Summertime for military families means one thing: transition. Moving trucks descend upon the neighborhoods like hungry mosquitoes the day after school lets out. Cardboard boxes and tape rolls and worn out dollies litter the front yards up and down the streets. Where we live, about one-third of the families turn over every summer; that is a lot of change for a child, whether the child is the one leaving or the one staying behind.
I realized how moving stresses out children several years ago when our firstborn was just a toddler. My husband was sent overseas for a year to Korea. The packing was limited, but the movers still showed up to crate his belongings. It was our first long separation as a family, and our daughter was too young to understand things like his overseas orders or the Korean armistice. When he left, she just missed her dad. As a toddler, she lacked the ability to communicate her emotional experience to me about his departure. So she did what toddlers do; she acted out.
My response, which revealed my inner legalist, was to crack down harder on her little frame. I thought she needed more structure, more discipline, more law.
I was really wrong.
I turned to a dear Chaplain friend for counsel. What was wrong with our usually compliant child? Did I need to discipline her more? Why won’t she just obey? You can imagine my questions. I felt like I was failing. Surely, there was something I could do to make her understand and act accordingly.
With a tone of calm correction in his voice, he said that during times of transition within a family it is best to “err on the side of grace.” That was it: 6 words. They have since guided us through every move, every deployment, every birth, and every other season of transition.
Err on the side of grace.
I get my mistake now after years of thinking through his counsel to me. I was bringing down the full weight of the law on her young frame, and what her soul needed was an outpouring of grace. Her behavior was a symptom of a deeper issue—an issue she did not have the emotional maturity to articulate. Grace was the balm for the loss and confusion she felt about her dad’s absence.
According to Strong’s Concordance, grace is a feminine noun that means “undeserved favor.” It is freely given, unmerited, and without strings.
Let’s look at a couple of New Testament passages that give us different angles on grace.
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Ephesians 1:7-10, ESV).
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (James 4:14-16, ESV).
The language in these verses gives us clues about the nature of grace. The Lord is rich with it; he doesn’t just sprinkle it here and there when we are in a bind. In wisdom, He has lavished us with grace. And even more, he understands our plight.
Wherever we are broken, whenever we are alone, He gets it because he has been broken and alone—for us. On the cross, he showed us unmerited favor when we deserved forever condemnation.
When our kids are in the middle of a rough transition, this sort of extravagant, unmerited favor is one way we can be like Christ to them. Err on the side of grace with them because Christ erred on the side of grace with us.
This doesn’t mean that we blindly pass over the sin we see in our children during seasons of strain and transition in our families. Grace isn’t ignoring the sin; it is seeing the sin and choosing to show favor instead of condemnation. In this context, grace requires that we push pause on our responses and make sure we are considering our children’s frames and the circumstances before we press on with full-throttled discipline. With my daughter, I decided during that year to see her tantrums as a call for assurance and affection. She needed me to pour in love and reassure her that life was going to be ok even though her dad was half-way around the world. Later on, when my husband was home, the same behavior may get a different response from us. But during the separations and deployments, I started leaning into grace more and trying to pour in love during those tough moments.
I encourage you this week to think about the way your children respond to transitions within your own family. Perhaps it is a birth. Maybe a death. Even starting back to school or a new job can cause strain for children. Whatever transition point is affecting your family right now, are there ways that you can step back, take a breath, and err on the side of grace with your children?