There is an old adage that claimed: children cement a marriage. Indeed children are a heritage from the Lord and it was His intended plan from the very beginning that the family would be the foundation of society. After creating Adam and Eve they are commissioned to, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28 ESV). Before a couple gets married they should not fail to discuss how they feel about being fruitful and multiplying! Perhaps no other issue can affect the harmony of a marriage more than the decision whether or not to have children, and if so blessed, how to deal with them at every stage of life. Failing to carefully consider what children would mean to the marriage relationship could find the couple ending up with cement that crumbles rather than binds as the years go by.
In ages past the decision to have children was entirely left up to the natural course of things in a marriage. If blessed with offspring, mother and father dealt with it and raised them to adulthood whatever number came along. My father’s mother, born in the 19th century, had twelve children, giving birth literally every couple of years until she was no longer fruitful. Having children or not for most of recorded history was not an option, it was a choice made for you by nature and the only way to avoid it was abstinence or physical limitation. In the overwhelmingly agrarian society that existed prior to the 20th century, a large number of children was an economic advantage in that they provided more labor for the farm. This increased labor pool, in effect, created the ability for increased output capable of feeding all. Also, in ages past, without society having any social net to protect the elderly from poverty, having children provided a haven for the aged family members. Needless to say all that has changed in our times.
A couple contemplating marriage should discuss thoroughly all the many issues regarding the role of children. It is wise not to make assumptions about what the other partner feels about the issue. Children profoundly change the marriage relationship in a myriad of ways. These can be difficult to deal with even if the couple believes that they are well suited to be parents. Many a marriage has floundered because the responsibilities associated with having and caring for children had never been fully appreciated. Some marriages have even failed because children could not be produced. This doesn’t necessarily apply just to royalty requiring an heir apparent to the throne, but also to ordinary folks like us who can be terribly disappointed. So let’s discuss some of the issues that need to be considered with respect to the role of children in a marriage relationship.
First, there is the question of whether or not the couple even wants children. Certainly this needs to be a joint decision and it should be one made prior to marriage, as it is not one easily revised once the couple is joined together in matrimony. Abraham and Sarah, as far as we can infer, had a very happy marriage for a very long time before they had any children. (Certainly Abraham regarded Sarah with great admiration as we can readily surmise from Gen 12:11, although they had no children at the time.) Priscilla and Aquila1 do not appear to have had children. I think it is safe to assume they had a happy marriage, and their freedom to travel was probably entirely due to the fact that they had no close family ties to cause them concern. Thus they assisted greatly with planting the seed of the gospel. In many cases deciding not to have children is a wise choice depending on the ages and temperaments of potential partners. The ecclesia should respect those wishes without constant pestering. I cannot help but recalling that early in our marriage, when my wife and I were having some medical issues that were forestalling the ability for her to be pregnant — how hurtful some of the comments about when we were going to have children, when frankly it was no one’s business but our own. It is wise that prospective marriage partners make a joint decision to have, or to not have, children prior to a wedding date. Furthermore, it is imperative that both partners fully agree that this decision can only be changed at some future time if both agree that the situation so warrants. Failing to do this and being presented with a surprise package clothed in diapers at some future time could possibly lead to resentment, and surely will end up with lack of trust.
Concerning children and their consequences
If a couple agrees that they want offspring then they should proceed to consider prior to the marriage some very important questions regarding children, such as:
- When to have children?
- How many may be desired?
- Have they given some serious thought to the financial implications of having children?
- Given consideration on how to guide and discipline2 children?
- Considered how to share responsibilities in child rearing?
- What to do if it turns out to be impossible to have children?
The above list is not meant to be all-inclusive, but simply to serve as a guideline for some of the key issues I had found necessary to bear in mind, relative to my own personal experience and from time to time in counseling others.
Let us consider these points in turn. The simple, but hopefully an astute answer to points a) through c) above is: When a couple can afford it! But this isn’t necessarily reality, as we shall soon see. The average cost to raise a child born in 2010 to the age of eighteen (in 2028) in the United States is $226, 920 according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.3 This of course is an average for the whole nation and varies somewhat geographically. To get a figure fine-tuned to your geographic location go to the calculator on the website in reference no. 3 below.4 The average cost figures for Canada are somewhat lower at $182,190,5 but this is offset somewhat by the fact that average income is also lower there than in the United States. Startlingly, the numbers from the United Kingdom are considerably higher than on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. The latest data in the United Kingdom indicate a cost equivalent to $316, 9626 to raise a child from birth to twenty-one years old. The amount actually spent per child depends on total household income, simply because the more the parents earn the more the expectations. Thus a lower income family might spend less on bringing a child up to the age of eighteen, but the total percentage of their actual disposable income will unfortunately be higher, making a child even more difficult to afford. Since the North American cutoff age is eighteen in all these reports none of them consider the cost of funding in whole, or in part, either a college education or a wedding! Where does that leave us? When I told my mother one time, many years ago, that we would have children when we could afford it she wisely said to me that if that were the case then probably no one except the ultra-rich would ever have kids! There is a great deal of truth in that statement, but it is also true that an awareness of the actual costs should be abundantly clear, and that a married couple must be willing to make sacrifices in order to be good parents. Activities we did in the past, things we purchased, levels of comfort we previously took for granted, and vacations we formerly took and could easily afford (among other things) before having children, must of necessity be eliminated or greatly altered. Anyone contemplating having children needs to be aware of being willing to make such sacrifices without regret or there will surely be trouble lying ahead in the marriage. The Scriptural admonition of the Apostle Paul is particularly relevant when one reflects on how parents should willingly sacrifice for their children: “…I seek not what is yours but you. For children are not obligated to save up for their parents, but parents for their children” (2Cor 12:14 ESV).
The discipline of children
Aside from financial disagreements the next most critical issue that leads to serious conflicts in a marriage revolve around exactly how to discipline children. If the married couple does not have an agreed consistent plan for raising children, it not only will affect their own personal relationship, but also can cause undue harm to their children that will linger into their adult years. The Bible gives lots of advice on how to raise children, but this present essay will only be able to touch on them briefly. Nevertheless, some discussion is warranted here about disciplining children especially in the context of how it can affect marriage harmony.
Invariably we are conditioned by the culture in which we were raised. If our parents were strict disciplinarians, including spanking and other forms of physical punishment, then we will either follow the same pattern or reject it completely, sometimes vehemently so. Rarely does one follow some middle course. Often faithful Bible students will insist that Scriptures teach strict discipline for children that includes corporal punishment and the verse usually quoted to justify this is,
“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov 13:24 ESV).7 If this is a couple’s idea of discipline then I ask you to think again. Compare the Proverbs verse just quoted with Psa 23:4 (ESV): “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Now how can a rod and
staff comfort if it is an instrument of beating. Actually, the shepherd’s rod and staff was never used to beat the sheep. There is a sheep farm near us and I have witnessed firsthand how the shepherd uses the rod to prod the sheep in the right direction when he wants to round them up into a pen. The rod and staff with the crook at the end are also used to extricate an animal, if he gets into trouble with a gopher hole or other obstacle that might entrap them. Thus, what Scriptures had in mind for disciplining a child is of a similar nature, i.e. firm discipline to nudge them in the right direction, but without any physical harm being used. To lend some further weight to this viewpoint we should also consider the words of the Apostle Paul to the ecclesias at Ephesus and Colossae: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph.6: 4 ESV) and “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col 3:20:21 ESV).
Also the State needs to be considered in deciding how we discipline our children. In 1979 Sweden outlawed spanking and beating of children in any form, backed up with prison terms for those who are repeated offenders. Since Sweden passed this legislation 30 other nations have followed suit through 20118, including Israel (in 2000), which is governed by a fairly orthodox religious leadership who are quite conversant with the Old Testament Scriptures. Comparing the list of 31 nations having passed such child protective legislation with the 2010 ALS Diary finds that currently 20 of those countries have established Christadelphian Ecclesias and/or organized missionary efforts with brethren and sisters in residence. In the United States and Canada such legislation has not been passed, but there are many forces pushing for it to be done. In Canada, though specific parliamentary law is lacking, nevertheless the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in 2004 that a child could only be subject to reasonable corporal punishment by a parent or guardian if it can be shown that the child would benefit from that action. But the court also added that this did not apply to children younger than two or older than 12 years old where ordinary assault and battery laws would apply. The bottom line is that parents in the future who want to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, coupled with firm discipline, needs to think of more creative ways to impress the child with the need for correct behavior or they may well find themselves disobeying the child protective laws. (Ideas on how to do this will be discussed, Lord willing, in a subsequent article). I for one applaud this trend towards ending corporal punishment of children — I have observed that it often ends up teaching them that physical violence is the way to resolve disagreements rather than by reasoning together.
I assume that no one wants to bring up what is colloquially call a “spoiled brat” and to avoid this I suggest that discipline needs to be firm BUT loving. Both parents need to agree on the bounds of what is acceptable, and what is not, and this will be an ongoing process over the course of their married life. The thing that needs to be considered at the beginning, is that the couple will set themselves the task of discussing disciplinary measures as they arise and agreeing to not argue this out in front of the child. The strongest and best discipline parents can give a child is in the example of the honest, caring, and considerate love that is visibly demonstrated every day in the way their mother and father treat each other! (“The righteous who walks in his integrity — blessed are his children after him” (Prov 20:7 ESV)).
(To be continued)
John C. Bilello (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. Priscilla and Aquila — see: Acts 18, Rom 16, 1Cor 16 and 2Tim 4.
2. So there is no doubt what I mean by “discipline” i.e., training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character (Merriam-Webster dictionary).
3. USDA Report Release No. 0241.11, Washington, June 9, 2011.
6. Manchester Guardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news. The British data includes 3 more years through 21 years of age, but likewise excludes cost of any private education. Hence the figures there are roughly comparable to North America.
7. This verse is often cited in conjunction with Prov 19:18 which doesn’t explicitly state for the child to be beaten with a rod. Also Prov 10:13 is also sometimes cited but this verse does not refer to children..
8. http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/pdfs/reports/GlobalReport2011.pdf. This report cites 31 nations have so far passed laws outlawing any form of corporal punishment of a child in the home, school or even if the they are incarcerated and 22 additional nations are in the process of considering such legislation.