Raising Little Pharisees
Prior to moving to our existing neighborhood, we lived in a small townhouse about 20 miles west. We lived there for 8 years and had great relationships with our neighbors. There was something about the physical closeness of our homes that fostered a closeness among the neighbors. I had thought that neighborliness was a dead art until I moved here. We enjoyed some rich, deep, wonderful relationships with a very diverse group of neighbors. We raised our kids together, borrowed each other’s baking goods, and experienced tragedy together. So when we moved it was bittersweet. We had to leave people we had genuinely come to love.
Despite this sense of community, few of our neighbors were what you’d consider committed evangelical Christians. And so as our children grew, we had to navigate the tension of being “in this world” but not “of this world.” There were contexts we avoided–particularly some parties that we felt would not be good for us or for our children. And yet we always struggled with articulating this, because we didn’t want to come off as judgmental. I think we did okay, but we always wondered.
I’m telling this story because it was this context (and our current context as a family in a new neighborhood) that constantly provokes Angela and me to wrestle with raising our children with values (on the one hand) and teaching them to love people and make a difference in the world (on the other hand). I think there is a real danger, especially among conservative evangelicals, to fall off the horse on one side or the other. Most of us are aware of the danger of too much immersion in the culture that can negatively influence our kids away from God. That’s a substantial fear (real and imagined) that has motivated much of what we do in the church. It’s a concern worth having. As parents, we’re the curators of what influences the young minds God has entrusted us.
But it’s the other danger, a more subtle danger, that worries me most as a parent. I’m afraid that if I’m not careful, I may raise up little Pharisees, who so imbibe the values I teach that they use them as a cudgel with which to judge others. We have to be careful about doing this.
I think there are three areas where this is a real danger. I want to discuss them and how keeping the gospel narrative front and center can help keep us balanced:
1) In the area of entertainment choices and parenting styles. Every family has their own set of entertainment guidelines. It could be as loose as “whatever you want to watch/download/listen to” (I hope not!) to as strict as total separation from anything cultural (I also hope not!). Most families fall somewhere in the vast gray in between. This can be a challenge for us. There are certain television shows we don’t allow our kids to watch for a variety of reasons. It could be sexual content, it could be language, it could be the level of violence (meaning we don’t want to deal with 3 am nightmares), it could be disrespect, etc. But what happens when the family down the street allows their children to watch this? And what happens if that family is Christian, too? Or vice versa. Maybe we’re the more permissive family.
Growing up in church, I know this can be a cause of contention between families. Kids don’t always understand nuance and shades of gray. So, for instance, if we’ve told my daughter Grace that a certain show is not good and then she finds out her friends watch it, she’s liable to look at them differently and even point out their “sin.” If we’re not careful, we’ll raise her to be a little Pharisee and the self-appointed guardians of other families’ choices. So here is what we have done in our family. We not only enforce our values, but we also make sure we teach our kids the importance of demonstrating forbearance and mercy. So, for instance, when Grace comes home with an attitude of “So and so watches that show. They are bad. Are they even Christians?” (this conversation has really happened quite a few times), we jump in and say, “No, Grace, this family feels it’s okay to watch it. We respect their choices. They are good people, etc. It’s sinful to judge people this way.” We also try to have conversations about first being concerned about sin in our own hearts before we look for it in others. We also talk about certain choices that are not as clear in Scripture about which every family has to make choices. It’s a difficult tension, because we want her to have the courage to resist peer pressure and make wise choices and yet we don’t want to raise her as a do-gooder Pharisee willing to rat out those who don’t follow her legalistic list. We also have to be careful to distinguish between the gospel that saves and the wisdom of wise choices. We never want our kids to think that not watching Spongebob, for instance, equals the gospel. (If you think Spongebob is wholesome, I won’t judge you, I promise!)
2) In the area of engaging with unbelievers
One of the most difficult tensions is raising our children to love sinners on the one hand and yet live their lives in Spirit-directed holiness on the other hand. There have been times when my kids have heard of or even seen conversations about unbelievers and some of their lifestyle choices and have made some pretty harsh statements. Probably because they heard them from us. Probably because that’s how Christians often talk and think about those who have not yet find the grace, mercy, and love of Christ. It’s amazing how having children really filters your conversations and makes you think about the culture you are creating in your home and church and other environments.
To remedy this, we constantly have conversations about what our mission is on this earth. Why are we here? To look good or to love others into the Kingdom? We constantly have to remind our children of their own desperate need for the gospel, that we need it as much as “that person” who seems so far from God.
I’m really deeply burdened by this responsibility. I think Satan can make great use of children raised in good Christian homes who avoid all the vices and yet who have no ability to mingle with sinners and have no love in their heart for the people God has called them to reach. We can easily raise little, green-housed, bubble-wrapped Jonahs who actually don’t want God to save those terrible “Ninevites.” It’s important for us to raise our children with gospel-informed values that will keep them from the heartache of sinful choices and yet if I’m not careful, I’ll raise my children in such a way that they have no impact in the world. Jesus loved sinners. He ate with them. Spent time with them. Engaged in long conversations with them. He did say to sinners (like you and me, by the way), “Go and sin no more.” But Jesus’ heart was brimming with love for the world. I want that to exist in my heart so much that it spills into my home and is caught like a virus by my children (John 8:11). Let’s raise children broken by their own need for the gospel and humble enough to know that, by the grace of God, there they would go.
3) In the area of politics. I’m probably launching a hand grenade into the conversation here, but I’m going to do it anyways. I wonder if we are training our young kids, raised in Christian homes, to have proper respect for authority. I’m not simply talking about pastoral authority or the police and fireman. But people we may disagree with, such as our the President or members of Congress. If we’re constantly calling them crude names and joking and slandering public officials, if our Facebook timelines are full of that kind of thing, what are we modeling for our children? It’s humbling to think that what I do in moderation my kids may do in excess. Are we telling our kids it’s okay to disobey Scripture and sin by disrespecting those in authority (1 Peter 2:17; Romans 13: 1 Timothy 2:2).
My daughter Grace is 8, so she is not that fluent in some of the ongoing political discussions. But we have had discussions about certain policies and about the President and other public officials. In some of her homeschooling discussions, we’ve read about his path to the White House and the history of being the first African American President. I know some conservative Christians who would think this is a “sellout” or “compromise.” But I disagree. I think it’s important to first teach my kids to respect the office and the person holding the office. Now, there have been moments where we’ve had some discussions on the issues, particularly during the last campaign. I outlined a bit what both candidates believed and why I was voting for whom. But I worked hard to try to do it in a respectful way. Saying something like, “Daddy disagrees on some issues with this man, but I respect him and pray for his family.”
I think it’s important to teach our kids civility and grace at a young age. I’m not sure that we do this well all the time. We are still learning and growing as parents.