"Dad, I want to talk about bleaching my hair."

It was Cody. He was our second child and firstborn son, thirteen years old (at that time) and going into the seventh grade.

Let's step back from this scene a few feet and take in a bigger picture, which was: This could be a time to exhibit grace.

Back then, bleaching hair was a new thing, not like it is today. When Cody asked me about bleaching his hair, this fad was on its way in. You could count the boys in his school on one had who had nuked their hair. It was a look that had made its debut on the heads of headbangers. The etymology of these fads is often why many conservative Christian parents assume that such an idea is really a stupid (read: horrible) idea. Why would you let your kids look like the kids from hell? What does it say about a boy who wants to identify with a style popular among people who would strip your car when you weren't looking? And the bigger question: How would this reflect on me as a parent if my church friends saw my son with his hair all goofy?

These are the kinds of questions that cross the minds of Christian parents when their children ask permission to experiment with any popular trend. These are also the very questions that prompt these same parents to tersely respond, "Sorry, fella, but no way and no how." That's because Cody was asking permission to do something that would cause people to prejudge him-and not necessarily for the good. He was also asking my permission to do something that could affect how his peer group saw him-which he figured would probably be favorable. These are the very reasons why many parents assume the answer should be "It is absolutely out of the question."

What my wife and I have learned over the years is that grace-based homes have got to be places where children have the option to be who God uniquely designed them to be. Therefore, the first characteristic of grace-based homes is: They are homes that give children the freedom to be different.

Not allowing your children to do innocent but different things is the logical outgrowth of a belief system that emphasizes the symbols of faith rather than its substance. This shallow religion measures success more by the image than by genuine authenticity. It reminds me of a twist on an old saying: "It matters not whether you win or lose; it's how you look for the team picture that counts." Unfortunately, this is a gigantic and unnecessary joy stealer for kids.

I'm not saying that grace-based homes should tolerate sin, or evil, or anything that goes contrary to clearly stated precepts in the Bible. For instance, a child who interrupts her teachers, speaks disrespectfully to people in authority, or uses caustic put-downs against her siblings can't explain her disrespectful behavior with a throwaway excuse like, "Listen, I'm just goofy that way. Why can't you just accept me as I am?" The Bible clearly states that the way she interacts with her teachers, people in authority, or her siblings is unacceptable.

But those who are just plain different and do goofy things aren't necessarily wrong. They're just different.

Because their different looks or behavior often annoy or embarrass their parents, it is automatically assumed that whatever they are doing (or want to do) must not be tolerated. This makes it tough for kids hard-wired by God to be a bit different and limits us in being used as God's instruments of grace.

So Cody and I talked. He told me why he wanted to bleach his hair (the standard, superficial reasons-his friends were bleaching their hair and it was "cool"). We talked about some stereotypes that people attribute to it.

As I listened, I thought of all the evidence that God was very much alive and actively working inside his heart. His attitude, his speech, his respectful treatment of his parents and siblings, his love for the things of the Spirit, all pointed to a boy whose heart was in tune with God. Based on that, and the fact that he wanted to do something temporary that had no moral problem attached to it, I said, "Cody, I'm fine with you bleaching your hair, but I should talk to Mom about it first. If for some reason Mom is uncomfortable with this, then I'm going to vote with her, which means I'll want you to submit to our wishes without giving us any grief." He agreed.

When I got a chance to tell Darcy (my wife) about the conversation I had with Cody, she said it would be fine with her. Cody was stoked to hear the news, and it just so happened that our friend's daughter was a platinum blond-thanks to a bottle. She had all the stuff to do the job that night. The whole family gathered around to watch the process and take pictures.

The next morning we went parasailing and Cody launched off just a little bit before me. I could see his blond hair sticking out from under his helmet. He was waiting for me when I landed, helmet in hand, bright yellow hair shining on his head, and a grin from ear to ear.

When I look at the way some Christian parents bring up their children, and the way some Christian "experts" advise them, it's no wonder we seem to have lost our way. I think that fear is motivating so much of the Christian parenting advice we get.

We're scared of Hollywood, the Internet, the public school system, Halloween, the gay community, drugs, alcohol, rock `n' roll, rap, partying neighbors, unbelieving softball teams, liberals, and Santa Claus. Our fears determine our strategy for parenting. The moms and dads begin their statement or question to me with the words "I'm afraid of." When I look at how the standard evangelical family has formatted their strategy for parenting, most often I see fear behind the steering wheel.

If you look at all the categories of advice that Jesus gave us in the Gospels, you'd find that the longest list is made up of verses where He says, "Don't be afraid." If we have put our faith in Him, we should be the last people to be afraid of anything! Fear-based parenting is the surest way to create intimidated kids.

By contrast, "Grace-Based Parenting" is a map for learning to see ourselves and our children through God's limitless tenderness-to raise our kids the way God raises us. This is a truly liberating way to nurture a healthy family. As we embrace the grace He offers, we begin to give it-creating a sound foundation for growing morally strong and spiritually motivated children.

Grace-based parents spend their time entrusting themselves to Christ. They live to know God more. Their children are the daily recipients of grace these parents are enjoying from the Lord. They are especially graceful when their children are hardest to love. Their advice to their children would be a mixture of:

  • "You are a gift from God; go make a difference."
  • "You may struggle doing the right thing sometimes, but you're forgiven."
  • When it comes to boundaries for children, the fear-based parenting methods would exhort: "If it feels good, it's probably wrong!" or "If it feels good, stop it!"

    However, grace-based parents would exhort their children: "If it feels good, examine it." Grace-based parents process their day-to-day life with an air of confidence that comes from knowing God profoundly loves them.

    The key characteristic of grace-based families is that they aren't afraid. They take their cues straight from King David's playbook:

    "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me." (Psalm 23:4, emphasis mine).

    This kind of grace makes all the difference in the world when it's coming from God, through you, to your children. Children brought up in homes where they are free to be different, vulnerable, candid, and to make mistakes learn firsthand what the genuine love of God looks like. God allows you to tailor your parenting style and decisions to the unique bent of your child. God is a God of variety, and He deals with us accordingly.

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