I had reached the point of exhaustion that every parent of a disobedient child eventually reaches. I was utterly exasperated from having to explain to my 5-year old son for the hundredth time why it’s not okay to smack, hit, scratch, or spit on other children. But day after day, my wife would discover in his backpack another red-inked note from his teacher revealing the sin of the day. And, day after day, I would recite the same speech to my little boy with the same set of warnings only to be further disillusioned by another teacher’s note.
A New Approach
Around that time, my wife and I started reading a book titled Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick. The truth Fitzpatrick communicates through scripture forever changed the way we parent our children. It’s a ridiculously simple concept and should have been obvious to a dad like me who grew up in the church. Here’s the gist of the book:
Raise your children to know and love the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It’s that simple. Fitzpatrick encourages parents to be strategic with their kids in generating daily encounters with the message and implications of the Gospel. As the frustrated parent of an unruly little boy, I was looking for clever techniques to get my kid to behave better. Yet Fitzpatrick begs her readers to take the long term approach and focus their efforts on teaching children to depend on God’s grace rather than a parent’s approval.
To even the most Bible-based parents, the truth of the Gospel seems about as useful as a plastic hammer. Using a plastic hammer when trying to chisel your child from a statue of sinful rebellion to a model of loving obedience. It wasn’t until my son uttered a few tender words one night that this Gospel-centered approach began to take shape. It took shape in our home.
Redrawing the Battle Lines
One evening, I was berating my boy yet again for another behavior blowup. Unwilling to show the least bit of clemency, I furiously recited a list of consequences. These consequence were ones that he would bear as a result of that day’s transgressions. Then through exasperated and tear-filled eyes, my little boy looked up to me and said, “Dad, I can’t stop. I want to stop but I can’t.”
My heart sunk as the sincere sadness in my boy’s voice reminded me of me. My boy was telling his dad what I had prayed a thousand times before to God. I want to stop sinning, but I can’t.
I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! – Romans 7:18-19,24-25 (ESV)
That evening, my parenting tone forever changed. My loud boisterous threats gave way to a restrained and determined demeanor. I was no longer trying to convince my son to behave better. I was now determined to show him his need for Jesus. While it takes many people a lifetime to understand their need for grace, my boy had discovered his corruption. A discovery made at an early age. For this little 5-year old, Total Depravity was not just some theological topic to ponder, it was a quiet war that he had been waging in his mind.
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From that point on, each time he came home with a teacher’s note I would sit with him. I would sit with him to pray and confess sins. Granted, I still delivered a similar set of consequences which occasionally included a spanking, but it never ended with that. We’d talk about our desperate need for Jesus to change us from the inside out and ask for His supernatural power over temptation. The battle lines in our home were completely redrawn. No longer was it Parent versus Child. It was God versus Sin, and we were co-warriors in this battle.
Eventually, my son’s behavior improved. It’s likely that he would have eventually just matured out of that phase regardless of our parenting style. Hhe would have found more socially-acceptable ways to harbor sin. Yet without those red-inked teacher’s notes declaring my boy to be a rebel, my son might only understand the cross of Christ as an historical fact to be learned and not a soul-sustaining truth to be treasured.