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Oh to be one of those people who can come up with the perfect zinger, the perfect one-liner, the perfect comeback when you're joking with friends and someone teases you!

It's so satisfying to score points for wit and spontaneity by verbally disarming your would-be character assassin. All in good fun, of course.

But this is not how we score points in parenting.

Kids Can Be So Obvious

My mother loves to tell a story of a time when I was small and was in another room. Things were a little too quiet and so she called out, "Lynna, what are you doing?"

After a pause I answered, "... Not this!"

And that's what's simultaneously hilarious and frustrating about kids. They can be so obvious ... and yet, so oblivious!

You know that moment.  That moment when you can see as clear as day that your child is wrong.  And he or she either doesn't realize it, or won't admit it.

You're Seeing This for a Reason

It's tempting to think that you're able to "catch" your child because you're so slick and morally superior. (That's the pride talking.)

But God actually has a plan in place for your journey as a parent.

1. Heart-insight is always a God-given grace

Whenever we get a glimpse of what's happening in our children's hearts, whenever we realize the motive behind the actions, or the deception behind the false front, it's a mercy of God.

I remember one time a group of younger moms (myself included) were bemoaning some of the frustrating behaviors and attitudes we were observing in our children. A wiser, more experienced mom said, "Be thankful you are seeing these things now while you still have them at home and have an opportunity to influence them for good."

God doesn't open our eyes to our children's needs so that we can gloat or pat ourselves on the back. He reveals their weakness to us because we should be the safest person to have that knowledge and the person who most has our children's best interests in mind.

2. God starts your parent-training with inexperienced sinners

When your first child was born, you were a novice parent. Chances are you had no idea how much of a novice you were. But God did.

So, instead of starting you out on Parenting Level 10, he started you out on Parenting Level 1, with little people whose heart issues are - relatively speaking - very simple and whose ability to disguise and cover up those heart issues is - relatively speaking - limited.

3. The cycle of mutual heart-insight

When my son was little, he told me one night that he felt like he had swallowed rocks. I immediately knew that he was describing a sore throat.

How did I know that? Because I've had a sore throat before. I know what it feels like and I could recognize the feeling from his description.

God uses parenting like this in a mutually-beneficial way.

His heart issues reveal yours

Very often, when you can see your child's wrong motives as plain as the nose on his face, God is giving you a gracious lesson.

Have you ever screamed at your child, "Stop yelling!!" OK, maybe nothing that obvious. But have you ever privately rolled your eyes in disgust and muttered under your breath "I'm so sick of the kids' complaining!"

When we notice an area where our kids need work, chances are, there's an adult version of the struggle we need to work on.

Your heart issues help you to understand his

As embarrassing as it can be to catch ourselves doing the very same thing we scold our kids for doing (but in a more refined and socially acceptable way, of course) God has a plan for this, too.

Who is a better counselor to the struggling sinner than the parent who knows her own struggles deeply?

Who can better offer instruction on battling a besetting sin than a mother who has put on the full armor and fought the same foe for many weary days?

Who can better rejoice with a child in the mercy of Christ and his cross than a fellow redeemed child of grace?


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Replace "Gotcha" with Grace

When your child is being selfish, deceptive, or operating from any other wrong motive, your goal shouldn't just be to "win".  You're not looking for slick one-liners, a card-up-the-sleeve trick or a shock-and-awe move.

Instead, God has called you like a Jonah to Nineveh to participate in the process of calling one of his sheep back into the fold.

Here are three ways you can replace the zingers and one-liners with a grace-centered approach.

1. Give thanks.

What do we have that we haven't been given? If your insight is a gift, a mark of God's grace to you and to your child, begin with thanks.

Why? Because it immediately refocuses what you're doing.

You're not the champion wrestler in the wring striving to uphold his title. Christ ask shown you a little lamb of the path and asked you to join him in his sheep-seeking mission.

Take a deep breath and say,

Thanks for showing me this, Lord. I'm not sure how to handle it, but I know you wouldn't have started me on this journey if you weren't planning to provide the grace and go with me every step of the way. Help me seek your lost sheep.

2. Guard your own heart

The devil would love to get one sin for the price of two. Not only did he tempt your child off the path, now he hopes to get you follow by piling your pride, impatience, or unkindness right on top of the heap.

Galatians reminds us that there's a temptation in play for us whenever we go to rescue someone else who is struggling.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Galatians 6:1

The best way to be prepared is to be aware of the danger.

3. Know your own limitations

Usually when we're tempted to use the zinger or shock-and-awe strategy, it's because we've fallen into thinking that we can change our children's hearts by either out-arguing or humiliating them, or both.

The truth of the matter is that we can't change our children's hearts at all.

God calls us to be faithful. He calls us to love our children. He calls us to speak truth to them.

But God is the one who will change their hearts. Maybe now. Maybe in a little while. Maybe another day.

You do what God is calling you to do. And if it doesn't seem to be working on your schedule, don't slip back into snark. Just keep praying and waiting on the Lord.

4. How do you get there from here?

Remember that your job is not just to be right, or to "win" the argument with your child.

Your job is to lead her back to the path. If you simply declare that she is wrong, she will have learned nothing and she'll probably believe she's being misjudged or treated unfairly.

Instead, your job is to gently help her to sort out the pieces and put the puzzle together with her. It's usually far better to ask good questions than to simply state your perspective. 

If your child is holding on to stubborn pride, then she won't be able to listen to your persuasion and logical reasoning. Wait on the Lord. Ask him to soften her heart.

5. Be the example - even if it's a cautionary tale

Examples of your own failures can be the best illustrations you can use for your children on the heart-exploration journey.

I have noticed that when we most often* use illustrations about other people ("I once knew a person who did such and such wrong ...") we give the impression that we are critically observant of those around us.

But when we use stories about ourselves ("You know, Mama has this same struggle, and it looks like this ...") it not only illustrates the point we are trying to make, but it illustrates the advantage from the paragraph above - you are a safe place because you see our own need.

The End in Mind

Your goal in walking your children through their own heart analysis isn't ultimately just about laying to rest the debate or sibling squabble.  And it definitely isn't about scoring a "gotcha" victory over the precious soul the Lord has entrusted to your hands.

Instead, it is to guide with grace; to help them to see where the problem started (because it always starts with the heart) and to help them see where changes are needed.  It is about training them to "examine their own hearts" - a life-long skill with eternal value far beyond this episode or event.

But when you've plumbed the depths of their hearts, when you and they have recognized the wrong, please don't stop there.  Heart-examination is not an end in itself.

Remember, there is nothing new under the sun.  There is nothing you or your child struggles with that is not common to man.  And most importantly, there is no sin so grave, no struggle so great that it is beyond the reach of God's abounding grace.

Model and lead your child in seeking forgiveness - the beautiful relief of a clean conscience and a fresh start. He who has been forgiven much loves much!

  • “Our questions shouldn’t be aimed at pinning him to the wall, but at guiding him through a heart-investigation trip.”

    Big stuff in there! This was a fantastic post.

    I’m totally guilty of trying to walk my kids into traps to “get them” and show them their wrongdoing or wrong thinking.

    I have been watching a lot of video conferences lately, about parenting and education. This post lines up with a lot of what I’m thinking these days.

    Great post, friend. Lots to think about in here.

    • One of my greatest struggles in parenting is to not make it all about me – my convenience, my reputation, my time, my plans, etc. It takes a lot of intentionality to keep the real goal in mind! But even here – even in seeing how I can tend to be self-centered – there is great fodder for gentle mothering. I have a tendency to selfishness, so I can understand what it’s like when they struggle with that, too. A continual cycle of mutual growth. Exhausting … but the best, most worthy work ever!

  • Lauren Thomas says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. This was so beautifully articulated and really hit my soul. I needed this change in perspective. I’m bookmarking this. I’ll probably need to come back and read it again often. Thank you.

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    Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.