3 Ways to Raise a Pharisee

kid-stressIf anyone could do a fantastic job raising a Pharisee, it’s me.  I have always identified more with the elder brother than the prodigal son, a dangerous association indeed.  Recently a mom contacted me to ask for advice about helping her two-year-old daughter recognize her need for Jesus.  I was so touched by this mom’s passionate desire to point her young daughter to Christ as the only hope for righteousness.  It is the exact opposite of Pharisaism, which looks to oneself for righteousness.  The question got me thinking about the three biggest mistakes I’ve made as a parent that point my children toward works-based performance:

1. Get more excited about what they do, then who they’re becoming.
“Mommy look, I drew a stick.”  “OH MY GOODNESS, IT’S FABULOUS!!!!!”  That’s me.  A year ago a statement in C.J. Mahaney’s book Humility changed my perspective.  He wrote that he reserves his highest praise for examples of true greatness–sacrifice, humility, love, service–the things Jesus has deemed great.  I realized I do cartwheels over my kids’ artwork and say, “that’s kind” when they share their toys.  I still show delight in their artwork and dance moves and all the other skills they love to show me, but I try to reserve greater excitement for evidence of Christ at work in their lives.  Because at the end of the day it’s not about what they can do.  It’s about what Christ has done, and continues to do, for them.

2. Give them credit for acts of righteousness.
Around the time my firstborn turned two years old, I began exclaiming “Good girl!” whenever she obeyed.  Since obedience from a two-year-old can be a rare commodity, the words were like honey on my tongue: “Good girl!  You obeyed Mommy!”  One day she walked through the house declaring, “I a good girl!”  And just like that it hit me.  No.  Actually you’re not.  My little girls are many things–precious, beautiful, sensitive, smart…but they are not inherently good.  The Bible teaches that there is none righteous (Rom 3:10), that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom 3:23).  The last thing I want to do is make my daughters foolishly believe that they don’t need God, when in reality, apart from Christ, all their good works are filthy rags before God (Is 64:6).  I started saying, “Wise choice!  Jesus helped you obey Mommy!  He helped you make a wise choice!  Isn’t He great?”  Two years later, that same sweet child has caught me giving her praise multiple times and said, “Jesus helped me do it, Mommy.”  I’ve never been so blessed to be corrected.

3. Compare them to others.
As an education major in college I was taught that a “positive” method of correcting wrong behavior is to praise right behavior.  So when you notice Steven acting like a hooligan, you loudly say, “I like the way Johnny is sitting quietly.”  At best it’s manipulative, at worst it’s Pharisaism in training.  But it’s so tempting because it’s effective.  Johnny’s chest puffs up, Steven’s shoulders sag, and the hooligan is back in line.  At home it looks like this: “Look at your big brother.  Is he swinging from the chandelier?”  Before long, every time you correct the little brother, the big brother will point out his obedience for you.  “I am not interrupting.  I am sitting still.  I am listening.”  You want to raise a Pharisee?  This is one of the fastest ways.  And I confess, I’m guilty as charged.

Final Thoughts
Lest any of this discourage you, let me remind you of what I remind myself almost daily.  I am journeying by grace.  This whole parenthood thing is hard.  So often I make mistakes without even realizing I’m making them.  And even when I know what I should be doing, often I fail anyway.  I don’t know any greater hope than the Truth that Jesus is sovereign over my parenting.  If He could use twelve weak and broken disciples to build His worldwide church, He can use one weak and broken Mama to demonstrate the glory of His gospel to the children He has entrusted to her.

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11 thoughts on “3 Ways to Raise a Pharisee

  1. Great thoughts here! I am struggling personally with these issues as well. I feel like such a failure of a parent much of the time but God is there.

  2. Can you give examples on what to do instead? As a teacher and a mom I do compare a lot!

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    1. I hear you–I still struggle with it too. I think the biggest way to eliminate comparison is simply to address the misbehaving child directly. When I was a teacher I would either quietly correct the child, or pull her outside to talk. Then, when I did praise a child’s great behavior, it wasn’t with a “hidden agenda.” At home, if one child is being disciplined and the other one starts bragging about the fact that unlike her sister she obeyed, I try to direct the attention back to Jesus. I may say something like, “I know you obeyed. Jesus helped you do that, and He’s helping your sister grow in obedience too. Let’s be grateful to Him, and encourage one another.” Does that help at all? I haven’t finished reading the book Give them Grace but I hear it’s very helpful too.

  3. Your posts speak so much to me! I, too, tend to have Pharisee-like thoughts…but I don’t want to raise my daughter as one. I’ve thought about the “good girl” response in terms of sounding too much like I’m praising my dog, but I hadn’t thought about it from the much more important Judeo-Christian perspective before. So thank you!

  4. This has given me much to think about. I’m struggling with these issues for my teen daughter who is starting to question and think about the faith in Jesus that she has been brought up in. I don’t want to make obedience to God a list of rules for her, or that ‘being good’ is what matters to God. I think your first point about praising them for who they are, not what they do is so important!

  5. So wise! Love your thoughts. I have two little children that are almost 3 and almost 1. I realize that all the Pharisee phrases coming out of my mouth all the time, now that you’ve brought my awareness to it. Thank you!

  6. I really enjoyed this article, and agree that it is so important to avoid leading our children into self-righteousness. I really struggled with this growing up. I was one of those kids that everyone constantly praised for being a good little boy. But on the inside I was filled with all kinds of greed, envy, and selfishness. I pray that my children don’t fall into the same struggles.

    Thanks for this article. I am going to keep these points in mind.

  7. Beautiful insights here… Just a thought on the ‘goodness’ of your children… “& God looked on all He had made, and saw that it was very good.” You’re right that your children aren’t inherently good… They are inherently Very Good. This, Because of the Creator’s goodness, and still in need of a savior from sin’s tarnish. It’s all about Jesus, always. Yet, All humanity bears the fingerprint of God. What a thing to celebrate.

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