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3 Ways to Avoid Legalism in Parenting

When my friend Mendy was in middle school, she had a growing interest in Jesus — until the day she went home wearing makeup. During lunch, she and a friend sequestered themselves in the bathroom and gave each other a makeover. Mendy couldn’t wait to unveil her grownup style to her mom. Instead of offering her tween approval, Mendy’s mom lectured Mendy on the evils of worldliness as she roughly washed the makeup from her daughter’s face.

Can you say “legalism”?

Legalism is obsessive adherence to the letter of the law, often at the expense of the spirit. We could argue that while spirit refers to the law’s intent, it is also the heart of a child. You see, a better definition for legalism might be: adherence to rules to gain favor with God or people by doing certain things and not doing other things, without concern for the heart. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many conflicts with the legalists of His day. He wants our hearts. And He wants the hearts of our children.

Emphasize relationship when you present family rules

Prior to his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road, the apostle Paul was fixated on the rules. Then he met Jesus.

While God’s boundaries are important for us to teach our children, they shouldn’t overshadow our kids’ relationship with Jesus — or with us. As parents, Bob and I tried to keep that balance between rules and relationship with our children. When eighth-grade Lexi asked to attend a cast party at midnight after a play, we were concerned that she’d be hanging out with high school kids who were older than she was.

Instead of saying no, we kept the answer relational: “Sure, Mom will come with you since it’s so late.” We said yes as much as we could, so when we did need to enforce a rule that had a moral basis, it stood out as important.
Don’t confuse God’s commands with “family preferences”

You won’t find any Scriptures that say your children can’t have a smartphone, listen to a pop culture singer or wear makeup. There are Scriptures that make those decisions defendable “family preferences,“ though. So call them that, and bend when you can. (Perhaps that pop culture artist sings some sweet songs. A phone in and of itself isn’t evil, when kids use it appropriately. Light makeup can cover imperfections and create a healthy look.)

My daughters never loved our family preferences about clothing and modesty, even though we taught them why we’d chosen our preferences based on biblical teaching. (Let’s admit it: Some of those short skirts are cute.) Since there’s not a Bible verse that tells us exactly how long a skirt should be, we had to admit the “no mini skirt” rule was from Mom and Dad. Our daughters lobbied and used the relationship we’d emphasized to discuss their opinions. So we modified our rule to “no mini skirt without leggings or jeans under it.”

Introduce kids to those who live out their relationship with God

I love this verse: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3). Everything that is Christ’s is ours when we are “in Christ.” Paul went from strict legalism to relationship. He became caught up in the all-consuming goodness of Jesus, not the all-consuming futility of keeping the law.

When Robby, our first, became a middle schooler, we intentionally connected him to Pastor Don, a youth leader who made Christian community winsome through relationship. For example, he and all the boys in the youth group shaved their heads together in honor of one of the boy’s cancer fight.

My husband asked if he would invest in spending time with our son, modeling a passion for Jesus. We wanted him to have fun “in Christ” so he would desire to measure the success of his life by Him. Today, my now 27-year-old son serves as a youth leader, in part because of the impact Don made on his life.

Make no mistake, your child will face temptation. Don’t you? What pulls you back to godly behavior? A rule? Or a passionate encounter with someone who is so full of Jesus that you want to be that way, too? Be that person for your children and let love — not legalism — overflow in your family.

Dannah Gresh is a speaker and the author of The 20 Hardest Questions Every Mom Faces.

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