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How Should a Parent Respond to Public Humiliation?

It happens to every parent, but it comes when you least expect it. You might call it total public humiliation. 

That may sound like a humorous term, but it’s no laughing matter. It’s embarrassing and shocking.

Initially, you might imagine the toddler meltdown at the grocery store. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I have in mind the older child—a teenager or young adult—who is seemingly well-behaved. They don’t have an attitude of rebellion on the surface.

Then some secret sin is exposed. Maybe it has to do with the internet or social media. Perhaps it’s an offense so grievous that school officials are involved. Perhaps you have to sit down with other parents. 

The transgression is horrifying to you. They sinned for all the world to see.

What Will You Do?  

Like most families, ours has had those moments. Yours will, too. God pulls back the heart’s cesspool cover, and the filth is obvious for all to see. 

What will we do? The best time to prepare for that moment is now, before it happens. There are multiple possible reactions. 

  • We can minimize it. One reaction is to downplay the sin—to try and sweep it under the rug. If an authority figure is involved, we might say he or she is blowing it out of proportion. Or we might nitpick the official’s actions as unjust.
  • We can deny it. Similar to the first reaction, we can try to just move on. There will be no discussion of the issue. Discussing awkward sins is simply too difficult, so rather than talking it through, we move directly to punishment.
  • We can yell at them. If the first two reactions minimize the situation, this one maximizes and blows it up. It takes all our feelings of humiliation and shame and unloads them on our child. While strong reactions may sometimes be justified to help our children grasp the seriousness of the sin, this response is usually inflamed by embarrassment.
  • We can steward it. This, of course, is the most difficult response. After taking a deep breath, we can ask, “How can we bring the gospel to bear on our hearts and on our child’s heart that’s just been exposed?”

Here are five ways we can steward this crisis well.

1. Gain God’s perspective.

God has given you a moment where secret sin has been exposed. He knew about it all along, and out of his loving discipline he’s revealing it now. This moment is his grace to our children. We now have a unique chance to walk them through true repentance. We can speak of God’s grace in revealing the sin and wanting to work on their character. And we can walk through full repentance and restitution.

2. Thank God for it.

I realize this one might seem unrealistic. Thank God for the sin? For humiliation? For the fact that the whole church knows about your child’s rebellion? Yes, we can and should thank God. He has graciously pulled back the illusion of secrecy. He has both your and your child’s attention. And he can use the shock to draw a child closer to himself. Which would you rather have: A lukewarm teen with hidden sin, or an exposed, convicted teen who fears God? I know several young adults who look back at a time like this as instrumental to their spiritual growth. God had arrested their attention.

Which would you rather have: A lukewarm teen with hidden sin, or an exposed teen who fears God?

3. Don’t make it about you.

As an ashamed parent, it’s easy to make the offense about you. Mary certainly did (Luke 2:48). Yes, children should honor their parents, but ultimately it’s not about how you appear to the world. God has given your child the ability to make choices. They, not you, are responsible. If your ego is so fragile that it’s broken by something they do, that perhaps reveals as much about your heart as theirs. Your reaction exposes the parenting idols in your heart.

4. Walk together with grace.

A crisis gives us a chance to identify with our children in their sin. We are all broken, after all. What a chance to make much of the love of Jesus who washes us clean. Even as we enforce restitution or payment for the offense, we have a unique chance to identify with them in their mess.

5. Move toward them in love.

Again, this crisis provides a time to connect more deeply with your child. We often try to parent on cruise control, don’t we? An event like this knocks us off cruise control. It reminds us that maybe we need to reconnect over something like a regular breakfast date. How can this crisis bring you closer together?

Big But Not Grown

Older children are a huge blessing. But they—like us—have more growing to do. Sometimes, in his grace, God exposes that need for growth by exposing the depth of their sin.

Yes, it’s embarrassing and humiliating, but it’s a chance to learn and internalize life lessons to God's glory. Thank the sovereign Lord for this moment. Humble yourself. God is still at work—even in your worst-case scenario. 

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