I think Christians may have a harder time dealing with mistakes than nonbelievers. Some of my friends who aren’t Christians have tremendous relationships with their kids. They have a great rapport with them, in part because they have a basic acceptance of their humanity, an understanding of their own innate weaknesses. That seems easier for nonbelievers to accept.
As Christians, we have very high standards for our kids, and perhaps rightly so. But that can also make us more intolerant of mistakes than we should be. When we aim for perfection, an inherently impossible standard to reach, we run the danger of not just encouraging our children to do better and to improve, but also of telling them they’re just not good enough and they will never be good enough.
But that’s a me problem, not a God problem. When you look at it from God’s point of view, I doubt He’s looking for perfection, since He knows it’s impossible for us to attain. He’s looking instead for a continuously better relationship with Him. Sometimes the moments we veer off course are the exact moments we swerve closer to our Lord. Sometimes when we feel as though God is grading us with an F, we’re actually getting an A. Why? Because we’re getting closer to the One who made us and realizing our dependence on Him. We’re depending on the payment of perfection that Jesus provided by dying for each of us.
This doesn’t mean God likes us to make mistakes or commit sins. He simply knows that we will and expects us to learn from them and not repeat those mistakes. So how do we turn our mistakes into lessons? How do we teach our kids how to deal with mistakes correctly, not flogging themselves over them, not by accepting them like they’re no big deal, but by growing from them?
In my family, it begins with a talk. If you were to ask my kids what I tell them about perfection, they’d say, “Oh, he says he’s not perfect. And we’re not perfect.” I’ve tried to plant that thought in their minds—that we’re all works in progress in God’s eyes.
There’s a big difference between “not good enough” and “not perfect.” When you’re talking about perfection, you’re talking about God’s standard of measure. To understand that we’re not perfect, and can never be perfect in God’s eyes, develops in us a healthy understanding of reality—God’s reality. We all fall short of God’s standard of perfection.
From there, we build in the theology of the acceptance of Christ and sanctification and trying by His power to do better. We can teach our kids that, when we fail, we must turn to God and ask for forgiveness. And by extension, doing this will help us teach how important it is to apologize to the people in our lives whom we’ve hurt through our mistakes and shortcomings.
This understanding of our own imperfections helps us avoid the modern-day legalism that endangers so many Christians. We in the Christian community need to learn to relax a little, to realize that perfection for our kids remains out of reach. Sure, we want them to learn and grow from their mistakes all the time; we will help them see that God wants us to live every day in a way that shows we are making progress. But we have to understand, and help our kids understand, that we all fail sometimes. And that failure is okay.
Let me repeat that: It’s okay for your kids to fail sometimes. Because that’s often how they learn the best.
It’s a tough balancing act, but it’s a challenge that all dads deal with at some point—and may even have opportunities to teach several times a day.
Turning a mistake into an opportunity
I had a moment like this with my son Trent not too long ago. He lied to me about finishing his math homework. When I discovered the truth, I sat him down for a talk. We talked about why it’s important to work hard in school. We talked about why lying, particularly to your father, is never appropriate. We talked about how we’re made in God’s image and how we need to strive to be more like Jesus every day.
I wanted to turn his mistake into an opportunity to learn and grow—not to make him feel like a failure (because he had failed) but to help him understand why it’s important to do better the next time.
It took time to get to this point, to understand that mistakes are just lessons in disguise. My frustration level when my boys were younger rose much higher than it does today. I can feel myself mellowing out. And I’m happy with that. I like it.
For me, it’s all about concentrating on the things I should concentrate on. The things I can teach. The love I can show. The ability, when something bad happens, to put my arm around my child and say, “It’ll be okay.”
That’s so important, because kids have such great fears about disappointing us or letting us down. They worry about consequences. And honestly, they may have to face big consequences for what they do. Just because we understand that kids make mistakes doesn’t alleviate the importance of trying to correct those mistakes. But we should always help our children understand that, even if they get punished for something, it isn’t going to separate them from our love.
Own up to your mistakes
And somehow in the middle of all that, as parents we must find a way to convey that we’re not perfect either. Now that doesn’t mean we should spill out our guts to our kids when they’re 5. They don’t need to hear about the time you tried pot in high school or about your sexual experiences in college. There may be a time and a place to talk with your kids about your less than God-honoring experiences, but sometimes what’s in the past is better served staying there for a while.
But when it comes down to the mistakes you make today, particularly the moments you wrong your own children, it’s important to confess and tell them you’re sorry, just as you’d expect them to confess and apologize to you.
It’s a wonderful model and an enriching moment to deal openly and honestly with your kids, to be able to say, “I’m sorry, I think I’ve offended you,” or to ask, “Have I hurt you in some way? Have I embarrassed you? Have I in the last week made you angry?”
I know families who do this around the dinner table during a family chat. It has to be a safe environment in which kids can answer questions honestly, without fear of punishment. They teach the kids that it’s safe to answer candidly and to transparently share their own feelings.
Parents need some training too. They have to resist the temptation to rationalize or correct their children. I know we feel strongly tempted to brush off a child’s hurt and concerns because when we do this exercise in my own house, I feel as tempted as anyone. I want to rationalize or explain why I did this or that. It’s hard to ask a really frightening question—“Have I done anything this week to offend you?”—and then just accept the answer, particularly when your kids are 12 or 13 or 14. So many things can offend kids who are that age.
It can be both hard and humbling. But it can also open the doors to an enriching honesty that’ll pay huge dividends later on.
Listen to Jim Daly on a recent FamilyLife Today® interview.