Contrition: Five Steps to Freedom
What happens when wrongdoing becomes a habit? What happens when despite your best efforts, your child continues to lie, for instance?
It can take you by surprise, especially if you’ve had a couple kids you had to correct about something only once or twice to get them back on track. What happens when one continues to break your trust, so you begin to question everything he says? Did he really make his bed? Feed the cat? Have permission to borrow that plastic rocket from his friend next door?
Maybe it’s because with more kids I’ve had more confrontations with ongoing problems than less-encumbered moms, but I’ve been extra motivated to nip negative behavior patterns in the bud. Whether it’s a major problem like lying or stealing or an annoying habit like whining or nail biting, I know I need to equip my child with whatever it takes to get over it before one of the younger kids decides to try it our herself!
That’s how I came up with my Five Steps to Freedom.
Put together through many sessions in the laundry room (where I’ve always done my best thinking), my plan began with an appreciation for the wonderful gift God has given us in our ability to change.
Kids aren’t the only ones with sin in their lives, after all. What do we grown-ups do when we find God spotlighting some area of our lives He’d like to see more conformed to His image? Most of us don’t find it easy to deal with correction. But since becoming a believer, I’ve discovered that a follower of Christ never needs to fear, resist, or feel helpless when confronted with character flaws. Because we know through God’s grace, we never have to stay the same. I become better when I’m wiling to do two simple yet profound things: admit my need, and ask God’s help.
I was well into adulthood when I learned how simple this is. I didn’t want my children to have to wait that long. How could I equip them to accept correction without fear or defensiveness? Was there a way to help them embrace the need for change in their lives? How could I make it easier for them to become all that God intended them to be?
In the face of bad habits, I wanted to do more than change their behavior; I wanted to affect my children’s hearts. I wanted them to develop the confidence to meet their problems head-on and to find joy in change.
If this sounds like something you want to try with your children, there are two basic requirements:
- 1. Become a model. Use the steps yourself, embracing the need for change in your own life.
- 2. Be willing to take the time to walk your children through the steps needed for change – carefully and lovingly for success.
Many of the corrections we give our children are on-the-spot reproof. Most of the time we find ourselves dealing with problems as they occur, when our emotions and their defenses are high. Though this type of correction is necessary, its success is limited, usually of short duration. It doesn’t equip the child to make a permanent change. When you find yourself correcting the same child for the same thing over and over, you will know it’s time to release yourself and your child from the bondage of a negative behavior pattern. It’s time to try what I’ve found works.
When you’ve identified an ongoing problem (whining, carelessness, or destructive behavior), spend some time preparing for a special talk with your child. Ask God for wisdom, guidance, and strength. Ask Him, through you, to touch the heart of the child He loves. At some time when things are going well, and your child is not in trouble, arrange for some quiet time to sit down together.
1. Describe the problem
“Tommy, we need to talk about something really important. You’ve lied to me several times in the past two weeks. Lies are like weeds in a garden: if we don’t get rid of them, they spread and take over. [Children need illustrations rather than abstractions.] The more you lie, the harder it will be to stop. I love you, and I want to help you before the lying gets bigger. I know with God’s help you can learn to tell the truth all the time.”
2. Discuss the moral basis
It’s a sin to lie. Remember the commandment: ‘Thou shall not bear false witness.’ God wants us to tell the truth. And remember Jesus told us He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Think how important the truth is if Jesus himself is the Truth.” (Of course, things like nail biting and whining are not sins, but bad habits, so just talk about them in terms of self-improvement, being the best we can be.)
This is a good place to bring the Bible to show your child specific references. Even if your child is not yet reading, this will leave an impression of our reliance on God’s Word for wisdom in handling our everyday problems.
3. Outline the consequences
“Since lying is a sin, it separates you from God. God wants to keep you near to Him. He wants you to tell the truth, no matter how hard it is. And your daddy and I – though we love you very much – will not be able to trust you. We’ve already felt how uncomfortable that is. When you always tell the truth, you let people know they can count on you.”
Here you can offer illustrations from familiar stories with relevant themes – in this instance, Peter and the Wolf. This is also the time to set up potential punishments or rewards: for example, nail polish for a nail biter who calls it quits, making restitution for damaged property, writing lines for disrespect.
4. Ask for a commitment to change
“I have confidence in you. And I know if you ask for God’s help, He’ll help you give up this bad habit. He’ll give you strength to always tell the truth. If you want to change, the first step is to make a decision. Are you willing to stop lying?”
5. End with encouragement and prayer
“When I was young someone once told me that with God all things are possible. I know that’s true because He’s helped me with many changes I’ve needed to make in my own life. I remember when I had a problem with being mean to my sister. I asked God to help me change, and He did. If you ask God to help you, I know He will. Let’s pray together and ask Him to help you always tell the truth.”
Here I’ve scripted a one-dimensional example of what you might say to your child, but let him talk to you too. If you’re discussing your child’s nail biting and realize it’s being caused by anxiety because of a new baby in the house, be sensitive to the fact that you may need to do some work to help your child feel more secure. Sometimes bad habits or behavior are symptoms of deeper problems. Only through careful listening will you learn if there is more to the behavior than meets the eye. Ask God for guidance.
Your part begins now
Once you’ve taken your child through the five steps, there are two more you must do on your own.
- Continued prayer
- Close observation of your child’s behavior. You need to know when your child has shown the smallest progress, so you can encourage him mightily.
When I shared the Five Steps with my daughter Sophia, she didn’t stop whining immediately, but I stayed on the lookout to detect the smallest change in tone. When I saw even the slightest change, I’d hug her and say, “Thank you for not whining.” Then her voice would come down a few more notches.
Like adults, children sometimes change not in a flash but in small increments.
The Five Steps can be used from the age of three or four. Before that, the child does not have the cognitive ability to understand; that’s why reasoning with a younger child is ineffective.
I’ve called this approach “Five Steps to Freedom” for a reason. Negative behavior and bad habits hold us in bondage. Each opportunity you have to lovingly walk your child through these steps takes you beyond the here-and-now problem. By teaching your child to face his problems squarely and take responsibility, by reminding him that we don’t have to change by ourselves, that we serve a God who wants to help us become better each day, you will be building his character.
As you build his dependence on God, you are truly setting him free.
Used with permission of Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright 2005. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.