By Jen Hatmaker
I want our kids to know that in our family, we mess up, we fess up, we own up, and we make up. It’s just that simple.
Obviously, because I’m a Christian author and speaker who’s married to a pastor, our children are perfect, always behaving as if singing angels dropped them straight into our arms from the bosom of heaven. They obey the first time they are asked, they love one another desperately and never fight over the Wii remote, and they donate their birthday money to the Foundation for the Homeless they set up when they were in elementary school. My kids don’t ever roll their eyes at me or procure big, dramatic sighs when I tell them to clean their filthy bathroom. Also? Their first words were, “I want to ask Jesus into my heart.” (I know, right? Brandon and I were surprised, too. They skipped right over Mama and Dada to the gospel of atonement.)
But I’ve heard of other kids who can be rotten.
Inconceivably, my firstborn, Gavin, who just entered the world about 12 minutes ago, is finishing up his final weeks of middle school and will become a high school student in August. I have no idea how to make sense of this information. I don’t know which is more disconcerting: that Gavin’s nearly old enough to drive or that I’m old enough to be his mother. What is happening, people?
This boy that I love, this good boy who is funny and quirky and smart and delightful, totally blew it last week. Any time your eighth grader comes home from school pale as a ghost, looking like a deer in the headlights, saying, “Mom and Dad? Can I speak to you in private, please? It’s bad …” this is not a good sign.
Of course, my head went straight to Crazyville thinking: Someone has hurt him; some teacher mocked him; some boys from the football team, who outweigh him by 70 pounds, which he can’t help because he has small bones, have been bullying him for six months and he hasn’t had the courage to tell us, but now they’ve set up a Facebook page against him, and it’s gone viral and he’s getting death threats.
Brandon suggests that sometimes I overreact.
“I cheated on a test and got caught,” is what Gavin explained actually happened.
My heart burns with a hot, fiery, consuming love for my son, and this lapse in judgment is so very small compared with the rest of our story together.
There were some extenuating circumstances. (Aren’t there always?) Time was ticking down, panic was growing as Gavin couldn’t work the problem out, the teacher gave the two-minute warning, and he glanced over at his neighbor’s paper and copied his final answer.
But I’ve said for some time that math is tricky. Evidently, when your work shows that your answer should read “12?” but you’ve written “7xΣ- a(k) > cos 2z” the person with the math degree can often smell a rat. (Clearly I have no math degree, as evidenced by that invented formula I cobbled together from the symbols menu because I’m a word girl.)
I forced my face to appear calm and my voice to remain steady. Since Gavin was already on the verge of a nervous breakdown, I decided to play the straight man in this scene from Juvenile Delinquents of the Future. Brandon and I let Gavin share the details with his trembling voice, including the part where — against all reason — his teacher was allowing him to retake the test the next morning before school for a maximum grade of 80 percent, which was slightly more lenient than, say, in-school suspension.
Many words about honor and character and truthfulness followed, with Brandon and I taking turns doing what parents do. We used the word disappointed, which everyone knows is the worst dagger, especially for a kid whose last brush with the law was in first grade when he brought a plastic knife in his lunch box for peanut butter.
Brandon and I sent Gavin to his room so we could “talk about it,” prolonging his torture and freaking him out with our eerie calmness, which isn’t our usual way, as we are a family of blazing torches. I’m sure he was expecting to be strung up on the gallows as an object lesson to his four younger siblings, a warning to all future tricksters.
But here is what I know: This boy, this cheating boy, is good. Gavin’s heart is gentle and decent in all the most important ways. I learned how to be a mom with this kid, and he has been a true delight. I know him. I know him better than he knows himself. I can read all his nonverbal cues and discern his precise emotion, just by glancing at his hands. I get what makes him tick and what makes his blood boil. Gavin’s the spitting image of his dad, which is just the best thing. My heart burns with a hot, fiery, consuming love for my son, and this lapse in judgment is so very small compared with the rest of our story together.
Brandon and I decided on a consequence, which Gavin accepted almost gratefully, so relieved to be at the end of this conversation rather than the dreaded beginning. And I decided in that moment to fully let him off the hook. Fully. No stern face, no circular discussion back to his crime, no stoic interaction the rest of the day.
I started joking with Gavin about it, using our shared language of humor. At first, he wasn’t sure how to respond, not convinced he could drop his shame and laugh just yet. So then I told him how his dad, the one whose face he shares, cheated on his Biblical Ethics test in college, which is so deliciously ironic that I couldn’t possibly be making it up. I threw in the time my friend Janet and I cheated on a philosophy test, got busted, and cried our eyes out until our professor had mercy on us, certainly caving just to get these two wailing, hysterical girls out of his office. I asked if he was planning to cheat on any impending blood tests or his annual vision screening.
I watched as relief flooded his face.
We were OK.
It was such a joy to show my son mercy; I almost couldn’t wait to do it. If Gavin only knew how epically his dad and I have failed and how many times regret and shame threatened to take us under. I needed him to know my love for him went so far beyond the boundaries of behaving — We’re for you, kid. I wanted to show Gavin that in our family, we mess up, we fess up, we own up, and we make up. It’s just that simple. Failure is not a deal-breaker in this house. Love indeed covers a multitude of sins. If Jesus told us to forgive our enemies, then certainly we are to forgive our precious cherubs God has entrusted us with.
Mamas, we discipline to teach our children responsibility, honesty, character, and godliness — all important. But we forgive to teach them mercy, kindness, gentleness, and grace — all equally important. We communicate to them, “This is not a perfect family; it’s a human family held together by love, compassion, and a lot of duct tape.” We must get vulnerable and honest with our children, sharing our mistakes and identifying with them way down deep in their guilt, teaching them that we are safe and they need never hide from us.
Our kids will fail in sometimes epic, embarrassing ways. Like you did. Like I did. This doesn’t mean we’ve done a sorry job as parents or our children are destined for the penitentiary. It just means God has given us yet another chance to act justly, to love mercy, and to learn to walk humbly with Him. If motherhood hasn’t taught us to die to self, then we haven’t been paying a lick of attention.
It also means God is training our children in the safest possible place: our homes. There they know they are beloved no matter, accepted regardless, forgiven always. Not only do we shape their character, but we give them security, so easy to learn early but so difficult to learn later. Teaching our kids what to do with failure — in our choices, with one another — is one of life’s most important lessons, one they will return to until the grave.
May we show our children grace today, modeling Jesus to our young ones until they are old enough to taste His goodness and see for themselves. And one day, they’ll make the connection between the Jesus in their mother’s heart and the Jesus in theirs, and our work will be complete.
If motherhood hasn’t taught us to die to self, then we haven’t been paying a lick of attention.
Jen Hatmaker is the author of nine books and Bible studies, including Interrupted (NavPress) and 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess (B&H). She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and five kids, three the old-fashioned way and two adopted from Ethiopia. You can read about her ministry, family, and blog at jenhatmaker.com.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of HomeLife. To subscribe, click here or on the magazine cover.