Here we are, faced with the awesome responsibility of molding our children into spiritually dynamic, well-adjusted adults that will bring joy to God’s heart and to ours. How are we going to do it? We will try to answer that question throughout this entire book, but one thing stands above all else. It represents what may be our children’s greatest need, and the one which parents can fulfill better than anyone else. Children need to be loved by their parents. That’s the way God deals with us. “For the Father himself loves you dearly” (1 John 16:27, TLB). “See how very much our heavenly Father loves us . . .” (1 John 3:1, TLB). And that’s the way he wants us to deal with our children.
There are many biblical exhortations to love. For example, “Dear friends, let us practice loving each other, for love comes from God and those who are loving and kind show that they are the children of God. . . .” (1 John 4:7, TLB). Along with its many other applications, that verse certainly includes love of parent for child. But there are exhortations that are even more specific. The Apostle Paul told Titus that the older women were to teach the younger women to love their children (Titus 2:4). And fathers are not excluded from this responsibility in God’s order of things. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him” (Psa. 103:13, KJV). That word rendered “pitieth” is twice translated “love” in the King James Version (Psa. 18:1; Daniel 1:9). It implies the deepest sort of parental love, tenderness, mercy, and compassion; and it is here attributed to fathers. Mothers and fathers are both to love their children.
Now some are probably asking, “Why should we be reminded of that? Isn’t it natural for parents to love their children?” A booming abortion business, recurring instances of child abandonment, and an alarming number of child abuse cases every year would hardly prove it. “That may be the situation with people of the world,” the answer comes back, “but we are Christians. We recognize that our children are gifts from God. They are part of us. They are the product of our love for one another. We do love them!” That’s true, but do they know it? Do they feel our love all the time, or are there times when they might have good reason to doubt it?
Let me go back to the very beginning as I try to explain what I mean. Every child has the right to be conceived in love, carried with love during those nine months of pregnancy, and warmly welcomed into this world as the prized possession of loving parents. The experts now tell us that an unloving environment during pregnancy may adversely affect a child’s later emotional development. After the baby is born, loving surroundings are even more important; he needs to be cuddled, caressed, and cooed. Some babies who have been denied this tender stroking have actually died as a result. Studies have shown that infants may be able to detect a lack of love by harsh tones or careless treatment, much to their emotional distress in later years.
As a child grows older he still needs to be assured over and over that he is loved, not for what he does or doesn’t do, but just for himself. He needs that assurance with gentle words and with physical closeness. With it he will develop healthy emotional patterns of acceptance and security. Without it, he may become withdrawn, insecure, hostile, or neurotic. Some doctors have discovered that a lack of affection can actually stunt a child’s growth. Others have concluded that lack of parental love can cause homosexuality, frigidity, and other aberrations.
A dedicated Christian father told me that his ten-year-old daughter was becoming cold and indifferent toward him. As he evaluated the situation he realized that he was cuddling and carrying her younger brother who was handicapped, but pushing her aside with comments like, “You’re a big girl. You can take care of yourself.” When he began to demonstrate openly and enthusiastically his love for her, she blossomed into a very warm and loving little girl who enjoyed snuggling up to her daddy. It is our inescapable conclusion, both from the Word of God and from human experience, that a child has the divinely bestowed right to feel secure in his parents’ love. It is God’s way of getting him started on the road to healthy emotional growth. It is God’s security blanket for children.
“But won’t our children think they can do anything they want if they feel secure in our love?” That is one of Satan’s most subtle lies. He uses it to rob God’s children of the joyous security of their heavenly Father’s love, and he uses it to rob our children of the satisfying assurance of our love. In both cases, the very opposite is true. Almost all knowledgeable authorities agree that the most potent cause for antisocial behavior, for rebelliousness, disobedience, and discipline problems of all kinds is a lack of affection. Children who know they are loved and accepted, who have no fear of being rejected or abandoned by their parents, do not need to act up to get attention or establish their individual importance and worth. They are important to someone and they know it. They have been accepted, and that assurance brings an inner satisfaction and security. The love they feel from their parents inspires love in their hearts, just as God’s love for us inspires us to love (1 John 4:19). And their love then encourages them to obey us just as our love for God encourages us to obey him (1 John 5:3). Because they love, they want to please. Rather than inspiring rebellion and disobedience, love restrains it.
After I shared this truth with some parents on one occasion, a kindergarten teacher came to me and told of the most difficult child she had ever encountered in her years of teaching-- selfish, belligerent, and hostile toward the other children. The teacher asked God for a genuine love for this child and the ability to help her feel that love. With her new attitudes and actions there was an immediate change, and the child became a cooperative and congenial little student. Camp counselors have told me of problem boys, starved for affection, who respond beautifully when they become aware of someone who really cares for them and shows it. Unfortunately, many of these love-starved children are from Christian homes and are proving to be discipline problems in Bible-believing churches. Maybe we must conclude that the children of Christian parents do not always feel the love God wants them to have. And if that is the case, maybe we should explore some ways of communicating our love so that our children will enjoy this essential God-given right.
Just how should our love for our children be expressed? One way is by words. Some parents, possibly deprived of love in their own early years, find it impossible to tell their children they love them. They want to, but those tender words will not come out. To force them would seem contrary to their whole makeup and nature. If that is your problem, will you thank God right now for his verbal expressions of love to you in his Word, and will you ask him to help you tell your children that you love them? You may see an immediate improvement in their behavior.
But words alone won’t do it all. Those words must be backed by actions. Children are amazingly perceptive. They know when our words are empty and meaningless. “Let us stop just saying we love people; let us really love them, and show it by our actions” (1 John 3:18, TLB). And by actions I mean more than just feeding them, clothing them, and buying them material things. It is our responsibility to provide for their material needs, but they can sense it when we try to salve our own guilty consciences by giving them gifts to compensate for the love we failed to show.
We need to back our words with time spent with them. The Lord does. He is with us always (Matt. 28:20). We really do love our children, but how often we communicate just the opposite with “I don’t have time for that now. Go away and leave me alone.” We would have more time eventually if we would give them a few minutes of our undivided attention now. That doesn’t mean we must drop everything and run every time they want us to do something with them. They can be taught to wait when that is necessary. But for some children, the attention they ask for and wait for never comes. So they develop less acceptable means of getting it, much to their parents’ time-consuming embarrassment and dismay. Every time we carelessly push our children aside because they are interrupting something we want to do, we add another scar to their sensitive spirits, and another obstacle to overcome in their growth toward emotional maturity and wholesome adjustment to the world around them.
It isn’t just time we’re suggesting, however. It’s the right kind of time. Quality counts more than quantity. Ten minutes of uninterrupted time spent doing what they want to do may be more valuable than ten hours of distracted time spent scolding, lecturing, or criticizing. Showing interest in the things that interest them will help build a sense of companionship and confidence that will make it easier for them to talk to us in the critical teen years. We must do everything we can to build that confidence, even when our time is limited. My father was a busy pastor. But when I was about six years old he hung a picture of himself and me on his study wall. On it he had written the caption, “Man to man.” That was the most valuable treasure in our whole house as far as I was concerned. I remember going into his study when he wasn’t there and just staring at it. It made me feel like my dad was my best friend.
Finding time to spend with the children seems to be one of the occupational hazards of the ministry. There have been years in my own ministry when there was so much to do that I felt guilty spending an evening at home with my family. God has helped me reshuffle my priorities according to his master plan. But it can happen to laymen as well. It is possible to get so involved in loving others and doing the Lord’s work that we neglect our responsibility to our own children. It is often the pious, super-spiritual, heavenly minded Christians whose children are the greatest discipline problems in the church. Evidently they are so preoccupied with spiritual things that they don’t have time to let their children know they love them. The best investment we can ever make is the investment of quality time in our children. The Lord Jesus set a lovely example in this regard. His disciples tried to chase the children away to protect the Savior’s time. The Scripture says he was displeased with their attitude. He took the children in his arms and gave them his undivided attention (Mark 10:13-16).
Planning for family recreation and fun will help you escape the time trap. And it must be planned. If you are counting on it just happening spontaneously, it probably never will. Dad will have to take a day off periodically and plan to spend it with the family. A successful family night will have to be planned ahead of time. A little creative thinking will unveil scores of possible ways to have fun together as a family.
Just for starters, play some games together. We counted sixty-three in our family game closet, accumulated through the years and well-worn with good use. Hobbies can provide togetherness fun. Popping corn, reading books aloud, playing musical instruments together, or just roughhousing on the floor will help to build solid bonds of love. And that’s only the beginning. Invest in some backyard athletic equipment like badminton, croquet, horseshoes, or Ping-Pong. Branch out into some other sports that the whole family can enjoy like bowling, tennis, fishing, golf, skating, sledding, skiing, or bicycling. Picnics, weiner roasts, hikes, day trips, and vacations will enlarge your repertoire.
Make mealtime a happy time of sharing. “No grumpiness at the table” is a good rule to follow. Learn to laugh together as a family, even laugh at yourselves. When your children are grown, those times of laughing and silly horseplay will be among their fondest memories of home. Not long ago I talked to a missionary friend who has eight brothers and sisters, all but one of whom are in the Lord’s work, and that one was still in school at the time. I asked what his parents did that so influenced their lives. “The one thing that sticks in my mind is the time they spent with us,” he said. “Mom sometimes turned down jobs in the church because they would interfere with being a good mother. We all worked for dad in his business, but sometimes he would suggest taking off for awhile in the middle of the day and we would all go out and shoot baskets or play some other game. We had fun together.” Times of family fun say, “We love you. We enjoy being with you. You are our most important treasure in this world.”
Another way of showing love is by praise and appreciation. Why is it so easy to scold and criticize our kids when they have done something wrong, but so hard to offer a sincere word of commendation when they have done something good? Every time we let them know that their performance was not quite as good as it might have been, we chip away a little more of their confidence and make them a little more apprehensive about their adequacies and abilities. The most detrimental criticism of all is that which is directed at the personality and character of the child rather than his conduct. We call him clumsy, stupid, bad, ugly, and a host of other unflattering adjectives, and he begins to think of himself in those terms, developing the seeds of an inferiority complex that will cause him grief the rest of his life. Sometimes it is necessary to point out areas of weakness that need to be corrected, but our comments should be directed at what the child does rather than who or what he is. And we always need to be looking for things he does well, complimenting him for them. That will build in him a sense of confidence and help him overcome the “I can’t do anything right” syndrome that could affect most everything he puts his hand to. And it may help convince him that we really do care for him, approve of him, and are glad that he is our child.
We can also help our children feel our love by being understanding. Every child is an individual, different from every other child in looks, personality, intelligence, aptitudes, and emotional responses. Each one has the right to be accepted as such and not forced into a mold. Jim may be an eager reader, while Jack is skillful with his hands. Encourage each in his own particular area of interest. It isn’t fair to compare one child with another, like “Your sister certainly brought home better grades than this.” That kind of comparison not only builds resentment against you for your lack of understanding, but against his sister for causing him this pain of disapproval he is experiencing. Besides, it smacks of favoritism. God’s love shows no partiality (Acts 10:34), and he expects ours to be the same (James 2:9). One of the most tragic commentaries on a home in the Bible was, “Isaac’s favorite was Esau, because of the venison he brought home, and Rebekah’s favorite was Jacob” (Gen. 25:28, TLB). The heartache and sorrow which favoritism brought to that home can even be exceeded in ours when one child feels like he is running second in his parents’ affections.
In order to help us really understand, we need to listen to what our children are saying. We often jump to conclusions, offer advice, or give lectures without ever hearing our children out. Then we wonder why they stop confiding in us. We need to listen, think, try to understand what they are feeling at the moment, then express words that let them know we understand. Let me illustrate. Suppose your child loses a prized possession such as a brand new baseball. How do you react? “Well, if you had been more careful, you wouldn’t have lost it.” “You’d lose your head if it weren’t screwed on.” “When are you going to learn to take care of your things?” “Baseballs don’t grow on trees, you know.” “Don’t gripe at me about it. I didn’t lose it.” And there may be a hundred other possible retorts designed to convince the child that we really don’t care about him, and that a two-dollar baseball is far more important to us than he is. We do need to teach him the value of money and proper care of his belongings. But why not first try something sympathetic like, “And that was your favorite ball, wasn’t it?” Or something helpful like, “C’mon, we’ll look for it together. Where do you think you had it last?” Or something encouraging like, “Maybe we’ll find it when we clean out the garage.” Then you will convince him that you really care for him, that you are his friend rather than his antagonist and critic.
We express love to our children by respecting them too. They are persons whom God has made with value and eternal worth, and they should be treated accordingly. That means we should never laugh at their weaknesses or ridicule their idiosyncrasies. “George, you throw a ball like a girl.” “Well, how’s my little butterball Becky today?” “Just innocent fun,” we say, but it damages their sensitive spirits, destroys their fragile self image, and puts another strain on their struggle to maturity. Respect also means we should not talk about them disparagingly in their presence like they were fixtures in the room. Messages that unwittingly enter those little ears may be permanently inscribed on their souls, misdirecting their lives for many years to come. Dad says, “I’m afraid Jack never will amount to anything.” If Jack hears him say that often enough, he will soon become convinced that it’s true. And he probably won’t amount to anything. There is not much reason for him to try. His dad, who knows much more than he does, has already concluded that he is not capable of accomplishing anything worthwhile in life.
Love will be communicated by our tone of voice likewise. You may say you love your children, but they are not feeling love when you scream, “Stop that this instant,” or whine, “You kids are getting on my nerves today.” Sometimes we need to be reminded that children are people who have the right to be talked to kindly and pleasantly just as we would talk to any other person we cared for. Anger is never a valid expression of love. Love “. . . is not irritable or touchy” (l Cor. 13:5, TLB). Maybe we ought to evaluate our own anger index when our children respond to us with hostility.
“But they can be so exasperating and irritating.” Yes, and we need to admit that our love is not enough, that it wears thin and finally explodes. Then we need to yield our wills to Christ and let his Spirit express his love through us. The natural product of that Spirit-filled life will be God’s kind of love (Gal. 5:22). Then we will be able to communicate our love to our children even when they are acting like children. And they will be able to relax in our love and get down to the business of growing up instead of expending their energies trying to get our attention or establish their importance by one unacceptable means after another. And we will begin to experience the joy God intended us to have in our children.