Three Ways to Avoid Legalistic Parenting

By Dannah Gresh

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My friend Mendy, a devout atheist, had a growing interest in Jesus until the day she came home from middle school with her hair in an up-do and some light makeup on her face. She and a friend had sequestered themselves in the bathroom for a lunchtime makeover. Proud as can be, Mendy headed home after school excited to unveil her grown-up style to her mom. Instead of the approval the tween craved, her mom—a devout member of a church that still doesn’t allow women to express beauty through fashion, make-up or hair styling— offered her a lecture on the evils of worldly beauty as she roughly washed the makeup from her daughter’s face.

Can you say “legalism?”

In recent years, my childhood church built a lovely new facility. The city ordinance required that a line of trees be planted on the edge of the property to keep it natural. The only problem: there was a freshly planted line of trees already there. It was planted by the farmer who sold us the land, so he could protect his privacy. Obviously, we assumed those trees would do. Not so. The city wanted US to plant a row, too, and would not allow our property to pass inspection until we did. So, we planted a row of trees within the row of trees. I’m told that eventually the roots from those trees will strangle one another because they are planted too closely. I know this: the same line of thinking strangled the spiritual passion right out of my friend Mendy.

Legalism is obsessive adherence to the letter of the law, often at the expense of the spirit.

It could be argued that the word "spirit" is referring to the law’s intent, but also to the heart of the child. You see, a better definition for legalism might be “adherence to rules to gain favor with God or man by doing certain things and not doing other things, without concern for the heart.” Maybe that’s why Jesus had more conflicts with the legalists of his day than sinners. He wants our hearts! And He wants the hearts of our children.

Here are some suggestions to avoid planting roots in your child’s spirit that will strangle and kill the very thing you are trying to grow: love for Christ.

1. Emphasize relationship with God (and you) when you present family rules.

Previous to his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road, the Apostle Paul was fixated on the rules. He was a good man and a zealous religious leader whose language for righteousness was based on following rules. Then, he met Jesus. And his heart was won. The world would never be the same.

Don’t be a parent who is consumed with the rules and weak on relationship. As parents, Bob and I really tried to provide positive parenting messages, rather than excessive rules especially when we felt one of the children pressing up against our preferences. So, when our eighth grader asked to attend a cast party at midnight after a play she’d been in, we were concerned that she’d be hanging out with high school kids who were much more mature than her. But instead of saying no, the answer was relational: “Sure, mom will come with you since it’s so late.” We said yes as much as we could, so when we did need to enforce God’s law outright, it stood out as important.

2. When you’re not dealing with a commandment of God, be sure not to confuse your kids. Call them “family preferences”.

There is no place in Scripture that says your teen can’t have a smartphone, listen to Taylor Swift, or wear make-up and put her hair in an up-do. There are Scriptures that make those decisions defendable “family preferences.” So call them that, and bend when you can. (Swift makes some sweet songs. Smartphones aren’t evil when used with care. Some light make-up can cover imperfections and create a healthy look.) Don’t make any room for legalism. Rules without relationship cause rebellion.

My daughters never really loved our family preferences about clothing and modesty, even though we taught them why we’d chosen them based on biblical teaching. (Let’s admit it: some of those short skirts are super cute.) Now, there’s not a single Bible verse that tells you exaclty how long your skirt should be. While we took the heart of these family preferences from biblical teaching, we had to admit the “no mini skirt” rule was from mom and dad. Our daughters lobbied and used the relationship we’d emphasized to discuss their thoughts.  We actually modified our rule to “no mini skirt without leggings under it.” Imagine my shock when I overheard one of them—now 22—advising a tween girl to embrace modesty recently! She did embrace our biblical preference for modesty because we presented it with relational teaching and conversation, not rigid rules.

3. Put them in relationships, events, and communities where they taste the richness of relationship with Christ.

I love this verse from the book of Ephesians: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." (Ephesians 1:3) It is a family inheritance like none other. Paul is teaching us that everything that is Christ’s is mine when I am “in Christ.” He was now caught up in the all-consuming goodness of Jesus Christ, not the all-consuming futility of keeping the law. Do you see the difference? This is the key to overcoming the desire to find our value in the measurements of the world. When we taste of Christ in a true sense, we no longer have quite the hunger for the world and its ways.

When our firstborn became a middle-schooler, we intentionally connected him with Pastor Don, a youth leader who made Christian community winsome through relationship. (For example, he and all the boys in the youth group shaved their heads together in honor of one of the boy’s fighting cancer.) My husband boldly asked if he would invest time into the heart of our son, modeling a passion for Jesus. We wanted them to have fun “in Christ” so that they desired to measure their lives by Him. Today, my now 27-year-old son serves as a youth leader, in part because of the impact Don made on his life.

Make no mistake, your child is going to be tempted to use the wrong measuring stick. Don’t you occasionally struggle with comparison to your Pinterest-perfect friends and blog-savvy fellow moms? Or maybe as a dad you compare yourself to the never-ending Fantasy Football champ?  And your child will face temptation. Don’t you? What pulls you back? Is it a rule? Or is it a passionate encounter with someone who is so full of Jesus that you want to be to?

Be that person for your kids. Let love overflow into your relationship with them.

Author Bio

Dannah Gresh is the founder of True Girl (formerly Secret Keeper Girl), a ministry that brings moms and daughters closer to each other and closer to Jesus. True Girl provides connection experiences through books, online Bible studies, and live events. You can learn more about her at


Grab your favorite cozy onesie and a bag of popcorn! Together at the True Girl Pajama Party Tour you and your daughter will make memories to last a lifetime without losing any sleep. With live music, a fashion show, interactive games, and practical Bible teaching, this is one party you won’t wanna snooze at. You’ll enjoy inner beauty pampering, learn to embrace who God created you to be, and grow closer to each other and to Jesus–all in your jammies! It’s the most fun you’ll ever have digging into God’s word together. Find out more at



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