If 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.
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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