Where are my keys?" my teenaged son yelled as he stormed through the house. "They've got to be somewhere!" As he flung newspapers across the living room, he fumed with increasing drama: "They don't just walk away! Has anybody seen my keys?!"
Of course, I tried to help: "I'm sure they're somewhere. Just calm down. Throwing a fit isn't going to make them show up any faster." But inwardly, I cringed as I watched his performance—he was acting just like me!
My daughter has tried to capitalize on this concept of "acting just like Mom." Fully aware of her mother's tarnished driving record, my daughter once asked an officer giving her a speeding ticket, "Instead of pleading guilty, could I just claim 'heredity' as my defense?"
In all seriousness, these situations always put me in a quandary. As I see a behavior in my kids that needs to be corrected—like tantrums or speeding—feelings of hypocrisy surface. I wonder how to handle the situation—knowing full well I've modeled the behavior.
I know I'm to "train up a child in the way he should go" and "not withhold discipline from a child" (Proverbs 22:6; 23:13). But I feel guilty when I remember that in Ephesians 6:4 we're told not to "exasperate (our) children …" Do I exasperate my children with the double standard of "it's okay for me, but not for you"?
How do we as parents respond when our children imitate sinful behaviors they've seen in us? After 20 humbling years of parenting, I've discovered some insights that help me sort through my struggles in this area. Here are five strategies I use when I see my children living out my mess-ups:
1. I admit my own fault. James 5:16 says, "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed …" Confess to my children? Well, maybe not all my sins, but certainly ones that we both deal with are appropriate. I find myself saying things like, "It's obvious you have seen me slam doors, but that doesn't make it right," or to my teenage driver, "I know I have a lead foot, but we both need to obey the speed limit." In doing this, my kids see that when it comes to sin, we're on level ground before God. As I admit my own faults, I assure them that I regret my actions. Then I remind my kids that they need to ask God's forgiveness, just as I do. It's my desire that talking about the confession and forgiveness process in my own life will set the proper example for my kids.
2. I hold Jesus up as their example. If your children are like mine, they're perceptive and very honest. I remember being rather critical of a sales clerk while shopping with my son. My grumbling comments must have made a (bad!) impression on my 11-year-old. Several days later at the mall, my son began making judgmental comments about other shoppers. As I attempted to rein in his negativity, he was quick to remind me that I, too, had been guilty of criticizing others. He was right, and it prompted a great lesson about how Jesus loves and extends grace toward all people. I reminded my son that although I try to imitate Christ's loving behavior, he should be looking to Jesus Christ as his example—not me. That doesn't give me an "out" or an excuse to continue behaving badly, but points them toward the true standard to live by. It also humbly reminds me of whom I should be imitating.
3. I pray. There is so much to pray about in parenting. When my perceptive little munchkins remind me of my shortcomings, I'm reminded to pray for a change in my behavior. I've felt some growing pains as God works on my sinful words and actions, but I emerge a better mom afterward. Often I ask God to reveal things I'm not even aware of that affect my parenting. And, of course, I pray that each day my children will grow closer to God.
4. I depend on the Holy Spirit. One of my biggest challenges is letting the Holy Spirit work in my kids' lives. Even though I still need to guide and discipline, the Spirit should be active and alive in their hearts. And because every one of my five children is different, that activity varies from child to child. I've prayed that the Spirit will give one child confidence of who he is in Christ—something I struggle with in my life. I've prayed that another child will treat others with love and compassion, despite our failures to be patient and loving at home.
As much as my children see me "fall short of the glory of God," and as much as I'd like to lecture my kids about how they shouldn't imitate my wrong behavior, I know that a gentle, firm tug from God's Spirit can do much more than a "nagging" parent. This becomes even more vital as my children grow into young adulthood. Though I am still Mom, my role changes as they gain more freedom to make their own choices about relationships, jobs, leisure activities, education, and so on. I certainly want them to be spared some of the wrong decisions I made in my younger years; however, I realize the most beneficial work in these growing children is the work of God's Spirit.
5. I live in the freedom Jesus Christ gives. Since harsh words and impatient attitudes are frequent offenses in our family, it would be easy for me to live in guilt over the bad example I've set. But several years ago, Romans 8:1 became a key verse in my life: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." As I recall this verse, I remind myself that, as a Christian, I do not stand condemned. I stand in grace and forgiveness by what Jesus Christ did on the cross. That brings freedom in two areas: it frees me from the guilt of my own sinful actions, and, it frees me to confront my children confidently when they are unloving and impatient with each other. When we view our family as sinners saved by grace and believers who live under grace, we feel freedom in knowing we can confess our sin and receive forgiveness from each other and from God.
These lessons have been a tremendous help in my personal life. First, as I see myself mirrored through my children, I'm reminded of areas where I need to grow and change. It's prompted me to be more diligent in praying for transformations in my life.
Then, as I teach that Jesus Christ is our ultimate example and that God the Father has decreed moral standards, I'm relieved of being the rule maker. My parental confidence comes from a higher authority, and based on Jesus' example, I can set standards for our family to live by.
Finally, placing my children in God's hands lightens the burden of responsibility. What a relief to know that God loves my children more than I do, and that he's willing to work in their lives as I intercede for them. It's taken a while, but as my children grow older, I realize that prayer and conviction of the Holy Spirit accomplishes much more than another lecture from Mom or Dad.
Karen Morerod is a freelance writer, pastor's wife, mother of five, and grandma of four beautiful girls.
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