One of the worst effects of sin is that we become people of extremes. This is true, not least in the context of our children. We may be spineless and permissive and tend to spoil them; or else, if we do have some sense of authority and discipline, we go to the other extreme and become rigid, domineering and perhaps even brutal with our children. God warns equally against both extremes.
As a parent we should use our authority in a way that does not embitter or discourage our children. Your calling as a parent is to help each child flourish as a child of God. The Lord has entrusted you with the care of a precious soul, a soul that needs to be nurtured with a lot of firmness and tenderness. That precious soul has been born sinful, so in order for your child to flourish, you need to say ‘No’ and to apply discipline. That pre pious soul has also been born ignorant, weak and insecure. So for your child to flourish, you need to help overcome the ignorance with sound teaching, the weakness with encouragement and the insecurity with love.
On your own, however, you do not have the inner resources to do this, and neither do I. That is why as parents we need to draw on God’s resources to keep us going, and why we need to put our children in touch with all of God’s resources in the Lord Jesus Christ. We must never lose sight of our goal or of our God.
What a marvellous way God has of showing us a perfect balance! God wants us to use our authority but not to abuse it. We should expect obedience from our children, but we should not embitter or discourage them. What does that mean? Well there is no recipe or how-to list for producing perfect children, but here are a few suggestions in keeping with the words of Ephesians 6:4: ‘Fathers, do not exasperate your children.’
For one thing, be controlled. One of the quickest ways to exasperate and embitter your children is to keep losing your temper. How can you insist that your children control their behaviour if you cannot control yours?
This is where scolding and spanking can become abusive. It is one thing to give a child a no-nonsense scolding. It is quite another to yell and scream uncontrollably. It is one thing to give a young child a well-deserved slap on the backside. It is quite another to deliver blow after blow as a way of venting your own rage and smashing your child into submission.
If you cannot control your temper, you will be wisest never to spank your children at all. None of us should resort to spanking too quickly. We should spank only when children are testing us and directly defying our authority, and we should spank children only when they are quite young and learn most effectively from quick, physical consequences. But some parents should never spank, simply because they cannot control themselves if they do. If that is your situation, you need to find other ways of punishing. Your children need to respect your authority and discipline, but they do not need to be scared stiff of your violent and uncontrolled temper. So be controlled.
This suggestion is closely related: be consistent. Nothing drives a child crazy more than having you react to something one way today, and another way tomorrow. He does something wrong when you are in a good mood, and you just ignore it or make a joke about it. Later he does the same thing, but this time you are in a bad mood, so you blow up and threaten to ground him for life. That is exasperating for children. They soon get the message that punishment is more the result of your mood than of their wrong doing. Do not be unpredictable. Be consistent in your reaction to their behaviour.
And be consistent in the sense that your own behaviour is consistent with what you expect of your children. Do not tell them to say ‘No’ to drugs and alcohol and then get drunk yourself. Do not tell them to put God first and then put work and money first in your own life. You exasperate your children if your life is not consistent with what you teach them.
Be consistent, too, together with your husband or wife in how you treat your children. As father and mother, do not contradict each other’s ways of dealing with your children. When one of you says ‘No’, the children may try to get the other one to say ‘Yes’, and they find out soon enough which of you is easier to win over. As parents, be on the same wavelength. (By the way, that is why it is so important to marry someone who has the same faith and the same philosophy of life.) Do not confuse your children. Be consistent.
Again: be reasonable. Do not expect a child to have the maturity of a fifty-year-old. Do not give rules for the sake of making rules. And do not put too much pressure on children to succeed in school or in sports. You want children to make the most of their talents, but you also want them to feel grateful for whatever talents God has given them. Some children may need an extra push to use their talents, but far too many get pushed so hard that it crushes them. They feel like failures who will never measure up. Are your children really underachievers, or are you an over-expector? Be reasonable.
When punishment is in order, be fair. Make sure the punishment fits the crime. Of course, children do not enjoy punishment of any sort. They often complain even about fair punishment. But, deep down, they usually sense if the punishment is fair. If you punish them too harshly it causes deep and lasting damage. Likewise, if you humiliate them in front of other people, especially in front of their friends, you are wounding them deeply. Never degrade or humiliate’ Do not drive a child into discouragement and despair. Be fair.
Another suggestion: be attentive. Try to understand your children. If you have a young child who is being impossible and making all sorts of trouble for you, it may be a case of defiance. But, then again, the child may just be overtired. If you are attentive, you can often tell whether the child needs punishment or just a hug and a kiss and a one-way trip to bed.
In the same way, unsettling behaviour by older children is not always a matter of defiance and disobedience. Teenagers may be going through tough times with friends or wrestling with severe temptations, doubts, fears and insecurities, but all you might see is awkward, obnoxious behaviour. You do not have to pretend the behaviour is all right, but watch for underlying causes. Your teenager may need love and understanding and reassurance more than punishment.
Always, always listen to your children and talk with them. If you cut off all discussion without listening to their side of the story, you are not treating them as human beings. After listening, you still might decide they are just having you on -many children are experts at making excuses, and they can come up with some really far-fetched ones to wriggle out of trouble. But you still need to listen before you make up your mind. Sometimes children give you a sense of what is really on their heart, things you need to know in order to understand them. If you won’t listen at all, or if you won’t explain your own actions, you will exasperate and embitter your children.
Be attentive also to change and growth in your children. It is hard for some of us to watch our children grow up. We would like to keep them little and cute and loveable and controllable. But children change as they grow, and we need to change with them. We cannot treat fifteen-year-olds like five-year-olds. As children grow up, we need to give them greater freedom and responsibility in making decisions. You will exasperate your children if you treat them as who they were instead of as who they are.