“Are you doing OK?”

I had just finished putting my boys down for bed, and now I had a moment alone with my 7-year-old daughter. I asked her if she was doing OK, not because I knew for certain that there was something wrong, but because she seemed unusually quiet.

Like other evenings, I felt the pressure of studying for classes, so I was hoping for a quick response, like— yes, everything is fine, Daddy. But her response surprised me and got my attention.

“Well, not really.”

I prompted her to explain. She hesitated and continued, “Well, I feel something . . . that I’m going to call ‘sin-pain.’”

Sin-pain? What a descriptive way of referring to guilt! “You mean you feel bad about something you’ve done?” I asked. She nodded. You can imagine what my next question was: “What did you do that you feel bad about?”

Clearly, she did not want to confess. “I’m scared to tell you, Daddy.”

One thing I’m passionate about is that my kids feel complete freedom to tell my wife or me about anything—anything they’ve done, or feel, or fear. So, as she laid in bed I took her hand and said, “It’s OK. You can tell me anything. You can tell me while I’m holding your hand.”

Her face showed that she was struggling inside. Finally, she said, “Daddy, you know how you and Mommy sometimes say we can have a piece of candy after supper?” I nodded.

She squeezed the words out. “Well, sometimes I take two.”

A mixture of relief and soberness washed over me. Sure, the plundered sweets could be measured in ounces, but the confession and the sweet conversation that followed couldn’t be measured, even by the ton. In the moments that followed, my daughter and I talked about the seriousness of sin, the importance of repentance, and the joy we can find when God forgives us.

As I walked back downstairs, another sobering thought struck me: I could have easily missed that conversation, as I’ve certainly missed many other conversations in the past. If I had shown her that I was impatient, irritated, or simply uninterested, would she have opened up to me? I doubt it.

Not every moment is ideal for a tender conversation with my children. But when the door of their heart is open, the last thing I want to do is to slam it shut because I’m impatient, or blindly walk by it because I’m preoccupied with my own business. Our children will open up their heart to someone, whether to someone who loves Jesus and them, or to someone who will draw their heart away from Jesus. I’m afraid that many parents realize this only after they—through their own negligence—have lost the key to their children’s hearts.

Is there a way to make these tender, “open-heart” talks happen? Of course, there is no formula guaranteed to work. And ultimately, it’s up to God to open our children’s hearts. Still, we parents can make it our goal to cultivate an atmosphere in which our children are encouraged be open to us, to talk with us, and to listen to God’s truth through us. I offer these five suggestions toward that goal.

  1. Make spaces for talks. By “make spaces,” I mean eliminate noises and activities that keep these conversations from happening. The constant distraction of the TV will be a conversation killer. A schedule so packed with practices, lessons, and other activities will also stifle the opportunities to have open-heart discussions with your children.
  2. Assure them that talking to you is the safest thing they can do. My wife and I want our children to know that they can talk with us about anything, that no sin is too grave and no topic too awkward to bring up to us.
  3. Ask them how they are doing, and be ready to really listen. They should know that when you ask them how they are doing, you really want to know.
  4. If you have more than one child, take time for personal attention. Christa and I have four children, and I find it easy to slip into camp director, herd-mode with them (“OK, everyone in bed. Now!”). But our children need one-on-one time.
  5. Model vulnerability and humility. We might laugh at the naïveté of young children when they try to hide their disobedience. But I think we parents can be just as naïve when we think that our children can’t tell when we ourselves sin. I cannot hide my flaws from my kids, but I can show them what genuine confession and repentance looks like. My children must know that their daddy knows that he is a sinner and needs God’s grace as desperately as they do.

The longer I’m a dad, the more I understand the urgency in the words, “My son [or daughter], give me your heart” (Proverbs 23:26). If I want my children to give me their heart, I must not miss those tender moments when they offer it.