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Teaching Kids About God's Grace and Good Behavior

Air Date 03/24/2016

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Author Jeannie Cunnion and Jean Daly encourage 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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Episode Transcript


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Jeannie Cunnion: 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. Grace in parenting is looking at our child's sin or their weaknesses and giving the Good News of Jesus Christ in the way that we address it.

Jim Daly: Hm.

Jeannie: It is weaving the unconditional love of God into the way that we establish our authority, require obedience and train and discipline our kids.

End of Teaser

John Fuller: Some good ideas to kind of chew on from Jeannie Cunnion and she was our guest on "Focus on the Family" just a few weeks ago. She's back today to share more insights from her book, Parenting the Wholehearted Child. Welcome to the program. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.

Jim: John, we had a great conversation with Jeannie earlier this month, where she challenged us to rethink some of the strategies we are using to raise our kids. And in the Christian community especially, we tend to prioritize the rules and focus on the negative behaviors, which is natural, because we want our children to do the right things and behave in godly ways. It's what drives us.

But as Jeannie just stated, we can sometimes forget to balance that with grace and love and so, we wanted to have her back today to help us examine some specific examples of grace in our parenting.

John: Yeah, I think it's a good reminder for all of us, Jim, just to step back and to kind of assess the situation, find out where we're parenting from. And Jeannie does that so well. She's an author, a mommy blogger, a counselor. She and her husband, Mike, have three young sons and a fourth one on the way.

Jim: (Chuckling) That is great news and it's always a great joy for me when my wife, Jean, can join us in the studio, as well. As you'll hear, we both really enjoyed this conversation with Jeannie.

John: All right, so for some context, we're gonna repeat just a couple of minutes from the previous program, where Jeannie Cunnion explained why grace-based parenting is so important.


Jeannie Cunnion: 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, 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. And when I can remember that—because it's, 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—

Jean Daly: Yes.

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 mindset. 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: Huh.

Jean: Ooh.

Jim: Now that's fascinating.

Jeannie: Right? So consistency goes to family warmth and family warmth is highly correlated to faith transmission.

Program Note:

John: And now here's the rest of our conversation with Jeannie Cunnion and Jean Daly on today's "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly

End of Program Note

Jim: You talk in your book, Parenting the Whole-Hearted Child, about reward systems and stickers and I mean that's just a first-world problem, isn't it? I mean--

Jeannie: We like our reward systems.

Jean: Oh!

Jim: --and right and we're doing it almost like we're training animals, you know, that, okay, we have them do something and we give them a treat. Here's your doggie biscuit. You don't like that and I'm intrigued by that because I tend not to like it either, but tell me why you don't like it.

Jeannie: Well, we typically like it because it makes things simple and fast and easy.

Jim: And you get the result you want.

Jeannie: And you get the result you want. You get the short-term outward behavioral response that you want.

So, when I was, you know, when my boys were younger, I had a jelly bean jar on the counter and when they did good things, we put jelly beans in the jar; and when they did bad things, we took jell beans out of the jar. And part of my understanding grace was that God doesn't have a jelly bean jar. (Laughter) He doesn't put beans in the jar when I'm good and take them [out when I'm bad].

John: You're sure about this?

Jeannie: I'm positive. There's a lot of things I'm unsure about, but this I know.

John: Okay.

Jeannie: And so I thought, okay, why am I parenting my kids [like this]? Because I don't want to guilt parents who are using a sticker chart or a jelly bean jar; that could be working for them. What I know for us and our family is that using those things made very focused on getting short-term results that were often guilt-driven. They were just watching the jelly beans but they weren't thinking about really the behavior. And as parents, it's so easy to think about the short term, but ultimately our goal and our desire should be long-term heart transformation by Jesus Christ and by His grace--an eternal perspective in parenting versus, you know, I want easy and I want it now. Okay, well that's great, but how is this gonna benefit my 5-year-old when he's 15?

Jim: Well and I love that comparison or that contrast that you drew between what would Jesus do and what did Jesus do.

Jeannie: Yes, yes and you know, honestly that comes from Elise Fitzpatrick and it has been so powerful in my parenting, because I think we so often the question we're so quick to ask our kids is, "What would Jesus do in this situation?" And--

Jim: I've done it!

Jeannie: I know. I've done it, too. And what Elise encourages us to do is to step back and first say, "What did Jesus do?" So, let me give you an example. In parenting, there are three R's that I tried to remember when I am thinking about what did Jesus do and what would He do? And it's remember; it's rely and it's recognize. And so what do I mean by "remember?" When I train my boys in grace, what I want to do is before I tell them what they should do or what Jesus would do, I want to take a minute to remember what Jesus already did.

Okay, so can we walk through an example? If our boys are being unkind to one another, right, which happens in various forms on a daily basis (Laughter) in our home, okay?

Jim: I'm so glad you're saying that.

Jeannie: Yes, so we can--

Jim: We are normal!

Jeannie: --take a moment to remember how Jesus demonstrated the ultimate act of kindness already by laying down His life for us while we were still sinners. So, we remember His kindness toward us. And then we can point out stories, if we want, like in Scripture where Jesus showed kindness even to the most unkind, like so an example like Zacchaeus. And then we can turn to Scripture that instructs our kids in what Scripture tells us about being kind.

So, do you see the difference? Because I think our first response as parents, at least mine is, is to point out what they did wrong, tell them what to do right and then throw in a Bible verse for good measure, right?

Jim: Cover it all. (Laughter)

Jeannie: Yeah, I feel covered. And so, we point out wrong, we tell them right and then we give a Bible verse. But what I love about "remember" is that it tells us, it reminds us that Jesus already was perfectly kind on our behalf.

Jean: Well and Jeannie you write in your book that instead of telling your kids what they should do, you talk about asking them, "Well, how would that make you feel if your brother or your sister did that to you?"

Jeannie: Right, it's simple. It's the ask, don't tell policy, which is, I think, so often in parenting we just talk at them; and so, asking questions just requires them to think through their own motivation, their own behavior.

So instead of saying, "You guys aren't being kind to each other. You need to be kind," the question is, "How are you treating one another right now? And how could you treat one another differently? Or are you treating one another the way you want to be treated?" So it's another simple way of kind of digging below the surface and requiring them to think through the belief that lies behind their behavior, rather than just constantly talking at them.

Jean: Which goes in one ear and out the other often. (Laughter)

Jeannie: Right. So, I guess the question could be, "Can we remember Jesus in this situation?" which leads to encouraging our kids to rely on Jesus. And this is an important thing and I talk about it in the parenting. It's called "You Choose." And it's encouraging our children and we talked about this briefly already, you have a choice to make here. But what we can do here is, we can encourage them to rely on the Holy Spirit. So, the second R is rely. We encourage our kids to rely on the Holy Spirit that is within them when they are trying to make these choices.

Jim: What does that look like practically? I mean, how would you apply that to a 7-, 8-, 9-year-old?

Jeannie: Okay, so great. So my son, Brennan, walked into the kitchen one morning and I could just tell he woke up ready for battle, right? (Laughter) I mean he just--

Jim: He had a 'tude.

Jeannie: --he does. He had a 'tude. And Brennan, what I love about him is he teaches me to live life to the fullest. He is so full of life and joy. But he also has my firecracker temperament. And so he can click quick. And so he came into the kitchen one morning and I could just tell he was ready for battle and he was complaining, "Daddy didn't kiss me goodbye. I don't have a play date today. I don't like what you packed in my snack." And so, finally I said, "Hey, Brennan, I love you and I'm not gonna let you disrupt our morning like this. So, I need you to go back to your room and I need you to find your self-control and I need you to find your thankfulness and you can come back and join us once you've done that."

So, I heard his little feet stomp across the floor and then it got silent. And then I heard them stomping back toward us and I thought, "Oh no." And he walked into the kitchen and he threw himself on the floor and he said, "I can't find it! I can't find my self-control! I can't find my thankfulness anywhere!" (Laughter) And he was on the floor and so, I joined him on the floor and I said, "Hey, Brennan, did you pray and ask Jesus to help you or are you trying to do this in your own strength?"

And he said, "I didn't pray." And I said, "Well, can I pray with you? Can together we go to Jesus and ask that the Holy Spirit would give you thankfulness and would give you self-control? Because we can't do this on our own, buddy. We can't do this." And I try to reinforce that with my kids all the time. My oldest son, Cal, gets very frustrated when he says to me, "I want to do one thing and I do another." I say, "You kind of sound like the Apostle Paul right now." And I said, "I know. I get it. I struggle like that, too. And you know Scripture tells us that what is it, the Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak"?

Jean: Yes.

Jeannie: And so the only way that we are going to be able to live the way we desire to live is by the power of the Holy Spirit and so, encouraging them at a very young age to not try to do this on their own but to rely on the power of Christ that is within them.

Jim: What's that third R?

Jeannie: So that third R is recognize and I love recognize, because as we lead our kids in remembering and relying, I think so often we can forget to recognize Christ's work in their life. I am so often on sin patrol in my kids' lives, right? (Laughter). It's so easy.

Jim: Sin patrol. I like that.

Jeannie: It's so easy to see what they do wrong. We get in this pattern of just constantly pointing out where they are getting it wrong. And so, I try to recognize where I do see them relying on God's work in their life, where I do see the fruit of the Spirit, because that encourages them like, "Oh, God, is working in me. This is real."

Jeannie: I have one son who really wrestles with encouraging others. He is very competitive and so, he's often, if a friend messes up on his team, instead of encouraging him, he'll get down on him. And so we started praying about that at night. "Lord, help me be an encourager. Help me be a boy who builds up, who spurs other people on." And then, you know, I started to see him in his games doing that, you know, lifting up a friend who fell or patting a friend on the back after he messed up. And so, after the game--

Jean: That's wonderful.

Jeannie: --I said, "You know what? Yeah, the fact that you scored some goals was really awesome, but you know what brought me so much joy--

Jim: Right.

Jeannie: --was watching God answer your prayer in that game today. I recognized God's work in your life when you encouraged your friends."

Jim: Absolutely and I think applauding them for those things [is a good thing].

Jeannie: Absolutely.

Jim: I know one of my boys, one of our boys, is, you know, he's quite tall in stature now and everybody comments on it, 'cause he's almost 6'3" and he's a freshman in high school. And so, one of the things I'm trying to remember to tell him is, it's great to be tall; it's a nice attribute for a young man; but it's even better to have a good heart and the tallness of your heart is what matters.

Jeannie: Oh, I love that.

Jim: And you know, but I, too, jump on the bandwagon. I'm quite a proud father that he's a boy of good stature. (Laughter) But it's something to remember is that it's your heart that counts, not your height or anything like that.

You do talk about over-training, the danger of overtraining your child and I wanted you to address that. What does it mean to over-train your child?

Jeannie: Well, I think sometimes when we think about grace-based parenting that people feel pressure to constantly be doing something to be training their child. Somebody once said to me, "Do you do these things in the Target aisle? (Laughter) Are you having the remember, rely, recognize conversation in Target?" And I'm like, "No, I'm not." In Target I say, "No, I'm not buying that for you and that's the end of it." So, I want parents to feel the freedom to not feel like they constantly have to be training. It's okay to sometimes say, "My answer is no. You are very clear on my reasons why. Next." But they already know the heart behind the lesson. It's okay to say "no" and keep going.

Jean: Well and I think many of us, that is a challenge that we feel like we need to make everything a life lesson. (Laughter) And I know for me as our children have gotten older, I've learned to stop and realize it's not good to make every single thing a life lesson. They'll tune us out.

Jeannie: Well, I think you touched on something else that's really important, too, which is the power of listening. We do a lot of talking and not enough listening and listening is one of the most important things we can do as parents. And so, I hear you saying you've learned to not try to teach a lesson, but just listen to the story they are telling and allow them to tell that story, rather than trying to make it a lesson, because when we talk a lot and we don't listen, it basically says that it's important to talk at them, but not with them. And I think it's an easy part of parenting that we often overlook, is just the mere gift of listening to them.

Jim: Jeannie, so often here at Focus on the Family we hear from parents who have tried the formula. And again, this is not for guilt or anything like that. They were doing the best they could do. And they are at the end of the line. Their kids are now 18, 19, maybe 20-something and they've walked away from the faith.

And you can feel the burden in their heart, "What did we do wrong?" And I want to be fair with that question, because there probably are things that we as parents can do better to ensure, but not fool-proof the fact that your kids will walk with the Lord. But when you survey that and you hear of people that you have counseled with have that regret of their parenting approach, what comes to mind for you?

Jeannie: Yeah, I agree. I think that's a heavy burden that parents carry. And I think the most important thing we can be doing is give our kids the real Jesus.

Jim: And what do you mean by that, "the real Jesus"?

Jeannie: The real Jesus, the Jesus of grace, the Jesus of welcome, the Jesus of unconditional acceptance and love. When we talk about parenting with grace, it means helping our kids understand, captivating them with what Jesus Christ has done for them.

And so often kids aren't being given the real Jesus. They understand Him to be rigid or disappointed or angry and we want to invite kids into a relationship with the Jesus who is of welcome and acceptance and delight.

Jim: And I love that Romans 2:4, where Paul was saying, "Do you not know it's God's kindness--

Jeannie: Absolutely.

Jim: --and patience that leads one to repentance?"

Jeannie: Yes, that is a wonderful verse.

Jim: And that can be applied in our parenting.

Jeannie: Yes.

Jim: You want to lead your child in the ways of God, then show him God's heart.

Jeannie: Yes, I love The Message version of that verse. It says, "God is kind, but He is not soft."

Jim: Ah.

Jeannie: "And He takes us by the hand and He leads us into radical life change." That's The Message version of Romans 2:4.

Jim: That's good. I like that.

Jeannie: And so, I try to keep that verse actually in the forefront of my mind, that grace isn't about being soft. You know we can be firm, but it's the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance.And I also want to encourage parents who feel like it's too late, like they've done what they could and they did the best they could, but their kids have walked away from the faith. It doesn't mean they won't come back. And Jesus never stops pursuing them.

Jim: And you can, you know, show and extend God's kindness and grace even in that moment. It may be tough; you gotta to eat some pride.

Jeannie: It is never too late to give grace. Parents ask this all the time. They'll say, "I love what you spoke about, Jeannie, but my kids are 15 and 18. It's too late for me to do what you just talked about." And I said, "It's never too late to give grace." It's one of the greatest gifts we can give our kids, is the willingness to confess the places and the ways that we've gotten it wrong. And you can go to your 18-year-old son and you can say, "I didn't understand the unconditional love of God and I wish there were things I had done differently and I want to ask for your forgiveness in the ways that I failed to reflect His heart to you or to be a vessel of His love to you."

And I've heard stories of beautiful things that have happened when parents have gone and confessed and repented for the ways in which they failed to understand God's grace for themselves and therefore failed to give that to their kids. It's never too late to give them grace and as parents who are currently in the thick of it, one of the greatest gifts we give our kids is our authenticity, our realness; allowing them to see our own struggles and our weakness and our need for grace. I say this to our boys all the time. "This is not a home of perfection; it's a home of confession"--

Jim: Yeah, I like that.

Jeannie: --making our homes a place where we can be known. You know there's so much research about how we've never seen a generation of kids who are more stressed out, who are more riddled with anxiety. They are afraid to reveal their inadequacies. They are afraid to reveal their insecurities.

They are afraid to be known. And so, we have to make our homes a safe place where they can get real about the things that they struggle with. And the way that we invite them into that is, we go first; we be honest about our own need for grace and our own trust in Christ. And it creates a new dynamic, so while we are still, the Cunnion family, is still very much mired in weakness and sin and mistakes, we have grown in our willingness to confess that and receive forgiveness for that; to repent and to get on with it and the good news that God loves us just as we are.

Jean: Uh-huh.

Jim: And Jeannie, think about the application of that to the church, broadly.

Jeannie: Right.

Jim: We're raising young people to hide and then they become adults who hide.

Jeannie: Right.

Jim: And that's really in many ways and I, you know, I want to say this gently, but our lack of transparency, our lack of honesty is driving 20-, 30-somethings away from the church—

Jeannie: Absolutely.

Jim: --because they don't see reality there.

Jeannie: Absolutely.

Jim: And we've got to change that temperament that we are a place of confession, starting with our homes, then our churches and then our culture.

Jeannie: Right and that's very different than celebrating our sin or our weakness, right? It's not about putting it on display and celebrating it. It is being willing to just confess our need for Jesus and in that we grow in gratitude for the way He's loved us and it is love for Christ that ultimately inspires obedience to Him. And isn't that what we want for our kids?

Jim: In reading the book, Brennan is a little guy I'd like to meet. (Laughter) He sounds like such a character. But you had a story about him spending playtime with Jesus out in the yard.

Jean: Oh, I loved that!

Jim: Tell us about that, because it's so funny.

Jeannie: Well, yeah and I think this goes back to what we were talking about earlier about the relationship part, because we try very hard to foster within our kids this understanding that yes, God is Mighty God; He is Wonderful Counselor;, He is Prince of Peace. He is holy and mighty, but He is also your very best friend.

And it actually makes the fact that He draws near to us even more astounding and so, we do want our kids to understand the greatness of God. We also want them to understand that He draws near to us, the real us, right, the flawed us--

Jim: Yeah, the true us.

Jean: Yes.

Jeannie: --the true us, not the cleaned-up us. And so, one day we were at my parent's house and I couldn't find Brennan. All the boys were playing in the yard and my oldest and my youngest came in, but we couldn't find Brennan. And I got really scared. My parents had just moved to this house; it was on a busy street and I started yelling for him. And finally he ran inside and he said, "Mom, I'm right here." And I said, "Honey, where were you?" And he said, "I was out in the garden. I was playing with Jesus." And in the garden my parents have a statue, actually of Saint Francis with the animals. But my son, in his mind, thought that was Jesus.

Jean: I love that.

Jeannie: And he said he was playing with Him. And so, I said, "Well, did Jesus say anything to you?" And he said, "Yeah, He said, 'Thanks for playing with Me.'" (Laughter)

Jean: Ooh!

Jeannie: And I was like, "Awesome!"

Jean: That is so sweet!

Jeannie: And he goes, "Can I go back outside now?" And I was like, "Sure!" And it was just a wonderful reinforcement that our kids, from a very young age, can learn that they can be in relationship with Him; that they are not only known by Him, but that they can know Him.

Jim: Yeah.

Jeannie: And the way we lead them in that is through what we were talking about earlier, through these seeds of faith, through prayer and through Scripture where they come to know who God is, not just as their Savior, but as their very best friend.

Jim: And Jeannie, that really is the evidence that what you're doing with your young lads when it comes to training them in the way of the Lord is working. And I love the expression of grace in what you've done there and the fact that they're catching it. They are seeing faith in you and your husband, Mike and they're getting it. Laying down on the floor and praying with them. I love that picture of what that looks like for a mom and dad to do that. Your book, Parenting the Wholehearted Child, what a great resource for every parent. Thanks for being with us.

Jeannie: Thank you so much for having me.

Jim: And Jean, it was great, as always, to have you right here with me.

Jean: Well, thank you. It's always a privilege to be here and it was wonderful being here with you, Jeannie. This is great material for parenting.

Jeannie: Thank you, Jean.


John: That's how we concluded our conversation with Jeannie Cunnion and Jean Daly on today's "Focus on the Family." As we mentioned at the beginning, this was part two ofa discussion that we began earlier this month with our guest. And we're gonna link over to part one, along with details about how you can get Jeannie's book and a CD or download of today's program. Just stop by or call 800-232-6459; 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY.

When you get in touch, we'll also invite you to participate in this family ministry. You can do so by praying for us, but also by giving financially to the work here to produce programs like this one, to provide resources like Jeannie's book, to develop websites, to offer our counseling services to those in need and so much more. Please prayerfully consider how you can join us in equipping more parents, as we've heard today. You can donate at or when you call that number, 800-A-FAMILY. And let us say thankyou for your gift of any amount by sending a complimentary copy of Parenting the Wholehearted Child by Jeannie Cunnion.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Focus president, Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening. I'm John Fuller, hoping you'll join us on Good Friday to hear our favorite Bible teacher, Ray Vander Laan, as he talks about "Jesus: The Lamb of God."


Ray Vander Laan: And I think if you ask me, what's the biggest weakness in contemporary view of Jesus, we all want the benefits of His death. I'm not sure we've fully bought into what it means to live as Jesus lived. 1 John 2:6 is my class theme every year, "Whoever claims to be in Him, must walk as Jesus walked."

End of Excerpt

John: That's Ray Vander Laan next time, as we once again, help you and your family thrive.

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Jeannie Cunnion

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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 four young sons. Learn more about Jeannie by visiting her blog,


Jean Daly

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Jean Daly became a Christian in 2nd grade and rededicated her life to Christ at 17. She attended the University of California at Davis and earned her degree in Biology from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Jean has been married to her husband, Jim, since 1986; they have two boys.