Children's Spirituality and Grace-based Parenting: An Interview with Tim Kimmel

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Published: 07th July 2010
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GO: Tim, we recently received your new book on Grace-based Parenting (Word, 2004), and we really like it! Tell us, in a nutshell, what is grace-based parenting?

TIM: Grace-based parenting is really very simpleits about parents treating their kids the same way that God treats usby grace. It is about building and maintaining an intimate relationship where love, honor, and respect are the guiding forces. Grace is much more a verb than a noun, as it means loving your child when they dont deserve it, loving and honoring them when they are not loving back. Its all about showing your children what God is really like, in the most tangible ways possible, in the common everyday interactions of parenting.

GO: Of all the hundreds of books on family and parenting today, why do we need a new book on this topic?

TIM: Because it is simply absent in far too many Christian homes. All too often we contradict our faith messageour belief in the saving grace of Christby the way we parent. We undermine both the faith of our children and the quality of our relationship with them because we miss constructing it on grace.

GO: If not grace, what then?

TIM: I want to be careful here, as I believe every parent loves their children, and nearly every home is conscientious about raising their children with love and respect. But grace is so easy to miss, even though we all aspire to it. I note a variety of ways in my book on how we miss grace-full parenting, including what Ive called fear-based parenting, evangelical behavior modification, image-control parenting, high-control, herd-mentality, duct-tape, and life-support parenting. You will find examples of all these parenting styles in every church in America. I am convinced that how we view God determines how we parent our children, George. Relations with a loving and gracious God results in loving and gracebased parenting. Grace-less parenting tends to show two defective attitudes what Ive called judgmental parents and legalistic parents. Judgmental parents are obsessed with comparing themselves favorably to everyone elsetheir lives and their parenting are invested in making sure their family is better than all the rest.

hey point the finger at what others do wrong, and demand that their children do it better. Their primary message about God is that He is watching you, so watch out! Though fear and anger run through children raised this way, most kids from these families show a lot of pride, competitiveness, and spiritual elitism. Legalistic parents are obsessed with doing everything right. They keep score on rights and wrongs, and punish the wrongdoing much more than praising the right. These families are extremely image-conscious and will do anything to look good at the right moment. Their view of God is always one-down, stating to their kids that, You owe God, so youd better get busy if youre ever going to do good and please him. These children are full of fear and guilt.

GO: Wow, Ill say so! What, in contrast, are the characteristics of a gracious family a family ruled by grace-based parenting?

TIM: Ah, yes, theres that operative wordrules. What rules the family, and what is the familys relationship with rules? Grace-based families are ruled by love, and people are more important than rulessomething Jesus was constantly stressing to the legalists of his day. In graceless families, rules are all important. And it shows in the tone of family life! Grace-based families are fun, and fun to be withkids are drawn to these families! I like to say they are a breath of fresh air, in contrast to the smothering stuffiness of overly controlled children in families ruled by fear. Kids are free to explore and learn and make mistakes in gracious families. Forgiveness reigns over judgment, correction over punishment, and security over fear.

Boundaries are clear, and discipline is cleanand infrequent. Let me be clear that I believe that Gods moral law is non-negotiable, but gracebased families know the difference between whats important to make an issue over and what is not. Graceless families make an issue of everythingthe most minor things are elevated to life-or-death issues. As a result, these homes are usually in constant turmoil, with kids in rebellion, or in danger of abuse in some homes.

GO: I like your stress on love, and how grace-based families are ruled by love. Expound on that for us, please.

TIM: When we understand exactly what love is and what love requires, it will drive us to our knees seeking a power that we all can have just by asking God for it. And Im convinced that God blesses this prayer request abundantly, because how you raise your childraising him or her in the love and grace that God shows us constantlyis probably the most important task we can ever do on this Earth. George, this definition of love will not only radically change your life, but it can help you choose the right thing to do when dealing with your children. It helps you make hard choices and it encourages you when the cost of loving is high.

Love is the commitment of my will to your needs and best interests, regardless of the cost. Let me walk you and your readers through its three parts: 1. Love Is the Commitment of My Will In other words; doing the loving thing may not always come naturally to you. You may have to muster courage, say no to your fears, and place your feelings in check. Love is about making decisions based on the covenant we have with that person. 2. To Your Needs and Best Interests Not to my needs and best interests. Love sees our own needs as a B priority compared to the best interests of the person we are called to love.

It is not in our childrens best interest to give them everything they want, to make life easy for them, to side with them when they are clearly wrong, or to circumvent consequences for their sins. It is not in their best interests to facilitate false fears holding them hostage, to fight all their battles, or to rescue them from all their wrong choices. Love is about meeting their actual needs, not their selfish needs. 3. Regardless of the Cost Secure love understands that loving someone is often inconvenient and sometimes painful. Loving your kids costs money, time, and sleep. It might cost a mom decades in time originally planned to be spent on her career. It might cost her her figure. It might cost a dad a promotion. It might mean that there are some amenities or lavish vacations you must do without. It definitely means eating crow, swallowing your pride, and asking for forgiveness a lot.

GO: Great stuff, Tim! I also like the stress you place on a childs need for security and significance, two roots in our focus currently on the role of attachment in healthy children.

TIM: This is exactly what I talk about in the delivery system of grace-based parenting. Grace, I stress over and over, is not so much what we do, but how we do it. Grace-based parenting is not a program for raising your child, as much as the cultivation of an attitude, the creation of a loving and emotionally rich environment that your kids love to be in and respond to with enthusiasm.

GO: What is the fruit of grace-based parentingof a home ruled by Gods love?

TIM: I spend a lot of time in my book talking about the four freedoms that characterize gracious familiesthe freedom to be different, to be vulnerable, to be candid, and to make mistakes. The first characteristic of grace-based homes is: They are homes that give children the freedom to be different. The two operative words here are free and different. It is not a grace-based home when parents allow their children to be free but then punish them for being different. If you have a different child and remind her about the sacrifice youve made to accommodate her quirks, it is not a context of grace.

This happened often during the hippie movement of the 1960s. Some Christian parents let their children grow their hair long, but then they spent their time telling the world how embarrassed they were. These kids didnt feel love, pride, or grace coming from their parents. Grace-based parents gladly make room for their childrens differences. Not allowing your children to do innocent, but different, things is the logical outgrowth of a belief system that emphasizes the symbols of faith rather than its substance. This shallow religion measures success more by the image than by genuine authenticity. It reminds me of a twist on an old saying: It matters not whether you win or lose; its how you look for the team picture that counts. Unfortunately, this is a gigantic and unnecessary joy-stealer for the kids in these kinds of homes.

Once when I was a fairly young boy, I happened to overhear a father scolding his daughter in the church parking lot for leaving her Bible at home. In an overly loud tone, he insulted her and proceeded to inform her how disappointed he was in her leaving Gods precious Word behind. She said she was sorry and that in a hurry to get ready for church, she had inadvertently forgotten her Bible. She promised him shed never do it again, but then he pulled her behind the open car door and gave her a few swats on her behind. He sent her off to Sunday school in tears. Even at my young age, I knew that man had probably not spent much time reading the Book his daughter left behind. Theres more thinking like this in Christian families than most of us would like to admit. Some of it is not as hideous as this incident with the misguided father, but it is just as sinister. When we elevate an arbitrary Christian behavior (like bringing your Bible to church) above the best interests of a childs heart, weve clearly lost our way. Theres no other explanation for it.

GO: And when you talk of the freedom to be different, youre talking about accepting different, even odd or strange personalities, behavior styles, and dress, rightnot hurtful language or truly wrongful behavior?

TIM: Exactly! Since being misunderstood is an occupational hazard for Christian writers, I need to qualify what I dont mean here. Im not saying that grace-based homes should tolerate sin, or evil, or anything that goes contrary to clearly stated precepts in the Bible. For instance, a child who interrupts her teacher, speaks disrespectfully to people in authority, or uses caustic put-downs against her siblings cant hide behind being different as a way of abdicating responsibility for her actions.

She cant explain her disrespectful behavior with a throwaway excuse like, Listen, Im just goofy that way. Why cant you just accept me as I am? The answer is simple: The Bible clearly states that the way she interacts with her teachers, people in authority, or her siblings is unacceptable. But those who are just plain different and do goofy things arent necessarily wrong. Theyre just different. Because their different looks or behavior often annoy or embarrass their parents, it is automatically assumed that whatever they are doing (or want to do) must not be tolerated. This makes it tough for kids hard-wired by God to be a bit different, and it surely limits us in being used as Gods instruments of grace. So let me give you some synonyms for different so that you clearly understand what Im referring to. Im talking about unique, weird, bizarre, strange, goofy, and quirky. Grace-based homes should provide a safe haven for these kinds of children. I defend the right of children to be different if for no other reason than the fact that they are children.

GO: Give us just a brief overview of the other three freedoms.

TIM: The freedom to be vulnerable reflects how sensitive and fragile are the spirits of children, and how undeveloped and immature their emotions are. It requires a wise and tender touch by parents to guide kids firmly, without hurting their feelings and bruising their spirits. It requires parents to allow their kids the freedom to be vulnerable. Think about the challenge of 1 Peter 5:7 for a moment, the call to cast all your cares upon Him, because He cares so deeply for you. It really is an amazing challenge to our own vulnerability, to cast every care of our life upon God, and to trust Him with everything that bothers useven those things that embarrass us or that we think God has no time or patience for. And if you think that is hard for you to do, remember that the next time you ask your child to do it.

Then ask God to help you be as gracious to them as He is to you, for your grace toward them will free them to be vulnerable. The freedom to be candidto be fully honestis similar to the freedom to be vulnerable. Full and complete honesty is a very vulnerable placeoften fraught with the fear of shame or punishment or rejection. I like to say that grace is the difference that keeps honesty from getting ugly. To allow our kids the candid freedom to discuss things that confuse, bother, or even attract them to talk about sex, or drugs, or cheating in school, whatever¦without shaming, punishing, or ridiculing themopens up conversations of deep honesty that will have life-changing consequences for the better. Trying to force or compel honesty in a fear-based home is like trying to push a ropeat best, it creates the illusion of candid conversation and fools parents into thinking theyre doing well with their kids. Then they come into therapy with their teen-agers shocked by the revelations of wrong-doing that have exploded in their lives. The freedom to make mistakes flows from, and intermixes with, all of these freedoms in a grace-based home. Where too many Christian parents worry about what others think of their children, gracebased parents are excited by how God sees their kids. Since these kids do not live under a rigid checklist of suffocating rules, they are free to explore life and most of the world around them, with cautions about what to do when confronted by evil and the temptation to sin. Such exploration inevitably yields mistakes. Grace-based parents respond to mistakes as teaching opportunities, not as events for judgment and punishment. Gracebased parents guide their children on how to properly correct those mistakes, and hopefully, avoid them in the future.

GO: Grace is really risky, isnt it?

TIM: Yes it is! But compared to the risks on the other side, it is so much better a risk to take in your life and that of your child. Think of the child raised in a strict, but safe, Christian home who goes off to college and becomes the ultimate party animal, living a wild, out-of-control, and promiscuous life. It happens so often its almost a cliché. Its not that they dont have Christ in their lives, but that theyve never learned how to appropriate His power¦how to think for themselves in applying biblical precepts¦how to make mistakes that teaches them the inner controls that their fearful parents thought they were giving them. Grace scares a lot of people who would rather have a ten-bullet outline on parenting and not have to think too hard or change too much in raising their children. Grace is simple, but it demands a lotit demands that you, as a parent, actually walk by faith if you want your children to do so as well. Grace is often misperceived by legalists as a license to sin, and if you are bereft of love and the transforming power of grace, it is easy to understand that fear. I summarize grace in my book by saying this: As long as you are pleasing God, youre pretty much free to do whatever you want. The key, of course, is in living a life that is fully pleasing to Godthere is no law that can accuse that, and no condemnation in that kind of living! But that truth scares the graceless to death.

GO: Tim, what would you say to us counselors and therapists, in conclusion?

TIM: Be gracious and forgiving with your clients, teach grace-filled stories, and model grace to them all the time. Most of all, encourage them to grace-based parenting, and to buy my book to get it all right! (laughs)

GO: Yeah, especially for all those legalists who need the script to get grace right, do buy the bookif you dont, youll be sorry¦(both laugh)

TIM: Seriously, I really do want to bless Christian families and improve the way we all parent, and I believe that God has given us the waythe way of amazing and undeserved grace! Take help from telephone psychologist .

GO: I think your book will help many who simply need to be reminded that there is no silver-bullet script to good and godly parenting, but God will create in you the heart and mind to do it, if you will just ask Him.

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