by Linda Rex
I was sitting by the pool one day chatting with a colleague about kids and life when the conversation drifted, as it often does in such cases, into the topic of childrearing. I often feel like I have an unpopular view on this topic since I prefer to approach childrearing through the portal of grace. Because when grace comes into play, things can get really messy, and most people are uncomfortable with the chaos that comes with the mess.
Personally I think we tend to forget that our human condition is, at its base, pretty messy. Humanity, with its laws and governments and programs and institutions, is constantly trying to cope with and fight the chaos that comes with our proclivity to sin, corruption and selfishness. Allowing people the freedom to do whatever they wish whenever they wish however they wish creates anarchy and ultimately, self-destruction. Or does it?
Often parents and adults alike can be more concerned with having order and control than they are with allowing children to be free to be creative and to learn by failing. It’s embarrassing when a child is less than perfect in public, especially when the expectations are high and we want to impress everyone with the glory and goodness of our children and our family. When our child starts screaming in the supermarket and everyone turns to look, the question we can ask at that moment is: Am I embarrassed for myself and worried about everyone’s opinions, or am I concerned about the well-being of my child? For our response at that moment is crucial.
When children are first born, we invest ourselves in them, I hope, by pouring into them love, affection, and attention. We have our own ways of dealing with their need for diaper changes, bedtime stories, and play time. We have a profound influence on their personality, attitudes and approach to life and to freedom, for this is the time we begin to set appropriate boundaries for them. And we begin to give them the freedom they need to learn and to be creative within those boundaries.
If we never give our little children boundaries such as a bedtime or respect for elders, then they can begin to assume that they are free to be the lord of their little universe—a false belief that isn’t healthy. That’s because there is only one Lord of the universe, and he doesn’t share that title with anyone. He is the only Being who is truly free, and even his freedom is freely expressed within the boundaries of his perfect love, a love that is one and the same as his Being. All of us as human beings need to understand that our freedom only exists within the confines of God’s freedom, and our freedom is always and ever meant to be lived out within the confines of God’s love and lordship.
Then there also comes a time when a child outgrows his or her boundaries and begins to chafe at the limits. At this point a parent can begin to tighten their control and suffocate their child by restricting them even more, or they can begin to free their child from restrictions so they can develop greater maturity and self-control. Whether or not a parent can easily do this often depends on their ability to influence their children, which is often determined by the depth and quality of the relationship they’ve built with them over the years. And it depends on the parents’ ability to cope with chaos and mess. And how they handle that has a lot to do with how well they understand and have themselves experienced grace.
Grace is essential to any human development because it provides the freedom to mess up and to be less than perfect. A child falls a lot before he ever comes to understand how to walk. A child has many messy faces and bibs before she learns to get the spoon of food into her mouth without spreading it all over herself and everything else first. This is all a part of our existence as human beings. We all go through the process of growing up and experience the mess that goes with it.
But when a child is free to mess up, that means that they can also be embarrassing to parents, or irritating, or even infuriating. They can create havoc in relationships by telling the wrong story at the wrong time. They can isolate us from neighbors by climbing fences to steal apples off of trees. At what point do we draw the line? And that’s where I have to say—it depends on who is the parent and who is the child. Each person and family is unique. That’s the way God made us. And we each, in relationship with God and with each other, grow up in Christ to the full maturity of Christ in our own way. There is no specific formula, ritual or program that works best in every situation.
Because just as kids grow up by messing up, learning from their messes, and developing maturity over time, the same is true of each of us as adults. Some of us are still trying to learn the basics we were never taught by our parents about the simple boundaries of love and respect. Others of us are learning that the apples on the other side of the fence aren’t really worth the trouble of stealing. And others of us are still tripping over our feet and falling, because we haven’t learned how to walk by faith rather than by sight. It’s all of grace.
I’m personally thankful that God is not a strict, controlling parent who is unforgiving of our faults and failures. He does what he can through our human institutions and governments to try to give us boundaries when we need them (and often we don’t need the boundaries we tend to create). But he gives us great freedom as well. I’m grateful he gives us room to grow, and even allows us to spit in his face on occasion without slapping us down. And most of all, he gives us Jesus, to share our humanity and to, by the Spirit, live his life within us and to transform us into his nature and way of being. He offers us Christ’s perfected humanity in our place. And that’s true grace and love.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for being the perfect parent, and for parenting us with such grace and love. Thank you for nurturing us and mothering us as we grow up in Christ. May we each be as gracious with one another and with our children as you are with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
“Start with God—the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning. Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother’s knee. Wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers.” Proverbs 1:7–9 MSG