Jillian plopped onto the couch to fold some laundry. It felt good to get off her feet after a long morning of household chores and refereeing bickering toddlers. Some days they get along well while others are marked by arguing, pushing, screaming and accusations. Today was one of those days.
“David and Stephen!” she yelled, interrupting their last encounter before lunch. “Stop it! Why can’t you treat each other nicely? Stop fighting over everything! This is ridiculous. You’ve been fighting all morning and I can’t take it anymore! You’re gonna eat lunch and go to bed…and…don’t plan on playing together this afternoon. If you can’t play nicely then you won’t play at all.” It worked. The boys stopped, ate their lunch and went into their rooms. The house was quiet. For now.
Tears formed in Jillian’s eyes. In the years before she and Robert started their family, none of the snapshots that passed through her mind were of kids who screamed when a sibling touched their carseat or angrily pushed each other over a cheap McDonald’s toy.
Parenting is hard work when things are running smoothly. Parenting is really hard work when kids are fighting. Few things grate on a parent’s nerves more than selfish bickering between kids who you just want to get along.
When my kids were young one of my favorite things was catching them serving, helping or showing affection to each other. When I came into their room in the morning to discover that Jesse had climbed onto the top bunk to share it with Joey; overheard Josh offer to carry something “heavy” for his sister; watched Jaime rock a newborn sibling to sleep; or noticed Jake climbing onto a sibling’s lap just for hugs, my heart melted. But when the arguing, selfishness, tattling or blaming escalated, I sighed with discouragement and sometimes fussed back to make it stop.
In recent years much has been written and taught about “gospel centered parenting.” Any time the gospel is used and applied in relationships God is honored and love abounds! If we’re not careful, parenting with the gospel in view can be perceived as allowing our kids to get away with wrongdoing because “extending grace” is confused with tolerance of sin. Biblical patience presupposes offense and then responds with Christlike forbearance and compassionate correction.
Allowing our kids to hurt, hit, push, speak harshly to and otherwise treat their siblings unkindly with mere lip service to correction is, in Benny’s and my opinion, a misunderstanding of the gospel. After all, the gospel is the good news that Jesus lived a sinless life, then was killed by the sins we and our kids committed (and are still committing) so we could be forgiven and be declared not guilty by a holy God. All we have to do is look at the cross to see the seriousness of sin.
Yet the answer to our kids’ sibling tension isn’t to sin back. Reacting to our kids’ inappropriate attitudes and behavior by either minimizing it or responding in kind isn’t gospel-centered. Jillian’s angry reaction to David and Stephen is easily understandable to anyone who has had more than one child. And sometimes it temporarily works! Her anger stopped the bickering. But yelling at them for yelling at each other simply teaches kids that it’s okay for Dad and Mom to treat them unkindly when they treat each other unkindly.
Parents who understand the gospel know we are just like our kids. The gospel puts everyone on level ground, even children and their parents. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. The truth is this: we parents get angry, bicker, and don’t like it when our preferences aren’t esteemed. We get our feelings hurt when someone wrongly accuses us — and maybe even when their accusations are correct! We get mad when someone messes up our stuff or interrupts us when we want to be left alone. And when it feels like we’re being attacked we push back in our “adult” ways.
Once Jillian learns that her kids are mirroring her own battles with self she will be less tempted to be wearied and angered by their mean-spirited or selfish interactions. Our sameness with our kids breeds compassion and patience. Rather than reacting in self-righteous “how can you treat each other like this?!?!?!” anger when they fuss and fight, the gospel teaches us to remember that even Jesus Christ was tempted in every single way we and they are (Hebrews 4:15). Yes, as a boy He was tempted to be angry, mean and selfish toward His siblings. If He is understanding and loving toward our kids, we can be, too.
We, like they, are in a daily war with self.
Grace and understanding aren’t permissively tolerant of wrong. In fact, Paul defines grace as the teacher that instructs us (and our kids) to “deny ungodliness…and to live sensibly, righteously and godly” lives (Titus 2:12). Parents who understand biblical grace are both patient with how similar we are to our kids and eager to apply grace as the tenacious teacher who tutors them to stop treating their siblings in ungodly ways.
How can we introduce our kids to that grace? That’s what this series is about. Whatever my kids or I share, know that it comes from decades of mistakes followed by more humility that we’ve been capable of expressing. Once again, the gospel shines. Just when we are too weak to do our own denying of ungodliness God is there to help us in our weakness and bring hope for change –in us and our kids.