Author Jeannie Cunnion encourages moms and dads to teach their children about God's love by focusing on a grace-based – rather than a rules-based – approach to parenting.
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John Fuller: On today's "Focus on the Family," with Focus president Jim Daly, we're gonna compare how we parent our own children with how God parents us. I'm John Fuller and what if, for example, God said this kind of thing to us.
Man #1: You'd better have a very good reason why you just hit your brother in the face.
Woman #1: Once you finish your chicken nuggets, then maybe you can have dessert.
Man #2: Young lady, if you talk to me like that one more time, you're not gonna be able to use that computer for a month.
Woman #2: If I have to tell you again to get your shoes on for school, I'm gonna take you with just your socks!
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Jim Daly: (Chuckling) I mean, those are classic parenting lines! I think I've used most of them actually and they represent those frustrations we often feel as parents about telling your kids for the hundredth time to do something—maybe it's "please" or "thank you" or whatever it is. The fact is, we're trying to do the right thing as parents, teaching our kids how to obey and grow up to love and follow Jesus Christ.
But somewhere along the way our formulas, well, they don't always work. And no matter how many rules we have for our kids, they still get things wrong and disobey us. And it does, John, sound like maybe what God is thinking about us. I often say He has a whole nest of teenagers, doesn't He? I mean we are teenagers to Him.
So what can we do differently? How can we be more effective in our parenting? That's what we want to talk about today, and we've got some special guests who will help us examine these issues and explore some different parenting strategies for our children, especially in this area of grace.
John: Well, we've invited Jeannie Cunnion into the studio. She is an author, a counselor, a mommy blogger, and a really passionate speaker, to help parents understand the power of what she calls "grace-based parenting" and how that approach can really transform the way that you interact with your kids.
Jim: And I thought it would be good to have Jean, my wonderful wife, join us, because we're in the middle of it and I wanted I guess my children's mom's perspective on this great topic of grace and rules and all the other things that we have to do and it's great to have both of you here at "Focus on the Family."
Jeannie Cunnion: Thank you. It's great to be here.
Jean Daly: Thank you. It's always a pleasure being here.
Jim: Now Jeannie, you have three boys. I'm proud of you--
Jeannie: Yes, thank you.
Jim: --you and your husband, Mike (Laughter) and one on the way!
Jeannie: We do. We have an 11-year-old, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old and we have our fourth boy on the way.
Jim: That's so fun. Well Jeannie, let's start with that opening clip; all those complaints that parents have. And let me just ask all of you, have you said something to your kids like one of those statements we heard earlier? It may have been in the last 24 hours.
Jeannie: I was going to say I'm pretty sure it was when I walked out of the house. (Laughter)
Jim: I mean I was trying to get furniture moved around for Jean and the boys were helping me—oh, that's a sight when you are trying to move all this furniture. "No, I didn't say move that dresser. I said move that bed," and you know, that kind of stuff. So how do we as parents take a deep breath and relax?
Jeannie: I think there is so much pressure on parents right now. There's this overwhelming message in our society that what we get right and what we get wrong is ultimately going to determine who our children become.
Jeannie: And so, parents—moms and dads—carry this very real burden of being all things perfectly to their kids. And what I love about Scripture is that it paints a very different picture. It reassures us that our kids' hearts are not wholly dependent on our performance.
Jim: That's hard to believe. I think I hear you, but especially in that area of perfectionism. I guess one of the questions I'd like to start with is what drives us toward perfectionism and why do we, as parents, think that that's even attainable?
Jeannie: Well, I think you know, again the message is perfect parenting produces perfect kids and so--
Jim: Kind of that perfect formula.
Jeannie: -it's a formula. And as any parent knows, there really is no formula. In fact, parenting has been my experience actually reveals my greatest weaknesses.
Jeannie: Parenting has revealed in me things that I didn't know or knew existed before I became a mom. And so, I'm continually realizing that parenting is meant to deepen my dependence on God; it's meant to make me rely on Jesus for [everything], because it stretches us, right? And I think that's relevant to whether we are raising toddlers or whether we're raising teenagers.
Jim: Well in your case, I mean where did that realization come? Because you're starting as a mom; you have four boys--
Jim: --and where did you go, "Uh oh, it's not going to work"?
Jeannie: You know it went wrong pretty quickly. (Laughter) I spent so much of my life, because the world tells us that a little more perfect makes you a little more loveable, I took that equation and I, for most of my life equated that to my relationship with God.
And so, when I became a parent, that overflowed into my parenting and I took this very perfectionist approach to parenting. And so, I had these three boys under 6-years-old and I was trying so hard to get it right. I was following all of the rules. I had read all the books. I'd underlined and highlighted all the things they tell you to do to make sure that you are gonna raise kids who obeyed really well and loved God really well.
And so, we were trying very, very hard and it was around when my son, my oldest son, was about 6-years-old that God opened my eyes to this perfectionist approach that I had taken with parenting and set me on a new journey; a journey that recognized that we were lacking the good news and the unconditional love of God in our home and how that ultimately would be the way that God has called me to parent.
Jim: I don't want to pry but I think for all of us, do you have examples of where that difference existed in your parenting style? I mean some of us might think, you know, if we're telling them, "Get your hands washed before dinner," that's okay.
Jim: That's a good parenting thing to demand of your children--
Jeannie: Of course.
Jim: --for all the right reasons. Give us an example of what was happening in the dynamic between you, Mike, your husband and your kids that helped illuminate this for you.
Jeannie: Well, you know it's interesting. When I first became a parent, somebody had suggested that we choose a family Bible verse or a mission statement for our family and I know a lot of parents do that.
Jeannie: And so, I naturally chose Matthew 22, "Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself," right, what Jesus described as the first and greatest commandment. And so, that was really my focus going into parenting was raising kids who would love the Lord their God and love their neighbor.
Jim: And would want to do family devotions every evening after dinner.
Jeannie: Absolutely, desire that. (Laughter) Would actually say, "Mom, you forgot."
Jean: It's a big choice.
Jeannie: "Can you get the devotional out?" And so, that was my focus going into parenting and what I began to discover, what God graciously began to reveal to me, is that when my focus is purely on giving my kids the rules, the Law of God and telling them that they should love God, ultimately what we're going to do is, we're going to raise rule followers, but we're not going to raise Jesus lovers. And my desire was to raise kids who loved God because of what Jesus Christ has done for them and what He's given us in the Lord.
And so, as I began to understand that, yes, that's a good thing to want and desire for my kids, right? That is still our family verse, but what I began to discover is that just by giving them the law is not ultimately what's going to make them desire to live according to it.
Jean: But I need to ask, you know, so the parents listening out there with young children and they're feeling overwhelmed because the laundry's never done and the kids are fighting with each other and hitting each other and we want our kids to be respectful and to learn self-discipline, you know, how … how do we balance that, finding that balance between grace and yet trying to teach them how to be--
Jim: How to behave.
Jean: --responsible, behave and yes, absolutely.
Jeannie: I love that you ask that because I think that's one of the main things that parents grapple with. How do I, the question is, how do I balance grace and discipline? And my response to that is, well, what if it's not a balancing act? What if we can weave those two things together? What if they can and should coexist?
Grace and discipline, because to answer that question we have to say, "Okay, well what is grace?" Let's remember what grace is. Grace is not God looking at our sin and looking away. It's not God looking at our sin and excusing it or ignoring it. Grace is God looking at our sin, the gravity and the magnitude of it and giving us Jesus to atone for it.
Jim and Jean: Uh-hm.
Jeannie: And so, when we remember what grace is, we say, "Okay, well how can I translate that to my parenting," right?So as a parent, grace and parenting is not looking at our child's sin or their disobedience and looking away. It's not ignoring it. It's not the absence of rules or boundaries or consequences.
Jeannie: Grace in parenting is looking at our child's sin or their weaknesses and giving them the good news of Jesus Christ in the way that we address it. It is weaving the unconditional love of God into the way that we establish our authority, require obedience and train and discipline our kids. That's what grace in parenting is. So grace and discipline can and should coexist.
Jim: Jeannie, so often in marriage temperaments play a role in this, obviously. We've had many marriage experts on the broadcast—Gary Chapman, Gary Thomas, others—who talk about how opposites attract. Typically introverts, extroverts in temperaments, too. And I think even for Jean and I. I think Jean, she is more inclined on the discipline side because, you know, she's wired as a scientist. Biochemistry is her degree. I mean, I understand that. And then I can lean more in the, "You know what? The sun will rise tomorrow. We'll be okay. We don't have to exclude 'em from Disneyland," (Laughter) you know. "Let's give in."
And that can create some conflict (Laughter), you know, between us, because of our temperaments and the way we approach life a little differently. How do you recommend that couples that struggle in that area, how do we get on the same page? I mean parenting experts always say, "Get on the same page." That's just hard 'cause we're wired differently.
Jeannie: Right. I think my husband and I struggle with this, as well. I tend to be more of the rules-based and ironically enough I wrote a grace-based parenting book (Laughter), so I have to go back to that.
Jim: I need to call Mike, your husband and talk with him about it.
Jeannie: Right, right! I think what's important for us to remember and the message that we try to communicate to the kids to keep us on the same page is that, God disciplines those He loves. We read that in Proverbs, right?
Jeannie: That He disciplines those He loves. And so, as a parent my job is to discipline you because I love you, to help you grow into the man that God created you to be, to fulfill the purpose for which He created you, which is ultimately to point people back to Him. And so, this is done out of love. I mean let's be real, right? Discipline is not a fun thing to do and training can be exhausting. Training and instructing our kids—
Jeannie: --I mean there are days by like 8:00 a.m. where I am tired of my own voice, right? (Laughter) And so, I have to remember what we all know research consistently tells us, which is consistency and boundaries and consequences are essential to parenting. Those are essential things. And I love recent research I read that said consistency in parenting is actually correlated to warmth in a parent-child relationship.
Jean: That's good.
Jeannie: And so, we have this rigid mind-set. We think it looks very rigid. But the reality is children who know that there are boundaries and there is consistency and I know the area within which my parents have set, that they thrive. And so, if I can remember that; if my husband can remember that; if we can get on the same page with that, it produces beautiful things.
There's a warmth there. And the other thing I love is that Fuller Institute came out with research recently that said that family warmth is most correlated with faith transmission.
Jim: That's fascinating.
Jeannie: Right, so consistency goes to family warmth and family warmth is highly correlated to faith transmission.
Jim: And I just want to, I guess, reaffirm what I'm hearing you say. Loving boundaries and they are not opposites, they can be held together and some of us would tend to want to pull those apart. I'm always loving or I've always got a firm boundary. And you can have loving boundaries. That's what I'm hearing you say.
Jeannie: Right and that's what we have in Jesus Christ. We have loving boundaries. So parenting is constantly, for me, going back to how can I reflect the heart of God in this situation?
Jean: So Jeannie, just to understand that better, the opposite of what you're saying then, is that if we have our kids memorize their Bible verses and go to their children's church and have our devotions every night, but we're doing that without love and acceptance and warmth, that there's a good possibility that they will walk away from their faith when they're older?
Jeannie: There's so much good stuff in that. Memorizing scripture and going to children's church are beautiful things, right? We would all agree on that.
Jeannie: Those are wonderful things, because what we want to do when we're doing that, though is remember that that is about nurturing a relationship, a friendship with Jesus Christ.
It's not about following the rules and having another holy notch in our belt.These are things that we do—prayer and scripture memorization and serving. We do these things to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ, not to teach our kids that they're checking boxes to become more pleasing to God or to earn His favor. Like, "Hey God, I memorized another verse. Are you proud of me?" It's about growing in knowledge and relationship with Him and so, when we take that approach, they are much more likely to engage and absorb what we're trying to teach them.
Jean: Well and I love it in your book you write that Jesus did not say on the Cross, "Do better. I'm so proud of you." He said, "It is finished."
Jeannie: Right, yeah, I say in the book that I lived so much of my life acting like Christ's final three words on the cross were, "Make Me proud," when in reality the final three words were, "It is finished." In other words, He said, "Jeannie, Jean, I came to do for you what you could never do for yourself. It is finished."
But that was so hard for me to receive. See, you know, it's interesting. I was raised as a preacher's kid. I accepted Christ when I was 8-years-old. And you know, we all know the verse, Ephesians 2:8-9, "You are saved by grace through faith," right? That salvation is by grace alone. It's unearned. It's undeserved.
But what I struggled to accept and understand after that was that God's grace is for my ongoing weakness and sin and failure, which comes to me every day, which I live out every day in my fallen nature. And so, I lived my life acting like He said, "All right, you've been saved by grace. Now go make Me proud. Keep My favor. Earn My pleasure."
Jean: Right, right.
Jeannie: And so, what that does is that sets us in a pattern and this is important to parenting because it sets us in a pattern of living for His love instead of living from it and there is a radical difference.
Jim: Like you're earning it.
Jeannie: Yes, I'm living for it. See, Jesus, I'm trying really hard. I'm doing better. I'm trying harder. Are You proud? Am I keeping Your pleasure in me?
Jim: I got an A.
Jeannie: Right, but when we know that there is absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of Christ then we are free to live from His love, not in an effort to win His favor, but out of gratitude and awe for the way that He has loved us, the real us, the broken, flawed, imperfect us. And that is the message that we want to be translating to our kids.
John: Well, we're hearing some really good insights from Jeannie Cunnion today on "Focus on the Family," Jean Daly also joining us. Thank you for joining us via this broadcast. And let me encourage you to get Jeannie's book, Parenting the Wholehearted Child. The subtitle is Captivating Your Child's Heart with God's Extravagant Grace. And we've got details about that when you call 1-800-A-FAMILY. Or go online and get the CD or download of the conversation and order the book at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
And Jeannie, you've talked about boundaries and right now just talking about living in grace, I'm thinking about applying this to a common parenting problem and I think the Daly and the Fuller homes both share this. It's five times now this week I've told my child to clean their room. (Laughter)
Jim: No John, our kids clean them every night--
Jeannie: I was going to say, we don't have that. I don't know.
Jeannie: I can't relate.
Jim: --dusting, it's all included. (Laughter)
John: It's still a wreck and so you know there's a lot of parenting advice out there, Jeannie. How do I apply grace and show my child, "I love you, even though you're ignoring me"?
Jeannie: Right. (Laughter) I think, again I think that goes back, I mean, this is a daily thing at our home and I think it goes back to remembering that grace is not the absence of discipline or consequences. I mean our kids need to learn that there are, you know, good outcomes for good choices and poor outcomes for poor choices and we need to be consistent in enforcing that. However, what we have to remember is that when we do that, are we doing it with guilt and fear and shame? Is that what we're funneling into our message? Or are we relying on grace which I don't want to make this feel like, you know, if we just say, "I love you and that's why I discipline you," that, that trips something and sets something off in their heart that motivates them to obey. But fear and guilt and shame are never good motivators.
John: So what's the script for this ongoing problem of a messy room and a child that's not listening?
Jeannie: Okay, so let me give you an example, because the issue is then how do we get to the heart behind the behavior, right? That's really what grace in parenting is about.
You know we hear a lot of talk about reaching your child's heart, parent your child's heart. What does that mean? That's one of the questions I grappled with in writing the book. What does that mean to reach your child's heart? And what I came to discover and continue to discover is essentially that means get to the belief behind the behavior. What is the belief that's motivating your behavior in this moment?
And so, for example, the other morning my boys. I could hear them arguing in their room, which happens all the time. And I'm in my bedroom getting ready and my middle son runs in and he's just, he's come undone and he's crying.
Jeannie: And "Mom, Cal took the brush from me. He yanked the brush out of my hand and then he pushed me." And so, I said, "Okay, Brennan, as always, I need you to start your story with the word "I." Tell me what role you played in this. I what?" And he said--
Jean: Oh, that's good.
Jeannie: And he said, "I was brushing my hair. (Laughter) And then he took the brush from me." And he said, "And then I pushed him." I said, "Okay." And then he said, "And then he pushed me." So then I said, "Okay," next question is always, "did you try to solve this alone? Did you try and be peacemakers? Did you try to solve this with your brother?" And he said, "Yes and we can't solve it." I said, "Okay, then go get him. I'll walk you through being peacemakers."
And so, he brought Cal into the bathroom and I said, "All right, both of you tell your story. Start with I." And they did and as they're telling their story, my oldest son, Cal, looks at me and he goes, "Are we really spending this much time talking about a hair brush again?" (Laughter) And I said, "I'm so glad you brought that up, because this is not about the hair brush. I'm so glad you noticed that. This is about what motivated you to yank the hair brush out of your brother's hand. So, now I want you both to think about what was the belief that motivated that behavior, Cal? What were you thinking and feeling in your heart that motivated you to yank that brush out of his hand when he was using it?"
And Cal kind of gave me that look like, "Oh no." (Laughter) Here we go, the heart work.
Jim: I get it.
Jeannie: Now we have to have the conversation about my heart.
And so, you know what happens in those moments is then Cal said, "I was being selfish. I wanted the brush and I didn't care that he had it." And then Brennan said, "And I got mad." An expression we use in our home a lot is "I let anger win," and I have to use that expression too, by the way. And so, Brennan said, "I let my anger win. I got mad at him for yanking it out of my hand and I let my anger win." And I said, "Okay, so now we've identified the belief behind the behavior; now what?"
And the truth is, they said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for being selfish and I'm sorry for letting my anger win." And this isn't a formula and it doesn't always lead them to conviction and repentance, but most often if we can take the time—because it does take time—to dig under the surface and do the heart work, they come to discover and identify their sin and then we, as parents, can reveal their Savior.
Okay, so they've identified their sin and now I get to say, "And this is why Jesus died for us. So you are forgiven; you are free. Are we done here?" And they're like, "We're done."
Jean: Wow, that is, I mean that's powerful. That is a phenomenal way to handle it. But I need to ask, what if you're supposed to be in the car in two minutes for school or church or what if you're rushing out to do something, what do you do then, Jeannie?
Jeannie: You say, "Get in the car!" (Laughter).
Jim: And it kind of goes with what I was going to ask, too. It's again, how do you control that normal parental burst of anger to motivate? You know, it's not always wrong; you're trying to motivate them to act—take the shower, get in the car, whatever it might be. How do you ratchet the energy up in a way that's healthy, not harmful? To say, "Get it done and get it done now."
Jeannie: Right and I want parents to be encouraged in that, that there shouldn't be this guilt that we have expectations, especially when they are realistic expectations and we expect them to live according to those, right? That there shouldn't be guilt for feeling the urge or the need to say, "I asked you to get in the car. You're not getting in the car. And what this is, is disobedience."
Jeannie: Because I think it's really important that we help our kids identify what's going on. And we can do that in a 30-second little, you know, blurb. In other words, you know, "Cal, right now I know you want to read your book, but ultimately boil this down. This is disobedience. You are disobeying Mommy, so I need you to make a choice and I need you to make it now. Do you want to obey me and see a good outcome, or do you want to disobey me and see a poor outcome? And I need you to choose that right now."
John: And I'm really glad we had Jeannie Cunnion on "Focus on the Family" today. She's got some great perspectives and wonderful insights on dealing with your kids at those moments when you really feel like you're gonna blow up. You choose a different path and you help them choose a different path. And that insight is captured in her book, Parenting the Wholehearted Child.
Jim: John, this has been such a fascinating discussion and I can't believe how fast the time has flown by and I'm sure it's because I'm still livin' in this spot, like you, with kids in the home. And when you're in that phase of life, these broadcasts, I hope, are interesting. They certainly are for me.
In fact, our time has gone by so fast that I'm certain there is so much we can explore on this important topic and that's why we went a bit longer with Jeannie and my wonderful wife, Jean, who joined us in the studio. And we want to share part two of that conversation with all of you in just a couple of weeks.
But in the meantime, let me encourage you to contact us here at Focus on the Family. This program may have raised some questions about your own family situation or how you can do a better job integrating your faith in your parenting, as Jeannie was describing in the program. We have lots of resources for you and I hope you know that. It's our goal to help you thrive in your role as mom and dad and I know my wife, Jean and I have benefitted from the great parenting resources here at Focus and they can benefit you, as well.
John: A starting place is www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or call us, 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. When you get in touch, ask about Jeannie's book and how you can get a CD of today's program or get the download from our website and learn more, as well about our smartphone app, so you can listen on the go.
And while you're there, you'll see an opportunity to play a bigger role in helping us help parents. Thanks to generous friends like you, we've been able to equip moms and dads in more than 660,000 households this past 12 months, helping them build stronger, healthier, more God-honoring families. There's so much more to do though and we'd invite your assistance today. Make a generous financial gift today and join our support team. When you do that, we'll send a copy of Parenting the Wholehearted Child by Jeannie Cunnion as our way of saying thank you. Online we're at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio or you can call 800-A-FAMILY to learn more.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening in. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time for a look at God's will for your life.
Pastor John Ortberg: I think God has somethin' I'm supposed to do and I'm not sure how to figure out what it is. And if I get it wrong, is He gonna be mad at me? And will I be on the wrong track? And people end up getting paralyzed instead of being made confident by their faith in God.
End of Excerpt
John: Insights on how to answer those questions and trust God in the process next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Jeannie CunnionView Bio
Jeannie Cunnion is a blogger, a public speaker and the author of Parenting the Wholehearted Child: Captivating Your Child's Heart With God's Extravagant Grace. Her book has been featured on programs such as The Today Show, Fox and Friends and The 700 Club. Jeannie holds a master's degree in social work and serves on the board of Raising Boys Ministries. She and her husband, Mike, have three young sons. Learn more about Jeannie by visiting her blog, www.jeanniecunnion.com.