One disturbing fact becomes apparent all too quickly as we seek to follow God’s perfect example of parenthood--we have a sinful nature that God doesn’t have. Although we want to love our children as God loves, set them a good example as God does, and patiently implant his Word into their lives as he desires, they keep doing things that bother us and we respond all too humanly.
When they are careless or disorderly, we react with irritation because of the extra work they cause us. Whether it was muddy shoes, spilled milk, or any one of a hundred other annoyances, every parent has experienced moments of angry exasperation with his youngsters. When they are disrespectful and disobedient, we sometimes retort with a heated tirade because our authority and self-esteem are threatened. When they are unmannerly before our friends, we scold them indignantly because our reputations are at stake. We know our actions are unloving and selfish, damaging to the children, and deadening to the warm affection and happy atmosphere we want to pervade our homes. But we cannot seem to help ourselves.
We may subconsciously try to prove our love by compensating for our unloving actions. Some parents become overindulgent. They give their child practically everything he wants. He becomes lazy, irresponsible, and ungrateful, harboring the strange notion that the world owes him everything while he has no obligation to anyone. That certainly isn’t love.
Other parents become overprotective. They shield their child from every unpleasant problem and difficult decision in life. They may even try to protect him from the consequences of his own irresponsible behavior by refusing to consider what teachers and friends are telling them about him, or by defending him when he has done wrong and trying to get him off easy. Their child’s behavior is a poor reflection on them, and if they have never been honest about themselves, they find it hard to face their child’s faults. Overprotectiveness is a cruel imitation for love that leaves a child ill-prepared to cope with the realities of life.
Still others become overpermissive, letting the child do almost anything he pleases even if it encroaches on the rights of others. So he becomes undisciplined, inconsiderate, and belligerent, making life unpleasant for nearly everyone whose life he touches. Overpermissiveness is not love. In fact, it is the very opposite of love as we shall see from God’s Word.
While God’s love for us is unlimited in scope (Eph. 3:17-19), it nevertheless sets limits on our conduct. After teaching us that our love for God grows out of his love for us, the Apostle John writes, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 John 5:3, KJV). The love relationship between our heavenly Father and us compels him to set bounds for our behavior. He knows what is best for us, and in gracious lovingkindness he requires us to comply.
If this is the way God deals with his children, then we must follow his example. Our love for our children will not permit them unrestrained expression of every whim. Love sets limits. These limits seem to be the major point of Proverbs 22:6, one of the most famous verses in the Bible on child-rearing: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (KJV).
Much has been written about this verse and not all expositors agree on its meaning. While the verb translated “train” is most often rendered “dedicate” in the Old Testament, its primary and literal meaning is “to press in, to make narrow.” In other words, God says we are to narrow our children in, hedge them in to the way he wants them to go. Children do not always know what the right path is, so we grow hedges--thick, tall hedges on both sides of the path--that limit them, close them in to the right way. If we do this properly through their early years, they will grow to be well-adjusted, self-disciplined adults. When we lived in Fort Worth, Texas, we visited the botanical gardens where there was a maze of winding paths lined in with thick hedges. If we stayed between the hedges we always came out at the right place eventually. Just so, God wants us to hedge our children in so that they will turn out right.
“In the way he should go” means literally “upon the mouth of his way.” It projects the image of a flock or herd passing through a narrow gateway. Some say it means “according to his way,” that is, in accord with the mental and emotional capacity of the child at each stage of his development, or consistent with his own peculiar characteristics. While the phrase could possibly mean “according to his way,” that meaning in this case would leave the last half of the verse without any sense. From what specific thing, then, would he not depart when he becomes an adult? We certainly do not want him to maintain any lower level of mental or emotional maturity, or hold on to any unacceptable characteristics. We want him to grow. But the verse says that the path we establish for him as a child is the very same path he will follow when he is old. “The way he should go” refers rather to the way God wants him to live. It is our responsibility to regulate his behavior while he is young so he will learn habit patterns of self-discipline and submission to authority. When he is old he will be able to maintain that self-discipline and submit himself to the authority of God.
Small children are not able to regulate their own behavior properly. They simply do not have sufficient experience to know what is best for them. For example, Tommy Toddler doesn’t know what will bring him pain or bodily injury, so we set limits for him. We do not allow him to put his hand into the toaster. He might learn something about the use of a toaster that way, but he will also permanently disfigure his hand. So we insist that he obey us. We teach him, train him, hedge him in to the right way, refuse to let him deviate from it. Our love keeps him from checking out that shiny chrome appliance with the glowing red innards.
Our love will also keep him from learning behavior patterns that will bring him unhappiness later in life. For example, we know that whining and fussing to get his own way will bring grief to his relationships with other people. So our love refuses to let him get his own way by selfishly demanding it. Even very young children who have been raised properly understand this principle. A little girl was driving her mother to distraction with a tantrum in the aisle of a supermarket, screaming and crying, demanding one thing after another. Little Brenda, looking at the spectacle rather disgustedly, turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, that lady wouldn’t let her little girl act that way if she loved her.”
If the early training has been adequate, we will be able to permit our children more freedom and allow them to make more decisions as they grow older. But love still sets limits. It’s usually easier to say “yes” to a teenager than “no.” But love may demand some “noes,” and love is willing to bear the possible unpleasant consequences of a “no” if the long-range benefit warrants it.
The world has grossly misinterpreted the meaning of love with its permissive child psychology of unrestrained expressionism. God’s love sets limits, and the advantages of his method are obvious. For one thing, God’s way gives children a sense of security. Put a child in a familiar fenced yard with some toys to play with and he’ll feel secure even with cars speeding nearby. But put him out by himself in a big city with the freedom to roam anywhere he pleases, and his security will turn to sheer terror. Children want boundaries, even if they do not fully understand their feelings. Their sinful natures cry for freedom to do as they please. But they are confused and disturbed when they get away with more than they know they should. Uncontrolled children are seldom happy. They feel unloved and insecure.
Teens are very little different in this regard. Most of them grumble about the restrictions their parents make, but many a young rebel with unhindered liberty to do as he pleases has openly admitted, “I wish my folks cared enough about me to make some rules and stick with them.” Other kids who have run off and gotten married to escape their parents’ restrictions have found themselves longing for the security of home. Young people sometimes disobey to test their parents’ love, to see if their folks care enough to restrict them. Even in their moments of rebellion, they cannot understand why their parents let them act as they do if they really love them.
Another benefit of God’s way relates to the matter of authority. God wants Christians to be submissive to governmental authority (Rom. 13:1). But a submissive spirit is learned in the home by willing submission to parents’ authority. A child who gets his own way continually at home will eventually face a world where he cannot have his own way, where laws restrict his behavior to protect the rights of others. If he insists on his own way there, he brings upon himself multiplied misery and heartache. Most of those who openly rebel against governmental authority were never taught obedience in the home.
More important still, God wants us to be submissive to his authority (James 4:7). One reason many young people resist God’s Word and God’s will for their lives is that they were never taught submission to the word and will of their parents. Obedience to parents is obedience to the Lord. “Children, obey your parents; this is the right thing to do because God has placed them in authority over you” (Eph. 6:1, TLB).
Establishing limits has other profitable effects. It removes a great burden from both the child and the parent. Some kids are confused because they don’t know what is expected of them. Certain behavior may be accepted one day but it makes parental sparks fly the next, and the kids don’t know what to think. It’s a relief for them to know specifically what the rules are. I questioned thirty-five college students recently to learn their thoughts about their early training. One young man said, “I knew where the line was drawn and my parents stuck to it. When I crossed it, I knew what to expect. And it made me know they cared.”
I find that parents sometimes overreact to their children’s conduct because they are not sure of themselves, not certain whether they should permit certain behavior or not. A harassed mother sighs, “I just don’t know whether to let Kenny jump up and down on the bed like that or not.” Her indecisiveness seems to make her more edgy and volatile, and keeps her house in a turmoil. Making some definite decisions will eliminate that tension. God’s way is always best. If the limits are not clearly drawn at your house, it’s time to establish them.
But when you do, there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, keep the rules to a minimum and make them reasonable. Some parents make rules just for the sake of making rules. “It’s good for them to toe the mark,” they say. “They need to learn who the boss is around here.” That kind of attitude doesn’t teach submission; it breeds rebellion. It is usually found in a rather insecure parent who needs to boost his own ego. Will you notice please how God deals with us? The Apostle John has already taught us that loving God means keeping his commands. But he is quick to add, “And his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3b, NIV). The Lord Jesus himself said, “Come to me and I will give you rest--all of you who work so hard beneath a heavy yoke. Wear my yoke--for it fits perfectly--and let me teach you; for I am gentle and humble, and you shall find rest for your souls; for I give you only light burdens” (Matt. 11:28-30, TLB).
The Christian life is not a tedious chore. It is not designed to weigh us down and discourage us with unnecessary regulations. It is a yoke that fits well, adapted to our needs. And whatever burden it may seem to be is made light by the awareness of Christ’s loving gentleness toward us. We need to follow his example. The Apostle Paul must have known that fathers particularly would need this exhortation. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children . . . .” (Eph. 6:4, NIV). “Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged” (Col. 3:21, NIV). The Word of God gives no place to the harsh authoritarianism that some fathers mistakenly substitute for headship. They wonder why their children become bitter and rebellious when their demands have been unreasonable and unfair, and their attitude severe and unloving. Setting limits is not a miracle cure. It must be done in the proper way, even as God does it.
It might be a good idea to insist on as few rules as possible, just enough to protect the child’s physical and spiritual welfare, protect the rights of others, and maintain the smooth operation of the home. It is reasonable, for example, to expect a child to be home for dinner on time. His inconsiderateness here will inconvenience every other member of the family. It is reasonable to expect a teenager to drive his car lawfully and carefully. Other lives are in jeopardy, as well as his own. But since there are so many occasions when our child’s will must be subservient to ours, we should avoid making an issue over nonessential things. We will need to say “no” often enough, so why not think it through and be sure it is absolutely essential before making a snap judgment. That will avoid unnecessary personality clashes that upset the serenity of the household. We parents have an uncanny way of making major issues out of trivialities and blowing potential dangers all out of proportion. We can allow some latitude in matters such as the neatness of their rooms, the clothing styles they prefer, and the places we allow them to explore with their friends. Our repressiveness or overprotectiveness, whichever it is, only creates other dangers which backfire on us in time.
Keeping rules to a minimum and making them reasonable will eliminate another problem--the impossibility of enforcing an excessive number of rules. Unenforced rules produce the same kind of tension and turmoil as no rules at all. With small children particularly, it would be far better to work on just a few rules, and when they are mastered, progress to a few more.
Second, be sure the children understand the rules and why they exist. This is the way God deals with us. In his Word he clearly defines our responsibilities to him. Just so, we need to let our children know specifically what the limits are. We cannot assume that they will act properly if they do not know what is expected of them. I’m afraid some kids get spanked for doing things they never knew were wrong, and that only provokes resentment.
There is a difference of opinion as to whether we should explain to children the reasons for the rules we require. Some say children need to learn unquestioning obedience to our commands, with or without reasons. That is true. But with every passing year our children become a little more intelligent and mature, and it will become increasingly important for them to know the reasons why. When the Lord demands a certain response from us in his Word, he usually tells us why. Some Christian young people have drifted away from the Lord because their parents demanded blind, unquestioning submission to certain routines and standards for which no reasons were ever given. Their inquisitive “why” was met with a belligerent, “Because I said so.” That’s usually a cover for intellectual laziness and it is an insult to an intelligent teenager. We may get obedience that way, but we will never build respect. And respect is the most important single factor in keeping the generation gap closed.
It may be helpful to let an older child or teenager assist in making the rules in a family council. That will make him feel more like a part of the team rather than like an obstinate outsider who is always getting picked on. And that might also be a good time to discuss the reasons for the rules and the consequences of breaking them. If he helps to establish the rules, knows why they exist, and what will happen if they are violated, he will be more inclined to cooperate.
Consistent discipline is not an easy road. All of this takes time, patience, much thought and, most of all, a close walk with God. If we look on parenthood as a bothersome chore rather than a challenging privilege, our home lives may never improve. But if we are willing to make the necessary investment of time and spiritual energies, the result will be well worth the effort. My son, how I will rejoice if you become a man of common sense. Yes, my heart will thrill to your thoughtful, wise words... The father of a godly man has cause for joy--what pleasure a wise son is! (Prov. 23:15, 16, 24, 25, TLB). Consider the alternative, “A rebellious son is a grief to his father and a bitter blow to his mother” (Prov. 17:25, TLB). Is there really any question about which side you want to be on? Why not take this matter seriously and begin to clarify guidelines for your children?