By Lia Martin, Crosswalk.com
For parents, it’s tough to look under the hood to see if legalism is lurking, because parenting seems like such a mission-critical “job” assigned by God.
Keeping our kids safe can feel like a constant life-or-death situation. And our roles to feed and shelter the family involve legal, financial, analytical, and other critical rules that aren’t exactly gracious. There are parameters and realities that are necessarily fixed or precise.
So in a performance-driven work world, it can feel unacceptable to open our hearts, ask hard questions, or share our fears.
The challenge is that if we bring that system home with us, we can step right into some of the pitfalls of legalistic parenting.
Author Kimi Harris says that a legalist “believes their good works and obedience to God affects their salvation.” Applying this more broadly to a parenting style, it might resemble a “my way or the highway” approach, or “not in this house” mentality. We’re reminded of the Pharisee who pretentiously thanks God that he is “not like other people” and thinks himself above the need for God’s mercy.
So, how do we pivot from the harsh reality of a merciless world of manmade standards and works, and show our children God is love? How do we reflect God’s grace and sow good seeds in our children’s souls?
It helps to consider some of the pitfalls of legalistic parenting as an invitation to reposition your heart toward the ultimate parent. Here are 6 pitfalls of legalistic parenting to avoid:
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1. You Shut Yourself out of Your Child’s Heart
Legalistic parenting could take the shape of any rigid list that leaves no wiggle room. Parents have lived long enough to realize that each day brings enough trouble, and that we aren’t actually in control... so we tend to try to control our children as a failsafe from shame.
Your child can sense hypocrisy when you hold a zero-tolerance policy. The truth is we all act out, not just our kids. And we all need grace and forgiveness. Author Debbie Holloway cites this worthwhile insight from Shawna Wingert’s “God Does Not Want Your Children to Watch Spongebob (and Other Christian Parenting Nonsense)”:
“...when we associate being Christ-like with all of our rules and requirements, we lose sight of all the good news that Jesus actually brings…Moreover, do we want to give our kids this message? That God is about the rules of all the things you can and cannot do? What if being a parent has more to do with us and our relationship with God, than somehow applying a Christian formula to our children and having them turn out evangelical?”
If your kids open their hearts to you with tears, fears, and weaknesses, and they consistently feel condemnation, they may choose to close their heart down. And no parent wants that.
2. You Miss out on the Blessings of Listening
I don’t know exactly when it happens, but for most of us parents, we wind up assuming we “know more” than our children. When in reality, their knowing is as alive and active as ours. They have fresh inputs from the world and amazing brains and hearts to process what they’re learning.
If we get caught up in doing all the teaching and preaching, we end up with an emptiness that insight from our kids could actually refill. This goes for our adult children, too. The generation they’re navigating is solidly different than ours, and we have lots to learn from them.
If legalism is making you impatient with the “ways of their world,” we miss out on knowing them better. The blessing of listening is an opportunity to more deeply connect. To receive without refusal. To honor someone’s perspective and foster intimacy.
So, listen when your kids speak. Practice patience. You might learn who they are, and that’s a blessing.
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3. You Risk Turning Your Kids Away from, Instead of toward, God
As a parent, the goal is not for your kids to rely on you into adulthood, but to rely on God. However, if you paint the picture that God’s rules are set in stone and easy to follow, you can plant seeds of doubt.
Because we follow Jesus, we don’t become him. There is only One who is perfect.
Challenging your kids to become perfect could make them feel that God is criticizing instead of calling them. A pastor I love once said, “forced faith is fake faith.” The best we can do is rely on God so openly to shepherd us through parenting...that our kids know they can be imperfect, and on a journey, as well.
Try asking your kids, “who is God in your life?” or “where do you hear from God?” or “do you know how much God loves you?” as a way of helping them consider God’s presence and power in their lives.
4. Your Kids Will Look for Guidance on the Tough Issues Elsewhere
Here’s where you need to give yourself a good dose of grace. Because kids will elevate the opinions of their peers, at any age. Moms and dads go through only sporadic seasons of seeming “wise” or “useful” in any way in our kids’ eyes, and that’s normal.
But a good thing to bear in mind is to hold your tongue on opinions about others. Because it’s likely either your child, or someone they care about, is wrestling whatever you disapprove of, right now. And we all need Jesus to show us the way. Not some person “better” than us.
It’s a good practice to soften your heart when responding to tough issues with qualifiers such as, “I’m so unfamiliar, I need to learn more to understand.” Or, “I wonder how that person must feel?”
Take the focus off yourself when kids bring you things you absolutely don’t want to hear. Ask for God to give you strength to be a sounding board for them. And most importantly, ask God to guide your words.
If your children can say ugly, embarrassing, frightening, and wounding things in the safety of your presence, they may get a glimpse of how God sees them.
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5. You Might Stifle the Unique Handiwork of God
Author Caroline Madison explains that growing up in a legalistic environment put a very narrow structure on her acceptability as a daughter of God. When parents put too much stress on performing like “good kids,” instead of humans with a full range of emotions, fears, and questions, kids might feel like God made some kind of mistake.
To guard against elevating perfection over purpose, we can regularly ask ourselves: is this my issue? or is it critical that my child master this to feel God’s closeness?
In other words, spend more time noticing your child’s character qualities such as honesty, patience, or courage, rather than grades, scores, or whether they cleaned their room. If your child becomes obsessed with “doing” things that aren’t anything remotely like how God made them, you risk contributing to their confusion.
Are they sinners? Yes. And so are we.
Are they God’s design? Absolutely. Let’s remember, he’s always at work in them; doing something divinely and significantly unique.
6. You Won’t Show Them Why Mercy and Grace Matter so Much
In closing, I feel this pitfall is paramount.
So much of our Christian faith is misinterpreted as impossible rules and imposter pretending. Yet the entire story is about how God was merciful enough to love us in all our imperfection.
How wonderful to exemplify that you believe this, to your children. Allow yourself to be authentic. To admit that you are only trying and failing and trying again, too. Look into God’s word for answers together.
One experiment to try is to apologize to your child, even if you’ve waited so long they have children of their own now. Ask for their grace. This shows them how much you value mercy; and its potential to resurrect what was lost, broken, or dead.
Even if you’ve fallen into the pitfall of not showing mercy or forgiveness or understanding, it’s never too late. Admit any of your fears about them that are actually self-focused. Remind them that you love them, no matter what.
Of course, it’s good and wise to require things of our children that build their awareness of and respect for themselves and others. Things like showing up on time, planning, or organizing, or reprioritizing when life shifts.
But always consider the cost, and what you value most. A perfectly organized exterior? Or a completely surrendered interior?
You can’t live their lives, so teach and admonish with a light heart. Then pray to God for grace in all the things you think they should be doing, that might actually be on your legalistic list.
You can trust him to show them the way.
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