I first got the idea from a friend, who suggested that we take our children out for a celebratory meal—before they sit a major exam.

“When we do this,” she explained, “we send a very clear signal to them that they are loved for who they are and not for how they perform.”

I thought it was a brilliant idea, even if it was completely counter-cultural. After all, most Asian parents would encourage our children to excel academically by promising them all sorts of rewards. We use all forms of carrots and sticks to push them to work hard in school—including rewards for doing well in exams.

While our intentions may be good, we may give our children the impression that Mum and Dad are pleased with them only when they excel in school, and only when they perform well. The unfortunate message they may then receive is: “I have to earn Mum’s and Dad’s love by my performance.”

The lesson we may inadvertently teach our kids is that love is conditional: it has to be earned. Our children may believe that they must be good enough to receive our love.


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A Different Message

As we know, this message about conditional love is at odds with a key biblical truth—that God’s love is freely given. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 2:8–10 (NLT):

God saved you by his grace when you believed.
And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.
Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done,
so none of us can boast about it.

God’s pattern of blessing freely can be seen right from the beginning of creation. Man’s first full day of existence was spent not in caring for creation, but in enjoying God’s blessings on the first Sabbath day (Genesis 1:26–2:3). We were created to enjoy God’s unconditional love.

We can also see this in the account of God the Father reminding Jesus that He is dearly loved—not as a reward for His ministry and His dying on the cross, but at His baptism, even before Jesus embarked on His public ministry:

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee
and was baptised by John in the Jordan.
Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water,
he saw heaven being torn open and
the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son,
whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
—Mark 1:9–11

At the same time, the Bible also makes clear that if we have truly tasted the goodness of God we would give ourselves to loving and serving Him. We are saved by grace, “so that we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10 NLT). The book of James, too, tells us that faith by itself isn’t enough: unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless (James 2:17).

We need to be on the watch out for the twin errors of conditional love and cheap grace.

We need to be on the watch out for the twin errors of conditional love and cheap grace.

Giving Our Kids the Security of Love

I do want my children to work hard for their exams. But not because it is a way to earn God’s love, or our love for them. Rather, I want them to work hard because I hope that they will be good stewards of their lives and the gifts that God has given them (Matthew 25:14–30).

I believe that if my children are secure in their parents’ love, they will know something of the love of their heavenly Father. And, being secure in that love, they can be free to be their creative best.

Above all, I want my children to know that I love them for who they are. While it may be a pale imitation of how my heavenly Father delights in me, I want my children to know that I delight in them, too.

I want them to know that their exam results, whatever they may be, will not change the fact that I love them.

That’s why my wife and I have started a “family tradition” of taking our children out for a good meal before their exams begin—and not after, as a reward for good results. I want them to know that their exam results, whatever they may be, will not change the fact that I love them.

And so, when we took our son Andrew out for dinner before his O-Levels, we didn’t talk about performing in the exams. We talked about some things he could do in his pre-university studies.

He also said that in future, if he has children, he will continue the family tradition and take them out for a celebratory meal before every major exam. Way to go, son, way to go.


This article was first published by Graceworks.
Adapted with permission.


Rev. Dr. Tan Soo-Inn is a director of Graceworks, a training and publishing consultancy committed to promoting spiritual friendship in church and society. Married to Bernice, they have four sons.
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