Mixed Messages and Our Children

October 4, 2020

I use to find it sardonically amusing to think about some of the mixed messages we send our children: 

  • Don’t take candy from strangers! 
    • Yet, it’s okay to run up to a stranger’s house, say ‘trick or treat’ and get some candy! 
  • Don’t talk to strangers and absolutely don’t tell them anything personal about you! 
    • Yet, see that old man in the red suit? Go sit in his lap and tell him your name, where you live, what you want for Christmas, and that you promise to be sound asleep when he comes into your house in the middle of the night! 

It is amazing the mixed messages we send our children! Yet these mixed messages are chopped liver compared to the mixed messages we are sending them these days.

What are some of the dos and don’ts we tell our children?

  • Do be polite 
    • Say please and thank you – be grateful for what you are given
  • Do treat others the way you wanted to be treated
    • Include everyone – so that everyone gets a turn
  • Don’t be a bully
    • Defend the weak
  • Don’t gang up on others because they are different from you
    • Celebrate differences and learn about each other
  • Do ‘shake hands and make up’
    • Make peace instead of holding a grudge
  • Don’t judge others
    • Focus on improving yourself

I am sure there are many other things we teach our children with our words; they are all good things – healthy things – things we might find in the Scripture to support our ‘rules.’  After all, Proverbs 22:6 says: Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.  Sounds great – but are children more effectively trained by our words or by our actions?

As my mother once said: “what we did spoke so loudly she couldn’t hear a word we said.” By extension, that means what we tell children as we are teaching them is never as powerful as what we teach them as they watch us – as they listen to us.   For better or worse, children look to their adult role models for what it means to be an acceptable grown up.  They want to be like us, even though they might deny it when they are teenagers!  They want to act like us.  We  are all they know. So, what are we teaching by the way we live?

This isn’t a new dilemma. 

Even Jesus cautioned against such mixed messages that adults, much less children, received back in the day when he spoke about the scribes and Pharisees. (Luke 12:1-3).  The teachings spoken by the religious leaders might be good, but be careful not to emulate their behaviors – they definitely sent mixed messages! 

The dreaded word Jesus used to condemn the ones who were guilty of mixed messaging?  Hypocrites! See the glossary for the origin of the word but for now, just know that it means someone who is play acting – wearing a mask. Our words have such interesting histories!

Jesus had no use for mixed messaging – especially among those who claimed to be believers in God and follower of His.  In Jesus there is absolute authenticity:

  • He humbly and gratefully accepted all acts of kindness (Matthew 26:6-13)
  • He treated others as He would want to be treated (Matthew 7:12)
  • He refused to bully folks just to make points with the religious leaders (John 8:1-11)
  • He often celebrated the lives of the ‘different’ (Luke 10:25-37)
  • He sought to make peace with a world that was at odds with God because of sin (Luke1:76-79)
  • He called us to reconcile with each other (Matthew 5:23-26)
  • He commanded us not to judge. (Luke 12:57-58)
  • Judgment was to be left to the Son of Man on His return (Matthew 25: 31-46
  • His clear concise message culminated with His words on the cross (Luke 23:24)

As followers of Christ, we are to live our lives so that others might see us not as those living behind a mask of holy hypocrisy – Christians in name only – but as open and transparent reflections of the One Whose name we claim!

Children can spot hypocrisy a mile away.  As they grow, some children are strong enough to fight against mixed messaging (think of the teenage environmental activists, the survivors of school shootings taking a stand for gun control, those marching for victims’ rights).  Our hope is found in their strength!

Other times, children see the hypocrisy of the words being spoken versus the lives adults are living and choose to ‘just go along to get along’ so that they remain accepted by the community that has raised them (the Proud Boys, teenagers feeling entitled to fire guns into crowds). Such sadness to see such precious children lost in the mire of hate.

So, I guess the questions that remain are:

Are we living lives of clear and concise messaging as follower of Christ; messages that train our children up in ways we want them to follow into adulthood? Would we be proud to have our children read our postings on social media; overhear what we say about others?  How have the children seen us treat the outcast, the poor, the ‘different from us? Who do we teach them it is ok to exclude/to hate? (Hopefully the answer to that last one is a very clear NO!)

Teaching Bible stories and singing Sunday School songs about love and forgiveness, compassion and affirmation of all creation is totally irrelevant and such activities become mere songs and stories which our children are unable to hear, if we ourselves loudly live the way of mixed messaging.  (My mother is right!)

What kind of adults do we want our children to become?  Let’s make the our message of our lives clear – as we follow Christ and lead our children in that clear and concise holy Way!

And to God be the glory! AMEN

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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