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When the Problem Child Is Yours

You know that kid in Sunday school? The one who refuses to sing the songs or share the purple crayon? She clings to her parents at drop off and then stands in the corner with arms folded while all the other children hop and giggle and do what they’re told.

Yeah, I know that kid, too.

She’s my daughter.

As churchgoing parents, we can be tempted to think we are supposed to have it all together on Sunday... and so are our kids. But what happens when we don’t? When they don’t? If you’re facing difficulty with behaviors at church, remember these ideas to build authentic faith, not a shiny family.

“No! Hmmpf. I don’t WANT to go to church today!” My youngest, a preschooler at the time, punched one foot to the floor and pursed her lips up tight.

“Yes, you do. Church is a fun place!” I buttoned her cardigan and steered her shoulders toward the door.


“Yes.” I picked her up and hauled her to the car. Her dangly legs kicked at my knees, and she refused to look me in the eye.

“But I don’t LIKE church!”

Ugh. I stopped in my tracks and turned her face toward mine. “Don’t say that. We are a Jesus family. We love church.”

Heaven help me.

Since birth, my younger daughter has proven herself stubborn as they come. She knows what she wants and she knows what she doesn’t—and good riddance to anyone who gets in her way.

I have witnessed her scowling with her thumb stuck in her mouth while the other children at Bible study put on a sweet song-and-dance show for us moms.

I have heard her call another child “annoying”—in front of his mother. Just as we were scheduling a play date, which need I say never came to fruition.

I have dragged her to church and dropped her off with gentle, loving teachers week after week after week to the tune of her crying and complaining and clutching my leg.

What is WRONG with this child?

Scarier yet—what is wrong with me?

I lead Bible studies, right? I sing on the worship team—in front of thousands of people. I write devotions! I’m a Christian book author!! I’m as freaky as Jesus freaks can be, don’t my children know this?!

IN OUR FAMILY, WE LOVE CHURCH, end of discussion, quit your bellyaching, now go to your room and pray until JESUS SAYS YOU CAN COME OUT!!!!

Ah. As churchgoing parents, we can be tempted to believe we’re supposed to have it all together; therefore, our children should, too. After all, aren’t they a reflection of us? Of our ability to nurture and train and impart holiness by example?

Yes and no.

Mostly no.

Shiny happy families are not the goal. Authentic faith is. And sometimes authenticity is ugly—like a scowling toddler or a sulking, eye-rolling tween. So let’s examine three perspectives on our children’s behavior that just might save our sanity, and quite possibly our witness.

1. You are not your child.
Obvious? Sure. But we often forget. A mother and child are separate people with separate souls, personalities, desires and gifts. God does not churn out clones; he creates masterpieces. Each person is one-of-a-kind, including every adult and miniature living in your house right now. Therefore, your child’s frustrating behavior is not a direct reflection on you. It is simply a demonstration of the sin nature that’s inbred within all of us.

That can be a hard truth to swallow, because as Christian parents we are taught to believe that if we train them up right (Proverbs 22:6), our children will not depart from the Lord, from obedience, from refraining to pick their noses during the Easter pageant. If we do A plus B, we will get C. Right?

But you know what we’re missing? We tend to focus so much on the desired outcome—they will not depart—that we forget the first part of that equation. If we train them. Training, by definition, is a time-intensive process. What Olympic figure skater ever won the gold without first falling flat on her face time and time again? Likewise, our process of training our kids is likely to endure some diggers.

2. Kids need kindness.
Yes, children need discipline and correction. Yet sometimes what they need more is a hug. What’s behind your child’s unruly behavior? Have you stopped to consider? Poor choices are usually rooted in one of three origins:

• The mind—Does your child understand the difference between right and wrong?
• The will—Does your child know the behavior was wrong but did it anyway?
• The heart—Is there some emotional need left unaddressed?

Sometimes a child can understand a rule but break it anyway because she’s afraid, discouraged, sad, or anxious. When the root of naughty behavior is emotional, the wise parent will show the compassion of Jesus. Hug first. Discipline second. Sometimes the hug is all it takes to get to the bottom of an issue, in which case, you’ll save yourself and your child a lot of extra heartache.

3. Misbehavior is an opportunity.
As Christians, we’re always on the lookout for a chance to share the gospel and bless another soul, right? Often we don’t need to look any further than our own homes. Consider that our children’s mistakes aren’t just fodder for embarrassment; they are opportunities—for us to demonstrate forgiveness.

So your kid stuck gum in another kid’s hair? Your toddler bit the worship leader’s daughter? The youth group snuck out to TP the pastor’s house—and your child was the ringleader? Whatever dumb moves our children make, expect them to apologize, by all means. But then we must also forgive our children even before the words cross their lips. This is called modeling Jesus. Naughty behavior is actually a wonderful opportunity to teach forgiveness by example.

So, then. I will show up at church this Sunday with a grumpy child in tow and my head held high. Will you? Because we’re in this for the long haul. You and I are so much more than parents or teachers or ministry leaders. We are the light of Christ to a sinful world—including the youngsters we love best. And I’m-a-gonna let it shine. Amen?

Becky Kopitzke

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