Every year when our family decorates our Christmas tree and I place a tiny red-and-green glass-beaded wreath on the tree, I think of the little boy who gave it to me when I coached soccer. His sarcastic, demeaning father would run up and down the field belittling his boy with words like “chicken” and “woman.” He was the only parent I ever told to be quiet or leave the field. I wonder sometimes how that boy, now a man, has fared.
Winston Churchill had such a father in Lord Randolph Churchill. He did not like the looks of Winston, he did not like his voice, he did not like to be in the same room with his son. He never complimented him—only criticized him. His biographers excerpt young Winston’s letters begging both parents for his father’s attention: “I would rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate . . . it would have been natural . . . and I should have got to know my father. . . .”1
Fathers who criticize their children often bring them to discouragement. The parallel version of this “do not” in Colossians 3:21 indicates that children embittered by nagging and deriding2 “lose heart” (NASB)—like a horse that has had its spirit broken. You can see it in the way a horse moves, and you can see it in the eyes and posture of a disheartened child.
Criticism comes in many ways besides overt words. Some parents never praise their children on principle—“my praise will mean something when I give it”—only they never give it. Then there is faint praise, backhanded praise like that given to the boy who had just scored a soccer goal: “That was okay, son; now next week do better.” Often it is not the words—it is the tone of voice or the distracted eyes which say it all. Why are fathers critical? Perhaps that is the way their fathers treated them. Perhaps they are simply critical people who mask it well in public, but cannot restrain themselves in the heat of domestic relationships. To such fathers, God’s Word comes like an arrow headed for the bull’s-eye: do not exasperate your children with criticism.
Some fathers exasperate their children by being overly strict and controlling. They need to remember that rearing children is like holding a wet bar of soap—too firm a grasp and it shoots from your hand, too loose a grip and it slides away. A gentle but firm hold keeps you in control.
We cannot begin to estimate the ravages of overstrictness on the evangelical Christian community over the years.
We cannot begin to estimate the ravages of overstrictness on the evangelical Christian community over the years. I have had occasion in my ministry to bury people who lived virtually all of their seventy years in reaction to the harsh legalism of their upbringing—lost bars no one could manage to pick up. Others were not so tragic. They came to renounce legalism Biblically and theologically, but still wrestled with it emotionally for the rest of their lives.
Why are some fathers overly strict? Many because they are trying to protect their children from an increasingly Philistine culture—and smothering rules seem the best way to accomplish that. Others are simply controlling personalities who use rules, money, friendship, or clout to rule their children’s lives. The Bible, read through their controlling grid, becomes a license to own and dominate. Still others wrongly understand their faith in terms of Law rather than grace. Some men are overly strict because they are concerned about what others will think. “What will they think if my child goes to this place . . . or wears this clothing . . . or is heard listening to that music?” Not a few preacher’s kids have been catapulted into rebellion because their fathers squeezed their lives to fit their parishioners’ expectations. What a massive sin against one’s children!
Rather, we ought to begin our fatherhood by holding the tiny helpless bar snugly, but as it grows, gradually and wisely loosen our grip. As conscientious fathers we have to say “no” to many things. Thus we should try to say “yes” to as much as possible, and save our no’s for the really important situations.
We must be Biblical in regard to our no’s—and as our children grow, be prepared to discuss the rules Biblically and principially. We must learn to trust God with our children, realizing they must learn to make decisions for themselves.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children by being overly strict. Learn to hold their lives with God’s pressure and to mold it with His love.
We have all seen it—and perhaps done it! The father walks in the door after a pressured day, preoccupied, with brow furrowed. His three-year-old comes running to him, but Dad is busy unburdening himself to his wife. “Just a moment, Jimmy.” Jimmy tugs at his father’s trousers—no response. He tugs again! His father explodes, picks him up, and swats him hard for being “rude.” Only the Lord knows how many children “lose heart” because their fathers have “hard days.”
Only the Lord knows how many children “lose heart” because their fathers have “hard days.”
Life is sometimes like the cartoon where the boss is grouchy toward a worker; his employee, in turn, comes home and is irritable with the children; his son then kicks the dog; the dog runs down the street and bites the first person he sees—the boss!
We fathers must never let our pressures drive us into this unhappy cycle. The costs are too high!
Some say you treat your fellow man on the level.
But when you are home with the wife and kids, are you mean as the Devil?
Your kids know!
Few things will exasperate a child more than inconsistency. Pity the horse that has a rider who gives it mixed signals, digging his heels into its side and pulling the reins at the same time. Pity the child even more who has the rules changed by a capricious father, and who is always exasperated because of the conflicting messages he receives.
Fathers, you may forgive yourself by saying, “I’m so busy . . . Memory isn’t my thing . . . I’m just a spontaneous person!” But your children will not.
Be consistent. Never ever make a promise to your children you do not keep! Do any unfulfilled promises come to mind? Horseback riding that never happened? Trips to the ice cream store or the ballpark? You may forget, but you have a little boy or girl who will remember it eighty years from now.
One of the most exasperating and damning sins a father can commit against his children is favoritism. I say this despite being the last one who would suggest you should treat all your children alike. Some children need more discipline, some need more independence. Some need more structure, some need less. Some need more holding than others. Some need more encouragement. But no child should be favored over another.
Favoritism was the damning sin of Isaac, who favored Esau over Jacob. Ironically, it was also the damning sin of Jacob, who favored Joseph over his brothers. Like favoring father, like rejected son! How crushing, how disheartening to know that you are less favored—less loved.
Men, the great “do not” of fatherhood is, “Do not exasperate your children”—and life tells us what the resulting “do nots” of this are:
- Do not be critical.
- Do not be overstrict.
- Do not be irritable.
- Do not be inconsistent.
- Do not show favoritism.
God has created our children with their hearts turned toward ours. Our power is awesome! We must take God’s Word to heart.
1. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Visions of Glory: 1874-1932 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983), pp. 187, 188, quoting Churchill: "I would far rather have been apprenticed as a bricklayer’s mate, or run errands as a messenger boy, or helped my father to dress the front windows of a grocer’s shop. It would have been real; it would have been natural; it would have taught me more; and I should have got to know my father, which would have been a joy to me."
2. Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 44 (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), p. 225.
This article is adapted from Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes.
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