he needs to see when God is disciplining us. And this can be very humbling, but we’ve also found it has generated a great deal of respect in his heart for us. Modeling the path of repentance is even more important than preaching it.
  • As we’ve deconstructed, we’ve purposed not to constrain him beyond what the Scriptures teach. This is significant because we Christians have added on a bunch of protocol, a code of “acceptable behavior” that has little to do with Scripture, but makes people think of you as a “good Christian” if you act a certain way. Taking our cue somewhat from Acts 15, we felt it wasn’t right to put those additional burdens upon him, but rather to encourage Christlikeness over proper “churchy” behavior. This has been hard, especially for me, because when The Director wants to talk about the difference between profanity and taking the Lord’s name in vain, and is it really a sin to use the “f” word? Because in the context of some movie scripts, it is completely unrealistic for a bad guy to say “golly”? Yowza. And yet, I have to admit, the only thing Scripture teaches us about this is not to be “unseemly.” So I resort to “guidance” mode and advise him that I think it is probably unseemly to use that word in most contexts, except when it makes sense in a movie script–without mandating him. That’s hard when your impulse is to control…but we feel in the long run he will do better at following Christ without the extra legalistic burdens, even if his thoughts or choices sometimes make us uncomfortable.

I know lots of children stumble into serious crap, even with well-meaning parents; and the reasons can be so complex and varied that I don’t think anyone has the right to give trite reasons why it happens, or pat answers on how to prevent it. All I can say is, so far, the results of this approach seem to have been positive in The Director’s life. Although he still struggles over performance issues and is hard on himself, I see a lot less compulsive behavior in his life than existed in my life at his age. And although I know teenagers sometimes hide stuff from their parents anyhow, and I might not know what he says or does when we’re not around…it seems like this process is bearing good fruit in his life (I mean, I don’t think he goes around using the “f” word, and he doesn’t come home drunk). His walk with God looks different than mine, and has a different sort of rhythm; but he is walking with God, has a strong moral compass, and owns his own faith. And that’s good enough for me. 🙂

Okay, I’ve rambled enough; now it’s your turn. Any thoughts?

Musician. Composer. Recovering perfectionist. Minister-in-transition. Lover of puns. Hijacker of rock song references. Questioner of the status quo. I'm not really a rebel. Just a sincere Christ-follower with a thirst for significance that gets me into trouble. My quest has taken me over the fence of institutional Christianity. Here are some of my random thoughts along the way. Read along, join in the conversation. Just be nice.

3 Responses to Teaching Our Children to Live (or, "Barb Asks An Intelligent Question")

  1. Amy

    Ah….wonderful words of wisdom! I sincerely hope I will be the type of parent you are someday, Jeff. You genuinely have such excellent methods for parenting.

    Thanks for this post.

    ~Amy 🙂

  2. Barb

    Thanks for giving this question room on your blog Jeff. I find myself agreeing with each of your points. It drives me crazy because it is so open ended and carries no guarantees. I have had guarantees all my life promised me (not that they worked) and that gave me a sense of control and security. As I turn the corner towards 2 years out of the “guarantees” I see only the ability to react to certain situations, be ready always to listen to the kids and be ready always to give them grace and not heap ‘ought to’s” on them. If that is not enough they will just have to see a therapist along with all the other screwed up kids out there 😉

  3. Jeff McQ

    Thanks for the compliment. I don’t know how “excellent” the method is…you just do the best you can. 🙂

    You nailed it, sis. I think the “no guarantees” thing describes it accurately. And that’s hard for us, because the “guarantee” gives us a sense of control over the choices and destiny of our kids. But it’s a false sense of security, because we really never did have control, did we? This is where we have to *trust God* with our children, and trust our children with the truth we pass on to them.

    Thanks for a great question. My brain hasn’t had that much exercise in weeks. 🙂

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