When my kids became teenagers, it felt like a ticking clock accelerating. The days are getting shorter and faster. They’re nearly adults. I have to get them ready.
I made so many mistakes as we first entered the teen years.
In my determination to teach them the ways of God, I would often leave out the most important part: forgiveness. I suppose subconsciously, I felt like grace would undercut the high standards I was trying to impart. It was the high standards that always felt like they were slipping as seasons of regression kept happening as their brains underwent a huge hormonal change.
I first learned to apologize to them when I wronged them. They would do something wrong and I would respond badly and lose my temper. That was the most common. So I started apologizing for my temper. That felt like a good baby step for me. It took admitting I was in the wrong, even when they were in the wrong too. I was hoping it would show them that we all need to own our part. It took taking the log out of my own eye before pointing out the sliver in theirs. I apologized often. Still, a teen once quipped back at me, “I wish you’d stop apologizing and start actually doing better.” I felt that. Honestly, it sounded a lot like my actions toward them. Insisting they forgive me wasn’t the same as giving them grace.
As the grace that God has shown me kept getting clearer and clearer, I realized I had left little room for grace for my kids. Instead, I was easily offended under some guise that I was more righteous, or standing up for righteousness.
Various mentors spoke into my life and my husband’s life. One told us it is better that our children fail while they are still in our home. That way we can teach them to fail, and how to get back up. This was the opposite that the world was telling us. It felt like letting them fail was bad parenting. But grace is what lifts us up. They need to know that grace lifts you up. The hope that love is still there, that we are known and loved—that is how any of us have power to try again the next day.
There was about a three year stretch where I don’t think one of my teens in particular said a kind word to me. I didn’t know a way out. I didn’t know how to fix it. I fasted and prayed. And as I did that, I found that it wasn’t her that was changing, but me. Compassion grew in me for all that was weighing on her. I started coming to her with more humility than authority. My questions became softer and less accusatory.
When I finally got her to open up, she told me I needed to allow her to have a bad day. Holding the perfection together was too much. She was tired. She can’t be all things to all of us.
Teens live in a fish bowl, now more than ever. Everyone has an opinion on their lives. Expectations are everywhere, and forgiveness is uncommon and even unknown in our culture. Be the place they know they can relax, be themselves, and be fully loved. I guarantee you they need it.
I was holding her to a higher standard than I held myself. I wanted so badly for her to not struggle with my same struggles that I came down hard with the law, instead of giving her the gospel that had kept me from drowning.
Slowly, as my kids approached adulthood, I found a transition taking place, where I became keenly aware that they were not just my sons and daughters physically. They were my brothers and sisters in Christ. As I wrestled through how much to correct, and when to correct, and when to discipline, and when to overlook, I found in my own heart the Spirit exposing my deep mistrust of grace.
If I give them too much grace, it will ruin them. I would have never said it, but I felt it. I did not want to be a doormat. I did not want spoiled children. I wanted them prepared for the world. And in all that preparation, I had turned parenting into a pseudo-faith of putting my faith in God’s law in heavy doses, while doling out the gospel in teaspoons (with a little dash of shame for even needing it).
The Holy Spirit kept pressing me, kept reminding me of all the grace I have received, and how it was his grace and kindness that kept me coming back to prayer.
With the stakes so high, could the gospel be trusted to do the work? I was running out of time before they reached adulthood. I didn’t want to mess this up. Everything about it felt counterintuitive. Parenting with grace, with both the law and the continuous gospel of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins became an act of faith. I had to just trust that grace would win the day.
“But the gospel doesn’t work! It doesn’t make sense!” I would pray. And I realized it was a lack of faith on my part. I didn’t believe the gospel was practical. I worked hard to get my kids to avoid needing forgiveness. The gospel felt like lowering the standard. The gospel felt like giving in and giving up.
I knew the doctrine we call “Simul Justus et Peccator” meaning that all Christians are simultaneously saint and sinner until the day we see Jesus face to face. So I had to train them to deal with sin, not just be constantly shocked that they dealt with sin. Training them to confess and bring their sin to the foot of the cross, not just once to start, but every time we find ourselves entangled again in sin. “The entire life of believers is one of repentance” the famous first of Luther’s 95 theses that kicked off the Protestant Reformation.
I saw them wrestle to admit wrongdoing, even when grace was guaranteed—just like me. We all started using a phrase of Luther’s, to “call a thing what it is.” (Luther’s 1518 Heidelberg Disputations #21) Don’t pretty up your sin. Don’t soften it. Bring the full weight of it to Jesus without added disclaimers—it’s not too heavy for him.
But teaching them the ways of God required that I extend unmerited forgiveness. It was foundational. In the end, I found that humanized our whole relationship. I was able to treat them as humans—not projects, not robots. Humans. Children of Adam, made from dust and dirt, having the breath of God in them.
Instead of going straight to taking away privileges, I started trying to build up in their hearts what sin had robbed from them. I aimed to see them holistically, knowing that both their bodies and souls needed care.
I started saying things like this:
“I’m on your side. Always. I’m going to fight for you even when you’re too tired to fight for yourself.”
“You don’t sound like yourself. It’s not like you to lash out. We’re going to call a thing what it is and sort the truth from lies. Because feelings are sometimes so big, it’s hard to tell the difference. Let’s talk it out”
“You sound stressed, and what you said hurt my feelings. That’s not ok. So here’s what we’re going to do. Sit and eat some food, take a timeout, relax, and then come back and let’s talk about it again once you’ve had a chance to catch your breath.”
“Being a teenager is rough. I don’t envy you. I see you. I’m trying to help you. You know, it’s going to be two steps forward, and one step back, but I don’t want to discourage you. That’s normal. You’re going to make it.”
“You’re shying away from telling the truth, and that’s a mistake. Because you’re afraid I won’t love you if I knew the truth, and I’m here to stubbornly show you that there is no truth that could stop me from loving you. Sometimes it takes courage to walk in truth. But it’s so good when you do—because that’s when relationships get deep and mean something. And I want that kind of relationship with you.”
“We’re going to work hard because it’s good for our mind, our body, and our relationships. We take care of each other in this family.”
My kids were aching for encouragement and hugs. They didn’t need to be toughed up from the world, they needed a haven from the world. They needed our home to be a retreat from the world, where they could just be, and know they’d be loved no matter what. They needed that to have courage to face the world.
They needed to know that the gracious blood of Jesus wasn’t just to get your salvation started, but is what sustained us, day in and day out.
As the hymn goes: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow. Because He lives, all fear is gone. Because I know He holds the future, and life is worth the living, just because he lives.”
No one teaches their children to sing: “because I’m good, I can face tomorrow. Because I hold myself to a higher standard, all fear is gone. Because I know the future is whatever I make of it, and life is worth the living, because I finally listened to my mom.” Living out my faith for my children meant that we had to live daily in light of the cross in order for our relationships to work.
If we don’t give them Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins, day in and day out, how can we expect them to be equipped?
Our hope is found in the risen Christ, not in my children forming their own righteousness. I needed to trust that as a parent, and stop continually acting toward my teens that salvation was in their own hands.
We shifted gears, teaching them to point their efforts where they belong: in the doctrine of vocation, where we excel in various pursuits for the purpose of loving and serving our neighbors. Our man-made righteousness has no place in knowing our standing before God, and our value as a person. That completely comes from Christ.
It’s in showing our teens forgiveness and compassion that they understand the value of Christ. It’s what fills them with hope and passion. It’s in understanding that our children are humans that we see their need for a savior, not just at conversion, but to sustain every day of their lives.
Gretchen Ronnevik loves writing about rich theology rooted in real life. She has a B.A. in English Literature from University of Northwestern, St. Paul. She is a mom to six kids and also works as a writer and speaker. She’s the author of Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted, and developed the training program Gospel Mentoring. She is the co-host of the Freely Given podcast and has written for TGC, Fathom Mag, and is a regular contributor at 1517.org. She lives in Minnesota on the family farm.