Is an extended family gathering on your calendar for this summer? Most of these events are planned by middle agers who want their kids and grandkids to know their cousins, aunts, and uncles. That was the situation last summer for a young friend of mine, her husband, and their children. Their family loaded up all the gear for a week on the lake and traveled across the state to be with aunts, uncles, and other family members they rarely see otherwise.

Anticipating what some of these encounters might mean for their children, this young mom and her husband began to prep their children on what to expect from certain family members. One older uncle was not particularly gentle and was not known to be open to matters of faith. To help their children understand that his ways were different than their family’s, the explanation was given that it was because this man doesn’t know God, which was true. Upon arriving at the reunion location, the oldest child, who was nine, was introduced to this uncle and said, “We pray for you ’cause our mom says you don’t know God!”

Shocked. Speechless. The parents were embarrassed. They never anticipated or dreamed this child would say what they had discussed at home. Thankfully, this man was kind in his response, knowing kids say the most unexpected things.

Families are complicated. Members are supposed to love each other no matter what, but rarely does that happen and rarely do all members have the same values. So what are a mom and dad to do to help their little ones understand an uncle who drinks and cusses, an aunt who is divorced and grouchy with everyone, or cousins who are allowed to see movies or wear clothing that they feel is inappropriate for their children? And there are worse scenarios.

I remember those conversations with my children as we tried to explain why certain extended family members behaved as they did. It’s part of the hard work of parenting. Tackling difficult issues. Standing strong on what you believe. Helping little children learn to love and give grace.

One of my favorite descriptions of Jesus is that He was full of grace and truth. He was all grace and all truth at the same time. Always. My problem has always been not being full of either, with grace being the lesser of the two. As a parent, my tendency was to cling to truth. As a result, I was not compassionate toward family members who were not living with godly standards. And I also tended toward fear for my children that they’d be overly influenced by these people in the short encounters we had rather than extending grace and trusting God to help me coach my children in truth.

In hindsight, I see that grace is the key in these family situations. Not that truth is unimportant; we must have both, and that is impossible without depending on the Holy Spirit in our lives. Moms and dads need to model giving grace to the person who is hard to love. Children are watching, and so is everyone else in the family. So much can be done through a grace-based relationship as is evidenced by how Jesus treated the woman who had five husbands and was living with another. There are people just like her in most of our families.

So as you juggle all the details of travel and packing to leave town for family gatherings, make sure you allow yourself time to pray for grace … even if you can’t do it till you are in the car on the way.