I had a chance to read an advanced reader copy of Jeannie Cunnion's new book, Parenting the Wholehearted Child: Captivating Your Child's Heart with God's Extravagant Grace, and I not only learned from her story but I also immediately applied some of her advice. Every time we sit down to pray as a family, we go through "Wow, Sorry, Thanks, I Need…" prayers, and I am grateful for Jeannie's practical wisdom. I had a chance to talk with Jeannie this week about her book and the ways her household has changed from a place of perfectionism to a still-somewhat-chaotic (she has three boys) place of grace:
I love the story of why you wrote Parenting the Wholehearted Child. Can you share it with us here?
I never set out to write this book. It began as a journal, really - a way I poured my heart out to God about all of my frustration, my shame, my worry and my fear over not being the mom I always dreamed I'd be - perfectly patient, perfectly loving, perfectly everything my children needed me to be. And the more I journaled, the more I saw how much joy and adventure and wonder I was stealing from our family in my quest to be a perfect mom raising perfect kids.
Around this same time, my eldest son Cal was given a chance to describe our family in a preschool class project. I assume the teacher intended this little book to be a special keepsake, but that wasn't the case for our family. The front cover of the book reads "My Family" and has an adorable picture of Cal in his classroom. Inside the book is a typed note from Cal's teacher, who evidently wrote (verbatim) the words that Cal spoke when he was asked to describe us. The typed note reads, "Brennan cries a lot! 'Cause he sometimes gets sick and sometimes he gets well when he cries. Mommy just raises her voice when I'm not a good listener. She checks on the computer too. Daddy works on the computer too. He checks out Thomas the Tank Engine for me. Now that's the end of my story."
I remember holding that card and sobbing, "How could that be my child's story when I've been trying so hard to get it right?" Though I was devastated to see myself and our family through Cal's eyes, his card was the only thing strong enough to pry my eyes open to the painful truth I'd been trying so hard to avoid: perfectionism had become an idol in my life, and it was stealing all of our joy.I hadn't been living in the freedom of God's grace, and I definitely wasn't parenting our kids in that freedom.
So when I began to feel God nudging me to write a book about my battle with perfection and the way He was setting me free, I had no idea what would come of it. But what I did come to realize pretty quickly in all of the writing was that this book – well, it was for me. For my family. I wasn't writing this book because I thought I had a lot to teach anyone else about parenting. I was writing this book because God had a lot to teach me about His grace- about His perfect love for imperfect parents.
What changed about your parenting when you realized grace wasn't at the core of your family?
Everything. As God's grace began to transform my heart, it also began to transform my parenting. Gradually my quest to raise perfect children was transformed into a desire to raise "wholehearted children"—children who live from the freedom found in being wholeheartedly and unconditionally loved (and liked!) by God in Jesus Christ.
What I now wanted was to raise children who understand that they are fully known and fully loved, and who experience the fullness of life and the power of God that we read of in Ephesians 3:17–19 (NLV): "I pray that Christ may live in your hearts by faith. I pray that you will be filled with love. I pray that you will be able to understand how wide and how long and how high and how deep His love is. I pray that you will know the love of Christ. His love goes beyond anything we can understand. I pray that you will be filled with God Himself."
Knowing they are fully known and fully loved allows our children to live in the freedom and fullness of Jesus' unconditional love for them without the burden of perfection, performance, and pretending. This is extravagant grace, and in experiencing this grace, their hearts are captivated and transformed.
How has your own faith life changed as a result of having kids?
I'm convinced that there is nothing in this world that reveals our weaknesses like motherhood. Yes, it also reveals a depth of fierce love we never knew possible, but oh does it also show us how very human and imperfect we are. This was a hot topic in my women's Bible study group last fall. So many of our conversations led to our insecurities as mothers and the shame that ensues from feeling like we're never enough. If there was anything we all agreed on, it was how parenting reveals our greatest weaknesses—how emotions and reactions we were once only casually acquainted with (such as anger, impatience, or guilt) suddenly became our closest friends when we became parents.
What I'm realizing more and more in this season of my life is that parenting is designed to bring us to our knees. To humble us. God uses these little people to mold us more into His image. To show us how foolish we are to think we can find the strength to keep "pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps" each time we fail. He uses these little people to make us rely more fully on His strength, not our own, His love, not our own, His patience, not our own, and His kindness, not our own.
How has life in your household changed since you began practicing a different way of parenting?
See, I used to think that my primary role as a parent was to set a perfect example for my kids to follow and when I failed, I would wallow in grief. But the more I grow in my understanding of grace and the unconditional love of Christ for me, the more I realize that while setting a Christlike example for my kids is important, it is even more important that I be authentic about my trust in and need for Jesus.
When I am willing to be honest about my imperfection and say to my kids, "I am so sorry. I am not the mom I want to be for you today and I need Jesus to help me. Will you please forgive me?" it gives permission to my kids to also be honest about their imperfection and their need for Jesus, and to seek forgiveness.
In doing this, my kids are set free from feeling like they have to perform for me, to pretend like they have it all together, to get it right all the time—in order to have my love or acceptance or approval. Even better than them knowing they don't have to perform for me is that they are learning they don't have to pretend or perform for God. They are learning that they cannot make God love them less through their bad behavior and they can't make God love them more through their good behavior.
There is so. much. freedom. in embracing the fact that our primary purpose is not to point to ourselves as the ultimate model for our children but to point away from ourselves and to Jesus. He is the only one who has never, and will never, let them down.