“You get one chance. You don’t want to mess it up.” Those are some of the first words that came to mind when I was holding my first daughter when she was born. I don’t know of any fathers who would deliberately want to mess up their children emotionally, spiritually or psychologically, but many dads do mess them up. Why? Because dads have believed the wrong things about what it means to be a dad. With so many conflicting messages being thrown at dads today, how can he lead his son or daughter correctly? Amazingly, how we are to raise a son or daughter is addressed in one verse of the New Testament
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
Fathers should raise children in FAIRNESS. If a man is fair with his kids, he will not provoke them to anger. A passage in Colossians parallels this verse: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart” (3:21). The idea behind the word exasperate is “do not embitter.” This complements perfectly the word used in Ephesians 6:4 translated “provoke them to anger.” This kind of anger in children springs from continual unfair treatment. Some of you know exactly what I’m talking about because that’s how your father treated you—and that’s why you’ve struggled with bitterness and resentment toward him for so many years.
Habitual unfairness over the years results in an accumulation of anger that eventually embitters children toward their fathers. There are several ways a father can embitter his children:
◾ Allow over-protection. Little boys are aggressive because God has given them the potent male hormone called testosterone. Testosterone makes little boys aggressive. It’s part of being a male. Therefore, one of the worst things you can do for a little boy is to overprotect him to much. Little boys do foolish things that are aggressive. They have not developed the wisdom that matures their God-given orientation to aggression. They jump off the top of slides instead of sliding down them. When they slip and fall on the concrete, they split open their knees. When I watch some of my nephews, I think that it’s a miracle of God that any boy lives long enough to become a man. In fourth grade, my class took a field trip to the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The entrance had revolving doors that people would take turns walking through carefully. I cannot tell you why I did this but I stuck my head into the revolving doors. I put my head in and then yanked it out at just the last minute. I just wanted to see what would happen. My teacher saw what I did and was horrified. She screamed at me and said that I could have gotten my head cut off right then and there. My punishment: I had to hold the teacher’s hand the entire time. Don’t get me wrong, parents should protect their children, but being too overprotective causes them more confusion than you might even realize.
◾Favoritism. Parents fail at this all the time, but you have to be determined as a parent to be as fair as possible to each of your children, or else bitterness will creep in. This doesn’t mean you treat them exactly the same but it does mean that you show equal amounts of love. This is equally important for grandparents. If you are a grandparent, how much time do you spend with your grandkids? Do you have some of them over more than others? In any family with more than one grandchild, it can be obvious to the kids that certain grandkids are given certain preferences more than others. Well-meaning grandparents quickly find out just how hard it is to juggle several grandchildren and make all of them feel like they love them all equally. But it is necessary if you want the children to not get embittered toward each other. I know of a family where the grandma will have over one set of grandchildren to spend the night all the time, but she never offers to have the other ones over from her other children. One day, one of the grandchildren who often gets left out asked his mom, “Why does grandma love so and so more than she loves me? If she loved me, she would want to have me over to play with her.” As parents and grandparents, we have to make sure that we are not favoring one over the other.
◾Discouragement. Telling your children things like, “You’ll never amount to anything,” or “Can’t you do anything right?” can plague children for the rest of their lives. This is one of the easiest ways to embitter a child without realizing what you’re doing. This can especially be hard for a parent who has several children and all of them are excelling in a certain behavior, but there is one who struggles. A parent should never compare one child with the next. One father I know loves baseball. He had two sons that he genuinely loved. His oldest son was great at baseball, but the younger son just wasn’t as athletic and therefore wasn’t the star of the team like his older brother was. The older son went on to be a star on his high school varsity team, but the younger brother quit after his freshman year. His father was livid. He yelled and screamed at his son and asked him why he would want to quit. The dad was so distraught that he even came in and talked to me about it. He then sent the son to me so that I could straighten him out. But in talking with the younger son, it became clear that he quit mainly because he wanted the comparison between his older brother and him to stop. His dad would tell him to try and do things the way his older brother would, and when he just couldn’t physically, it made his dad angry and they would usually both steam off the field in an angry manner. This kind of scenario happens all too often, and it brings great discouragement to children. Those feelings of discouragement may be hidden from the parents, but they are very real to the child.
◾Exact copy syndrome. Many fathers forget that his children will be different from him. As your child grows up, you have to remember that your son has a right to have ideas of his own and does not need to be an exact copy of you. You have to let your kids be themselves. My dad has always been mechanically inclined, but early on, it was obvious that I was made differently from him. It always made me feel guilty that I just couldn’t learn certain mechanical things as fast as he did. But then one day he said something to me that freed me from my guilt of thinking I had to be just like him in that area. He told me that he was good with “things” and I was good with “words.” And that is how God made us.
◾Neglect. Too many children have parents who are very concerned about getting them into the right colleges, buying the best clothes, the most expensive toys, and the most interesting vacations. Parents work very hard these days, and they’re acquiring things that they feel are important for their children. And yet, they are forgetting a vastly more important thing. They’re not spending time with their children, at least not very much.
Fathers should raise children with TENDERNESS. The word translated “bring them up” means “to nourish, to provide for with tender care.” Masculine men are tender men. This does not mean they cease being strong with their children, but it means that they have a balance. Children can quickly become embittered toward fathers when tenderness is missing. What is tenderness? It’s a sensitivity toward others. It is especially important that fathers be tender toward their daughters. A man who does not convey acceptance, warmth, tenderness, and compassion can easily embitter his daughter deeply.
Here are a few tips that can help a dad develop tenderness with his children:
◾Listen to them and respect their feelings. When my oldest daughter had her own fish tank in her room, something inevitable happened: one of her beloved fish died. It was a gold fish. It was replaceable. We could just buy her another one. But those words would not console her feelings about the dead fish. She wept almost uncontrollably for the fish to the extent that I wanted to tell her not to worry about, that it was just a fish. But I saw that her heart was broken for something that was very special to her and so I listened to her and respected her feelings. Even though it was not that important to me, and even though I could rationalize it by remembering that we had at least a dozen other fish, it was important for me to just comfort her in her loss. So we took the departed goldfish and placed him in the toilet bowl and I said a prayer to God thanking Him for allowing us to have such a good goldfish and for allowing us to enjoy him for the week we had him. And then we flushed him down. And I regret that we flushed him down the toilet bowl because she started asking questions about where that toilet led and then got the idea that it lead to the sea and that the sharks would come and eat the goldfish and that made her cry even more. And to make matters worse, she refused to go to the restroom on that toilet for the next week. Her thinking was not rational, but sometimes as a parent, we need to respect their feelings even if they don’t make sense. This is tenderness.
◾Be “high touch” and dispense liberal doses of encouragement. Many young women who opt for immoral sexual relationships do so because they can scarcely remember a time when their father showed her physical affection. Unaffectionate dads, without ever wishing to do so, can trigger a daughter’s promiscuity. If there is one thing that I learned from my dad, it was how to be highly affectionate with his children. When we were younger, we always knew that we would receive huge sloppy kisses from dad when he was leaving for work or when he was tucking us into bed at night. Now, when you’re a teenage guy, it isn’t too cool to have your dad smack a kiss right on your lips before you head out the door to be with your friends. So, we changed the kissing method from the lips to the cheek. There was one thing that we knew as kids: dad and mom cared deeply for us and they showed it with a great amount of affection and encouragement with their words.
Fathers should raise children with FIRMNESS. The word discipline may be described as training by means of rules and regulations, rewards, and when necessary, punishments. It refers to what is done to the child. The word instruction is training by means of the spoken word (i.e. teaching, warning, or encouragement). It refers to what is said to the child. The purpose of this discipline and instruction is to build the child. Children need to know what the limitations are. They need fathers who love them enough to set boundaries and keep them. Children need fathers who are in control. There are too many families in America where the children are in control.
Do you take the lead in matters of discipline in the home, or do you leave it to your wife? According to Ephesians 6:4, it is clearly your responsibility. That doesn’t mean that your wife doesn’t discipline your children, but it does mean that you are the one who sets the standards, enforces the standards, models the standards, and appropriately disciplines when the standards are violated.
Who is in control at your house? You or the kids? How would your kids answer that? Some men have a problem with being too firm and not being tender enough. Others have a problem with being too tender and not firm enough. Fathers are to be firm at times and flexible and tender at other times. It takes the wisdom of God to know which is appropriate.
Fathers should raise children IN CHRIST. Discipline and instruction that are not “of the Lord” can quickly turn into verbal or physical abuse. When a father disciplines and instructs his child “in the Lord” he is under the control of the Holy Spirit. This allows a father to raise their children in fairness, tenderness, and firmness. Without Jesus Christ leading us as parents, we will lose control and will fail miserably in these areas of being a parent. Dads, remember that your greatest asset in leadership is to do it “in Christ.” Christ will be the One who gives you all you need to be the leader of your home. If you lead with Christ as your ultimate leader, you will never have to worry about “messing it up.”