by Beth Nyhart
Christian parents have a lot on their plate. There’s the everyday responsibilities of keeping a child alive, loved, educated, and set up for adulthood. But above all, we carry the weight of responsibility to make sure they know the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. With the world around us coming from every angle to convince them that what we are teaching is unfounded out of date, (and even child abuse—ahem… twitter debate here), that is a tall order!
It’s easy to feel like you have to protect your kids from all the bad stuff, but the truth is that kids will be exposed to sin whether we do a good job of protecting them or not. Even if you try to take them out of the culture completely, they have their very own sin nature. I know it is tempting to lock them in a padded room or move to rural Alaska and live off the land, but ultimately that wouldn’t help. The problem of sin is inside of us.
So what can we do? When I share my story of addiction to pornography, I’m always approached by parents asking “how can we make sure our kids don’t get addicted to (fill in the blank) sin?”
If you’ll forgive me, sometimes the most effective analogy is a poop analogy. (This is a blog for moms after all…)
Teaching our kids to deal with sin is a lot like teaching them to go to the bathroom. It’s a fact of life, and we all do it. I’ve known kids who were scared of pooping. But, as we parents lovingly explain, we don’t want the poop to stay inside of us because it is waste. If we let that waste build up inside, we can get sick. Our bodies require cleansing to function. Sin is like spiritual poop, and part of living in a fallen world. It is not something we want to shove down and ignore. Our spirit needs a way for us to get rid of the ugly, nasty, gunk of sin So, help your kids learn that keeping our conscience clear of gunk is just as necessary as keeping our bodies clear of gunk. But how do we teach them to do this spiritually?
1.When you sin against them
You know that moment. That moment when you lose it and yell at them, or discipline out of anger, or any other time you don’t treat your kids the way Jesus would? The best thing you can do to teach your kids how to deal with the sin in their hearts is show them how you deal with the sin in yours. So lead by example!
Model the disciplines of confession, repentance, and accountability to your kids by practicing them in your relationship. In age appropriate ways, confess your sin, ask for forgiveness to the person you sinned against, and pray for grace to turn from your sin. Give your kids permission to respectfully remind you if you continue in the same behavior. And don’t brush them off when they do! When you do this, you are laying the foundational understanding that everyone sins and there are proper and established ways to deal with it.
I have talked with many people who grew up with the knowledge that they were sinful, but felt isolated and ashamed of their sin and so they hid it. John 3:19-21 speaks to the importance of bringing sin into the light instead of hiding it in the darkness, which is our natural response. When you shine a light on your own sin, you set a precedent in your home for how to confront it.
“Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”
2. As you interact with media
When Curious George disobeys the Man in the Yellow Hat (which he does CONSTANTLY, amiright???) start a conversation about his sin and the consequences, or lack thereof. Point out sin by name when you encounter it in books, tv shows, advertisements, etc. Use descriptive words for sinful behavior: disobedience vs. being bad. Take the time to ask your child what the right choice would have been. And don’t miss out on the chance to point out good choices, obedience, respect, and kindness as well!
When you experience that sinking feeling as your eye catches partial nudity in an advertisement, violence, or something else that you wish your kid didn’t see, but you know it is too late. Rather than letting that moment awkwardly pass by, say something about it.
Use the same question over and over to help them frame their questions correctly. Something like, “How does this align with God’s word?” or “What does the Bible say about that?” And when you aren’t sure, go grab a Bible and look it up! Show your kids how to find answers when they don’t have them, and let them see that sometimes we just don’t know, (or sometimes people disagree on the details).
3. When your kids sin
There’s an important difference between teaching your child to manage their emotions and talking to them about sin. And it is so easy to fall into the trap of lumping those things together! About a year ago, I frequently instructed my young daughter to “change her attitude” when she was whining or throwing a tantrum, but I noticed that she would plaster a smile on her face and say “okay, I’m happy!” thinking that was what I was looking for.
No. Sadness is not sin, anger is not sin, disappointment is not sin. I started changing my wording, and now I will say, “it is okay to be sad, but you need to speak with respect.” or “you are allowed to disagree, and you can always tell me what you’d rather do.” Sometimes I do let her have what she requests, and sometimes she needs to obey even though she doesn’t feel like it. But what I want to emphasize is that her emotions are not sinful, and she is allowed to express them. That can mean that we walk out of stores with tears and sobbing because her sadness is overwhelming, and that’s okay.
A downfall of mine has always been feeling personally attacked when my daughter sins. She disobeyed ME. She disrespected ME. But every time I react to her in that way I end up in a deeper hole of my own anger and pride. When we sin it is against God primarily. That helps me take a breath and deal with my child a little differently.
Lead those precious little ones through the scriptures. Teach them to confess, bringing their sin to light, and not in a shameful way. “Do you understand why you are in trouble?” “Why is that action/behavior wrong?” “Who do you need to apologize to and what do you need to do to make it right?” Emphasize that this is normal everyday stuff and it’s a learning process. And emphasize above all else that you love them and God loves them no matter what.
One of my most heartbreaking parenting moments so far was when my daughter asked in a broken little voice if I still love her when she is bad.
I know God put these words in my mouth, “YES. God showed me how to love you, because He loves me even when I am still a sinner. So YES. I love you because I learned how to love from Him.” She needs that reassurance still, and I give it to her every time. God’s love and my love don’t change because of her behavior.
4. When they encounter sinful behavior in the world
Our children are going to see lots of sin. It’s unavoidable. What you need to do is show them how to respond to it. First, show them how to love people with whom they disagree by talking them through how you love people with whom you disagree. Get specific, look at what their Bible says about the person’s choices, and then talk about how Jesus treated sinners.
My four-year-old has had several conversations with us about homosexuality, because she encounters it with a family member. I want her first and best interaction to be with her father and me. We want to be the ones who empower her to ask questions and find answers, seeking God’s Word for truth instead of trusting in her emotional response to someone she loves.
Teach your kids the importance of seeking out answers to the hard questions for themselves. When they are old enough to read and research, help them develop good study habits and skills whereby they can find answers to their questions. Remind them that each of us needs to seek God through prayer and study of the Bible, so we can be confident that we know what His will is.
Also, consider how you are currently responding when you see sinful behavior in the world. Are you ignoring it? Your child might assume that since you don’t talk about it, they must go elsewhere for information. Are you forcing your opinion down their throat without backing your position up with reasons? That might change their behavior, but not their hearts. Your child might comply for a short time and then rebel because they don’t have a foundation for their beliefs. Many young people deconvert from a traditional, historical, Christianity to a more progressive faith or atheism, because they never had solid reasons for their beliefs. And there are plenty of people more than happy to twist scripture in your kid’s mind to make them doubt what they thought they knew. This is why teaching them apologetics (with resources like Mama Bear Apologetics!) can help children become familiar with some of the arguments they will hear and be able to answer them with confidence.
5. As you share the gospel with them
Read your kids the Bible accounts of Creation, the fall, Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. Don’t refer to them as “stories” beause they aren’t. They are historical accounts. Show how these accounts all weave together to form a cohesive narrative about the problem of sin and God’s plan to save us. Be repetitive in your retelling of these themes, because repetition helps them remember.
I’m very careful not to lead my daughter into a sinner’s prayer, at least not at this point. In my mind, it is more important for her to grasp the concepts of sin, atonement, justification, redemption, and forgiveness. I don’t believe that the specific words are what saves us. Rather it is the act of putting our faith in Christ’s death and resurrection that paves the way for fellowship again between us and God. I know there will come a point when the Spirit convicts her of her sin, and when He does, she will have a foundational understanding of what that means.
We use a lot of analogies and object lessons to break down harder concepts. One of my favorites is when we talk about justification or imputed righteousness, which is the idea that Jesus’ righteousness has been placed on us, and through his sacrifice we have been declared right with God. When we talk about this, I tell her that on our own, we are wearing dirty clothes and we can’t come before God. Not only are our clothes and body dirty, our hearts are dirty with sin. But Jesus came to help us! When we accept his help, Jesus gives us his righteous clothes to wear, so we can come to God. When God looks at us He doesn’t see our sin and dirt, He sees Jesus’ righteous clothes. He treats us as if we were as clean as Jesus.
Most of all, even if these things seem incredibly overwhelming, be praying for your kids. Pray that God’s peace would guard their hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Pray that the eyes of their hearts would be open to truth. Pray that God would give you the right words in the right moments to talk to your kids about sin and salvation. Each of your children is on a personal journey with their Maker, and He cares more about their eternal soul than you ever could.
They are safer entrusted to God’s hand in prayer than clung to our chests in worry.
Beth Nyhart is the author of the recently released book Rend Your Heart and Not Your Garments, where she describes her own journey of struggling through secret sin, and the lessons she learned along the way.