We first met Cooper when he was nearly 4 years old. My husband, Zac, and I had imagined flying overseas to meet our cuddly toddler, but we arrived to realize Cooper was a full-blown kid. For 1,400 days, we'd had no input into his life, and then suddenly he was our son.
When we returned home with him, Cooper entered a world he couldn't have imagined during his years in the orphanage. High-tops, slushes at Sonic and cartoons on Netflix. But Cooper had one obsession: He wanted a bicycle. So I made a chart with boxes leading to a printout of the most epic bike he'd ever seen. Whenever he did anything noteworthy — stayed in bed, shared toys, used his fork — he earned a metallic star sticker, one box closer to owning that bike.
Cooper was adjusting to the concept of parents, and we needed a way to motivate his cooperation that was different from the ways we'd disciplined our other children. The chart worked. And it still works. Cooper still relies on stickers and prizes as his motivation to get homework done.
But while the chart encourages good behavior and performance, it has its downside. At some point as an orphan, Cooper started seeing himself as a bad kid. So when he earns a star, a bright grin breaks out, as if he sees himself as a good kid. But if he doesn't land a star, his head drops; he's believing the old lie again. Yes, he wants the stickers, but this ache is bigger. Something in him strives to prove he is enough.
I don't want any of my children to think they are defined by stars or empty boxes, yet we live in a world that issues gold stars and, more often, scolding shame. I want my kids to learn how to rest their identity in the God who created them. The God who defines them.
You are loved
I suppose everyone has some version of that star chart, some internal way of measuring approval. We quickly learn that the more effort we put into something, the more "stickers" we get. Studying hard or working diligently leads to better performance — and the corresponding praise from teachers, coaches and bosses. Being a positive, encouraging friend can lead others to be a good friend in turn. This is just how the world works.
These interactions and achievements do contribute something to our identity; they bolster our confidence and help us feel special and valuable. But an identity crisis can form when kids view their significance entirely through things that change. Activities, academics, relationships — these things all have one thing in common: They aren't stable.
But our Lord never changes (Malachi 3:6). His love is the foundation of our identity. Teach your children that God's love never changes and that nothing in this world can separate us from it (Romans 8:38-39). Believing that we are unconditionally loved by our Maker is the first step toward seeing our true, unshakeable identity.
You are enough
I was teaching at a Bible study when a participant stopped me with a comment. "I just find it hard to believe that we don't have to do anything to measure up to God. Sounds good, but I can't believe it."
We may not be as direct, but I think many of us struggle with this same issue. And even as our kids begin to recognize their significance in God's eyes, it's hard to let go of that chart system. They want to please God, perform to make Him proud; and when they make mistakes, they fear His disappointment.
Help your kids understand that God's love isn't manipulated by performance. He does not expect us to work harder or score higher in order to win His approval.
After Jesus fed the 5,000, people asked Him what work God wants us to do. And what a response Jesus had! "Believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29, emphasis added).
Our job is to believe. Through this trust Christ rescues us. What does a person have to do? Trust the rescuer, cooperate with the process.
Teach your kids that Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves: He measured up. He satisfied all that God asks of you or anyone to be in relationship with Him. And instead of keeping that for himself, Jesus trades places with us. He trades His enoughness for our scarcity. He shouldered our not-enoughness and put it to death on the Cross, allowing all who believe on His name to measure up before a perfect God.
You are light
John opens his Gospel with the incredible imagery of what Jesus brings when He arrives in our world: light shining into darkness, light becoming the light of men. God's vision for our lives is that we would receive His light and then reflect that light to the world (Matthew 5:14). We receive who Jesus is — and then share Him with others.
I tell my kids that when we embrace our identity as God's adopted child, His light begins to shine through us. God is in us and with us. We can rest from striving to perform as we sit in awe of this awesome light that is not contained and is fully accessible to us.
The night we met Cooper in the orphanage, Zac and I lay in bed thinking about the challenges ahead. How do we parent a child who's never known love? Where does this unconditional love come from? Then Zac said, "To the degree that I am able to receive the unconditional love of God will be the degree that I can reflect that love to Cooper."
So simple. So difficult. Everything flows out of our identity as adopted children of the King. The front line of the battle in our souls isn't the fight to become something we aren't or hope to be; it is a battle to believe who we already are. And when we are secure in that truth, the light that fills us cannot help but shine forth.
Jennie Allen is a Bible teacher, author and the founder of IF:Gathering.
Who am I?
Our significance comes from the Creator of the universe. Together with your child, reflect on these promises from God's Word:
- I am the wonderful creation of a loving God. He knows everything about me (Psalm 139:13-14).
- I was made to reflect the image of God. My abilities to create, learn and love come from Him. I have so much in common with the Creator (Genesis 1:27).
- I am adopted into God's family, and I will live for eternity as His child (Romans 8:15).
- I've been created with a purpose. God has prepared good works for me to do, and He will " give me everything I need to carry them out (Ephesians 2:10).
- I was chosen by God, and I am special to Him (1 Peter 2:9).
- I am a citizen of heaven; this world is not my home (Philippians 3:20).
- I am never in the dark. God's Word helps me find my way in dark times (Psalm 119:105).