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How to Repent to Your Children

It’s almost May, a time when many children leave the nest. Some of you parents don’t have much time left to finish some important business before your child leaves home. So many young people tell me, “I wish my parents had said they were sorry to me, but their pride got in the way.” Beyond that,…
By Seth Barnes

It’s almost May, a time when many children leave the nest. Some of you parents don’t have much time left to finish some important business before your child leaves home. So many young people tell me, “I wish my parents had said they were sorry to me, but their pride got in the way.”

Beyond that, I speak from personal experience – Karen and I have five awesome children who have grown up and are in varying states of transition to adulthood. So far, four of them have needed to have a serious conversation with me about some way in which I had failed them.

And hey, it wasn’t the end of the world, they needed a debrief of sorts. They needed my help in moving our relationship to a new phase. Having worked hard at raising them, I knew I needed to help ensure that they didn’t carry any dysfunction from me with them into adulthood. Part of their transition required us taking stock of the 18 years or so where they had lived under our roof and Karen and I had the privilege of raising them. How did it go? What could we have done differently or better?

I have what I consider to be great relationships with my kids, but here’s my report from the other side of this transition: Each of them has, of their own initiative, come to me to debrief some painful aspect of childhood that I unwittingly had a part in. The sad part is, I was clueless about it and they had never wanted to hurt my feelings.

Every time a different child came to have “the talk,” it was hard. I can’t tell you the remorse I felt for the fact that they had to carry this painful part of their lives by themselves. We have few secrets in our home, but for whatever reason, each child could not bring themselves to confront the situation earlier.

Each came to me and said, “Dad, I’d like to talk to you about something when you’ve got time.” Internally I thought, “Gulp, here it comes – all that effort over the last 18 years and still I have failed my kiddo in some way.” But I gathered up my courage, realizing that, if it was hard for me, it was probably even more difficult for them.

So here’s what I would do differently and here’s my advice: If you’re a parent approaching the empty nest phase of life, let me suggest you brace yourself for and even initiate this debrief, making sure it’s thorough and honest. And it will probably be easiest for everyone if you will search your heart and ask God to show you any pain that you have caused them.

If you want your child to make a good transition, it is essential for you to own any pain that he or she has stuffed. The temptation is to defend or explain your bad parenting. Let me be clear: Do not do this! The conversation will probably feel extraordinarily tender for both of you, but as the parent, you have always had the power and now must use that to help them move thru their pain and into a new phase of autonomy.

Specifically this means you need to repent to your child not only for anything you did that was hurtful and wrong, but anything that they took in the wrong way as well. That’s where I messed up – I simply had no idea. Remember, this transaction is not about you; it is about helping your child to leave the nest with as little baggage as possible.

Actually, I probably got lucky. My kids initiated our debrief. This may not be the case for many of you. Because your child finds the whole subject supremely awkward and does not trust you to shut up and take your lumps, you have the delicate task of trying to make it safe for them.

Probably the only way to do this is to make a list of all the ways that you may have hurt your child and repent to them for it.

Depending on how deep the pain you caused and how frigid the atmosphere in the room, you may need to begin by writing a letter to your child. The point of the letter is to create the possibility of a conversation where you repent as completely and clearly as possible. If you bobble the ball and give even a hint of defensiveness or manipulation, you may delay the process for a year or two. My advice to you fathers is, be a man and take your lumps.

To get you thinking, here’s a list of things you may need to repent for:

  1. If you disciplined them out of anger.
  2. If you neglected them at some point as they grew up.
  3. If you yelled at them or abused them in some way.
  4. If you failed to love your spouse as you should have.
  5. If you didn’t protect them adequately (from pornography, from violent video games, from the opposite sex, from family members, from abuse).

This list could go on and on. The point is, you want to help launch your kid out into the world well. But, given what’s happened to them that you may be ignorant of, it’s going to be hard – it will require a lot of you. I recommend taking a day to fast and pray. Ask God to reveal anything you need to repent for in their upbringing. Review each phase as thoroughly as possible with God. Write down in a journal anything he shows you. Then, follow through and release your child of their baggage. It will be the best graduation gift you ever gave them.

*A couple of caveats: First, your child may not be mature enough to handle this. He or she may be stuck in a victim mentality. They may see you as worse than you are. Don’t expect them to respond with grace or even appropriately. Your objective should be to make it easier for them to navigate the world – you are not responsible for their response. Second, for parents of younger children, don’t wait till the last second to come clean. The longer you wait, the greater the potential damage to your child.

For young people reading this who wish that your parents would read this, but who also don’t want to risk forwarding this to them, check in with tomorrow’s blog where I’ll address Things I wish my children had told me. You may want to forward that to them instead.

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