I will never forget my father asking for my forgiveness. Few moments, if any, were as arresting, as moving, and as unforgettable as when Pop admitted to me — at age five or seven or ten — that he had overreacted, and that he was sorry.
I was most moved, at least in every case I remember, because I was not an innocent victim. My disobedience, rebellion, and immaturity were the catalyst for our clashes. I had sinned first, and I knew I was in the wrong.
But Pop had joined a Bible study, and his heart was becoming more tender to the word of God. He wanted his conduct to come increasingly in line with the gospel he loved. Not just in public, but in private. Not just as a dentist and deacon where the world was watching, but as a father, when only little eyes were watching. He began owning the fact that even his child’s bad behavior was no excuse for a sinful response. He was learning first to recognize and admit his own sin, and remove the adult log from his own eye, in order to be a more careful and patient remover of the childhood speck from mine.
The Emperor’s New Armor
Some of us might worry that making ourselves vulnerable like this to our children will reveal a chink in the armor of parental authority. Surely, we can’t really bring up our children, we tell ourselves, if we have given away our high ground. My experience as a child, and now as a parent of twin six-year-old boys, says this is emphatically not the case.
When I come down on them, with all my adult emotional weight, they can be crushed so easily. But when I come down to them, and stand with them in owning my own sin and recognizing my need for Jesus’s ongoing rescue, then I’m not only modeling repentance before them, but I’m also living the authentic Christian life myself, rather than letting parenting be an excuse for hypocrisy.
I don’t need to be perfect for my children. Jesus has done that. Jesus is that. My children don’t need me to be their perfect savior, but to point them, in honesty about my own sin, to our Savior. In fact, they urgently need to know that I’m not perfect, that my ultimate hope is not in my goodness, but in Jesus’s. I stand with them as a sinner, born in sin, desperately in need of grace. If I try to hide the chink in my armor — and it’s not just a chink, but countless chinks, even gaping holes — I don’t protect them but endanger them. I reinforce the myth we all tell ourselves at some point, that we can be good enough to garner God’s favor.
Three Lessons for Parents
It’s hard to overstate the long-term impact of my father asking me for forgiveness — especially when I was the main one at fault. In my own parenting, I still have so much to learn. Our sons are only six. We have a long road ahead, but the early findings are that my owning and confessing my own sin, especially when I overreact to my children’s disobedience, is already bearing fruit in my relationship with them.
The truth is there are no relationships in which it is strategic to cover my sin, and not own and confess it. If you, like me, want to grow in this kind of humility and initiative as parents, here are three lessons I’m learning in trying to love my sons in light of my sin.
1. God is not just working through me as a parent, but on me.
Being a parent doesn’t mean that I’ve graduated from basic Christian growth, but likely that I’ve entered one of the most important seasons. Parents walk with children through an intense season of physical development, while God walks with parents through an intense season of spiritual development. It’s not a question as to whether we sin against our child. All parents sin against their children. The question is whether we recognize and confess our sin, and ask our children for forgiveness. Far too few of us are ready to do this.
2. True confession is heartfelt, not contrived.
A danger latent in this article is that it might tempt you to calculate certain confessions to your children to produce certain results. You could own up to some fairly admirable weakness, or feign sorrow over some sin, to capture your children’s attention and tug on their heart strings. Such is manipulation, not true confession. When you own your sins and reveal your weaknesses, your children likely will be riveted. (Few things arrest our boys like when I tell stories about the times when “Daddy got a spanking when he was a kid.”)
“God is not just working through me as a parent, but on me.”
But genuine confession isn’t results-oriented. It rises from an awareness of the God-belittling ways we have treated our children and from sincerely grieving our failure to live up to our calling. We recognize that we have misrepresented God. He is gracious and merciful; I have been ungracious and exacting. He is slow to anger; I have been short-tempered, erupting in anger at my child’s disobedience. He is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness; I have been stingy and unreliable.
3. Good apologies don’t end with “but.”
The most meaningful conversations with our kids are the ones in which we can confess our own weakness without then turning and putting it back on them. “But when you . . .” Let the apology stand. Give it your best effort — and this can be very hard — to not follow your admission immediately with a “but” that puts the blame back on the child for your sin.
“Good apologies don’t end with ‘but.’”
You are the parent, the adult. It is often the case that your sin is really to blame, in some sense, for sin in your child, not vice versa. Children don’t only have sin natures; they also have sinful parents. Even before our child sins, we often have played our part, by not investing the energy it takes to proactively instruct our children, clearly lay out reasonable ground rules, and graciously communicate expectations.
Yes, apologizing does show our weaknesses — in exactly the way our children need to see them. We “mature” parents do not stand with God on the other side of some great divide far away from our sinful children. We stand with them as sinners, still desperately and consistently in need of God’s grace and his power for change.