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When does a child change from crying baby to cry-baby?

Sometime after the single candle is blown out on that first cake, after walking has been mastered and talking has begun, many parents start thinking of their child differently. I know I did. Over the space of months, as our helpless infant reveals personality and preferences, we start to see those tears differently. No longer a sweet milky bundle to be rocked and soothed, our child became an opinionated sinner whose cry of complaint provokes more parental shushing than sympathizing.

“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15). Grumbling and crocodile tears are as common at my house as I suspect they are at yours. But my children cry lots of real tears, too, and I have not always been good at weeping with those little ones who weep.

Weeping with Our Little Ones

We parents rightly want our children to depend on God’s sovereign care, and we want them to avoid the sin of wilderness murmuring. But, too often, by reason of our own human frailty and indwelling sin, we fall into the pattern of Job’s counselors and reduce our response to our children’s sorrow to “God made that bed, now lie in it.”

What if we came alongside our children, no longer as military drill sergeants with a program of enforced stoicism, but as fellow sufferers under the curse? What if we accepted that life in a fallen world is hard—for adults and toddlers and teens—and gave our children holy tools to express their grief? What if we taught our children to lament?

This is something I have tried and failed and tried again over the years. And it’s something that the recent controversy over Calvinist lament has prodded me to take up again.

Why do we so often fail? At times, I think, we parents reluctantly believe that our children are actually afflicted. Perhaps their childhood challenges—a small scratch, a broken toy, a playground tiff—seem so insignificant to us that we don’t adequately appreciate our children’s real grief.

Sometimes, too, admitting our child’s genuine suffering means acknowledging we caused it. Though we carefully seek fairness and empathy as we make rules, discipline, and mediate sibling conflicts, we occasionally make the wrong judgment, and our child suffers. It takes humility to realize that our parental sins may be a legitimate reason for complaint.

We also may want to believe that we can provide so well for our children that they would never grieve. But “we know that the whole creation has been groaning together . . . and not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Rom. 8:22-23). As much as we would like think that our kisses and healthy meals and watchful shepherding would alleviate the effects of the curse, it cannot be done. A puppy gets hit by a car, a neighborhood friend starts a rumor, and the words of Scripture are sometimes hard for young minds to understand. Children, even well-loved children in godly homes, will groan.

Our children are prone to whining, of course. Stubborn insistence on a second ice cream cone is no true lament. But sorrow over the one his brother knocked to the floor may be.

Where Can We Go for Help?

In teaching our children godly lament, we need help. The children of Jesus’ day knew a dirge to sing (Matt. 11:16-17), but I doubt if many modern children have a vocabulary for complaint, a righteous framework for expressing their sorrow over circumstances from death to injury to injustice.

We train them to confess their sins when the horror of Calvary is still hazy in their young minds. Why should lament be different? By leading our children to cry out to God in distress, we give them structures that they will fill with a lifetime of maturing emotions. And there is perhaps no better place to turn than the book of Psalms, what John Calvin called “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul,” in which “there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”

Where churches no longer sign psalms as they did in Calvin’s Geneva, or where this inspired poetry has been reduced to cherry-picking the more cheerful verses to pair with upbeat music, it is unlikely that our covenant children will regularly take on their lips the words of the psalmist: “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” (Psalm 13:2a) But they should.

Mark Futato calls the laments “psalms of disorientation.” In his book Joy Comes in the Morning, he writes:

Our lives are not always well oriented. . . . The laments or songs of disorientation were written for times such as these. These are times when you may feel tremendously perplexed or utterly forsaken or paralyzed by fear or overwhelmed with anger or lost in despair. . . . The psalms of disorientation give us permission to—and show us how to—let the tears and feelings flow.

As I read those words, I was reminded of how well they describe the condition of children in distress: perplexed, paralyzed, overwhelmed, and lost. And what does a child do when the baseball game is rained out, the stomach bug descends, and the promised birthday party invitation never arrives?

Thus, we sing the psalms in our family worship. Not just the happy parts but the groans, too. And we resolve to memorize with our children—along the usual verses about God’s character and our Christian duty—the divinely inspired words of lament.

My hope is that by teaching my children a structure for their lament, the Spirit will ultimately use it for their salvation. I pray that giving them holy words of sorrow will bear fruit—not just to express frustration over bad circumstances, but to mourn their own sin.

My heart’s desire is that my children and I would be marked by “godly grief [which] produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10).