Parenting: Nurture, Not Exasperation

Ephesians 6:4


Audio Version

J.A. Peterson writes this in his book For Families Only: “When the 10-year-olds in Mrs. Imogene Frost’s class at the Brookside, N.J. Community Sunday School expressed their views of ‘What’s wrong with grownups?’ they came up with these complaints: 1. Grownups make promises, then they forget all about them, or else they say it wasn’t really a promise, just a maybe. 2. Grownups don’t do the things they’re always telling the children to do–like pick up their things, or be neat, or always tell the truth. 3. Grownups never really listen to what children have to say. They always decide ahead of time what they’re going to answer. 4. Grownups make mistakes, but they won’t admit them. They always pretend that they weren’t mistakes at all–or that somebody else made them. 5. Grownups interrupt children all the time and think nothing of it. If a child interrupts a grownup, he gets a scolding or something worse. 6. Grownups never understand how much children want a certain thing–a certain color or shape or size. If it’s something they don’t admire–even if the children have spent their own money for it–they always say, “I can’t imagine what you want with that old thing!” 7. Sometimes grownups punish children unfairly. It isn’t right if you’ve done just some little thing wrong and grownups take away something that means an awful lot to you. Other times you can do something really bad and they say they’re going to punish you, but they don’t. You never know, and you ought to know. 8. Grownups are always talking about what they did and what they knew when they were 10 years old–but they never try to think what it’s like to be 10 years old right now.” Yes, it is a challenge to be a good parent, isn’t it? What I hope to show you is that it is impossible. Only the grace of God can enable us to be good parents.

Paul gives parents two commands. The first is to avoid exasperating the children. The second command is to raise up the children in training and instruction. Now, even though he is directly addressing fathers, Paul does not mean to exclude mothers from these commands. He commands fathers because they are the heads of their households, and because they have the responsibility to ensure that the children are not being provoked to wrath either by them or by the mothers. They are also responsible for the training and instruction of the children that should go on in every Christian household. Mothers are secondarily responsible for these things, even though they may be more immediately connected with these areas.

So, the first command is to avoid exasperating the child. Literally, the word means “provoke to anger.” We should not be provoking our children to anger. What provokes our children to anger? Well, certainly, many of the things I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon will provoke children to anger. Lack of consistency in discipline is very exasperating to a child. Playing favorites with one child over another is exasperating. Making unfair comparisons between children is exasperating to a child. Having unrealistic expectations, and then punishing the children for not meeting those expectations is exasperating. On the other hand, expecting nothing of our children, and simply letting them do what they want may not produce immediate anger in our children. But when our children become teenagers, they will not respect parents who do not have standards. Being overly critical is exasperating. In fact, this one is very important. Criticism is very important in a child’s life. They need to know how they can do better. But if they then do better, we need to tell them what they are doing right. If a child can never do anything in life which a parent approves of, then the child will eventually stop trying. They will say, “Since I can’t please my parents, no matter what, then I’m not even going to bother trying to please them.” This is a very sad state of affairs, since children naturally want to please their parents. It is inborn in them to want to please their parents. Be willing, therefore, to be pleased. You have no idea how powerful a word of encouragement can be sometimes.

Furthermore, parents need to spend time with their children. This one is almost lost in our culture, which tends to use the television to babysit children. Watching television with your children is not time spent with them, because there is no interaction of parent and child. Chuck Colsen notes that parents today spend 40% less time with their children than parents did a generation ago. James Dobson cited a Cornell University study showing that fathers of preschool children on the average spend 37.7 seconds per day in real contact with their youngsters. In contrast, the study indicated that children watch television approximately 54 hours per week. Then we wonder why our children are leaving the faith, leaving the moral standards which we grew up having. How can 37 seconds compete with 54 hours? Now, the figures are going to be quite different with mothers, who will usually spend a great deal more time with their children than the fathers do (at least with very young children). But again, remember that parents are both spending less time with their children. Other statistics are just as shocking: right now half of all children in the US live without their fathers. In the inner city, only 20% of children live with their biological fathers! In such situations, children are far more likely to engage in crime, illicit sex, drugs and alcohol. Christianity Today, in their August 1993 edition says this:

In the 1950s a psychologist, Stanton Samenow, and a psychiatrist, Samuel Yochelson, sharing the conventional wisdom that crime is caused by environment, set out to prove their point. They began a 17-year study involving thousands of hours of clinical testing of 250 inmates here in the District of Columbia. To their astonishment, they discovered that the cause of crime cannot be traced to environment, poverty, or oppression. Instead, crime is the result of individuals making, as they put it, wrong moral choices. In their 1977 work The Criminal Personality, they concluded that the answer to crime is a ‘conversion of the wrong-doer to a more responsible lifestyle.’ In 1987, Harvard professors James Q. Wilson and Richard J. Herrnstein came to similar conclusions in their book Crime and Human Nature. They determined that the cause of crime is a lack of proper moral training among young people during the morally formative years, particularly ages one to six.

This provides a good segue into the second command that Paul gives to parents. They are to bring up children in training and instruction. What is this training and instruction? The words mean one positive thing and one negative thing. The positive thing is instruction. Parents are responsible for instruction in the things of God. It is not enough simply to bring the children to church and expect the church to do it all. The church cannot substitute for daily instruction in the Bible and catechisms. You need to read the Bible every day with your children, and ask them questions about the text to make sure that they are listening. They should be able to summarize what you read at a fairly young age. Ask them several easy questions about the text first. Then ask the older children slightly more difficult questions about how the text applies in situations in which they might find themselves. Memorization of the catechisms is very important, since that will give them a summary of the Christian faith that they can always have at their command when someone asks them what they believe. You can start with the children’s catechism, which has very easy questions, such as “who made you? God.” Then after that, you can go through the Heidelberg catechism, or the Westminster shorter catechism, which will give them a wonderful tool for knowing what the Christian faith is. That is instruction in the things of God.

Secondly, the negative thing mentioned is discipline. As Proverbs says, spare the rod and spoil the child. We must discipline our children. A few things are important here. We should always discipline fairly. That means investigating the “crime” so that you know what happened and who is responsible. Then make sure that the punishment fits the crime. I find it helpful to explain beforehand what I am doing and why I am doing it. I always tell my children that I do not like to spank them, but that it is necessary for them to remember what is right. Another excellent thing to remember is that we should never spank or discipline out of personal anger. This one is difficult, because a lot of things our children do make us angry, and then we are tempted simply to lash out at them. We should not do that, however. Instead, we should be calm when we discipline. Otherwise we will be too harsh. However, the greater danger that faces parents today is being far too permissive. Our culture wants to throw off all authority, and destroy all boundaries. The boundaries should be firm in our discipline. The child should know exactly where those boundaries are, and what will happen if he crosses them. We might think that to be harsh, but in fact, it is incredibly loving. Boundaries make children feel secure. They know that they will not incur unjust anger if they do not cross that known boundary. They know what pleases and what displeases you. Children are very happy in that kind of environment. And when they are pushing you, know for a fact that they are wanting to know where the boundaries are, how firm they are, and whether you will love them enough to enforce those boundaries.

It should be clear by now that none of us are sufficient to this task. Many of us might feel that we have failed already. Some of us may be disappointed at how our children have turned out. We do fail in many ways, and those failures are sinful. However, such failures are not the unforgivable sin. We can have forgiveness for what we have done, and what we have left undone. Furthermore, we need to remember that although it is our responsibility to raise our children in this instruction and training, there are no promises in Scripture that tell us that our children are guaranteed to turn out right as long as we do our part. It does not matter how well you parent your children if God does not regenerate that child’s heart, then that child will not be a believer. Conversely, no matter how badly you parent your child, God can still work in that child’s heart to bring him to God in repentance and faith. The importance of parenting does not lie in some kind of guarantee that faithful parenting will get the desired result. That may be hard for some of us to hear. Nevertheless, it is the truth. The importance of parenting is that it is missionary work. You need to show your children that they are sinners. You do that by showing them the law of God in its perfection. That shows a child that he cannot please God, though he may desire to do so. Instead, he needs to put his faith in Christ, who has pleased God. Here you can use your child’s desire to please you as a handle to show them the Gospel. That is the ultimate importance of parenting. Of course, your child may be a Christian from the womb. That can certainly happen. And we shouldn’t necessarily require that they have some kind of violent conversion experience. We want them simply to grow up into the Christian faith, never knowing anything different. We should not doubt them if they say they believe in Christ. Instead, we should instruct them in the faith, and bring them up in the discipline of love. So, we should not exasperate our children, but bring them up in the instruction and discipline of the Lord. Amen.

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