There was a time when my life revolved around Spring break and summer mission trips. Whether in decaying urban neighborhoods or quiet plots of foreign soil, the strategy of evangelizing children remained curiously the same: snacks, games, crafts and Bible stories. It felt as if each mission team, regardless of context, had the same tiny sack of curated children’s Bible stories to cycle through. Faithfully among them was the story of Jonah. I could not go to any back yard Bible club or block party without hearing someone tell a squirming group of kids about Jonah. As I grew into a more attentive student of Scripture, I noticed one glaring flaw in these renditions: the omission of chapter four. It seemed every time someone told this story, they stopped at the end of chapter three, jubilant over his reluctant obedience and the salvation of Ninevah.
As a mom of three boys perpetually enthralled with epic tales of man and beast, I understand the temptation here. The first three chapters can be fun to tell, are easy to explain and inspire truly excellent crafts. However, when key parts of Scripture are excluded, the hearers are failed. Children have been failed in hearing the partial story of Jonah because they have much to learn from his depravity. In turn, they have much to learn from ours. Concerning Jonah and parents, our kids need the whole story.
Many have identified the poison of comparison sweeping through circles of Christian moms when it comes to child-rearing. There is no shortage of voices (both old and young) offering musts and methods for gospel-centered parenting. Much has also been said about our own example and its utter importance. Our kids need to see us reading the Bible. They need to hear us pray. They need to see us giving our money to the poor. They need to see us opening our home to foreigners and strangers. They need to see mommy and daddy greet each other with affection. They need to watch us share Christ in the grocery store. In the throes of striving for an immaculate Christian life for our kids to emulate, we can forget the benefits of intentionally showing them we, like them, bear Adam’s curse.
I have attended and served in many different churches. In each one, there has always been a very high bar for behavior. We don’t misbehave; not as toddlers, not as teenagers, not as adults. When a child misbehaves, they rightly receive discipline. However, because parents do not, the sins of the children are consistently highlighted. Unless parents are thoughtful in recognizing their sin and repenting in front of their kids, it begins to feel like the Jesus we insist they believe in has nothing to offer Mom and Dad.
Over time, our unconfessed sins hurt and confuse our children. Our pride persuades us not to draw attention to our faults: we are the example. Just as Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to imitate him as he imitated Christ we directly occupy that role for our kids. If we mess up, we might lose the credibility needed to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. I contend the opposite is true: if we offer kids a front row seat to our confession and repentance, we will win them.
Every gospel appeal includes that all have sinned. Kids understand this intellectually and pragmatically when given tangible examples from their own lives. It’s easy to grasp they are sinners, but when Mommy consistently confesses her sins, they begin to grasp all really have sinned and carry it until death or His return. This knowledge prepares them to face their own imperfect adulthood with confidence in a grace-filled journey of repentance and sanctification they witnessed firsthand at home.
I would love to be God to my boys. I desire their admiration. I foolishly believe I am their functional savior, sufficient for every physical, emotional and spiritual need. Our kids need to learn we are not their God; we are their parents, their neighbors, one day their friends and prayerfully siblings in God’s family. Actively confessing and repenting reminds our kids we know we are not divine. We might be older, smarter and in charge, but we are equals before Christ’s throne. Our children are best served if we link arms with them in the battle against the flesh instead of pretending our fight is finished.
It’s difficult to be around adults who cannot admit they’re wrong. They shackle friends, family and coworkers with the false narrative of their own infallibility. Creating a culture of confession and repentance in your house equips your child with the rare skill of saying, “I was wrong. I need your forgiveness.” In modeling repentance, you teach your child the way to salvation and prepare them for every relationship they will ever have. Give me a kid (or adult!) who knows how to recognize his sin and repent over a well-behaved kid who thinks he can do no wrong every day of the week.
No one wants to mess up in front of their kids. But we will. I don’t enjoy telling my sons I spoke to their dad in an ugly tone, but they need me to say it. Flawed kids need flawed parents. They stand to learn as much from our sin and repentance as they do our impressive Bible acumen. Yes, the end of Jonah is disappointing, but we should not hide the ugliness of sin from our children if we want them to learn to hate it and handle it. After all, had Jonah hated his sin, he might have never lost his tree to that a worm.