Few things grieve this father more than watching my own children fight each other. Their conflicts that reflect the struggles that I had with my sisters and that my dad had with his brothers and so on usually do not emerge from a rotten child afflicting a poor, good child: the tale of a dastardly and powerful villain troubling a heroic victim. No, the more likely scenario involves two equally selfish villains, that is, two beloved children who are battling for control of something that neither wants to use rightly and both dangerously and idolatrously love more than each other or God.
In such situations, my natural temptation as a father is to manufacture a quick and easy solution that will silence the two, three or four yelling children so that I can return to what I want to do. However, such swift judgments in this context hurt the children and me because they bypass the gospel and provide a momentary and easily broken truce: a Balkan stall in conflict where each child takes the pause as a time to rearm for the next round. In other words, on most occasions my idol of quiet and convenience tempts me to ignore addressing my children’s idolatry.
Why is ignoring my children’s idolatry such a temptation? It is because trying to get to the heart issue of their conflict is hard work; the answers are not easy, and the time needed to get to a solution is much longer than my impatient heart allows. My parenting laziness leads in the long run to even more problems because when I choose one child as right—Who had it first?—I promote a story of justice stripped of gospel truth. I endorse the pride of the victor and continued division instead of humility and repentance. In quickly declaring a villain and victim, therefore, I often needlessly distance my children from each other and Jesus. Pride and self-pity are not the fruit of the Spirit. In these times, I am not teaching them of our need of Jesus to sustain us in whatever we may lose or gain in this world, even our time.
In most days, therefore, my sinful heart leads me away from disciple-making our way out of conflicts in the home because I have
- idolized my convenience,
- appeased my frustration,
- cheapened the concept of justice and mercy,
- eliminated the possibility of loving your neighbor and God
- broken the natural connection between this sinful conflict and the gospel story.
That is, instead of teaching my children that all men are sinners, I have divided them one from another into conflicting camps with a story of “us and them” rather than the biblical paradigm of “us and Him.”
So, what should I do when my children have such conflicts? This key question is answered best when I connect the conflict du jour to the Great Commission (making disciples who make disciples who love Jesus) and the Great Commandments (loving God and others through the work of Christ).
How do I do such? I myself must start by worshiping (obeying) Jesus and not idols. I cannot effectively ask them to obey if I will not do the same. Thus, I must obey Him and enshrine Christ as the hero of the home and the conflict. As I obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of my children (Great Commission), I must also explain the biblical principles and the gospel story (Great Commission) and call them to obey God and love others (Great Commandments). Ultimately, I intend to create opportunities for each child to give a gift willingly to Jesus by abandoning his idol: repent, trust and obey.
At the younger ages, such guidance is limited, but my goal must eventually be to reach my children’s hearts by teaching them the Scriptures as I discipline them. That is, my justice and mercy must not be silent; it must communicate the perfect goodness of God, the complete depravity of man (especially my own sin) and the power of Christ’s cross to fix my sin, this sin and all sin. In such a short post, I cannot explain or even come close to modeling every situation and every age paradigm. As I said above, it is hard work; it is not easy. However, I must today highlight one basic principle: we must target bringing the Great Commission and the Great Commandments to bear on the hearts of our children. That’s it.
You have no control over a child’s response and no magic button to perfectly parent each child. You and I are not perfect as parents, so we must get over our idolatry of getting it perfect by repenting of our own sins and obeying what we do know from God. Indeed, God can perfectly use our own failures and repentance to teach our kids about the conflicts that also plague their hearts. It is “us and Him,” not “us and them” when I discipline and when they fight. Jesus is the only hero. I share my children’s problems.
Indeed, when I sin before my children, I must willingly and freely repent of my idolatry, just as the child who has taken the toy must return it on his own because of his idolatry. Both the parent and the child can turn the moment of discipline into the worship of God in Christ. However, until his own heart hands the toy over, he has not begun to address the depths of his sin. I must take my child where he is in learning this principle, but I must also recognize that sin starts in the heart, not the hand. I may force a child to hand the toy over, but my eventual goal must be that this child one day will willingly give it over when confronted by his sin because He loves Jesus more than the toy.
When the child who has wronged his sibling freely turns it over, this “villain” then teaches his sibling about Jesus; he is learning to make disciples. That is, when we aim for the heart of the earthly villain, we also aim for the heart of the earthly victim, the other child, who had the toy first. I must also warn him of his idolatry, as he is being tempted to regard himself as the hero. I do so because in Christ he too can make disciples to love God and others.
At the end of the day, God intends this parenting paradigm to be hard work, not a parenting checklist. It is painful and slow because it requires me as the parent to rely on Jesus and His Word. Its success depends on Jesus. If my approach to parenting does not depend upon the presence of God’s Word and Spirit, then it is not gospel parenting. It will bear a fruit, but only Spirit can beget Spirit and yield His fruit.
Over time, these are the questions that test my heart as a parent: Do I really love Jesus and them? Do I really want to see them grow in Christ? If so, it will not only be costly for them but for me, the parent, who loves them. After all, we saw such love on the cross and must give no less as we call people, even our own children, to trust our Savior.