How to Avoid the “Gotcha” Trap: The Circle of Grace

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Parenting with grace involves a willingness to see your own weakness and learn from it, just as you learn from what you see of their weaknesses.


You know that moment.  That moment when you can see as clear as day that your child is wrong.  And he or she either doesn't realize it, or won't admit it.

You want to get to the bottom of the issue.  You want to settle the sibling dispute. You want to end this debate once and for all.

But be careful, Mama.  What are you aiming for?  Are you just looking for that "gotcha" moment?  Of course you want to help your child to "see reason" ... but for her sake or yours?

Parenting with grace involves a willingness to see your own weakness and learn from it, just as you learn from what you see of their weaknesses.

Mutual Growth

When your child is being selfish, deceptive, or operating from any other wrong motive, your goal shouldn't just be to "win".  You're not looking for slick one-liners, a card-up-the-sleeve trick or a shock-and-awe move.

You're looking to participate in the cycle of mutual growth that is a very fundamental part of how God designed the parent-child relationship.  Your questions shouldn't be aimed at pinning him to the wall, but at guiding him through a heart-investigation journey.

Often when you are able to discern the motives of your child (even when he or she doesn't see it) it's actually because you know what that kind of behavior looks or feels like on the inside, similar to the way in which you can understand what a toddler is experiencing when he says his cough feels scratchy because you yourself have had a sore throat and can identify with that feeling.

Parenting is a cycle of self-knowledge leading to child heart-knowledge and back again. Seeing a child's motives isn't a chance for a "gotcha" moment!

The Circle of Grace

The flip side of this is that when we observe the motives and the resulting behavior in our children, it helps us to have a virtual "object lesson" on how we might be operating in the same way, but in a more socially acceptable adult-version.

Knowledge of yours heart helps you to know them and knowledge of their hearts helps you to know yourself.

Two Blessings of Parental Self-Knowledge

Kids can be so obvious.  My mother loves to tell a story of a time when I was small and was in another room.  Things were a little too quiet and so she called out, "Lynna, what are you doing?" After a pause I answered, "... Not this!"

It really is a mercy that we get to start parenting with children who don't realize how transparent their behaviors and motives can be!  But getting them to understand their motives and attitudes isn't always easy. This is where your own self-knowledge can be such an advantage.

We've all had the opportunity to observe things about ourselves we wish weren't true - moments we wish we could take back or attitudes that aren't pretty.  As discouraging as it can be to observe these things, they can be of immeasurable use in your parenting.

First, seeing your own sins and struggles clearly helps you to interact with your children (and other people) with greater compassion.  We all struggle and we all need encouragement and forgiveness.  Seeing your own neediness helps you to be tender with others who are needy as well.

Secondly, examples of your own failures can be the best illustrations you can use for your children on the heart-exploration journey. I have noticed that when we most often* use illustrations about other people ("I once knew a person who did such and such wrong ...") we give the impression that we are critically observant of those around us.

But when we use stories about ourselves ("You know, Mama has this same struggle, and it looks like this ...") it not only illustrates the point we are trying to make, but it illustrates the advantage from the paragraph above - you are a safe place because you see our own need.

We examine ourselves first and more intently than anyone else.  It's like removing the log from your own eye in plain view of the person whose speck you need to work on next.  (Matthew 7:3-5)

Replace "Gotcha" with Grace

Your goal in walking your children through their own heart analysis isn't ultimately just about laying to rest the debate or sibling squabble.  And it definitely isn't about scoring a "gotcha" victory over the precious soul the Lord has entrusted to your hands.

Instead, it is to guide with grace; to help them to see where the problem started (because it always starts with the heart) and to help them see where changes are needed.  It is about training them to "examine their own hearts" - a life-long skill with eternal value far beyond this episode or event.

But when you've plumbed the depths of their hearts, when you and they have recognized the wrong, please don't stop there.  Heart-examination is not an end in itself.

Remember, there is nothing new under the sun.  There is nothing you or your child struggles with that is not common to man.  And most importantly, there is no sin so grave, no struggle so great that it is beyond the reach of God's abounding grace.

Model and lead your child in seeking forgiveness - the beautiful relief of a clean conscience and a fresh start. He who has been forgiven much loves much!

* I am not proposing a prohibition against using other people as illustrations.  In fact, the Bible is full of illustrations (both positive and negative) about other people.  But even when reading those narratives, our approach shouldn't only be about what's wrong with them, but about how much we are like them!

  • “Our questions shouldn’t be aimed at pinning him to the wall, but at guiding him through a heart-investigation trip.”

    Big stuff in there! This was a fantastic post.

    I’m totally guilty of trying to walk my kids into traps to “get them” and show them their wrongdoing or wrong thinking.

    I have been watching a lot of video conferences lately, about parenting and education. This post lines up with a lot of what I’m thinking these days.

    Great post, friend. Lots to think about in here.

    • One of my greatest struggles in parenting is to not make it all about me – my convenience, my reputation, my time, my plans, etc. It takes a lot of intentionality to keep the real goal in mind! But even here – even in seeing how I can tend to be self-centered – there is great fodder for gentle mothering. I have a tendency to selfishness, so I can understand what it’s like when they struggle with that, too. A continual cycle of mutual growth. Exhausting … but the best, most worthy work ever!