The book Give them Grace startled me. I was expecting to read a book that might lend some insight into how I could solve some parenting issues, particularly with one child. She has been really resistant to my instruction lately. In other words, I wanted some help to mold my child into the good, obedient, kind girl I envisioned she should be.
Instead, I was forced to wrestle with my own heart attitudes and, believe it or not, my theology. This book compelled a change in my underlying thinking and assumptions about child discipline and what is the most important end result of child rearing in general. This paradigm shift has affected both my attitude and actions and has trickled down to positively impact my kids. So, in the end, it has helped my parenting but not how I expected it would!
It seems to me that a lot of bible-based parenting books fall into two camps. One camp says that you should be super strict with little kids so that they march to the beat of your drum with no questions asked. This results in an orderly, peaceful home of course, and these kids supposedly will also end up being good, self-governed teenagers someday. Of course, when you discipline, you should always have a relevant scripture handy so that you can train up your children in God's ways.
The other camp is the "grace" camp, which urges treating children as our Heavenly Father treats us and being ever forgiving and patient with their downfalls, emphasizing building a relationship with them first and foremost. I have always felt that authors of these books are right in what they say but have often been left at a loss as to how I should practically implement disciplinary strategies. Seriously, after a child has disobeyed for the 50th time that day, something is not working. What should I practically do to help this situation?
Finally! Here is a book that I think is completely biblical in its message but also helpful!
One of the first provocative questions in this book is: How is your parenting distinctly Christian? In other words, how is it different than that of any other moralistic person?
Am I infusing my kids with the heart of the gospel when I instruct and discipline them or am I simply teaching them moralism? Do my kids think that the bible is primarily a book of rules or, at its heart, a powerful story of redemption?
One of the most convicting chapters, for me, was about how God loves both his Pharisees and sinners. Some kids are just really good at living by the rules, keeping the rules, and feeling good about the rules. I have a child like that. She seems like a model child in most circumstances. But she needs the gospel too. She is also a sinner. And self-righteousness is arguably the worst sin. I need to remind her of her need for a savior as much as the next child.
My other child who is constantly testing the limits of authority, and seems very selfish in most circumstances, strongly dislikes all rules imposed on her. She loves to break the rules and, in fact, acts like the spanking is always worth it! I have noticed, however, that she prays the sweetest prayers at times. She asks really deep questions about life and God. In fact, I think she is probably my most spiritually-aware child! She is the child who knows she is a rule-breaker. She knows she can't keep the law and needs a savior.
Another convicting question in the book: Do I use obedience to make my kids think they can earn God's favor? I have told my kids that God is displeased by disobedience, which is true. But then I have also told them that God is pleased when they obey (the opposite should be true also, right?). WRONG. The bible is clear that all of our righteousness is as "filthy rags." There is nothing--nothing-- we can do to earn God's favor. We do "good" only because Christ is working in us and we are learning to trust and obey him more. God is pleased by our faith in Christ and relationship with Him, not our supposed "goodness." God wants our faith, and then that will produce fruit in our lives. He doesn't want our alleged good works.
What have I been teaching my kids? I have been teaching them that if they are more like my one child who is a good rule-keeper, God is more happy with them. If they are like my other child who is a rule-breaker, God is displeased. I have been teaching them moralism and a works-based salvation without even realizing it. And in the meantime, my child who is more prone to break the rules has become more hopeless and distant from me. She knows she cannot be like my rule-keeping child, so why should she even try?!
Where was this headed? I could have unwittingly been the eventual cause of my rule-breaking child completely turning from God because she would be constantly frustrated and end up thinking that clearly Christianity "doesn't work for me." Maybe that is an overstatement. But I'm not sure it is.
Here's how I have been handling discipline differently. I have not be disciplining any less frequently, mind you. The changes may seem subtle but I believe they are already having an impact on my child-who-loves-to-break-the-rules.
Whenever a child has been disobedient or unkind and needs intervention, I have been taking a lot more time to talk to that child and teach them about redemption first and foremost. I am trying to point them to the cross a lot more. Instead of quoting a bible verse and reminding them of their disobedience and then implementing a consequence, I might have a conversation like this: "When you hit your sister, you were not kind. I know that it is hard to be kind. None of us can keep God's laws perfectly. Thankfully, we have Christ who has already done the work for us. As you learn to trust him more, he will help convict you about being kind and more obedient to his ways. Let's pray and ask God to forgive us and help us be more kind." Sometimes I say to them, "When you disobey you are acting like what Christ did for you means nothing. He suffered a huge punishment to pay for your sins. Even though you cannot keep the law perfectly, you need to trust him more and ask him to help you." I still do implement consequences (e.g., time out, spankings, or taking away privileges, etc.), but I have been taking a lot more time to have conversations about redemption and hope in Christ.
This change in my methods has been more time-consuming. I won't lie. But I have seen a difference in my child's attitude. She is more interested in what I have to say about God and I feel we have a better relationship. She has come up to me and given me spontaneous hugs lately, which is something she hadn't done for a long time. And if I'm not willing to invest more time in my children when they really need it, what is the point of me staying home with them to raise them? The extra time is paying off.
And when I do see fruits of repentance and God's mercy at work in my kids' lives--like when they voluntarily offer to pick up a mess their sister made or they say something kind--I make sure to tell them, "I noticed how kind you were. That is evidence that God is working in your life and helping you. I am so pleased about that. God sure does love you a lot."
In the last portion of the book, there are different sections detailing how common problems can be addressed (e.g., lying, disobedience, laziness, etc.). The author also stresses that different types of parental responses are in order depending on the situation. She describes these as Management, Nurture, Teaching, Correction, or reminding kids of God's Promises. I think this is very wise. Sometimes kids just need to be "Managed" and given a one-liner: "Don't hit your sister," for example. Parents need to be sensitive to what a child needs in a given situation. Not all situations call for the same response.
At the end of the day (or at the end of my life), what is more important: That my kids are perfect or that they know they need a savior?
When my kids act up, it's usually either my pride or my inconvenience that makes me mad about it. But why should I expect anything other than sinful children? After all, every adult out there is still struggling with sin in their life too. I am learning to change my expectations. Yes, I want to see God working in their lives and I want them to make good choices, but I need to give up feeling that I want to control the outcome all the time.
I need to pray more, try to parent the best that I know how, and then leave the rest up to God.
Lastly, one thing about this new parenting approach is that it has brought the gospel to the forefront of my mind repeatedly throughout the day. Instead of being frustrated my children are not perfect, I am reminded of how much God loves us despite our tendency to sin. I have become much more mindful of God's love and mercy in my own life. There are only two verses in the New Testament that pertain to child-rearing, but the bible is flooded with verses of God's redeeming love for his rebellious children. This is how God wants me to live: ever mindful of his grace. He is using my kids to accomplish that in my life.
I read Give them Grace hoping to help my kids, and I think it will, but it ended up mostly changing me.