The Difference Between Hypocrisy and Failure in Parenting
Not long ago I read a question raised by a parent which I suppose echoes that of many mothers and fathers as they attempt to guide their children through the decisions and temptations they face in life. And the question was basically this: If I tell my children to do as I say and not as I did (i.e. when I was their age), am I a hypocrite? That’s a valid question – more than that, it’s one that deserves contemplation by every parent. The short answer is: I don’t know. You may very well be a hypocrite, but forbidding your children from making all of the same choices you made does not qualify you as one necessarily.
This point, I’m sure, needs little elaboration. Desiring that your children don’t imitate your mistakes and suffer the consequences of those mistakes does not make you a hypocrite – it makes you an individual that is exhibiting at least a little wisdom and parental responsibility. Those who would have their children fall into the same traps and step on the same land mines that they did in their youth may justify their forfeiture of parental responsibility with an oft quoted refrain, “At least I’m not a hypocrite,” but if not hypocrites they are guilty of far greater sins – the neglect of their responsibility as the parental authority to nurture, protect, teach, discipline and guide those whom God has entrusted to their care. And beyond this, they are indeed hypocrites as well; claiming to love their children and to do that which promotes their good, they stand by and watch them pick up poison without offering so much as a word of warning or engaging their child with impassioned pleading. That is not love.
I do not mean to say that parents can force their children to make all of the right decisions. But may they never make foolish choices without the warnings of their father echoing in their ears and visions of their weeping, pleading mother replaying as if before their very eyes. Did you make those same mistakes at their age? Then you have all the more reason to exhort them to use better judgment, knowing first-hand where that road leads. The parent who loves their children in this way is no hypocrite.
Defining Hypocrisy and Failure
But now that we have examined the issue in regard to mistakes parents may have made in their youth, what shall we say about those mistakes they make now in the present? What about those parents who are not saying, “Do as I say, not as I did,” but rather, “Do as I say, not as I do”? Surely these types are hypocrites, are they not? Again, my answer would remain the same: I do not know. They may very well be hypocrites. Or they may be imperfect parents who are making honest mistakes. What is the difference? Well, to understand the difference requires that we have a shared understanding of the use of our terms. First of all – though it would seem a little late for this – let’s go back and consider what is meant by a “hypocrite.” Put simply, a hypocrite is one who claims to be what he is not, or claims to do what he does not. It may seem elementary to define terms that we are all familiar with, but a lot of wrong thinking and wrong conclusions based on wrong thinking proceed from an inadequate consideration of what terms mean or imply. So, I promise I don’t do it to insult anyone’s intelligence (I’m sure many of you are far more intelligent than I am), but just so that we may start in the same place and hopefully when it’s over, end up in the same place.
I’ll take an example by which we may examine the mark of hypocrisy and then later contrast it with what we might refer to as simply an instance of “failure” (and yes, I will define failure later as well). Suppose I profess to be an honest man and would have everyone believe I consider honesty an indispensible virtue toward which I am constantly striving. But when you look at my life on the whole, observing how I act and how I speak, you do not notice honesty as a pervasive quality in all you have seen of me. Unless your assessment is completely off-base (which we always argue negative assessments of us are) then I am a hypocrite. I claim to be honest while honesty is not the general rule of my life. I am not what I claim to be. I know I’ve not said anything you don’t already understand, but please just bear with me a little longer.
The hypocrisy exampled above is something quite different than mere “failure.” By failure I mean an instance or instances where what we do is not in line with what we claim to be. Remember the definition we used above for a hypocrite: one who is not who he claims to be, or does not what he claims to do. One who merely fails in one area or another but is not a hypocrite does not fit this definition. What he claims to be, he is. And what he claims to do, he does (for if he does not do it he will not claim to have done it). At these points you will find in him no contradiction. Wherein then lies the problem? It is here: What he has done is not who he claims to be. The grammar is important and I have used it precisely how I meant to. Putting it another way: When I fail, what I have done is not in line with who I claim to be. Take again the example of the man who professes to be honest. And let’s say in this new scenario your observations of him find that claim to be true. Now if he at one point distorts the truth he will not automatically be characterized as a liar; he is still—considering his life on the whole—an honest man. He is still what he claims to be. And if he is not a hypocrite he will not claim to have been honest when he was not; rather he will confess his lie. Therefore, what he claimed to have done (to have lied) he did in fact do. But what he did in lying was not consistent with who is, namely, an honest man. And so while in this matter he failed, we ought not call him a hypocrite.
When we think about hypocrisy we very often put our focus on an action, on something that a person has done (or does) which in our eyes earns him the title of “hypocrite.” But in reality, what makes someone a hypocrite is not really what they do, but what they communicate. You could have two people doing the exact same thing where one is a hypocrite and the other is not, and the only difference between them is in what they are communicating. If you focus on their actions you would likely slap the same label on them both. True discernment, however, while certainly not ignoring the action, would not have us focus there.
Putting Theory into Practice
And this is where we can finally get into some practical application, and particularly in regard to parenting – which, if you can remember back that far, was where we began. To the parent who wishes to determine whether he or she is a hypocrite, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions: What am I communicating to my children? Who am I claiming to be before my kids? I use the word “communicating” instead of “saying” or “speaking” on purpose. Don’t forget that so much of what you communicate to your sons and daughters is done without a word. You need no one to convince you of this. We can pick up on the subtleties of communication coming from our bosses, our colleagues, our spouses, our friends; and children are no less perceptive. So, ask yourself again: What are you communicating to your children about who you are? What is the perception you are trying to create for them of you? And one final question … Is that perception real?
You and I may be very different, but I am willing to bet that in at least one area you are very much like me. And that is, I find it somehow very easy to forgive someone who is honest with me. Not only is that likely true of you, but I’m willing to bet your kids are just like us, too. Your children are not expecting a perfect parent. But they are expecting a father and mother who are real. And I do not doubt that your son or daughter would be willing to forgive a thousand of your failures and look past a multitude of your sins if what you put before them was reality – not façade, not hypocrisy, not the image you would wish for them to have of you, but reality. And the reason I know that is because you and I would do the very same. Just think for a moment, if one of your friends fails you, or offends you, but then comes to you humbly to own up to his fault – will he have really lost any of your love? Will your forgiveness and grace be restrained toward him? So why then do you suppose your children would respond differently?
I do hope that you would love your children enough to desire that they not make the same bad choices you made in your youth, or to make the same bad choice you made yesterday, for that matter. Desiring better things for them does not make you a hypocrite. But the way you communicate those desires just might. Would you have them believe their struggles are completely foreign to your experience? Would you have them assume you must not be at all like them because the temptations and failures that plague them have apparently never touched you? Do you think that a humble, honest revelation of yourself to your children (including your failures) would cause them to lose respect for you? Do you fear they would be disappointed? That they would not look up to you? And I am not talking about a full disclosure of all of your mistakes and regrets, but to share with them in a manner appropriate to their age and circumstances enough to give them a true picture of who their father and mother are. Imperfect, yes. But humble, honest and real.
You worry that such transparency would lead to a loss of respect; you worry that a disclosure of your faults would arm your children with excuses for theirs … all of that is nonsense. And I’ll use an example from my own life to tell you why. As a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, I desire to live my life in such a way that pleases my God and Savior. And yet when I look at my life, both at present and upon my past, I do oftentimes wonder at my failings. And I have many times asked myself, “Is it just me? Or do other Christians struggle with the same things I struggle with? Do they fail in the same ways I fail? Do they face the same temptations I face? Or do I alone bear these burdens?” And then as I read the writings of some men I greatly admire for their love and commitment to Christ I see that many of them speak of the very weaknesses and sins that plague me. They write concerning their failures and temptations and battles. And reading their testimonies do I suddenly lose respect for these men? Do I consider them unworthy of honor and unworthy of imitation because I have come to see that the very struggles I face, they too faced? By no means! Rather I am encouraged that my experience is not foreign to them. Nor do I use the knowledge of their failings to give excuses for my own. Instead, when I see that in spite of their failings they pressed on resolutely and victoriously after Christ, I am left with greater hope.
My point is this: It could do your children a lot of good to realize that you two are not so unalike. Your sharing with them honestly about struggles you have met with and mistakes you have made could go a long way in showing them that the boundaries you have set have actually been set for their good – that when they have come to be your age they may not carry all the same scars that you now bear. You see, hypocrisy has at its aim the good of one’s self, not the good of others. Hypocrites hide the truth about who they are to protect their reputation (so they think). Honesty, on the other hand, is not self-serving. And your children, if they have not yet, will one day come to realize whether you are serving yourself, or serving them. They will see your failures, whether you admit them or not – this is inevitable. But the question for you to decide is, will they also see a hypocrite?