Don’t mix with bad company. Don’t listen to “unholy” music. Don’t watch “immoral” movies. Dress properly. Don’t embarrass yourself in public and in church. Memorise your Bible verses. And do your daily devotion without fail.

Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard many a concerned parent telling their child to do the “right” thing so as to avoid the evils of society. You might even have said some of these things yourself.

It sounds sensible, but Tim Kimmel, an author of numerous books on parenting, believes that parents may be trying to keep their kids in what he calls a “Christian bubble”.

Faced with the challenges and threats of modern culture, many parents can become over-focused on how children behave and perform as Christians, how they are perceived by society, and how they might be tainted by the ways of the evil world.

This, says Tim, is “fear-based parenting”.

The Problem With Fear-based Parenting

In contrast, the founder and executive director of Family Matters (familymatters.net), a US-based ministry that helps families in the journey of restoration and reformation as they learn to draw from God’s grace, hopes to help people consider what he calls “grace-based parenting”.

As the author of books like Grace Based Parenting and Grace Filled Marriage points out, “sin-management parenting”—trying to keep kids from sinning, and propping up the illusion of a devout, faithful Christian family—will not work.

Tim notes that when parents talk about effective parenting, they usually assume it means drawing clear moral and practical boundaries for their children, and expecting them to live within these boundaries.

“We knew God would reach their heart in His perfect timing. In the meantime, we were going love them with God’s love.

But, he stresses, these boundaries should not be based on parents’ fears of an antagonistic culture; rather, they should come from a confidence in a mighty God who loves us and has our best interest in mind.

That, says Tim, is where God’s grace comes to the rescue.

It flows from the assumption that children will sin, not panicking when they do, correcting them properly, forgiving them, and helping them to move in the right direction—towards God.

What Grace-Based Parenting Is

The first step to grace-based parenting, notes Tim, is getting a fuller understanding of God’s grace.

Grace-based parenting is simply treating children the same way that God treats all of us: giving us something we need but don’t necessarily deserve.

Many people, he notes, tend to confine grace to the work of salvation, forgetting that grace also continues in the lifelong process of sanctification by the Holy Spirit.

Many people—and parents—tend to see sanctification as a works-based process, and end up reducing the Christian life down to keeping a bunch of rules and living within certain boundaries.

“We were more concerned about them turning out right than going through childhood right,”…

But Amos 5:21–24 distinguishes between religiosity and true righteousness. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals, your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them,” says God.

Instead, He declares, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

So, before Tim and his wife Darcy became parents, they decided that they would look at how God the Father treated His children, and try to emulate the ultimate Parent’s relationship with His children.

What Grace-Based Parenting Looks Like

The first thing they observed was how God related to His kids when they messed up. “God doesn’t yell or scream at His children, or shame and belittle them,” he recalls of their discovery. “He deals with us in kindness and mercy. He corrects and disciplines us, but everything He does is to make us better people and to draw us closer to Him.”

As Hebrews 12:6 and 10 note: “The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son . . . God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”

The next thing they realised was that God doesn’t control His children, or use His personality or position to get them to meet His personal agenda.

That means He doesn’t force His children to behave in a certain way just so that He will look good to others.

And He doesn’t take away people’s will; while He desires that they love Him back, they will always have the option not to.

Revelation 3:19–20 depicts Jesus as giving His listeners the choice to respond to His call: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

grace-based parenting meant not trying to orchestrate the outcome of their kids’ lives by sticking doggedly to rules of behaviour believing that these alone would ensure the right outcome …

And finally, Tim and Darcy saw that grace-based parenting meant not trying to orchestrate the outcome of their kids’ lives by sticking doggedly to rules of behaviour believing that these alone would ensure the right outcome, or by keeping them cloistered from worldly influences.

“We didn’t want to raise a bunch of safe kids,” he says, “We wanted to raise strong ones. We wanted to raise them in the middle of the world they faced, so they wouldn’t just survive in it, but would thrive in it.”

Tim stresses that this didn’t mean the Kimmels didn’t have rules for their children to obey.

“They knew our rules, and we were strict about them. But we knew they were sinners and were going to do stupid things.”

Many parents, he has observed, tend to raise their kids in an atmosphere of legalism and fear, believing that if their children grew up in the “right” way, they would turn out right.

But this “sin management” approach to parenting often “blows up”, he says.

So he and Darcy tried to focus less on their children’s behaviour, and more on their character.

“We were more concerned about them turning out right than going through childhood right,” he says. “So we didn’t fret about how they dressed. If they decided to get a weird hairstyle, we didn’t care. We are more concerned about their heart.”

Knowing What Really Matters

Tim had a memorable personal lesson in fear-versus-grace-based parenting when his eldest child, Karis, was young.

A classmate had called Karis several times one night, but Tim saw it was getting late, and Karis needed to get to bed. The next time the phone rang, he picked it up and told the girl kindly but firmly, “It’s time for Karis to go to bed, she can’t talk to you any more tonight. Call her in the morning.”

When Karis heard this, she came to Tim, frustrated. “Dad, you don’t know what’s been going on at my friend’s home.”

Grace-based parenting is simply treating children the same way that God treats all of us: giving us something we need but don’t necessarily deserve.

It turned out that her classmate’s brother had been in trouble that night with some youths in the neighbourhood, their father was involved, and there had been a drive-by shooting.

The girl was frantic, and Karis had been her lifeline, offering words of comfort and assurance.

“Dad, you want us to help our friends, but you think we’re getting carried away, so you enforce the curfew,” she told her father.

Realising he had reacted without knowing the bigger story, Tim apologised to his daughter, then together they prayed for her friend and that she would call back.

“This was something more important than a curfew,” he recalls.

The incident taught Tim that God is always working on his children—His children—and transforming them into Christlike followers.

Tim’s task, he realised, was to guide them with the same grace that God had given him, so that they would come to see God’s grace in their own lives.“We never worried about whether they would follow Christ,” he says. “We knew God would reach their heart in His perfect timing. In the meantime, we were going love them with God’s love. We knew we were going to make mistakes and get it wrong, but as Proverbs 10:12 points out, love covers over all wrongs.”