All of us have done things we wish we hadn't done: stealing, drinking, cheating on tests. So, what right do we have to tell our kids not to do these things when we did?
I struggled with this question for years. My children knew I lived with their dad before we got married and was pregnant in high school. Guilt held me in bondage, and I felt I didn't have the right to tell my kids how to live their lives.
Finally, four kids and two divorces later, I realized I did have the right and the responsibility to tell my kids, "Don't do it!" I wanted them to enjoy life the way God intended. I couldn't make it happen, but I could help it happen by preparing them to understand the long-term consequences of their choices. I discovered several things that helped me prepare my children for the world outside the home:
Leave your guilt behind.
For a long time, I feared that if I brought up the subject of premarital sex to my kids, they'd reject my words and say, "Well, you did it. Who are you to tell us not to?"
It took years for me to accept God's forgiveness for my sexual sins. But the Bible tells me in Psalm 103:12: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." Why should I let my children convince me otherwise?
Once I got over my fear of hearing those words, I felt free to train up my children in the way they should go (Proverbs 22:6). I know God has a specific plan for our sexuality, and I want my kids to know it, too.
Be vulnerable and honest.
Though my sins are forgiven, I'm honest with my children about areas where I went wrong. I use times when I'm faced with the consequences of my bad choices to teach them the dangers of compromise, and show them how my big decisions to sin began with little choices to sin. This allows them to see the importance of daily making right choices according to God's principles.
Start when your kids are young.
At age five, my daughter, Audrey, asked me, "People have sex on a date, right?" Instead of demanding to know where she heard that, I explained God had special plans for her life, and part of those plans involved saving sex for marriage. She really didn't know what sex was, but from that point on, we have prayed for her own purity as well as that of the young man she'll someday marry.
Let your children suffer the consequences of their actions.
Remember the era when a father made his son tell the store manager he had stolen a candy bar? I was put to a similar test when my oldest son, Jason, decided to take part in a crime. When I found out he had information about a theft at his school, I called the police. I didn't know at that point he had received and spent some of the stolen money. Jason was arrested, fingerprinted, photographed, handcuffed, and held for investigation until after midnight.
I hope I'm teaching my kids to take responsibility for their own actions, and that consequences follow all their decisions—sooner or later. I'm not sure I would have had the courage to call the police if I'd known Jason would be arrested, but I don't regret the lessons he learned from the experience.
When young children understand respect for authority and the importance of following rules, it helps them mature spiritually as well. God is our authority, and he has established guidelines for us to follow for our own protection. Submission to authority provides that needed protection.
Give affection regularly.
My parents were divorced when I was twelve. I didn't see my dad much after that, so I didn't receive the proper affection from a male role model. I never learned healthy love meant setting appropriate boundaries, and I became sexually involved with the first young man who gave me the attention I craved.
I make sure I give lots of physical and verbal affirmation to my children. We all need to be loved and nurtured. When kids get encouragement and affirmation at home, they're less likely to search for them somewhere else. I intend for my children to always get lots of hugs and pats on the back before they walk out our door.
Use biblical examples when appropriate.
Nobody likes being hit over the head with the Bible—especially teenagers. I've found my kids understand sayings such as "Do unto others … " or "Haste makes waste." Later, I show them how that saying relates to or has its origins in a Bible verse.
My ten-year-old son, Robert, was scared of the dark and unable to sleep. We prayed and asked God to protect him. After prayer, I shared the verse, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). It took some time, but the Scripture sunk in, and Robert once again sleeps through the night.
Model strength and integrity.
Don't cheat on taxes, don't look for loopholes, and don't keep the extra change the cashier accidentally gives you. Remember, your kids are watching. "Do as I say, not as I do," doesn't work in childrearing.
Get your kids involved with helping others.
I recently heard that a survey on happiness reported the one thing happy people have in common: They each help someone else.
There's great reward in selflessly helping another. My kids have shoveled snow for elderly neighbors free of charge, visited senior centers, and helped me clean homes for new moms and sick folks. It's actually easier to get your kids to help others than it is to get them to clean their own rooms! After volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center and at the hospital, my kids were able to see others hurting because of poor choices. It helps them re-evaluate their own activities.
Use yourself as an example.
Consequences don't just affect the offender. My children suffered because I was sexually active before marriage. I got pregnant, and although I married, the union ended in divorce. Now my children suffer from the absence of their father. My two younger children are also without their big brother, who decided to live with his father in another state. Without emotional or financial support from their dad, they must do without many things.
My children see how the consequences of my own actions continue to affect many others, including themselves. I trust this will help them realize they should make wise choices—including sexual purity until marriage—so they can break this senseless cycle in our family.
Following these guidelines doesn't guarantee my children will choose the wiser path. But it does give them tools to evaluate their behaviors. When they were young, it was my responsibility to help them make appropriate decisions. As they mature, it becomes their responsibility to choose right from wrong. Hopefully, I'm planting the seeds of character—no matter what lies in my personal past—while trusting God will cause them to grow.
-Kelly J. Martindale lives with her family in Colorado. This article originally appeared in Single-Parent Family (February 1996).