Our son came home, handed me a sheet of paper, and then turned to sit on the couch, making himself as small as possible.
“Read it,” my husband responded as he walked up behind me.
Our son, who gets upset when he hears us say “darn” or “hell,” regardless of the context, had gotten in trouble for telling a classmate to say the gold standard of profanities.
As it usually turns out, the story was way more complicated than the simple explanation on the piece of paper, but after getting clarification and apologizing to the friend’s mother, we were still left with a despondent little boy. It wasn’t just that he had gotten into trouble. He was convinced that his inexplicable slip-up meant that he was a bad kid and that he didn’t deserve our love anymore.
Thankfully, a lot of discussion and hugs later, he finally believed that he was neither a bad kid nor undeserving of his parents’ unconditional love. He had been reassured that he was a forgiven child of God and there was nothing he could do to change that.
The whole situation once again forced me to take careful stock of the kind of children that I want to raise and what matters most to me as they grow towards adulthood.
We are sinful human beings raising smaller sinful human beings who will face the same temptations that we experienced as children. My children are kind, loving, and generous. They love each other and their parents and they are the same towards their peers. But they are far from perfect. They can go from calmly playing a video game together to slamming doors in seconds. They yell at us, forget to finish chores, and lie to get out of trouble. We are well-aware that this is just the beginning. The teen years are approaching far too quickly and the sweet spot of parenting is slipping between our fingers. We know that this is the calm before the storm and all we can do is pray and hold on.
Every parent spends the first 18 years of their child’s life hoping that they won’t screw up. As a society we measure how we are doing by comparing ourselves to other families. We look at the behavior of children of all ages and often say “at least we’re not them.” We see the news stories and ask what those parents did wrong to have their children turn out “that way.”
But here’s the thing: In the end, I’ll know I was successful if I can be certain that I am sending genuinely good people out to live their lives. I’ll know that I did my job well if I send out children who do not just profess that they are Christians but love and treat others as Jesus would. I’ll know that we were good and faithful servants if our children leave our home ready to use their natural gifts and privilege to change their world.
Would I love to see my children find tremendous personal and financial success at whatever path they choose in life?
But for me success isn’t about the money in their pocket, the level of employment, or the size of their house. Those are all good things that will make their lives better and ease our parental worries once they are out of our home. But if they lack love and empathy for their fellow man I have failed. If they ignore the needs of others, or worse, gain success at the expense of those around them, I have failed. I want them to see the interconnected nature of life on earth so that they work to improve the lives of their weakest neighbors.
When our son came home with the note, I have to admit that one of my first thoughts was “what does his teacher think of us?” I was afraid that this one incident would reflect on us as parents or Christians or even me as a teacher at a Christian high school.
But he’s also a kid, a kid who is learning and inquisitive and exploring the world around him. Part of that exploration, for better or worse, involves language. As he gets older, that world will also include other temptations with stronger consequences for him and others. I know from experience and watching my own friends and siblings grow up that even “good” kids can get swept up into the allure of behaviors that challenge their upbringing.
By the time I reached adulthood, I had learned that morality is often not the same as goodness. I know some strictly moral people who are not good to other human beings and I know some apparently immoral people who are kind, generous, and treat all people the same.
We are all sinful. We have all fallen short. But I’m increasingly seeing people who claim moral superiority as evidence of their goodness while ignoring how that strict “morality” is hurting those around them. Do I want my children to hold onto morals that enrich their lives and are evidence of their Christian faith? Yes, but I don’t want my children to use that morality against those who do not see the world the same way they do. Their witness of faith should come from how people see their heart, not a quest for perfection.
I want my children to grow into mature adults who understand their identity as forgiven saints and use that identity to make their world a better place. Being good doesn’t mean they are perfect, it just means they learn from their mistakes, accept the consequences, and do better. My prayer is that if this is how they view their role in the world, they will also know that their parents will forgive their mistakes as well, trusting that we will love them unconditionally so they can come to us with any troubles they might be having. I don’t want them to be afraid that a moral slip-up will define the way that we see them, because that is not how God sees them either.
I want my kids to see morality as following Jesus’s example and not just acting as perfectly as possible. I want my kids to embrace the idea of “good trouble” and understand that doing the right thing isn’t always considered the socially appropriate thing. I don’t want them to believe that sacrificing for saying they are followers of Jesus is enough; I want them to be willing to sacrifice for being like Jesus. I want them to love mercy and walk humbly.
Ultimately I want to know that the children I send out into the world are focused on making it a better place, flaws and all. My prayer is that they know they are forgiven sinners working for the good of humanity, faithful servants until the end.