Let’s say you and your child are at a play date, and another child offers a colorful presentation of precisely how not to behave. The parent is busy in conversation. Do you:

A. Make sure, in the car on the way home, that your child knows how appalling you find this behavior, and how proud you are that your child would never do something like that.

B. Hand the errant child a cup of goldfish crackers so he or she will stop the madness and make you all more comfortable … while flashing the oblivious parent a wide smile so he or she will feel accepted no matter what.

C. Ignore it. Your kids know better, and we certainly don’t want to raise little finger-pointers.

D. None of the above.

It’s a dilemma we each face on a regular basis, right? When a woman walks down the street in an outfit displaying a generous portion of her birthday suit … when another child uses language that might be more appropriate for late-night cable … when something pops up on a commercial that you wish your kids hadn’t just witnessed. How do we help our kids know how to react—and still not raise a bunch of mini-Pharisees?

Distinguishing discernment from judgment

First, it’s important to draw a line between “judging” and “discerning.” What’s the difference?

In a couple of words: humility and love.

Judging carries with it condemnation, and separation from its subject; it becomes a “me/them” comparison, a superior-to-inferior attitude. When you judge people for what they say or do, you place them beneath you.  You lose perspective of who you are in the sight of God—namely, a sinner saved by grace who is nothing without Christ making you new every day in God’s mercy.

Discernment, on the other hand, recognizes a behavior as wrong—but does so out of a realization of your heart’s own constant struggle with sin. It shows compassion toward its object, still hating evil and clinging to good as God does. After all, justice is an indispensable ingredient of love, which craves the best for the one it loves. We wouldn’t want a medical doctor to pretend a sick person doesn’t have a problem. And we don’t want to do that with souls and hearts, either.

Discernment remembers, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). It says, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Martin Luther famously wrote that we should preach the gospel to ourselves every day. In other words, we should never forget that we are sinners saved by grace. Jesus Himself praised the prayer, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is critical to keep our need for Jesus before us—as well as God’s richness in our life because of Him rather than our own efforts.

So what does this look like practically, as we work to help our kids carefully discern good from evil—without developing hearts that condemn others?

1. Be upfront about your own sin and failures—and God’s forgiveness. When you talk openly with your kids about your own need for Jesus, you create an environment where grace trumps performance. Acknowledge that only because of God are we champions over sin. Discernment and hatred of evil start in our own hearts.

2. Ask your kids for forgiveness quickly, humbly, sincerely, and without excuse when you sin against them. This kind of authenticity communicates that we can repent, confess, apologize, and get on the path to restoration in our relationships. We don’t have to hide, pretend, or blame when we screw up.

3. Talk frequently about what you see, watch, listen to, and read. Scripture talks about having our “powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Seize discussion opportunities to show your kids vividly how Scripture applies to every facet of life—perfect for “training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (see 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Ask them what they think: What does God’s Word say about something you just saw in a movie? How does the Word apply in that situation with your child’s friend? In a decision you’re trying to make? When someone has gossiped about you? When you’ve royally screwed up?

4. Allow the gospel to influence your comments about others. Press your conversation through the sieve of grace, removing even the smallest fragments of condemnation. It’s good to talk with our kids about wrong behavior we see in others—to talk about God’s commands “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). It’s also imperative that we emphasize our own need for grace and mercy, not our own superiority for our moral choices.

When you see someone’s sin, you might occasionally compare it to your own: “It’s kind of like the way I continue to struggle with being angry.” Watch your tone of voice. Do your kids hear a hint of disdain for “people like that,” or do they hear honesty and humility? Pray humbly and sincerely for those you see doing wrong rather than condemning them in front of your kids.

5. When disciplining children, focus more on the heart than on simply altering behavior. This helps draw a dotted line between our own sin and our need for God’s grace. Rather than training my kids like Pavlov’s dogs to “just behave!” I can help them increase their awareness of what’s truly burrowed within their own hearts: “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5).

Author Ginger Plowman suggests that, like Jesus, we ask probing, heart-related questions: whether they’re being unloving or loving, wise or foolish, truthful or false. We can train our kids to better understand why they’re making the choices they do, and what’s really motivating them. What do they want that perhaps they’re not getting? Are they obeying on the outside but rebelling on the inside? Whose attention are they really seeking—and who do they want to make look good?

After leading your children to discover more of their own heart, you might ask what they think God’s Word says about this—what behavior and heart attitude they should “put off” in this situation, and what they should “put on” (Ephesians 4:23-24). When appropriate, pray with your child about his or her heart.

In praising our kids, we can praise the true attitudes of their hearts—thanks to the Holy Spirit—far more than behavior. Again, this places our emphasis on cleanness on the inside, and God’s grace to get there, rather than on appearances, shame, and evading people’s disapproval.

6. Ask good questions:

  • “So what do you think about how that child behaved?”
  • “What do you think the Bible says about that?”
  • “Why do you think this person did this? What do you think he might have wanted inside that made him act like that?”

Help kids to see how our legitimate desires become demands, which we then meet in illegitimate, sinful ways. Without implying that these are excuses for wrongdoing, speak compassionately about the factors that can influence others’ behavior. Then kids can develop soft hearts of gratitude, patience, and understanding toward people who’ve received different grace than they: in their homes, their education, their opportunities, their experiences.

7. Talk about what we don’t know—and acknowledge that God alone is judge of the heart! When your kids talk about others’ misdeeds, we don’t need to speak firmly about things we don’t know (“That girl just doesn’t respect her body.” … “Those kids haven’t been taught how to respect adults”). Blanket statements don’t help us to see individuals and love them.

We also make generalizing judgments about groups of people: “Men don’t pick up on relational stuff like women do.”… “Women don’t like sex as much as men or want it as often.” … “Boys like that only want one thing.” Statements like these don’t open doors to loving well; they close them.

As parents, God has given us the opportunity to create and model a culture of humility in our homes. Rather than expanding the gulf between ourselves and others through subtle condemnation and superiority, we can close that gap by comprehending and appreciating our universal poverty without the cross.

Copyright © 2014 by Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.