In deciding to have children a couple must realize this is not something to be taken lightly, because how we raise our offspring may have eternal consequences. The Apostle Paul made it clear to the Ephesians that having children is a great responsibility that needs to be handled with care. Consider again the advice that was given: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4 ESV1) Several important concepts are in this passage, which can be brought to focus in three key words: anger, discipline and instruction. Let’s consider each of these in turn.
The apostle’s advice is obviously aimed in this instance at the parents. It is almost impossible to raise children without conflict arising at one time or another. Conflict in child rearing invariably will lead to considerable unhappiness in the marriage relationship. When I was a young man I once mentioned to an elder brother that my wife and I wanted to have lots of children. He smiled and said he prayed that God would bless that wish, but if we were going to have children it would be wise to avoid having teenagers! The teenage years indeed proved to be the most difficult in raising our own children. It is a time when children are seeking to establish their own identity and also striving for independence. It is equally a time when the parents worry most about a number of things going too far too fast. The famous author, Mark Twain, told the story about how he was totally at odds with his father as a teenager until eventually he ran off to San Francisco, some 2400 miles from his family home in Connecticut. While there he started writing for a newspaper and as his skills as a writer grew he became fairly famous. At 21 years of age he decided to move back home and live with his parents while he tried his hand at being a full time independent author. On doing so his local friends were amazed and asked how he could possibly live home again given all the conflict with his father that caused him to run off to California some years earlier. To this Mark Twain supposedly replied: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.”2
This story brings out an important point about parenting, namely, try to do the best job you can and while your child may not always appreciate it at the time — there is a strong possibility that someday they will.
Now the challenge in child rearing is how to avoid frustration, anger, or simply losing one’s cool while at the same time maintaining discipline. We have already discussed in a previous essay that corporal punishment could get parents in conflict with the law in many nations. Also, I suggest that it doesn’t find accord with the gentleness displayed by Christ with regard to dealing with little children (see Matt 18:3, Matt 19:14 or Mark 10:14). In light of the teachings of Jesus, and of the apostle Paul, invoking Prov 23:13,14 as a justification for corporal punishment of children by parents makes as much sense as using Exod 21:23-25 (or Deut 19:21) to rationalize an eye for an eye, etc., as the kind of behavior we would find acceptable today. However, that doesn’t mean a child should be brought up without firm discipline. A spoiled child is no honor either to their parents or to our heavenly Father. “A foolish son is a grief to his father and bitterness to her who bore him” (Prov. 17:25 see also Prov. 10, 15:20).
In a happy marriage both parents will agree that firm discipline coupled with love is critical to good child rearing. Below are some suggestions on how to apply firm discipline without resorting to any sort of physically abusive behavior. This not only has the potential of teaching a child that conflict is only resolvable by force, but also harbors the possibility that in the long term the child will grow to resent his or her parents. In observing a number of families, over the years, I have found that physical punishment by parents, especially if carried into the teenage years, has oft-times led to the rejection of the Truth when the child reached adulthood.
Here are some simple suggestions for applying firm, but loving discipline:
Parents should never discipline a child when they have lost emotional control themselves. Take a deep breath and count to ten before taking any action.
“Timeouts” are an effective way of limiting a conflict situation. Have the child stop playing (or whatever else they are doing) and tell them they need to sit quietly with the parent (or in a designated time-out place) until they have calmed down.
Limit privileges: this works at most ages. It can vary all the way from a youngster not playing with their toys for a period of time, to limiting a teenager’s driving privileges.
Most disciplinary actions might be unnecessary if the child has a firm idea of the behavior expected of them in the first place. Teaching in advance the limits of behavior, and the consequences that will happen if not followed, puts the parent in control.
Set up a reward system for good behavior. If a child is told they can have ice cream (or play later with their friends, or whatever extra reward the parent can dream up) if they clean their room — the chances are they will clean their room with a minimum of fuss.
Give a child the reasons for the bounds set for the behavior expected. One possible scenario might go something like this: If you drive too fast you become a traffic hazard and you endanger your life. We love you too much to see you harmed.
In a happy marriage the husband and wife don’t let the child play off one parent against the other. Parents need to be unified in their approach to discipline.
Using sarcasm and teasing as disciplinary tools are both inappropriate. They are neither funny nor kind, especially when dealing with children. They teach that those are acceptable forms of communication and behavior instead of plainly spoken honesty.
Obviously, these suggestions are not meant to be comprehensive. One could write a whole book on child discipline and indeed many have been authored. However, no better instruction manual has ever been written than the Bible. Parents who are guided by the Word in dealing with their children in a firm loving way will, without doubt, be more successful in bringing up their children than if they applied whatever is the latest fashion in child rearing philosophy currently circulating in the world.3 The salient point to remember here is that in a happy marriage both parents agree on the need and modes of discipline to be applied in every circumstance and above all they don’t let the child play off one parent against another — a point that cannot be overemphasized. If that happens it is certain to sooner, not later, create trouble in the marital relationship.
Let us move on to the Apostle’s third key word “instruction”. The greatest responsibility thrust upon parents is to nurture their children so that they are set on a life path that will lead them to the kingdom. A verse that every parent should be familiar with is Prov 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This thought is amplified in Psa 119:33 “Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end.”(ESV) and Prov 6:20 “My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” Young children are like a book with blank pages waiting to be written upon. Our Lord Jesus Christ emphasized this point when he said: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14). As soon as children can articulate speech, parents should begin with including the Word of God as a teaching experience in every way possible.
Children can be more cognizant of what they observe in their parents behavior than what they are told to do. As they grow older they become all too quick to spot hypocrisy. If the parents are not respectful and loving towards each other it would be rare indeed for their children to be. When their parents faithfully attend Ecclesial functions, with unfeigned interest, their children will generally emulate such behavior. A home where the Word of God is a daily topic for reading and discussion is one that stands a good chance of producing children who will be engaged in the way of the Lord for their lifetimes. Speaking of the righteous the Psalmist says: “…his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psa 1:2). If one is fortunate enough to live in an Ecclesial area with a comprehensive Sunday school and an active CYC program the parents should certainly support it. They should also see that their children not only attend these functions, but the parents themselves need to be involved; not leaving the jobs of working with young people to be delegated solely to others to perform.
A question that has been often posed to me by parents is: How do I handle the controversy and divisiveness that sometimes raises its specter in our community, when my children become aware that such problems exist? Some parents feel they should protect their children by hiding, as best they can, any troubling Ecclesial issues. However, I have found this is probably not the best policy, because it underestimates the intelligence of our children. They will eventually find out that difficulties exist in Ecclesial life, and the last thing a parent wants is for their children to imagine they have been lied to, or have had facts hidden from them. Questions should be answered promptly, honestly and at a level the child can comprehend. How we treat each other as brothers and sisters during times of controversy speaks louder to the children, and to those around us, than anything else. Conflicts are inevitable, but the reaction we have to them is our choice.
Trust and problems
In a happy marriage the bond of absolute trust is an important part of the glue that cements the couple together. Similarly, contentment through trust is a bond that will knit together husband, wife and children as well into a happy family. The best policy is transparency; children should be made aware that they should never confuse the ‘Truth’ with the people that happen to be in the Ecclesia. The ‘Truth’ is from God, but we are still of the flesh and prone to sin. Being a Christadelphian does not in this present mortal state confer on us perfection. If our children are to grow up fully committed to the Ecclesial family they need to realize it is not perfect, because if it were we would not need redemption through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Children need to be prepared to stay the course and the best way to try to accomplish this goal is for their parents being steadfast. The words of the apostle Paul are particularly helpful in this regard: “…he [Christ] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister” (Col 1:22-23).
Even in the happiest marriages, where apparently every good principle was carried out in raising children, one or more of the progeny may turn away from the Truth when they strike out independently on their own. Two things come to mind here — first don’t give up in praying and tactfully doing your best to keep the light of truth shining when you are with them. One can never know what motivates the conscience of a person. I know of several cases where one sibling whole-heartedly accepted the Truth and faithfully lived it while another child of the same family walked away and apparently rejected the call to repentance. However, later in life, even after their parents had passed away, the prodigal child came back and accepted Christ and stayed committed till their demise. But even if a late in life acceptance is not the case, parents need to realize that even some of the most spiritual characters in the Scriptures were saddened by the behavior of their adult children. Eli is a case in point (1Sam 2:12-36) and Samuel is another example of a righteous man whose children failed to emulate their parent’s righteous character: “Yet his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” (1Sam 8:3). As with Eli and Samuel disappointment in one or more of our children may indeed be our trial too, but let it not affect a happy marriage by burdening it with guilt. A parent can only do so much; in the end judgment will be an individual matter (2Tim 4:8).
John Bilello (Ann Arbor, MI)
1. All Bible References are from the ESV.
2. See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/10/10/twain-father/. This quote has always been attributed to Mark Twain, but since his father died when he was 11 years old either he said it in ‘character’ or he has received credit for almost 100 years for the work of some other clever, but unknown author.
3. Dr. Benjamin Spock authored the best selling child-rearing books that were very popular when we were raising our children. It has been much debated whether or not his seemly permissive philosophy led to a whole generation of spoiled brats expecting instant gratification. (I never read any of his books — hence I have no personal opinion on the efficacy of his teachings.)