On Parenting: Their Sin is Not Your Sin

Part 2 of 11 of Parenting Principles

ethan and libby

When you have your first kid, everyone, and I mean everyone, gives you advice. You get advice from the lady in the grocery store and the man behind you in line at the movie theater. Wherever you go, advice rolls in.

One day my wife, Amy, was at an office store running an errand for our ministry team at Illinois State and baby Ethan was hungry and tired. He was doing what little ones do when they get hungry and tired, crying, melting down, he was absolutely losing it. The well meaning lady behind the register looked at Amy and handed her a brochure about raising a child with autism, “You may find this helpful.”

Some advice is better than others. You have to learn quickly what advice to hold onto and what advice to let go of. I think that one of the most important pieces of advice, one that became a core principle for us, was “your child's sin is not your sin.“

Some time later Amy and I are were at Panera trying to have a little lunch. Ethan had just found his running legs. As young parents we made the mistake of taking him out of the high chair and then began putting on our coats. In an instant he was gone! My dude was running laps around Panera. It was one of the moments that you have to decide if you're going to chase him or try to out smart him. We attempted to use our superior intellects by trying to corner him from two different directions. He stopped, giggling, looked to the left and then to the right. Before we could grab him, he took off into the kitchen! Thankfully, one of our friends was the manager and scooped him up, “Did you lose something guys?“

Every person who parents a child has stories they could tell where they wanted to crawl up under a rock somewhere because of the ridiculous actions taken by their child. The Panera story is cute now, but in the moment we were absolutely mortified. Amy and I experienced shame. Why? Why did we experience shame from the actions of our little boy? It's because our identities were too deeply connected to him. Whatever Ethan did, we saw it as an extension of ourselves. I think if we are honest this is why obedience is such a significant benchmark for parents in their evaluation of their parenting. The thinking goes, “if my kids are obedient then I am a good parent.” Similarly, “If my child is a good person then I am a good person. If they are a bad person then I must be a bad person.”

This is dangerous thinking.

When we link our identities to another person, whether it's a child entrusted to us or another adult, what happens is that we begin to lose our sense of self.

Here is the truth of the matter, we are our own and the children entrusted to us are their own.

We must teach the children entrusted to us that they are responsible for their actions. This means that when they do well, we praise them for doing well. It's not our success, it is theirs. When they fall short and make mistakes, we help them understand that they must own those mistakes. It's not our failure, it is theirs.

This is infinitely more difficult when children are young. Why? Because they don't have the capacity for complex thinking. Yet, they will learn from how you respond and how you carry yourself through the ups and downs of life together. So much of this is caught by the children in your home as opposed to taught.

Two tangible ways that Amy and I have practiced this principle is to remind one another that the actions of our children are their own. We also avoid manipulative language like, “You make me feel…” As adults, we have the responsibility to be wise and measured in our responses to children's behavior. This is easier said than done. It requires significant attention and intentionality. Caring for a child is all the time. Parenting a child never ends. The vigilance required to avoid this kind of language is exhausting but critically important.

One of the important things that comes as a result of embracing this principle is that you, as the parent, are able to truly speak truth in love and extend grace. Why? When we are able to differentiate ourselves from the children entrusted to us we can actually see them as individuals and not simply an extension of ourselves. This means that we can, with authenticity, hold the tension of truth, love, and grace. We can do so without adding shame and guilt into the equation.

As children grow older they inevitably sin, like everyone else. When they do, Amy and I, can speak grace, truth, and love. We are able to hold them accountable without experiencing shame or guilt ourselves. In some sense, we can dispassionately hold them accountable.

In the next paragraph I'm going to write briefly about the Christian perspective about why this is principle is important. If that's not your bag, you can skip the paragraph, it's OK. I hope you won't, it's of central importance in my life and I hope at the very least it will help you know me better.

For those of you reading this that are followers of Jesus this principle also lays the groundwork for the reality that you are not the savior. Our jobs as parents is not to try and take the sin of the children entrusted to us as our own. Jesus did that completely and perfectly on the cross. Our job is to point to Jesus and to remind the children and ourselves who the savior is. When we fail, when they fail, there is only one means by which the effects and consequences of sin have been done away with, the cross of Christ. Sin's curse is the breaking of relationship with one another and God. Christ has redeemed and reconciled those relationships through his work on the cross. It is up to us to now experience that forgiveness by faith.

“Their sin is not your sin.” This principle frees us to love the children entrusted to us well. It allows us to speak truth, grace, and love with authenticity apart from guilt and shame.