What Christianity Teaches Me About Parenting and What Parenting Teaches Me About Me

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8, ESV)

“Don’t touch the trellis – I don’t want any more pieces of wood pulled down off it.” I was speaking primarily to Thing 1, who I had just found wandering round the garden with a suspicious looking plank of wood. Then I heard a little voice down beside me. “I touch it.” Thing 2, my sweet, loving but very mischievous 18 month old, was having a go at boundary pushing.

Discipline, especially of young children, is one of the things I find most challenging about being a parent. Most of the time, I feel like I am completely failing at it in one way or another.  The other evening, in despair at yet another day of feeling like a failure when it came to discipline and feeling in need of more tools for my box, I spent a little while searching the internet for ideas. One thing that really struck me from that internet search were the number of proponents of positive parenting. My understanding of positive parenting is that it suggests parents focus on the positive not the negative things children do. Punishments for negative behaviour seemed to be labelled as completely wrong and I came across frequent suggestions that rather than giving a child a time out, the parent should take a time out until they felt calmer. There are good things to take away from that approach to parenting – it is good to praise our children when they get things right and when they are obedient or kind or loving or considerate. It is also good to discipline in a calm, loving way and not when caught up in emotion – I’ve found myself shouting more often than I’d like recently. But, I struggle to reconcile the suggestion of focusing only on the positive and not on the negative with both my experience of parenting and what I have learnt and know as a Christian.

Sometimes our children disobey us just because they want to or to push boundaries, and not because we have no connection with them or need to fill their love tanks. And sometimes we need to address their negative behaviour and let them know that it is not okay, not brush it aside or excuse it. In life negative actions have negative consequences. A child’s disobedience causes a break in the relationship with the parent that needs to be addressed. As a Christian, that makes sense to me because I believe we are all sinners, which means I believe that we all do wrong and we all rebel against God – as the verse that I quoted at the start of this says, “…while we were still sinners…”. Being a Christian teaches me that the behaviour I struggle with in my children is unsurprising. It also teaches me that I am a sinner too, and, as I struggle to parent wisely, to shout less and to love and serve my family more sacrificially, my failures and my own sinfulness become more apparent.

The Bible teaches that our inability to conquer our sin by ourselves puts us in need of help from outside ourselves, which God provided by sending Jesus to earth, to live and then ultimately to die and rise again, and in dying to take on Himself the punishment that should have come to sinners like me. God extends grace to me and, as the verse above reminds me, shows His love for me, and for us, through the death of Jesus Christ. That challenges me to extend grace to my children – to understand that they sometimes struggle to do right and to obey me, to not be harsh with them, and to demonstrate love and patience to and with them. Parenting highlights my need for God’s grace in my day to day life as I rely on Him to help me to be a better parent, to trust Him to cover my mistakes, and to help me when I have to do humbling things like own and take responsibility for my mistakes in front of my children.

In our house, we’ve decided to teach our children to say sorry for their mistakes. Their disobedience causes a break in their relationship with the one they have wronged, whether a parent or a sibling. By teaching them to say sorry, we are giving them the chance to take responsibility for their wrongdoing, to express repentance and to seek to restore the relationship with the one who is wronged. We try to ensure that their apologies to us are followed by a demonstration of the restoral of the relationship and then try not to mention the misdemeanour again. We are trying to teach them to forgive each other when one apologises to the other as well. This process is meant to mirror that we go through with God when we come to Him through Jesus – we apologise to Him and can know His forgiveness because our sin has been punished and His love for us demonstrated through Christ dying for us.

We often make mistakes in our parenting. The process of repentance and restoration I’ve described above is our goal but not always our reality. Parenting puts my status as a sinner in need of grace in sharp focus. How good I find it to know that God so loved me that He sent Jesus to die for me, and that He gives grace to me when I come to Him, not having attained perfection but in desperate need of it.