*Note: This article is based on the doctrines of original sin and total depravity. To learn more about these doctrines, click here.
A few years ago, while my husband was in seminary, I took a biblical parenting class. I was pregnant at the time and blissfully ignorant of all the challenges to come. But under the tutelage of one remarkable woman, Dana Stinson, I crammed life lessons into my heart like money under a mattress—tucked away for a rainy day. In the years to come, I have pulled the lessons out repeatedly. One, in particular, is worn with use. Ironically, it is the very first lesson she taught us.
On the first day of class Mrs. Stinson warned us that there is a great temptation in parenting to excuse away a child’s sin. Often this is done through labeling a child (she’s just shy, he’s just active). It can also be done euphemistically by calling defiant behavior “stubborn” or manipulative behavior “emotional.” And who hasn’t used circumstances to excuse a kid’s sin now and then? (She’s exhausted; he’s hungry; it’s way past nap time.) All of it may be true—maybe she is shy, emotional, hungry, and tired. But she is also sinful. And ultimately, she is refusing to share her toys not only because she is tired, but because her sinful heart loves self more than others.
Mrs. Stinson taught us that sugar-coating a child’s sin is no favor to the child. If you really want to help little Johnny overcome sin and mature in godliness, you have to be willing to call a spade a spade. So for our first assignment, we had to observe a child (if possible, our own) and identify the chief sins this child was drawn to. Then, we had to create a plan of action to help the child overcome his or her greatest sin struggle. The assignment was so helpful that I thought I’d share it, in hopes that it might benefit your household as it has ours. Here’s what to do.
Step 1: Identify your child’s chief sins.
Everyone is prone to some sins more than others. For instance, one person may struggle with aggression while another battles passivity. Children are no different. Each has a unique make-up and will be particularly drawn to various sins in various seasons. To pin-point your child’s chief struggles, start by pin-pointing the chief behaviors you see. The easiest way to explain this process is to give you a case study. Suppose you notice that your toddler’s primary negative behavior is tantrum-throwing. The question is what sin is behind tantrum-throwing? Or to re-phrase it, why is tantrum-throwing sinful? First, it defies authority. (Think about it—a tantrum is a reaction to the mandate of an authority figure: it’s time to go, you have to eat your broccoli, you may not wear your batman mask to school…). Secondly, a child throwing a tantrum is seeking to control not only the situation, but the authority figure making the unpleasant mandate. Ironically, while seeking to control everyone else, the child is evidencing a lack of self-control over his own emotions. Overall, we can characterize one chief sin—pride. A child throwing tantrums is saying (or screaming), “I want everyone and everything to revolve around me right now. I want to be the authority, I want to be in control, and I want to do whatever pleases me.” This is a serious sin! Which means it’s also a serious opportunity for gospel truth and training.
(A word of caution here: Sometimes you will notice a negative behavior and be unsure whether it’s sin-related or development-related. For example, unlike her classmates Suzie may never sit still. It’s possible she’s capable of sitting still but choosing to disobey her teacher, or it’s possible she’s struggling with this developmental milestone. In my opinion, if you’re unsure, you should err on the side of grace and treat it as a developmental issue. You can still create a plan of action to help her learn this important skill, but your plan will rely more heavily on practicing and coaching, not disciplining.)
Step 2: Create a plan of action.
Typically a plan that I create includes prayer, dialogue, practice, modeling, and discipline. Using our case study regarding temper tantrums, here’s an example:
- PRAY—We will pray for and with our child, asking Jesus to help her value other people, obey willingly, and develop self-control. Specifically, we will pray Philippians 2:4 and Proverbs 29:11 over her:
- “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
- “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control.”
- DIALOGUE—In calm moments (while working on a craft or going for a walk) we will dialogue about the following issues related to tantrums:
- Why Mommy and Daddy sometimes say “no”
- How to respond when Mommy or Daddy says “no”
- Everybody’s desire to throw tantrums (including parents)
- Why throwing tantrums is sinful
- Jesus as the only hope for helping us not throw tantrums
- The consequences of throwing a tantrum in our household
- PRACTICE—We will role-play right behavior, giving our child the opportunity to experience success. Example: I will say, “Let’s practice doing the right thing. Here, pretend you’re playing with Mommy’s cell phone. I’m going to say, ‘No don’t play with this. Please give it to me.’ Then you say, ‘Yes ma’am’ and give it to me, okay?” (I discovered that my kids absolutely LOVE this game. They smile widely, hand it over, and proudly say, “Yes ma’am!” Then we dance around and applaud their great behavior. We practice with a variety of situations—they may pretend they’re playing and I tell them it’s time to go…etc.)
- MODEL—We will relate to our child in his struggle against sin by modeling repentance and speaking in biblical categories. Every outburst will be called a “temper tantrum,” including Mommy and Daddy’s outbursts. (I cannot count the number of times I’ve yelled in frustration, then later apologized to one of my kids and admitted that Mommy had a temper tantrum, that Mommy is a sinner, and that Mommy needs Jesus. Apparently, it’s easier than I thought to model repentance because I so frequently blow it. No need for role-play with this one—the real thing is happening all the time!)
- DISCIPLINE—Every time we see a tantrum beginning we will respond the same way:
- Bend down on her level, look her in the eye, and tell her to close her mouth. “You can do it, close your mouth! You don’t have to have a temper tantrum—you can obey Mommy! Close your mouth!” If she successfully controls her emotions and obeys then we CELEBRATE! (“Yay!! What a wise choice! Let’s thank Jesus for helping you!”)
- If she continues to cry, immediately enforce disciplinary action we discussed with her in “dialogue” phase.
- Talk it out. “Why did Mommy discipline you?” (Because I threw a temper tantrum). “Is it sinful to disobey Mommy and have a tantrum?” (Yes) “What would you like to say to Mommy?” (I’m sorry.) “I forgive you and I love you.” (*hugs and kisses) “Let’s ask Jesus to help you not have temper tantrums.”
Now that you’ve seen a sample plan, I have one final thought. If I could, I’d flash it across the screen in neon lights, (but since I don’t know how to re-write HTML code, I’ll settle for capital letters): ONLY JESUS CAN CHANGE OUR CHILDREN. Developing a plan is not about taking the salvation or sanctification of your child into your own hands. It’s about trusting God to save and sanctify your child, while being intentional in your shepherding. The Bible tells us to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). This is just one way to do that. It is a method of training, but Jesus is the hope of change. There are two opposite temptations constantly alive within me—one is to ignore my children’s sin and hope it goes away. The other is to play God and attempt to micro-manage their souls. Neither is the answer! And neither is a fun way to live—constantly in denial or constantly under pressure. The answer always was, always is, and always will be CHRIST IN YOU, THE HOPE OF GLORY! (Col. 1:27) Hallelujah! That is great news for this mom.