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Editors’ note: 

An earlier version of this article appeared at the Biblical Counseling Coalition.

It all led up to this moment. The endless, wearisome job of training, nurturing, and loving called “parenting” often seems to bear little fruit. Discouraged, bone-tired parents look through bloodshot eyes for scraps of evidence in their kids that all of this exhausting work actually accomplished something—anything. As sibling fights continue to rage, attitudes flare up like gas in flames. And after you’ve spoken the same guiding words more times than you can count, you wonder if you’ve utterly and irreversibly failed your poor children.

But then, this night! It all seemed worth it after this night. What happened on this glorious night? My oldest, teenage son confessed to some sin he’d willingly engaged in. Why would I consider this night, this moment of confession, a groundbreaking moment in our parenting journey? Just this: he didn’t get caught, but freely confessed.

He walked sheepishly into our bedroom and asked, “Mom and dad, can we talk?” He proceeded to openly confess his sins, speak frankly about his conviction, and inform us of the steps he’d taken to make things right in his life. As we asked probing questions, he spoke of his distaste for sin and his realization that he cares far too much what people think of him. He talked with joy about his relationship with Jesus being restored as the burden of guilt and shame had been lifted through confession and forgiveness.

We discussed strategies to help him fight sin in the future. We discussed the gospel, how it frees us to live honestly before God and others. We told him, as we often have in the past, that we need Christ’s forgiveness just as much as he does. After we prayed together, he thanked us. Then he walked out of our bedroom, unaware his mother’s heart was about to burst with gratitude to God for this beautiful moment.

Providing a Context for Confession​​​​

Our kids are sinners; yours are, too. This fact may seem so elementary to mature Christian ears that we rush past it in our hunt for more useful bits of parenting advice to help us along the way. Interestingly, however, this “elementary” truth is often the first bit of theology we inadvertently kick to the curb in our parenting endeavors. How else do you account for the disbelief many parents express when sin rears its ugly head in the lives of their children? We didn’t raise her this wayHe knows better. Such statements often roll off the tongues of shocked parents who are thrown off their game when sin leaks out of their children’s hearts. Perhaps we ought to don some rubber gloves and rummage through those seemingly impractical bits of theology collecting dust at the curb.

There are several temptations we’ll face as parents in exchange for the cold, hard truth that sin is alive and kicking in our kids’ hearts.

Its Tempting to Believe . . .

“Our family does not do that!” 

Many parents fall prey to the lie that we can discipline the sin out of our children. Of course, we have a call to teach our children about the evils of sin, to warn them about its consequences, and to guide them away from its luring temptations. Children can and do learn to avoid sin for many different motives. However, we must parent realistically and biblically regarding the depth of their fallenness. Rather than unintentionally presenting the fallacy of perfectionism with self-righteous declarations about how “our family” does not do such and such, we ought to take advantage of sinful moments to present a gospel sufficient enough to cover every sin they’ll ever face. We ought to talk frankly about the deceitfulness of sin as it presents alternatives to Jesus for our happiness. We ought to be honest about how easy it is to fall prey to sin’s lies. We ought to assume our children will lose some of their battles. Though we may fear a fatalism that seems to expect or give license to sin, we’re providing a context for authentic gospel transformation. If we treat sin as something “this family doesn’t do,” our kids will have no category for the sins they’ll inevitably encounter in themselves. Worse, we risk limiting their opportunities to bask in God’s transforming forgiveness and grace.

“I would never do that!”

While it’s good to want our kids to look to us for guidance through life’s obstacles, it can be tempting to hide our own weaknesses. Rather than celebrating God’s grace toward sinners like us, we present ourselves as the ever-strong conquerors of sin, models worth following. Unfortunately, however, this posture often results in our kids walking away from rather than toward us when they begin intelligently struggling with sin. Feeling weak and unsuccessful, they wonder what went wrong with them. Though it may seem counterintuitive to let down your guard and reveal personal sin to your children, by doing so you’re teaching them not to depend on themselves, you, or any other mere human as their example. Instead, you’re pointing them toward the sturdy, never-failing resources of Christ.

“It’s not my child’s fault!”

Desperate to believe our children are innocent victims of outside influences, we can easily play the blame game when they get caught up in sin. The business of facing their sinful hearts head-on seems too risky and daunting. But blaming outside influences stunts our children’s opportunities to deal honestly with their corrupt hearts in a gospel context. Since we have a big gospel that deals with big sin, we don’t need to fear what comes from their hearts. Instead of blame-shifting, then, let’s give them the chance to be humbled by their sin in order to be amazed by their Savior.

What do our kids need from us in preparation for the journey of life? I want to impart many things to my children before they venture off on their own. Yet I am convinced what they need most is the full-bodied gospel that involves a down-to-earth theology of sin. They must learn to travel often down the gospel road of confession, forgiveness, and freedom in Christ. That night my son confessed, I felt he was one step closer to being truly prepared to depend on the gospel in this broken world.