A podcast listener named James writes in: “Pastor John, a big question for parents is whether talking about past sins — sins like drug use, sexual immorality, drunkenness, and so on — will make our children more or less likely to try out or do these when they’re older. It seems like they might reason like this: ‘Well, you turned out all right,’ and then proceed with entering into this behavior. Pastor John, what categories should we think through when it comes to communicating past sins with our children?”
Let me establish a crucial parenting principle and practice, which I think is dictated by the gospel before I tackle the direct question. And I’ve got seven questions for parents that I think they should ask, diagnostic questions as to whether, at this time, to this child, this particular sin should be talked about.
Greatest Gospel Impact
But before I go there, let’s lay down a principle. The principle is that far more important than the confession of past sins is the regular confession of present sins. And the practice, therefore, is that we model for our children in family devotions or other times, a regular pattern, a rhythm of confession, to show our children how a follower of Jesus handles sin in his own life — a pattern of confession, forgiveness, and restoration of fellowship.
Nothing will have a greater gospel impact on a child, I think, than to see Daddy, whom they tend to think is infallible, since he delivers the law. They think, “Daddy is infallible. Daddy is flawless.” And to hear Daddy regularly confessing to Mom, confessing to kids, but especially confessing to God sins, applying the blood of Jesus, and experiencing restored joy of fellowship with God will show the child: “Oh, I don’t have to be perfect. There is a way to handle a sin.”
Children are born legalists and they are born licentious. And those are not contradictory. They believe that the only path to morality is keeping the law — parents’ law, school’s law, babysitter’s law, traffic law, whatever law. Everywhere is law, because these kids are just being told what to do all the time, from the time they are nine months old on up. And they don’t like those limitations of law on their desires, and so they gravitate toward strategies of getting around the law and somehow squirming away or through the law.
And the alternative to this thinking is the gospel of the glory of Christ — seeing parents who love Christ so much that Christ looks appealing to them, not mainly as a law giver, but a soul satisfier, a friend, a guide, a helper, a counselor, and, yes, a final, absolute authority, which is good news, not bad news, if all those other things are true. Seeing parents who admit they don’t love him perfectly all the time, but sometimes act as though he is not their greatest treasure, that is crucial for a child.
Parents who regularly admit to the children and to their spouse that they don’t model Christ and his value perfectly all the time and so they confess their sins, they are honest about their sins, not hiding their sins, they are modeling for their children: You don’t have to lie about your sins. You don’t have to hide your sins. You can be honest about them and Christ will forgive, and we will forgive, and we can press on with fresh joy. So that is the principle. That is the practice. And I think it might lift some of the burden of: “Well, don’t I have to be honest with my children about these past sins of mine?” And it will never even enter their minds that you are being dishonest with them if you set this pattern.
Seven Diagnostic Questions
But they did ask: Okay, so there are these real sins in our pasts. What should we do with them in regard to our children? And here are my seven diagnostic questions to ask:
1. How old is the child? Capacities to grasp what you are talking about vary with age. You will not confess to your five-year-old that, once when you were twelve, you dabbled in homosexual pornography. You won’t say that to your five-year-old child. He doesn’t even have the categories to know what that is yet. You might confess this to a fifteen-year-old whose sexual identity is confused, and he has come to you kind of scared and wondering about some feelings that he has. And you might, then, go back and pick up some of your own struggles and help. So the question there is: How old is he?
2. How spiritually mature is the child? If you are dealing with a hateful and rebellious sixteen-year-old who would only hang your dirty laundry on Facebook as soon as you say it because he is so down on you, then you might want to wait until there is a more tender, mature season in that kid’s life to reveal some things.
3. What is the nature of the sin? Some sin may be of such a nature that, if a child heard it, it would frighten them, confuse them, and give them a kind of insecurity that just wouldn’t be good for him. For example, there might have been in your life a sexual sin against a minor when you were babysitting at age seventeen or something like that, and you didn’t go to jail. But that would be the kind of thing that would require the greatest care in sharing — if you ever shared it — because of the kind of disorientation it might create in a child’s mind.
4. What are the circumstances right now as the possibility of divulging this sin presents itself? I am thinking mainly about privacy here. My guess is there are some sins that would have a far better effect on a young person if you shared it with the person when they were alone with Mom or Dad when the sin was shared — probably not at Pizza Hut, but taking a walk by the river. And not with brothers and sisters around, because kids can feel really awkward around brothers or sisters or another parent when dealing with something heavy and awkward. And they might have questions that they are willing to ask Mom or Dad if they were alone in a safe place. So, consider the circumstances.
5. Is your spouse okay with you sharing the sin? Get on the same page so that you don’t cross wires here in dealing with the kids. It needs to have a unified sense or impact as you go forward.
6. What is the child struggling with? One great motive in sharing past sins is to help the child have realistic expectations about the Christian life. A child that is struggling with lying may be helped by a parent’s confession of lying, perhaps to illustrate forgiveness, or perhaps to illustrate the trouble that it got him into as a kid — one way or the other, to warn or comfort — or perhaps to illustrate how God helped the parent stop lying. So what is the child dealing with at any given time that might trigger which kinds of things you might call up from your past?
7. What is your motive for telling the sin? What is your motive for silence about the sin? Because frankly I don’t think you need to say everything to your child about your past. There is no rule I am aware of that says every sin from the past must be known by children in the present. In deciding what is shared and what is not, the motive really matters and the manner by which you do it. Fear and shame are not good motives for silence. But concern for children, and modeling humility, and illustration of the gospel, and glorification of Christ are motives that are good.
But I want to end by just going back and saying what I did at the beginning: far more crucial than discerning which, if any, of your significant, heavy, weighty sins of the past are shared in the present is that pattern of ongoing confession and making it a regular feature of family life so that kids learn what the Christian life is by the present, not just the past.