From "Raising Faith-filled Kids." Used with permission.

I was in line at a local rib joint. An older woman, also in line, was trying to control a rambunctious toddler, apparently her granddaughter. Exasperated, she pointed at me and said, "This here's a policeman, and he's going to lock you up in jail if you don't stop misbehaving."

Secret Messages Parents Send

What does your behavior tell kids about God? Click here to find out.

The little girl was stunned, but no more than I. This cute little sweetheart shrank away from me and hid behind her grandmother's coat. I was shocked into silence, unable to conjure up a way to counter such a child-rearing blunder without making matters worse.

I felt horrible being described as a mean authority figure who would punish little children by locking them away. I wondered how God likes it. After all, people often describe God in those terms, with the result that many of God's children shy away for fear they'll be swooped up and punished. These images last long into adulthood, in some cases throughout a person's entire life.

Which images of God are you giving to your kids? While God is beyond our comprehension, our tradition offers clues about who God is--and isn't. Check out these common misconceptions to see if you're telling lies about God.

  • God as cop: "God's gonna get you."
  • God as fairy godmother: "God will arrange for my good fortune if I but suffer in silence now."
  • God as Monty Hall: "Let's make a deal."
  • God as benevolent (sometimes) dictator: "We are peons at the whim of the one in charge. Let's hope he doesn't get angry."
  • God as alderman: "I provide services on an 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine' basis."
  • God as absentee landlord: "He's never there when things go wrong."
  • Or Woody Allen's God as underachiever, whose usual response is: "Oops, did I do that?"

  • Whether you know it or not, parents, you're giving your children their first clues about what God is like. Have you given much thought to the God you're describing for your kids? And it's not only in the words you use but also in the expectations you have of how God operates or of what God has in store for us.

    Secret Messages Parents Send

    What does your behavior tell kids about God? Click here to find out.

    I remember when it first hit me that people in my neighborhood might have different ideas about God than I did. For example, one day a friend told me that his mother wanted me to pray for his brother, who was in the marines awaiting his orders for duty. "Sure, I'll pray for Stevie," I said. My friend Jimmy added, "My mom says when you're an altar boy, you're closer to God than she is back in the pew. He'll listen to your prayer more than hers." I don't know why, but even at the age of eleven this struck me as pure balderdash. "No he won't," I argued. "God hears us all. It doesn't matter that I'm an altar boy. What matters in what's in your heart."

    Another neighbor, a woman who usually seemed on the edge of hysteria, dropped in to visit my mother one day. Mom wasn't home, but the lady stood in the door and talked nonstop for ten or twenty minutes. One of her comments floored me. She pointed to a statue of the young Jesus that stood on our television set. "Turn him to the door," she said, pointing. "Turn him so he's facing the front door. Then he'll make sure you always have money in the house."

    My brother, Pat, and I stood there, jaws hanging and eyes bugging. Again, even at a young age I somehow knew that God was not a magic genie or a two-bit vaudeville actor. "Give me top billing, and I'll see you get taken care of."

    My parents hadn't sat us down to teach us formal lessons about God, but they had taught us plenty about who God is and what he's like. Kathleen Norris, poet and author of "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith," offered a clue. She wrote, "I firmly believe that the way we bathe a child or discuss family matters at the dinner table reveals who our God is."

    So what do we know of God? Jesus told us that God loves us and calls us to divine life. This concept is very theoretical. More in line with where families are at, Jesus told us that God is like a loving parent, delighting in us, acting in our best interest, ready to respond to our deepest needs.
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