Do you have the answer, or are you part of the problem? That penetrating question has been known to stop people short in their tracks and make them face their own personal responsibility in some tangled relationship. Maybe it’s time we parents asked it honestly about ourselves. We’re grappling with the problem of training our children, but there may be some flaws in our approach that need to be ironed out first. The converse may also be true. There are times when we think we are training our children when, in reality, we are working on our own unresolved conflicts.
In order to help us get our problems and our solutions properly sorted out, I would like to suggest four brief but pointed principles to govern the course of child-training in the Christian home.
Read through the New Testament epistles sometime for the sole purpose of learning what God expects of you as a believer in this age of unsurpassed grace. You will find a few “don’ts,” but the overwhelming majority of God’s commands are positive. When we begin doing what God wants us to do, the “don’ts” usually take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, some parents have adopted the Colossian heresy as their guiding principle for training their children: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21, NIV). It’s “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” from morning ‘til night, until the poor child must wonder if it’s even safe to breathe. And he becomes enmeshed in a cobweb of fears and anxieties with a negative outlook on life and a set of inhibitions that keep him tied up in knots most of the time. Learn to put things positively whenever possible: “Billy, use your fork, please,” rather than “Don’t you dare eat with your fingers!” “Linda, straighten up your room now,” rather than “Don’t you set foot outside that room, young lady, until every one of those toys is in its place!”
By being positive, we are not suggesting the endless nagging that wears children down and grates on their nerves. “Comb your hair. Straighten your tie. Button your coat. Stand up straight. Hold your shoulders back. Tie your shoelaces. Hurry up, you’ll be late.” That’s a disguised form of criticism that springs more from our own needs than the child’s. We are simply saying that instruction is more acceptable when it springs from a positive spirit.
This will virtually eliminate the negative criticism many parents continually offer. God’s standard is high--his own holiness. But he knows our weaknesses and he doesn’t continually pick at us and fuss at us for our failures. In a passage about God’s forgiveness, the Psalmist says, “For He Himself knows our frame; He is mindful that we are but dust” (Psa. 103:14, NASB). The Apostle John said, “My little children, I am telling you this so that you will stay away from sin. But if you sin, there is someone to plead for you before the Father. His name is Jesus Christ, the one who is all that is good and who pleases God completely” (1 John 2:1, TLB). “But if you sin . . .” That’s a rather understanding attitude, isn’t it? We need to have it when our children fail to live up to our expectations.
Criticism is one of the most disheartening elements of life. We all know what it means to do the best we can, only to have somebody find fault with it. It makes us feel inferior, guilty, and worthless; it destroys our confidence and saps our ambition. Yet many parents feed their children a constant diet of negative criticism. “Is that the best you can do?” “Well, I see you finally cleaned up your room. Now go do it over again.” “Is a B the best you can do in math?” Or worse yet, when one of those inevitable accidents occur, we exclaim in exasperation and anger, “Can’t you do anything right?”
George was a young man with a fractured ego. He told me it had been his regular chore to keep the basement clean when he was a boy. With a coal-burning furnace, coal dust, ashes, and dirt would cover the rough concrete floor. Often when he finished, his father would take the broom from him and sweep up another pile of dirt, berating him for the poor job he had done. Some years later he discovered that it was possible to get dirt off a floor like that only after four or five sweepings. But it was too late to salvage his sagging confidence.
How much more effective it is to encourage children with warm and sincere commendation, to express confidence in their abilities and optimism about their progress. “That’s a good job, son. You’re doing better every time.” “Say, you brought that C up to a B this time. Good for you.” Children need encouragement. In fact, it may well be the most important factor in their growth toward emotional maturity and stability. Our proneness to criticize and our unwillingness to commend are reflections of some unresolved problem in our own lives. It may be a rigid demanding perfectionism, a lack of personal self-confidence, a desire to make ourselves look better, or maybe even a fear that our children’s achievements will surpass our childhood accomplishments. All of these are insidious expressions of pride. Our critical spirit is the feeble attempt of the flesh to compensate for our weakness. When we let the Lord deal with that pride, we shall be free to accept our child’s weaknesses, and will then be able to help him overcome them by encouragement rather than compound them by criticism.
Several times in this book I have mentioned keeping calm and avoiding anger. Some may be wondering why that is so important. After all, doesn’t the Bible speak about the anger and wrath of God? If God gets angry, why can’t we? Maybe it is necessary to draw another distinction. Just as we have differentiated between punishment and discipline, and between fear and respect, so we need to distinguish fleshly anger from righteous anger.
God’s anger cannot possibly be a sinful emotion because God has no sinful nature. Rather than a flaring of emotion, God’s anger is a settled opposition to sin. There is no trace of anxiety, resentment, or hostility in it, but only indignation over sin and its effects. It is not selfish, but essential to his own infinitely holy nature. God’s anger is righteous and good.
A Christian can have that kind of God-like anger, as when his righteous indignation over sin or injustice moves him to constructive and helpful action. But it will always be unselfishly motivated by the wrongs committed against others rather than himself, and it will be free from anxiety, resentment, and hostility. That is probably what the Apostle Paul meant when he said, “In your anger do not sin” (Eph. 4:26a, NIV).
Too many parents are kidding themselves when they try to categorize their anger as righteous indignation. They are just flat steamed up--mad, hurt, and hostile. They’re venting their spleen because they’ve been irritated, inconvenienced, embarrassed, exasperated, or challenged, and the old sin nature is hanging out all over the place. When they lose their temper they’re dealing with their own problem, not the children’s, and they’re not handling the problem very successfully.
God has a few things to say about this fleshly emotion. “Stop your anger! Turn off your wrath” (Psa. 37:8a, TLB). “Let all . . . wrath, and anger . . . be put away from you. . . .” (Eph. 4:31, KJV). To differentiate the two, wrath is the boiling outburst of temper, while anger is the smoldering coal. Neither one has any place in the life of a Christian parent. “For man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:20, NIV). God has dealt with me about this, so much so that I finally asked my children to tell me when I sound angry with them. They usually forget, but the offer still stands. I need all the help I can get to overcome the sin in my life, including help from my children.
The Apostle Paul commanded us not to provoke our children to anger (Eph. 6:4). What is it that stirs up a child’s anger? Let the Word of God answer the question. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1, NASB). Children react just as adults do. When somebody talks to them in angry tones, it makes them resentful and rebellious. It’s like rubbing sandpaper on their emotions. Then when they get angry, it makes their parents more angry, and the vicious cycle ends in a verbal brawl from which nobody benefits. If the child gets hit in that rage, it increases his fear and deepens his hostility. And whether he gets hit or not, he usually becomes more sullen and unresponsive and loses respect for the parent whose emotions he can arouse like a plaything.
When the temptation to be angry threatens us, it’s time to get alone with God and resolve it. If some form of correction is necessary, send the child to his room and tell him you will be there in a few minutes. Then go to your room, get on your knees before God, and ask him to dissolve that rising tide of emotion and replace it with his calm. That will prepare you to discipline your child effectively, for his good rather than your own.
“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city” (Prov. 16:32 NASB).
A faulty pattern of discipline is all too typical in many homes. It goes something like this. Little Billy is paying no attention to his mother’s instructions because he has learned to tune her out. That’s easy to do. When I was a boy, I lived one block from the major railroad line between Philadelphia and New York. Visitors in our home found those trains offensive, but I seldom heard them. We learn to tune out unpleasant sounds and that’s exactly what Billy is doing. His mother’s first command is nothing more than an irritating sound. It doesn’t mean anything at all, so he ignores it.
Then mother begins to nag. “I wish you would learn to obey me, Billy. Why can’t you ever do what you’re told the first time I speak? I don’t know what I’m going to do with you.” Billy is now feeling a secret surge of satisfaction because this big strong woman can’t control him. But all the while, mother is repeating her command, her pitch is getting higher, her decibel level is increasing, and her anger is rising. Sometimes Billy can read her perfectly and hops to it just before her fuse ignites, especially if she gives him that “One . . . Twoooooo . . .” routine. On other occasions his timing is slightly off and she explodes in a rage of verbal and physical abuse. Naturally, she feels guilty because of her excessively harsh punishment, so the next day she tries to compensate by letting Billy get away with almost anything. And Billy is systematically learning the art of juvenile delinquency, losing respect not only for his mother, but for all authority. “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl. 8:11, KJV). The solution to this tragic situation is consistency. Correction must regularly begin at the first sign of disobedience. When we speak once in normal tones, we should expect obedience. If we do not get it, then we move in immediately to correct the disobedience. There are no empty threats, no increasing degrees of anger, no rising crescendo of shouting, just the calm, kind, loving, but firm insistence that we be obeyed when we speak. The rod will then become associated not with retaliation but with love, the loving concern that our children learn the joy and blessing of a disciplined spirit.
Consistency requires more self-discipline on our part than anything else. Raising our voices is easier than getting up, walking over, and administering firm but loving correction at the first sign of disobedience. But God will help us if we let him. The fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Self-control involves the ability to do the right thing at the right time. And the right time for correction is at the moment of disobedience. We are to apply the rod “betimes” (Prov. 13:24, KIV), meaning early or when the need exists. When we allow the Spirit of God to deal with our problem of laziness, we shall be able to discipline our children his way.
Consistency also involves changelessness in maintaining our standards. This is the way God deals with us. “I am the Lord,” he says. “I change not” (Mal. 3:6, KJV). Rules must be flexible, and exceptions will be made in extenuating circumstances. But generally speaking, if we are going to insist on a certain code of behavior one day, then we ought to insist on it the next day as well. To require it one time and ignore it another bewilders children.
Conversely, to let them get away with something most of the time, then suddenly to punish them for it in a fit of anger, defeats our aim of teaching them self-discipline. When we decide to train our children God’s way, we should first give them some explanation of why we expect this standard of conduct and how we intend to help them remember it. Then when we do need to correct them, we again remind them of why we expected their obedience, how we are now going to help them remember, and what they can do in the future to avoid this unpleasantness. This kind of instruction accompanying correction will begin to transform the reason for the child’s behavior from the mere pleasant or unpleasant effects of it, to a healthy respect for us and for others.
Consistency, furthermore, means agreement between father and mother on standards of behavior and methods of correction. Some of the most rebellious kids have grown up in homes where mother and dad have been sabotaging each other’s authority. One may have been overly strict and the other overly permissive, and each one was trying to equalize the other’s excesses. The inevitable result was a lack of respect for either. The kids soon learned how to get what they wanted by playing one parent against the other. That kind of situation will be averted when mother and dad discuss discipline together ahead of time and agree on the rules and how to enforce them. Even when harmony does exist, the kids may occasionally succeed in getting different verdicts from mom and dad separately. That’s the time to back up, have a private high-level conference, and agree.
Consistency will likewise involve keeping our word. If we make a promise and attach no conditions to it, we should not break it as a disciplinary measure. To do so is to teach our children to break their word. Some promises cannot be kept due to circumstances beyond our control, like rain on the day of the picnic or a sudden emergency that demands our attention. Those occasions can be used to explain the difference between breaking promises and being hindered by circumstances from doing what we want to do. Life is filled with disappointments, and our children must learn how to cope with them very early in life. Our gentle spirit at such times will help. But nothing can take the place of a child’s inner confidence that his parent’s word can be trusted.
Consistency means fairness too. Our children each have different personalities and different degrees of maturity, so exactly the same rules and methods of discipline may not always apply to every child. But we need to be as uniform as we possibly can. I can still hear the plaintive cry of several young people with whom I have counseled who were sure their parents didn’t care for them. The reason? The standards set for them were different from those set for their brothers or sisters, and the discipline they received was far more severe. God is just in dealing with his children (Psalm 89:14), and we should be with ours.
We devoted an entire chapter to love for our children, but a brief word needs to be repeated in this context of discipline. Even when the rod strikes, our children should feel love as much as pain. Before we correct them, we will want to explain why our love requires us to do this. After we correct them, we will hold them close and continue to assure them of our love. God will use our love to encourage love in them, until they grow to the point of obeying not just to avoid unpleasantness, but because they genuinely love the Lord and us. And this is the goal of maturity toward which we are building.
One of the saddest mistakes a parent can make is to threaten his child with the withdrawal of his love. “Mommy won’t love you if you do that.” A cutting comment like that grows out of mother’s own insecurity, and the emotional scars which it leaves will be a long time healing. God does not threaten to withdraw his love from his children. He keeps on loving them even when they sin. To the nation Israel he said, “I have loved you, O my people, with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31:3, TLB). When we love our children with his kind of love, it will never cease (1 Cor. 13:7-8). Then our discipline will eventuate in their profit rather than express our problems, to the blessing of all.