Should we tell our kids about our pasts? I believe so, at least more than we typically do.
Recently I was counseling a woman to be more transparent with her child about mistakes she had made in her own life. She wasn’t resistant to the idea, but she was concerned that if she did, it might entice her daughter to sin. She said to me, “If I tell my daughter about my past, I’m afraid she’ll think, ‘Oh, if Mom did that and turned out okay, then I can try it too.’” And so, this mother deliberately held back part of her story from her child.
Her fear makes sense on the surface, but go a little deeper and you’ll realize that it comes with a cost. First, holding your life back from your children can mean that you won’t convey experiences that made you who you are today. By keeping your past to yourself, you can effectively put relational barriers between them and you.
You also can take away an opportunity for your kids to learn how the gospel can break into their struggles. If you’re unwilling to share any of your failures, you won’t be able to demonstrate firsthand what faith looks like as it enters into those areas of brokenness. Appropriately letting your children hear of your own past sin can model how gracious your God is in forgiving you.
Small Me, Big Christ
Our stories serve as a dark backdrop upon which Jesus can shine. By giving our children a cleaned-up version of ourselves, we may inadvertently give them a smaller version of God — we may accidentally tone down how radically he loves and pursues his wayward people.
The apostle Paul doesn’t make that mistake. He tells people about his past to highlight the greatness of the gospel that can reach someone like him (1 Corinthians 15:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:15–16). That contrast leaves you thinking, “Okay, so if there’s hope for Paul, given what he’s done, then maybe there’s hope for me too.”
Consider that gut-wrenching passage in a text like Romans 7:14–20, which I take to be Paul, as a Christian, unpacking the anguish of doing what he doesn’t want to do, while approving of the good he longs to do but cannot. Such a confession would be amazing to hear from any believer. It’s more amazing to hear it from a leader, and even more striking when you realize that Paul is confessing his struggle with people he’s never met. Remember, this is his introductory letter to Roman Christians — a letter in which he believes that it’s imperative to disclose the ongoing depth of his need for Christ.
Good Reasons to Share
Why does he do that? Because it sets a tone at the beginning of their relationship with him. He wants them to know up front that: (1) he knows what it’s like to wrestle with sin, just like they do; (2) he falls short of his desires to live up to what he knows, just like they do; (3) they should have confidence that there’s hope for them because there is hope for him (Romans 7:24–25).
In other words, Paul doesn’t pretend he doesn’t sin, nor does he think that his failures disqualify him from ministry. Rather, he embosses his struggles with sin on his calling card — not to excuse or justify himself, but to promote confidence in the God who guarantees his people that he will overcome their failings through Jesus Christ.
How to Share Your Past
Paul’s example in Romans 7 has significant implications for how pastors and ministry leaders can engage their flocks, but it also can inform how parents lead their children.
1. Don’t be afraid to share your life.
This is the same Paul who urged, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). We know that Jesus faced real temptations to turn away from loving God and neighbor while he was here on earth (Matthew 4:1–11; Hebrews 4:15). But we could only know what those struggles were like for him if he shared himself with others at that time and later with us through Scripture. Our kids need to hear the same openness from us.
2. Don’t overshare.
Paul doesn’t tell you exactly what he was dealing with, but he was clear enough that countless numbers of God’s people throughout the ages have been able to identify with him and say, “Yeah, he gets it. That’s exactly what I feel like when I’m dealing with sin.” When you share with your children, you’re looking for that connection point that would let them say, “Yeah, close enough. You know what it feels like to be me right now.”
3. Don’t glorify sin.
Paul makes sin look utterly miserable. You don’t find yourself thinking, “Man, that sounds so good. I wonder what it would be like to play around with sin like that?” Instead, it’s ugly. You’d give anything to be as far from it as possible. Paul presents sin to us, stripped of its disguise. Your kids need to see it that way too. The world, the flesh, and the devil all conspire to make sin and temptation look attractive, so loving your child — leading them — means revealing evil’s true nature by talking through your firsthand experiences with it.
4. Don’t stop with sin.
Paul’s goal is not simply to forge a human bond based on our shared depravity, or to present morality tales of how to live a better life, or to attempt to scare his listeners straight. Instead, he’s pointing Christians beyond himself and beyond themselves, to the Christ who is our hope for dealing with our less-than-best moments. That means you’re not done sharing your life with your child until you point them beyond yourself, to Jesus.
The Goal of Parenting
Your goal in parenting is to lead your children to recognize that they live every part of their lives before the face of God. That can only happen if you lead them to deal with the negative parts of who they are as well as the positive.
And while we do need to direct and instruct them, we can only do so with integrity if we’re out in front of them saying, “Hey, just like you, I don’t always live up to my best ideals. But I know the God who can handle me even then. Here, let me tell you about him by sharing with you a time when I came to know this part of him better.” I can’t remember my kids ever turning down that invitation.