As parents we often struggle with this reality: the older our kids get, the weightier their decisions become. We also realize there is a great deal of evil in the world that we want to protect our children from. Given these facts, parents are often tempted to micromanage in an effort to prevent poor decisions. Parents may have good intentions but can become overbearing when driven by fear. As a counselor I want parents to focus on helping their children grow in independent decision-making. Ultimately we want children to have two things that go hand-in-hand:

  • Good, wise discernment—the ability to know if what is going on at a particular moment is good or bad, and
  • Strong character—developed biblical convictions and integrity so that good decisions can be made joyfully, even when parents aren’t present.

Good discernment

We want our children to know if something that is being said or done is good or bad—whether it’s in an email, on Facebook, over a text message, or on the playground. Children tend to think and rationalize in black and white terms. This makes it difficult for them to discern the grey areas of life. Often children associate good with people they like or are “nice” and bad with people they don’t like or act unkind. As a result, it can be difficult for them to discern good from bad, and action from motivation. Children need to understand that it’s not a matter of who said something (someone they like or don’t like), but whether what was said or done is good or bad. “Is what is being said or done right now building up or tearing down?” This question gives our children a framework to judge various actions, behavior, and speech—their own and others. Ask this question of your children and you teach them how to examine their behavior in light of what is good, right, and loving. This question also teaches them to observe the influences peers and adults might have on their decision making. This consideration will then help them to decide whether it is wise to keep company with certain people.

As children learn discernment, there will be times when they will have to say “no”—to their own desires and to others. It can be difficult for adults to say no, so we expect that it will be even more difficult for children to say no! It puts them in social jeopardy and requires them to battle against sinful desires. But saying no and standing up for what is right can be learned through fostering open, honest conversations, good role-playing, and helping kids think outside the box. As you teach your children, ask the Lord to help you be patient with their failures. Remember that you still fail in saying no at times. Our kids, too, will fail at times. We should expect that to happen. The goal isn’t perfection. The goal is wise conversation that helps kids know what to do when they encounter grey areas of life.

Strong Character

When we arm our kids with a framework for discerning their experiences, we help orient their life as a life lived in God’s world. That is, a life lived with God’s purposes in view and under his command. Knowing that we live in God’s world provides a sense of safety that our Father can be trusted and will give us the wisdom and clarity we need. His ways are truly better than our own. When we live life in right recognition of this, then obedience becomes a delight. And as we practice obedience, we grow into the likeness and character of Christ. The stronger a child’s character, the more discerning and cautious the child will be in situations that feel unclear.

As parents, we must cast this vision for our children and provide opportunity after opportunity to practice it, think about it, and live it out. When kids are equipped with this kind of worldview—that living life as God requires is good because he is good—we are inevitably going to see them grow in character and in integrity through the power of the Spirit. The godly values and ethics that you help develop in your children will then guide them as they make decisions. They will experience temptations and confusion at times—they may even dabble in something—but they will likely feel conviction and know God offers a way of escape.

This approach is not about strong-arming our children into good character. Instead it is about modeling a genuine love for the Lord and his ways. It is about a conscious effort to woo our children to Christ. This doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a commitment to a worldview and lifestyle that can never start too early—or that is ever too late to begin.