“Why would God make one of the Ten Commandments about jealousy? Nobody can control jealousy!” asked my 7-year-old.

Good question. Once, my first impulse might have been to say, “So we try harder.”

Big mistake.

When my younger daughter was very small, she would wriggle from the towel, her sturdy, smooth limbs bending and extending, her screams of laughter as the air dried her bare skin. Reaching school age, she’s been convinced by my husband and me to wear clothing, and she runs less often from the bath nude.

As we have taught her to wear clothing, I’m learning we may be teaching her to cover her heart, too. Not to guard it, but to close parts of it to us and God. Our kids do the same with their shame as Adam and Eve did by sewing fig leaves to cover themselves because they were suddenly embarrassed to be seen naked in front of God.

Here’s what we Christian parents tend to do:

  • Tell our children to try harder.
  • Talk about sin far more often than God’s love.
  • Tell them to stop crying because their treasures should be heavenly ones.
  • Overreact and yell when they’re naughty.

We’re much more demonstratively loving when they are well-behaved. As a result, they learn to hide their hearts.

John H. Coe, who has a psychology background and is the Founder and Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Biola University, speaks of this hiding of the heart. Listening to him on a YouTube video a few years ago, I realized my parenting had to develop. It had to become what he and Todd W. Hall have called “parenting the souled child” in their book Psychology in the Spirit (IVP, 2010). Unfortunately, only one chapter of this book focuses (partly) on parenting, so I have pored over it and applied it below to know how we can parent our children so they can live with open hearts.

  1. Help our kids believe we really want to know them. Not just love them, but know them. Coe writes, “I have met many believers who felt loved by their parents but not known.” For example, I checked out a snake book for my 7-year-old even though snakes give me the heebie-jeebies. I secretly don’t want her to realize her dream of becoming a herpetologist because I’ll be afraid to visit her lab someday. However, I don’t want her to hide her dreams from me.
  2. Don’t let our kids get a rise out of us. For me to be the kind of parent who is safe for my kid to share with, I have to control my oh-so-transparent facial emotions. I can’t let my younger daughter get a rise out of me. The other day she mentioned that not only had she kissed her kindergarten buddy, but she was in love him. “Oh really,” I said calmly. I did not freak out, and I did not act amused. She doesn’t know I dreamed that night that she became a teenager and ran away with a long-haired, 21-year-old pothead.
  3. Ask them to contain their emotions. Coe uses the word “contain.” I often say “hold” to my children. I don’t dismiss their emotions. I acknowledge that it’s hard their toy has been damaged, but if their crying seems excessive, I ask them to go to their room to “hold their emotions,” particularly if I’m getting crabby and can’t take the noise anymore.
  4. Hug them after we discipline them. If my kids look pensive after a time-out, I give them a hug. I want them to know I love them, even if they’ve been naughty, and I tell them I love them and forgive them.
  5. Direct them to Jesus when they are “stuck.” This is the heart of what I’ve learned from Coe. He believes that “by the time we become self-aware, it seems as if we are ‘stuck’ with what we have become. In fact, this state of being stuck is often a starting point for many people’s search for happiness and identity.” For example, a month ago my 5-year-old  jumped off the ladder to her bunk bed and clobbered my neck as I was getting into the other daughter’s bed. It hurt, and I yelled. She bawled and couldn’t stop as my husband and I put them to bed. I climbed up and curled next to her. With her arms wrapped around me, she sobbed: “I don’t want to hurt my mommy. I love you. You’re special because you’re my mommy. Why can’t I stop being impulsive?” I answered something like the following: “This is where we meet Jesus, sweetheart. This is where we keep coming back and saying, ‘Help us.’ Then, we get to say thank you because we know he loves us no matter what.”
  6. Apologize and let our kids know we need to keep our hearts open, too. When I directed my younger daughter to Jesus, I also said, “I don’t do a good job of holding my emotions either, but I say, ‘Jesus forgive me, and I need you. I keep going back.’” When I do respond with anger, I apologize. They need to know I’m flawed because, ultimately, it has to be God, says Coe, that “fills their relational hole,” not mommy.

As a Christian college professor, I encounter young Christian adults on a daily basis who try harder. They’re tired. They’re good at hiding their hearts, at compartmentalizing what’s really going on inside of them. The transformation they thought they would’ve received hasn’t happened, and some will shuck their faith. Their secular friends’ self-acceptance and openness about themselves will taste much more like the abundant life than what their upbringing has offered.

Maybe if I direct my kids to a sweet dependency on Jesus at this age, their hearts will be more likely to stay open to him (and others) later. Talking about our human tendency to hide our hearts, a friend pointed out that the apostle Peter denied Jesus three times, but after Jesus’ resurrection when he saw him on the shore, he stripped off his outer garment and jumped into the sea to reach him (John 18-21). I want that kind of impulse toward Jesus in my kids. And in me.

Heather Walker Peterson
Heather Walker Peterson, Ph.D., is a mother of two remarkably different daughters. She contributes to the Pray Channel of humanepursuits.com and can be found @languageNfaith on Twitter and on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/CelticXianity/. Her pieces have been published at The Curator and Patheos.com. She’s drawn to write vulnerably about spiritual rhythms, motherhood, aesthetic experience, and hope-filled theology woven around a theme of grace.

2 Comments

Post Comment
  1. Love these ideas. I wish I knew them when my kids were little. I have a 20-year-old who tells me, “I didn’t want to tell you because I knew you’d be disappointed.” Thing is, I never, ever said to my kids that I was disappointed in them. In some of their decisions, yes, but never in them. We always reiterated our love to them. I just can’t figure out how we could have avoided this issue of this one in particular feeling like we’d be disappointed. Maybe we didn’t talk about the mistakes enough. Anyway, thank you for your words.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *