Note: My understanding of training up children has been influenced by Dr. James Dobson’s book Dare to Discipline.
You are sitting in a restaurant with your wife and children. The kids are not behaving perfectly, but they are behaving. If you tell them to sit down or stop whining, they listen. Before the meal is over, a stranger approaches your table and interrupts your dinner: “Excuse me for intruding,” she says. “But I just wanted to compliment you. Your children are so well behaved!”
Why does this happen? Just a few decades ago, the unruly child was the exception. But now the disciplined child is extraordinary. In the past good parents encouraged their children to fit in, to act like other little boys and girls. But cultural expectations have sunk so low that parents must now urge their kids to resist accepted norms.
A major factor contributing to the deterioration of discipline is the foolish advice of self-styled “experts.” These godless people appear on TV shows and write books, blogs, and magazine articles. Their instruction is often nothing more than the hot air of human opinion. But their word is taken as gospel. The real Gospel is found in the scriptures (Eph. 6:1-4). Since the Bible’s author is the Creator of the family, its message is timeless.
Paul’s word “instruction” (Eph. 6:4) leads us to think of a godly father as a teacher. What is a father to teach his children?
Teach Your Child Obedience
Paul urges children to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1). But obedience doesn’t come naturally for most children, and so fathers must learn how to compel it. According to the “experts,” the foremost parenting task is instilling self-esteem. This is ludicrous. Good parents care about a child’s feelings, but other matters are far more pressing. As a parent what if you had to choose between encouraging self-esteem and traits such as honesty, loyalty, diligence, self-control, compassion, humility, or devotion to God? Would you pick self-esteem over any of these things? Godly fathers care about a child’s feelings, but their chief concern is character. And how is character molded? Through obedience to parental authority.
However, some parental attempts to teach obedience usually fail. Nagging, for instance. “Honey,” Dad says, “put down that video game and take out the trash.” Nothing happens. Five minutes pass. “Sweetheart, put down that video game and take out the trash.” Nothing happens. Nag, nag, nag. The priest Eli nagged his sons about their abominable conduct at the tabernacle, “but they would not listen to the voice of their father” (1 Sam. 2:25). Some elderly husbands enjoy wearing hearing aids because they can tune out their wives. Kids don’t need hearing aids. To tune out parents, all they need to know is that mom and dad only nag but never do anything.
Anger doesn’t produce obedience either. Does a letter from the IRS contain any emotional language (e.g., “We have told you and told you to send in your tax money. Send in your taxes or we are going to burst a blood vessel”)? No. Then why does an IRS letter make a taxpayer so nervous? How motivated would taxpayers be if all that delinquency ever produced was a string of furious letters?
Parents think that anger produces obedience because children obey when mom and dad are ready to cross that threshold between fury and action. But it is the action itself (or the fear of it) that leads to a change in the child’s behavior. Why not bypass all the negative emotion and just take action? Isn’t that what Solomon advised (Prov. 13:24; 22:15)? Of course, corporal punishment should be a last resort. Other punishments include loss of freedom or privileges (e.g., “Sit down for 15 minutes, and maybe you’ll change your tune”; or, “No, you can’t use the car. I hear that last weekend you scorched some rubber to impress your friends”). But parents must remember that punishment is to be reserved for disobedience and not immaturity.
Teach Your Child Respect
The commandment “Honor your father and mother” is addressed to children (Eph. 6:2). In time, even undisciplined children may learn to show appreciation to aging parents. But since honoring father and mother is such a blessing for the child, godly parents cannot afford to let him discover respect in his own good time. Respect must be molded into a child’s character (Heb. 12:9).
What is the difference between respect and obedience? Assembling with the church is an act of obedience (Heb. 10:25). But sitting in the pew with an I-wish-I-were-somewhere-else look on my face shows God no honor. Good parents teach obedience, but the best parents teach respect.
Think of this as the difference between act and attitude. Is the Lord satisfied with the outward obedience of a Christian who is conceited, bitter, selfish, or unloving? No. Then why should a parent be satisfied with a child who is pouty, whiny, sullen, ungrateful, or rude?
A bad attitude is a parental invitation to do some teaching. That instruction may require a preliminary evaluation. Is the child having some trouble that I don’t know about? Is my own hectic schedule leaving her with too little attention? Or am I smothering her with too much attention? After an honest evaluation (which naturally requires listening), a parent is then ready to explain why a particular bad attitude is inappropriate. Obedience is a byproduct of respect. If a child is taught to be courteous and gracious toward his parents, his obedience will naturally follow.
Teach Your Child Reverence
The chief goal of godly fathers is not creating a star athlete, a stellar pupil, a musical prodigy, or a homecoming queen. Above all else godly parents want to make disciples of their children: “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). This goal is accomplished by means of a transfer. At some point the respect for dad is superseded by reverence for the Father in heaven.
The trouble is, many parents fail to represent the Father’s true character. Paul warns fathers against provoking children to anger (Eph. 6:4) or embittering and discouraging them (Col. 3:21). It is impossible to raise children without angering them sometimes. If you take scissors away from a toddler, he may cry about it. If you take the keys away from a teenager, she may feel mortally wounded. But these perceived injuries result from immature judgment. The toddler will never remember the confiscated scissors, and the teenager may one day express gratitude for loving parental discipline.
But embittering a child is doing things that no emotionally healthy adult can justify or give thanks for—punishing small offenses with severe penalties, tolerating no disagreement (even if expressed courteously), smothering, resorting to insulting language, or acting capriciously (i.e., constantly changing rules and expectations). Embittering a child interferes with the transfer from earthly parent to heavenly Father. If I can’t respect my father, why should I care anything about his God?
However, teaching a child reverence is so much more than avoiding egregious blunders. In relation to scholastic education, we understand this perfectly. Am I a good math teacher just because I never smack a student with a ruler for making an error in his homework? Am I a good English teacher just because I never demand assignments on Monday that were not asked for on Friday? No. To be a good math teacher, I must teach math. To be a good English teacher, I must teach English.
If we understand this, why do we have a different standard for spiritual training? If I want my children to learn reverence, then I must teach them reverence. This means setting a good and consistent example. It means leading the family to put the Lord first (i.e., bringing the children to everything the church does, and getting involved). And it means teaching the Bible at home (e.g., in a nightly family devotional).
In our nation the government, the media, and the public university have declared war on fatherhood. Know why? Because our adversary, that prowling lion, understands that fatherhood is essential to strong families and therefore strong churches.
“Fathers,” Paul says, bring up your children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Why doesn’t Paul address mothers, or fathers and mothers? It’s because God knows that in spiritual matters children usually follow their fathers. Perhaps we know an extraordinary woman who managed to raise a family of dedicated Christians without dad’s support or in spite of his interference. But this is rare. In the strongest Christian families, the mother is cherished for her kindness, wisdom, and discipline. But the father is recognized by the entire household as the family’s leader and teacher.