A while back I was with a group of lower elementary age kids, when of all things a debate erupted over movie standards. It all began when one child spoke enthusiastically about a movie their family had recently watched only to be interrupted by another child who stated in no uncertain terms that the movie was bad. The first child pushed back, and suddenly, I felt like I was back in my college dorm having a good old movie debate.
More recently, I found myself in a similar situation. This time I was with my boys when another child stated in the most absolute terms that something we enjoy doing with our kids is bad. The statement blew past my boys, so there was no debate, but it caught my attention. I couldn’t believe these sorts of debates were already touching my 2 and 5-year-old boys. But more importantly I was grieved by how easily a child could miss the distinction between a clear Bible principle and a family conviction.
I can imagine how easily this can happen. Parents hold a conviction they firmly believe is the right application of Scripture, and they rightly want to pass it to their children. But in their zeal, they oversell their case by failing to distinguish what God actually said and how our family is trying to apply it. As a result, they unknowingly lead their children to believe, for example, that God says a particular movie is evil, when in fact God never actually said that.
For a time, simply saying, “X is bad” works. But once kids start interacting with each other and thinking for themselves, problems quickly follow. First, they are not prepared to interact constructively with peers who take different positions, and they are likely to make harsh judgments against them. Second, how will your kids respond when they realize that what mom and dad always presented as an absolute standard isn’t so absolute? This realization may significantly undercut your credibility as a moral voice not just on that issue but on a whole host of issues. Third, you haven’t equipped them to work through the process of developing biblical convictions, so they aren’t prepared to answer the questions their peers raise, and they may wrongly assume there is no case for your conviction. That’s how strict parents end up raising wild rebels who look nothing like them.
Your child may also buckle down and loyally hold the line with you, but that doesn’t mean you have succeeded. If he doesn’t grasp the distinction between Bible truth and personal convictions, you haven’t prepared him to pursue genuine holiness. He doesn’t know how to answer new moral dilemmas with discernment, and he doesn’t know how to respond to legitimate differing convictions with grace and love. This is a problem because the NT mandates both abilities (Eph 5:10; Rom 15:1–2).
Therefore, I want to urge Christian parents to be intentional in how you communicate convictions in your home with the desire to accomplish two important goals. First, you want to raise children who know how to apply Scripture to every question of life. Second, you want to raise children who are ready to edify (not just win an argument), when they face disagreement. And I’d like to offer 4 practical guidelines to help you down this path.
1. Ground everything in Scripture.
By the grace of God our goal is to pass our kids from standing under our authority to standing under the authority of God’s Word. When they leave our home, we want them to trust God’s Word, submit to God’s Word, and know how to use God’s Word. If that’s the goal, it’s never too early to start grounding your moral instruction in the explicit statements of Scripture. The more often you are saying, “The Bible says…” the better.
2. Avoid sweeping moral judgments where there is room for disagreement.
When kids are little, it’s easy to say, “This movie is bad,” or “This style of dress is evil.” Your kids trust you, and you eliminate the frustration of debate. But in many cases you aren’t being entirely truthful, because you are leading them to believe that God has said something he hasn’t actually said (at least not as explicitly as you have claimed). To be clear, I am not saying that there aren’t bad movies, styles of dress, etc., or that we shouldn’t make value judgments on such things. Rather, exercise great care in making sure that your value statements are rooted in Scripture and that you articulate them carefully.
You might respond, “Yeah, but small children can’t think abstractly, so they need black and white standards.” That’s true, so I am not advocating for large cloudy swaths in the moral standards of your home. However, with some basic adjustments to how you communicate personal convictions, you can maintain an orderly home, grow strong convictions in your children, and lead them down a path of biblical discernment.
For my son’s birthday, we bought him a children’s storybook called, That Little Voice in Your Head: Learning about Your Conscience by Andrew Naselli. I really like how the mother in the story explains to her daughter the difference between “Bible rules and family rules.” For example, suppose you have a conviction that we should attend all of our church’s weekly services. Rather than saying, “Skipping church is bad,” (even if you believe that) say, “Our family rule is that we will attend all of the weekly services because the Bible says the church should play a central role in our lives.” Yes, this kind of language may create more headaches for a time, but you are demonstrating to your kids the biblical foundation for why you do what you do, and you are also preparing them for how to respond when they see that their friend’s family only attends one service a week. If your child pushes back, stand your ground, but resist the urge to overstate your case. And you can always fall back on, “This is our family rule, and you must obey with a happy heart because the Bible says, ‘Children obey your parents.’” This answer may not satisfy your yearning to see your child embrace your conviction right now, but you’re better positioned to lead them to that point than if you cram it down their throats by overselling your case.
3. Intentionally teach your kids how to handle differing convictions with grace and humility.
It’s going to happen. At some point, your child will get frustrated that you are holding him to a higher standard than someone else’s parents. That’s tough. You don’t want to be the bad guy, and you want your child to embrace your conviction. One answer would be to withdraw from anyone less conservative, but your child needs to learn how to handle differences if he will ever function well in the church. Sadly, a more common solution is to go on the offensive and slander the other family. Your child complains, “Jane gets to wear this, why can’t I?” You retort, “I’m not her parent.” The implication is that Jane’s parents are failing her, and if they were doing their job, Jane wouldn’t be wearing this either. You may feel better about yourself for putting Jane’s parents in their place, but you haven’t prepared your daughter to relate well to Jane. She’s either going to gripe about you to Jane or smugly look down on Jane for her ungodly dress.
You also need to prepare for the day when another child condemns something your family views as acceptable. Joey proudly marches off to school wearing his superhero shirt, and Billy crushes his world by pointing out the Satanic connections to this superhero. Joey comes home in tears, and you respond by calling out the hypocrisy of Billy’s parents and the absurdity of their position. You and Joey may feel better afterwards, but you’ve missed an opportunity to teach Joey how to handle differences, and you’ve encouraged a judgmental attitude that dishonors the Lord.
In all of these situations stay calm and be thoughtful. Give biblical answers to your children’s questions and assume the best about those who differ. Teach your kids how to love those who take differing but valid positions, how to not be offended by these differences, and how to talk about these differences.
4. Teach your children how to practice discernment.
The insecure, self-righteous parent is determined to have his kids grow up to look just like him. He spends 18 or 20 years arguing for particular standards, and he will likely graduate a child who is externally focused and unequipped to answer the new questions that are certain to arise. The better path is to see your job as being to teach your kids how to think and how to apply what the Bible says. Every time you have the kinds of conversations I’ve described you are taking another step in that process. You are driving them to see God’s Word as an absolute and wise authority. You are teaching them what God says. And you are showing them how a Christian who loves the Lord and wants to honor him struggles to apply the Word to the questions of life. You are setting an example of true Christianity, and this is worth infinitely more than the cost of slowing down, thinking, and talking wisely to your children.
If you have other practical tips to help our kids in this process, please share them below. Parents, let’s be thoughtful, not reactionary in how we speak to our kids, and more than we are worried about looking good or seeing our kids look a certain way, let’s be focused on building godly hearts and discerning minds. And let’s trust the Holy Spirit to perform the sanctifying work he promised to accomplish.