Grace-Filled Parenting for the Legalist Child

Acevedos119 copy.jpg

Parenting is something that has been heavy on my mind since before I ever felt the first symptoms of pregnancy. I think I had a healthy fear of parenting. I knew the importance of bringing a child into the world and I wanted to do it right. 

Of course, there really is no absolute right way to be a parent. Kids are all different. Some are shy and quiet, others are loud and rambunctious. Some kids are naturally obedient people-pleasers and others are born with a curious rebellious streak. As a parent you have to be willing to adjust your sails. Even with kids within the same family you might have to make certain changes and accommodations to your parenting style. 

I have read several excellent books on parenting. Many of them have focused on giving your children grace. Children are constantly being told that they need to behave a certain way and obey authority no matter what. Sometimes I feel as if there isn’t a lot of room for kids to just be kids. They’re told to be quiet and yelled at when they spill a cup of juice. And I get it, I’m naturally a strict parent and I tend to run a tight ship. I’m a recovering legalist and constantly have to remind myself that I am a recipient of grace thanks to the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. 

I’ve had to breathe and remind myself that I don’t have to be perfect to be loved by God. Most kids seem to naturally get this. I look at my daughter and she is not at all phased by the mistakes she makes. She knows we love her and she doesn’t strive for perfection. She dances around our living room with abandon completely secure in who she is and her position in this family.

And then I look at my son. He’s like a mini-me. If I had to guess I would say he is a 1 on the enneagram, the Perfectionist. He is the first to self-punish when he makes a mistake. He has very little grace for himself when he messes up. I wonder if these little legalist children are forgotten about because they display desirable behavior. They listen and obey and do the right thing. So we think, “oh, they're fine, nothing to see here.” That’s just not the case. 

At the beginning of the school year Liam had to do one of those “all about me” projects. He was told to complete a sentence which started, “I am special because…” He wrote, “I am good.”

I am special because I am good. 

Something about that sentence rubbed me the wrong way. 

I mean, yes, in many ways he is good. He listens well. He’s generally obedient. He completes his school work. He cleans up his toys. But no one is good all the time. There are times when he is bad. Is he to believe that when he is bad that he is no longer special, no longer loved?

The gospel is not about making bad people good. The gospel is about making dead people alive. I don’t want Liam growing up thinking: A) I am good. I don’t need Jesus. I am already good all on my own without Him. B) When I am good, then I deserve love. When I am bad, I don’t deserve love. God only loves me when I am good. 

Here is the truth: Liam is a sinner. Sometimes he does good things and sometimes he does bad things. God loves Liam. He loves him just as he is whether he is “good” or not. God wants to bring Liam to abundant life. He doesn’t want to make Liam good, He wants to show him true life which is found only in Jesus Christ. 

So how do I practically communicate this message to my son in everyday life? How do I show him the grace of God? How do I help him understand grace and leave legalism behind?

These are the questions I ask myself everyday. While I have come up with a few answers, I am still learning and growing. Remember, I am a recovering legalist and it is easy for me to slip into that mode, especially with my children. 

The first thing I try to do is to go easy on the punishments. As I said before, Liam usually self-punishes when he makes mistakes. He is flooded with feelings of shame almost instantly. Since that is the case I try to take it easy on him when he makes mistakes or disobeys. I don’t want to reinforce the idea that he has to get it right every time. I want him to understand that I love him and God loves him no matter what. There have been many times when I have stopped to pray with him in the midst of a hectic situation. In my prayer I ask God to help Liam to make good choices but I also ask the Holy Spirit to comfort him and know he is forgiven. I correct his behavior when needed, but I try to address the heart behind the behavior. As I’ve told him before, “Yes, I want you to do the right thing, but I want you to have a good attitude, with love.” 

I also believe in talking everything out with him. When Liam becomes fixated on perfection (like making sure his homework is just so or that every item on his chore list is checked off) I try to let him know that it’s okay if it’s not perfect. I don’t want to dismiss his feelings because I don’t think that’s helpful. If I dismiss him and say his feelings don’t matter, he will feel resentful. Instead I try to tell him, “I understand this is important to you and you want to do a good job. It’s admirable that you want to do it right. But sometimes there are other things that are more important.” For example, if Liam didn’t make his bed in the morning because he was helping his sister make a LEGO creation, I don’t think he should feel bad about it. You know what’s more important than making the bed and checking it off your list? Playing with your sister and making her feel loved. I want him to see the big picture in life. Do I want him to make his bed? Sure. But I don’t want him to be so intense and fixated on the image of perfection that he forgets that he is loved whether he makes the bed or not. 

When Liam was younger he memorized this affirmation that I would constantly tell him, “God loves me. Even if I make a mistake, God still loved me. Even if I don’t do the right thing, God still loves me.” Liam already knew he should “do the right thing,” he needed to learn that he was loved whether he followed through with doing the right thing or not. 

My daughter is the opposite. She knows she is loved, she needs more help in learning to make good choices because Lord knows that child tries to be sneaky in her disobedience. 

I don’t have all this parenting thing figured out. I wish I had more confident answers to give. All I know is that I want me kids to know they are loved (by me and by God) and I want to be consistent in my parenting choices. 

Do you have a legalistic child? How do you adjust your parenting to help them comprehend God’s grace?