“Mom and dad, I need to talk to you about something.”

Beautiful words. They could also be frightening words for parents to hear. Yet they are priceless words because they communicate that our child trusts us enough to share what is on their heart.

And such is parenting. Parenting consists of thousands of conversations with our children. All of these conversations are important because conversations are how we build and gauge the strength of our relationships with our children. 

And relationships – especially parent-child relationships – are based on trust.

Fear vs. trust

One definition of trust is “to feel safe when vulnerable.” When a child has a question to ask, a concern to share, or a confession to make, they are likely to experience feelings of anxiety or vulnerability. 

Fear whispers: “You have to be careful with mom and dad. If your parents find out what’s on your mind, they will judge you or reject you.” 

Trust says: “Mom and dad are safe for you— they love you and they are on your side no matter what.”

We’ve found that Christian parenting requires good theology, that will lead to a good strategy, that will set us up for good conversations. But to have good conversations our kids have to trust us.

Of course, the ultimate goal is not to get our kids to trust us, but to train them to trust God.

We can’t just tell them— we have to show them

When kids learn that mom and dad are faithful, loving, consistent, and redemptive, it becomes easier for kids to believe that God is faithful, loving, consistent, and redemptive. When kids believe that mom and dad can be trusted, it becomes easier for them to believe that God can be trusted. When kids see that mom and dad truly love and trust God, it becomes easier for kids to love and trust God.

As parents we can’t just tell them. We have to show them. Deuteronomy 6:5 instructs parents, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” Parents have to love the Lord first. Then we spend our days (and nights) showing and training our kids to know and love and trust God like we do. 

Because you guys believe it, it makes me want to believe it too

In the process of training our children over the last 25 years we have had lots of fun, but that fun has been tempered with seasons of challenge and heartache. 

When one of our kids was in high school, he went through a period of pretty serious rebellion and spiritual struggle. Even though there were challenges, we still had solid relationships and lots of good conversations. On Father’s Day we have a tradition— we go around the table and everyone shares something they admire about dad (we do a similar thing for the appropriate person on Mother’s Day and on birthdays). 

Our son, the struggler, said, “I know I’m not in a good place right now, but it means a lot to me that Mom and Dad really believe in God and have a relationship with him. Because you guys believe it, it makes me want to believe it too.” 

He wasn’t feeling it for himself. But he was seeing it. Thankfully he eventually repented and has been completely restored to the Lord and to his family in every way. In fact— he and his wife are raising a family of their own. Amazing grace!

Parents have to love the Lord first.

How do we build trust?

So how do we build trust? How do we create an environment where our kids learn to trust mom and dad? Here is a practical idea we’ve learned that helps facilitate trust and good conversations: 

Have a few simple rules.

Many parents develop rules for their kids— especially when the kids are little. Some post them on the refrigerator or bulletin board. We’ve made a secret hobby of taking note of family rules that we see when we visit our friends’ or church members’ homes. Most people just have too many rules. We saw one mom who had posted 27 house rules for her kids – 27! It seemed like every time her kids did something she didn’t like she would just post a new rule. One of them was “Don’t steal your sister’s crayons.” 27 today means 37 tomorrow and 57 the week after next.

Clarity and consistency set the table for trust. Confusion and ambiguity erode trust and undermine training. When you have too many rules it’s impossible to remember them all, and impossible to stay consistent in your parenting. When our kids were very young, Kristin (the brains of the outfit around here) came up with three simple rules that were specific enough to facilitate training, but broad enough to cover every parenting situation. Our rules are: 

  1. Respect authority.
  2. Tell the truth.
  3. Think of others.

That’s it. 

The first two are pretty direct and narrow in their application. Obey mom and dad, obey your teachers, coaches, baby-sitters, and other adults who are appointed by mom and dad to take care of you. Don’t lie. Tell the truth no matter what. But the third rule was the most important – because the third rule covers everything else. 

Why do I need to say, “Thank you?” Because we are thinking of others. 

Why do I need to share my toys? Because we are thinking of others. 

Why can’t I steal my sister’s crayons? Because we are thinking of others.

Every conversation is redemptive, restorative, full of love and hope

As kids grow up, they won’t always keep the rules. So we have conversations. And we train. The great thing about gospel-centered parenting is that every conversation is redemptive and restorative and full of love and hope. When our kids believe that mom and dad are quick to forgive and restore? It is easier for them to understand that God is quick to forgive and restore.

These rules worked great when our kids were really young. We have been surprised to find that they work even better as our children have gotten older. These rules have sparked countless conversations that allow us to train our kids from Scripture so that they can develop good theology and have good strategy for all kinds of life situations. 

“You set me up for success”

One of our boys attended The United States Military Academy at West Point and he was in the middle of his very difficult “plebe year.” He called home one night and said, “I know we roll our eyes and crack jokes about ‘thinking of others.’ But don’t stop teaching that. Thinking of others is what leadership is all about. When you taught me to think of others you set me up for success.” 

Mom cried.

Cultivate trust in your home

We want our kids to trust us so that they will talk to us about whatever is on their hearts. But trust can’t be conjured or commanded. It has to be constructed and cultivated. When kids trust mom and dad, they will find it easier to trust God. We want our kids to believe the truth of Proverbs 3:5-6 (the Message): 

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.

“Mom and dad, I need to talk to you about something.” Beautiful words.