Last Updated on March 22, 2024

Let’s say you’re on a playdate, 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 so he or she will stop the madness and make you all more comfortable. Flash 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 on prime time. How do we help our kids know how to react—and still not raise a bunch of mini-Pharisees?

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 an “us/them” comparison, a superior-to-inferior attitude. Judging places someone beneath us because of some factor, often with remarkable subtlety. It loses perspective of who we are in the sight of God—namely, sinners saved by grace, who are nothing without the cross making us new every day in God’s mercy.

Discernment, on the other hand, does recognize a behavior as wrong—but does so out of a realization of our hearts’ own constant and replete 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.” It’s that place that lays down the stone we were about to throw, but still prays and cares that someone would “Go, and sin no more.”

Remember that the opposite of Pharisee-ism is the gospel. Martin Luther famously wrote that we should preach the gospel to ourselves every day. Jesus himself praised the prayer, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Keeping our need for Jesus before us—as well as God’s richness in our life because of Him, rather than our own efforts—is a must.

So what does this look like practically, as we work to help our kids carefully separate good from evil—but not develop hearts that condemn others?

  1. We need to be upfront about our own sin and failures—and God’s forgiveness. Talking openly with our kids about our own need for Jesus creates an environment where grace trumps performance. We acknowledge that only because of God are we champions over sin. Discernment and hatred of evil start in our own hearts!
  2. We need to ask our kids for forgiveness quickly, humbly, sincerely, and without excuse when we sin against them.
  3. We should talk frequently about what we 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 is applicable 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 the Word look like at the movies? 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 play in to your comments about others. Press your conversation through the sieve of grace, removing even the smallest fragments of condemnation. It’s a good thing to talk with our kids about wrong behavior that 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.”

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, or the way we’ve been working together on your obedience lately.”

Tone of voice is capital here. Will kids hear a hint of disdain for “people like that,” or honesty and humility? Pray humbly and sincerely for those that you see doing wrong rather than condemning them in front of your kids.

For ideas 5-8 hop over to Part II of this article!

{Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on May 28, 2014 we hope you’ll take the time to read Part II.}

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  1. excellent! a lot of very good, practical points

  2. This was really good! Thanks. How do I sign up to receive part 2 so I don’t forget? Thanks.