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Forgiveness as a Primary Principle for Family Life

Adam and Eve had a perfect setting in which to begin their marriage. No stress. No deadlines for work or payments. Just a blissful environment in which to live and commune with God. But it did not remain that way. They sinned. Sin broke everything. Their relationship with God. Their relationship with each other. And when children came, their relationship with their children came with brokenness. Brokenness in relationships makes living as a family unit stressful. Within those relationships family members do and say things that are sinful, and therefore make family life a perpetual place of repentance and forgiveness.

While the above is true in spousal relationships, the focus of this article is to apply this principle to parenting. A background piece to this article is how children develop a concept of morality.  When children are first born, parents meet their needs unconditionally without expecting anything in return. In a sense, we are a child’s first concept of a god who unconditionally loves and provides for their needs.  This period of childhood lasts approximately eighteen months.  There is some variation to this time frame and parents generally will recognize when it’s time to put some limits on the meeting of needs. One parent described the moment her child passed into the accountability phase of parenting.  They were in a store and the child wanted a piece of candy at the check-out counter.  The parent said “No, we are going to get Happy Meals at McDonalds, so you need to wait a few minutes”. The parent watched the child’s reaction and saw her clearly decide to be rebellious. The tantrum was loud, long, and excessive. So, the parent left the merchandise behind, went home without lunch at McDonalds and fed the child a sandwich and milk, followed by a prompt nap. It is at this point that the child’s moral development begins to recognize that this loving parent who meets all my needs also has some conditions and will set limits on my behavior. With time and consistency, the child internalizes these ideas and thus can better understand the concept of God being both full of provision and having some expectations he desires to be met. (However, following the law does not save us, nor does failing to keep the law condemn us. Salvation is from Christ alone.) 

Many parents begin parenting with a list of “things their children will never do”. Once a child arrives in their home, frequently that list is promptly fulfilled by the child. With children who arrive at home by birth by, things go much smoother in the milestones described above.  Some children arrive in their families by foster care or adoption.  Most of these children have experienced significant trauma before their arrival in their “new home” with varying degrees of “hurt” in their background. For these children, the entry may not be as smooth.

For hurt children the concept of a parent who loves you and will meet your needs and has expectations for your behavior is foreign.  The lessons children learn by living in a chaotic, neglectful, or abusive environment may cause them to enter your home kicking and screaming as did the toddler in the above example.  The difference is they do not trust you to meet their needs and not hurt them, and they are likely in much bigger bodies.

Children who emerge from trauma filled lives and enter your home will likely do many “things against the rules” of the family, church, school, and sometimes local and state governments.  These behaviors generate many emotions in the parent.   In addition, the foster/adoptive parents likely entered fostering and adopting to help a child and thought appreciation from the child would follow.  This can leave the parent feeling frustrated, angry, and bewildered. As these feelings build and build over time, frequently the parents ask for the child’s removal from the home. In addition, the parent frequently severs their relationship with the child.   As an adoption professional for over thirty years, I have watched this cycle repeat itself many times.  But there is a solution, and yes, its Biblical!

Back to the beginning of the article.  Forgiveness is the key to resolve much of the cycle of “child maladaptive behavior/parental punitive response and prevent the child from losing another family.  Initially, forgiveness may only be on one side of the relationship: the parent forgiving the child. Repeatedly. And over small and large offenses.  (Do not assume that I mean no consequences, but that’s a topic for another time.) We are Biblically mandated to forgive; Colossians 3:13, James 5:16, Ephesians 4:31-32Matthew 18:21-22, Luke 17: 3-4.  This mandate applies to our neighbor, our spouses, and our children.  And apparently, we are mandated to forgive many times.  In addition, an attitude of forgiveness from the parent to the child assists the parent to adjust expectations they have for the children in their home.  Just as God is not surprised when “parents’ sin”, neither should we be surprised when our children sin.  (Although understand God is grieved by our sin as we are grieved when our children misbehave/sin.

In effort to keep this article in line with a “short read”, I will quickly add a few features to consider as parents.

1)      Take time to examine if what your child did is sin or is it developmental in nature.  And keep in mind that there may be times when a child’s behavior warrants removal from the home, but parents are not absolved of forgiving the child and or in finding ways to support the growth and development of the child while they live elsewhere. Examples: a seven-year-old who can’t sit still during church is a developmental issue, whereas a seven-year-old who repeatedly injures other children is sinful (even if it was learned elsewhere as acceptable response to frustration and anger it is sin). Parents should generally be supportive of developmental issues and help the child by changing their expectations as a parent, making environmental changes such as taking breaks in the back of the room or going to nursery or play area, or coaching the child on appropriate behavior in church settings without major consequences. Injuring others, , at age seven, while possibly a cultural learned behavior, needs correction.  The consequences could include having to stay within arms reach of the parent, removing play time for a short while, removal of the toy causing the disagreement, or other logical consequences.

2)       Ask yourself if there is something in your history that is making you overreact to the behavior the child exhibits. Example:  If you have been sexually abused, you may find dealing with children’s sexual behaviors challenging or if you were spanked for every offence you committed as a child, you may feel you need a physical consequence for the child’s behaviors. Please note, regardless of your view of physical consequences such as spanking or slapping/tapping hands, it is not legally allowed for foster parents under any circumstances until the adoption is finalized. (And a note on that…please talk this topic of spanking through with a counselor or adoption specialist prior to doing so after the adoption is finalized.) Spanking a child with a traumatic background may trigger behavior in the child or possibly escalate your own behavior.

Find a consultant that understands trauma responses and determine how the behavior can be used to teach new behaviors to the child: such as using your words to express anger, walking way, finding an adult to stand by, or making a choice as a parent that your child cannot handle play without supervision at this point in their life.

3)      When you make mistakes in parenting, be willing to forgive yourself, ask for assistance, be open to talking through the mistake and developing new skills to deal with difficult behaviors in the children in your home. If you do not ask God to forgive your sin/mistakes in parenting, the result may be that you “give in” out of guilty feelings to appease the child you wounded. The other end of the spectrum of parental responses in this situation is that you “burn out” and request the child to be removed.

4)      Failure to forgive the child will impede relationship building with that child and may also affect you spiritually.  Read Colossians 3:13,18-21, Ephesians 4:26-27 and 32, Mathew 5:39 and 18:23-35, Luke 6:17,3-4,23-35 for more information.

Final thought, forgiveness does not mean reconciliation always occurs.  There are situations where the child has endangered or hurt one or more family members in such a manner which makes it impossible to reconcile.  However, I find these situations to be far and few between regarding this topic. In general, especially with children, the goal should be reconciliation with the family unit as early as possible. The family unit is God’s foundational place for children to develop into healthy adults.  When reconciliation is not possible, then a plan should be made for how the child will be transitioned and the behavior addressed so the child can continue to grow and develop in as healthy a manner as possible.  Multiple moves for children in foster care and adoption are traumatic and need to be addressed so the child continues to move from home to home.  Rolling stones grow no moss, children who frequently move do not grow attachments to parental figures in their lives. 

Postscript thought…When Jesus reconciles us with God the Father, there is no danger that He will offend against us, as he is sinless, thus reconciliation is amazing and safe for us. However, with humans, forgiveness is a “must do”, whereas reconciliation could leave some members of the family vulnerable to additional pain and damage. The general principle of is, “keep the healthy, healthy” and protect the vulnerable members of the family. 

-Candy Barr

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