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Have you ever gone wading in a little rocky creek in your bare feet? The touch of the smooth, mossy stones feels wonderful, but it's awfully challenging to keep from slipping to one side or the other off of the slimy surface as the flow of the water tugs at your toes.

Hearing correction from someone else can be a lot like that, too. It's hard to listen when someone thinks you're wrong. It's hard to hear that they disagree or didn't like what you said or did.

The Human Tendency to Subterfuge

It's a normal human tendency - not necessarily good or right, but normal - to want to avoid blame and to avoid being corrected.

In our home, we use the term "subterfuge" to refer to all of the ways that a child might avoid taking responsibility for his actions head on. He might minimize what he did. He might try to change the subject. He might mention sometime in the past when he did the same thing and he didn't get into trouble for it.

When our behavior is under scrutiny, we want so badly to slide out from underneath the microscope. And we will look for just about any opportunity.

Would you rather listen?

We cover these same ideas in Episode 29 of the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast. Find it on your favorite podcast app or click here to go straight to the show notes.

Providing an Easy Target for Subterfuge

Hands down the easiest form of subterfuge, both in his conversations  with a sibling or with a parent and also inside of his own heart is to switch the focus to someone else's sins or someone else's problematic behavior.

 So imagine for example, that Michael takes Amy's toy. If Amy responds by hitting, then Michael will quickly focus on Amy's actions rather than on his own.

It was already going to be hard to talk to Michael about his sin, but that conversation just became twice as hard. It's going to be such a great temptation for Michael to focus on Amy's hitting instead of on his own stealing.

As fallen humans, our great tendency is to focus much more on the wrong that others do to us rather than the wrong that we do to others.

Remove the Low Hanging Fruit

It's definitely important to teach our children how to own up to their own actions and how to take responsibility, not minimize their culpability in any situation.

However, in this post, I want to look at the flip side of the coin. I want to talk about how our children can avoid muddying the water and have a conversation about someone else's sins by lumping their own sins on top of it.

You are Your Brother's Keeper

These ideas are important to teach our children for two reasons.

First, just from a practical standpoint, we want to equip our children with relationship skills. If a sibling is doing something that a child doesn't like, we want him to have the best possible chance of successfully communicating the problem and working out the issue.

But secondly, and more importantly, Jesus actually does call us to be our brother's keepers. He calls us to care for the souls of others, especially those whom he's put in close proximity to us in family, in church membership.

And so if we see someone sinning, we need to call them to repent and we need to do it in a way that doesn't create further temptation or drive them further away.

Jesus had Some Wise Guidance about Correction

A great place that we can go for wisdom on this issue is Matthew 18. The whole chapter is worth reading and discussing with your children. But in Matthew 18, verse 15 Jesus says

If your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault between you and him alone, if he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

This is not just a strategy for obtaining personal justice, though that is important. Rather, this verse is about participating with Jesus in returning straying sheep to the pasture.

If we take a closer look at this verse, there are three wise things we can teach our children about offering correction without providing an extra temptation to avoid the issue.

It's Your Job to Win!

Let's start at the end of the verse. Look at the last sentence. It says,

If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.

Some translations say "won your brother". If you want to win someone (not win against them, but win them over) how do you speak? One way to describe it is that you speak in a winsome way!

You're going to speak with convincing, persuasive language. Proverbs 15:1 says

A soft answer, turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

Giving the Gift of Privacy

Secondly, Jesus includes a really practical tip. He says that we're going to start by going to our brother alone. In other words, you'll have the best chance of success with a private conversation.

Being corrected is hard enough. Being corrected in front of others exponent increases the temptation for subterfuge and a poor response.

I also remind my children is that yelling is not only not winsome, it's also not private. So if you're yelling, you really are not going to your brother alone!

Showing vs. Telling

And then the final, we need to teach our children to speak specifically about someone's offenses specifically. The verse says that we need to show him his fault.

Sometimes a child will come running to me, complaining that a sibling is "being annoying" or "is a jerk".

And I usually respond by saying, "That's your opinion. I can't really do anything with that information. Would you like to tell me specifically what happened?"

The same skill that I'm pointing them towards in that conversation is important when speaking to someone about what they did wrong. If we begin with a sweeping generalization, not only are we creating more temptation for the other person to duck and avoid the correction, we also leave the other person with very little idea of what to do to make a positive change.

Saying, "You're annoying!" is hurtful and vague. However, "I'm frustrated that you keep whistling, when I'm trying to read" is very specific.

The Whistler can now make a choice about what to do next. He might choose to stop whistling. He might choose to go in another room. But either way, there's a clear direction that the Whistler can go in to make positive forward progress in the relationship.

Equip Your Kids to Take Correction Wisely

Want to dive deeper into godly ways to give correction to your children and strategies to teach them to handle correction with grace? Register for this workshop to learn ...

  • things you may be doing that make it harder for your child to hear correction
  • how to set up a healthy structure for giving correction
  • how to explain the process and importance of correction to your child
  • how to wrap up a time of correction with positive encouragement

Possible Questions and Objections

Perhaps as you've been reading this article, it has raised some questions in your mind, or perhaps you've thought of some objections or some concerns that you have about these ideas.

I'd like to take a moment to address some of the things that might be on your mind.

Isn't this a bit too much to ask of our kids?

Maybe you're wondering if this is all a bit much. Kids are kids. They don't know how to handle conflict with this kind of maturity and self control. Are we expecting too much of them?

First, I heartily agree that this is a tall order for anyone, especially for children. I'm not suggesting that we have one conversation and then expect our children to do this perfectly from here on out.

But because responding with grace to someone else's sin is so challenging. And because even adults struggle with this, we need to start having the conversation with our children about this when they are young. And it's a conversation that we ought to expect to be having many, many, many times over.

Think of it like learning a skill in sports. You can explain the skill, you can even demonstrate the skill, but that's not going to be enough. They're going to need a lot of practice to really achieve proficiency.

And thankfully, I promise, your children will have a lot of opportunities to practice offering correction to one another as they grow up together in your home!

So if this is a matter of skill-building, why talk about sin?

If giving gracious correction is a skill that our children need to learn, then is it really right to talk about it as a sin problem?

Let's separate this idea out into two pieces of the process.

First of all, is it a sin that our children lack the emotional maturity or the social skills to handle a disagreement in the way that an adult would handle it? No, of course not.

There is definitely skill involved. There is definitely growth involved. There is definitely a need for us to have patience and understanding for our children and their current abilities.

However, I think if we're honest with ourselves, we'll recognize that whatever portion of the conflict may arise from a lack of skill or a lack of maturity, there is more often than not a sin component involved too.

Most of the time, if the offended sibling doesn't respond properly, it isn't because she really wants to handle her brother's sin in a loving and selfish this way, but she just doesn't know how. Usually she's hurt and she wants to exact some form of revenge on him, even if it is with her words.

So yes, we ought to recognize our children's limitations and maturity level, but let's also talk with them about having the self control to approach each other with a view to help the one who's sinning. Jesus calls us to be sheep seekers with him, and that does not come naturally to us.

Isn't it cruel to scold him when he's hurting?

Perhaps it feels insensitive to scold the child who was just wronged or hurt by a sibling.  And it's true; as with all parenting situations, we need to use wisdom and consider the circumstances.

If, for example, a big sister smacks her little brother and knocks him to the ground and the little brother screams at his sister, this isn't the time to lecture the little brother about how he could have handled that disagreement more appropriately.

Proverbs six 30 through 31 says

People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry. But if he is caught, he will pay seven fold. He will give all the goods of his house.

The point of this proverb is to say that if someone steals because he's hungry, no one despises that action, everyone understands he was in a very difficult situation. However, the proverb goes on to explain to us that there still are consequences for our actions, even if they happen under duress.

Perhaps the most important thing that we need to keep in mind is that the majority of our conversations about this matter should not be happening in moments of conflict.

Most of our conversations about handling other people's sin properly should happen in times of calm because that's when children are better able to listen and take in new ideas. And then in moments of conflict, we can simply point back to discussions we've had in the past.

And yes, it is important to teach our children to love those who've wronged them. That really is the heart of the gospel. God loved us when we hated him. And he calls us to forgive others as we've been forgiven.

I know that it is challenging to call on our children to do the right thing when we can see that they are hurt. If you want to chew on this idea a little bit more, check out Episode 20 of the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast called "Loving When It's Hard".

Won't this just be another opportunity for subterfuge?

Maybe you're wondering if talking with your kids about how to handle someone else's sins appropriately will just lead to more blame shifting. Now, the other siblings, bad response will be blamed on the lack of grace used to address the issue.

Looking at my own life and my own heart, I can tell you that there have been times when I've approached one of my children about her sin with true gentleness and a sincere desire for her good. And the response was still one of stubbornness and unrepentance.

And on the other hand, there have been times when I handled one of my children's sin with selfish, anger, and harsh words, and she responded with tenderness and repentance.

We aren't responsible for another person's choices or words or behavior, but we are responsible for our own.

It's healthy to remind ourselves as parents and to remind our children in their interactions with each other that another person's reaction to us isn't necessarily the best gauge of the rightness or the wrongness of our behavior.

However, it is still appropriate to take the other person's reaction into consideration and to ask ourselves some good questions. Is there is something I could do to improve the way I handled the situation? Do I need to ask forgiveness for a motive of selfishness or a desire for revenge?

Navigating the Slippery Moments Together

Giving correction is challenging. Taking correction is challenging. But what hold the process together is our commitment - as parents and as siblings - to come back again and again, repenting, forgiving, and learning as we go.

We can navigate those slippery rocks with more grace and steadiness if we're holding hands as we go!

Equip Your Kids to Take Correction Wisely

Want to dive deeper into godly ways to give correction to your children and strategies to teach them to handle correction with grace? Register for this workshop to learn ...

  • things you may be doing that make it harder for your child to hear correction
  • how to set up a healthy structure for giving correction
  • how to explain the process and importance of correction to your child
  • how to wrap up a time of correction with positive encouragement

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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.