Thursday, November 3, 2011

Grace based parenting

The title of this post is the title of a book I am reading written by Dr. Tim Kimmel. I've been hearing about it for a while and wanting to read it, so I added it to my Amazon shopping cart while picking up a couple more parenting books (with a one-year old, I decided it was high time to start reading a bit on the topic so I don't end up "accidentally" raising my kiddo completely on trial and error!). It's not quite what I was expecting, but I'm trying to read it with an open mind and it certainly has given me much to think about.

The premise of the book is that God parents us with grace and thus we should parent our kids the same way. God takes us as we are, with all our little quirks and oddities, and loves us with a kindness and patience that forbears our immaturities and sympathizes with our silly concerns. He holds us to a high standard, yet loves us when we falter and fail.

All this sounds great, right? Sounds like what we should do with our kids, and, what most of us would probably say that we do, or at least try to do, with our kids. However, Kimmel gets into some practicalities that he considers shortcomings of many well-intentioned Christian parents who inadvertently fall into what he calls legalism.

For me, this is fascinating. I think it is because I have know many families who fit his definition of legalistic. In fact, my own family most certainly would have fallen into this classification. As I understand it, Kimmel is describing legalism as an attitude that essentially gives children one of two ideas. One is that they are somehow better than everyone else because they do this, that, and the other thing. These kinds of parents give their kids the impression that the rest of the world has it all wrong and they have it right. The other idea is that the kids can not really measure up because they are loved based on the degree of success with which they do those things. Those "things" that I am talking about are almost all outward. Clothes, hairstyles, music styles, etc... Most of these parents would probably not, I am guessing, come right out and say "I will only love you if you look a certain way", but they give this impression to their children. Kimmel says that these parents are missing something big: grace must come with truth.

Kimmel gives an example of a guy named Tom who was "flipping out", as he says, at a church youth event because he thought the music was 'wordly' and some of the kids were being 'rebellious' because they had their baseball caps on backwards. Kimmel says "You can't have grace when you have rules but little relationship. In fact, that is the ideal formula for raising rebellious kids. You cannot assume that you are even in the area code of grace if your way of raising kids is confined to making sure they adhere to a clear set of guidelines. Guys like Tom are blind to this because they have such a strong passion for godly obedience." (p. 35) ( Let me put this in context by saying that Kimmel in no way is advocating loose moral standards or a lack of godly obedience. He is instead trying to point out that standards alone are not going to work and that we must make sure that what we are obeying is really a true and moral absolute and not just an opinion or personal taste. Just as truth is accompanied by grace (John 1:14), standards must be accompanied by compassionate and loving relationship).

Kimmel says that many children raised in this kind of household become adults who either go to the opposite extreme and try to avoid all rules and standards, or who feel like they always are falling short and having to earn both God's and their parents' love and approval, or who stay in a narrow and sheltered little bubble of their own that does not know how to understand or interact with the very 'world' they are supposed to be winning for Christ.

My own observations have confirmed this. I have found that many people I've known who were raised with very strict standards of behavior and appearance either stayed in this lifestyle (but in an ineffective bubble) or rebelled against it. Many have fallen away from their faith altogether. How does this happen so often? How can a child raised in such a "good Christian way" fall from their faith? I think that perhaps Kimmel is on to something when he points out that they do not know what grace is. They know what rules are, but not what grace is. Children (and teens) are immature and childish. There is nothing wrong with this any more than there is anything wrong with a baby not being able to feed or clean or even move himself. It is just where they are as kids. They have to learn and attain higher levels of maturity. Meanwhile, Kimmel says, they need to know that there are absolutes and high standards, but they also need to know that they are loved and accepted unconditionally. They need to know that if they get a sudden (and, yes, immature) hankering to wear the latest ridiculous-looking fashion (assuming it is not morally wrong) or cut their hair into a mohawk because they think it's funny, they are not going to disowned because they are silly or making their parents look bad. They can find out later, when they're more mature, that they looked absurd. For now, if it is not morally wrong, even if it is immature, ease up a little bit on them! What more do you expect out of kids?

What if it is rebellion, though? This is the part I have the hardest part with, but I think I have a couple of thoughts on it. Real rebellion is easily addressed. Kimmel is saying that a child needs to be loved and accepted unconditionally for who he is. He says a parent is responsible for being that 'secure love' and for giving their child a 'significant purpose' and a 'strong hope' (three basic needs he says children have). This is done in the context of a loving relationship in which a parent knows his child inside out. (Incidentally, he uses this wording several times...concern yourself with the inside of your child, not so much the outside). The parent knows and accepts not only his child's strengths, weaknesses, interests, and eccentricities, but he also knows his struggles, his doubts, and his fears. This kind of close and loving relationship flourishes in an environment of grace. Silly fears, minor struggles, or foolish doubts are met with grace and understanding. When these things become more major, they are also met with grace. The children know they are loved and accepted. When the parents have this kind of relationship with their kids, they will know whether their child is just being silly and childish and human when he wants to follow a fad or whether he is really struggling with rebellion and deeper core issues in his faith and relationship with God.

The second issue of rebellion has been a little harder for me to think through. I don't think it's because it is complicated. I think it is just because I grew up with this viewpoint. If a parent lays down certain rules and the child has a hard time following them, is not that rebellion? I think this is exactly what Kimmel is trying to address with the whole approach of grace based parenting. The kinds of parents who are so stuck on rules that they sabotage their relationship with their kids are not modeling grace! Instead they are modeling a standard of rules (again we are not talking about moral absolutes here) that will sacrifice the child for the rules. The whole premise is legalistic. No matter what the parent may say to the contrary, the kids will absolutely sense if their parent cares more about those rules than they do about them as people. Is a hard and fast rule about backwards baseball caps or even tattoos really worth the relationship with your kids? Do you really know what makes those kids tick? Why do they want to do those things? Is it because they really have a heart attitude that is in rebellion? If so, could, just possibly, that be partly because you as their parent have not modeled for them a love and grace that accepts them unconditionally? If not, and their hearts are growing and maturing, then what's the big deal?

If you come from a legalistic background, you may have the same struggles accepting Kimmel's ideas as I have. What's wrong with strict guidelines anyway? I never really minded them. However, I have seen the fruits of this kind of lifestyle and I'm afraid it has not been overly impressive. I have seen people who can not seem to get out into the world because they are too 'sheltered' and/or who think judgmentally of people based on their appearance without knowing anything about them as people (something I struggle with). I have also seen real rebellion as children fall away from the hypocrisy they see. All those rules to made them look and act like good Christian kids, but no one ever understood them and their humanness. No one accepted them and helped them work through all their immaturities and doubts and fears. Who needs a religion like that? They go on looking for that love and grace (and, yes, truth), that they sadly did not find in the God their parents told them about.

In conclusion, I am still processing the thoughts in this book. It goes against the grain of much of my thinking, but I absolutely can see how hypocrisy and judgmental legalism have gone nowhere in helping children become adults who are strong in a real and genuine faith that has stood up to trial, who love the broken and hurting as Jesus does, and who hold high, but not hypocritical standards of holiness. In fact, much of my thinking perhaps is not grace based. Instead it judges people without knowing them. It does not always meet them where they are. Yet, God has met me where I am! He has met so many where they are and loved and accepted them, mohaws, blue hair, baggy pants, nose rings, and all. He not only meets us where we are once, but he deals with our silly stumblings and immaturities with patience. Thankfully, He does not reject us when we mess up or even hold wrong beliefs! He guides us and holds onto us, and, in time, we become a 'work of grace' that brings Him glory!

Comments on this topic are more than welcome!

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