Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” – which is the first commandment with a promise – “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Fathers do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Ephesians 6:1–4
We live in a world where the structure of family life is undergoing profound changes, in rich and poor countries alike. The concept of family as a stable, cohesive unit is fast becoming lost. We are even afraid to define what a family is because we do not want to offend anyone.
For years, psychologists have warned of the effects of broken marriages, teen pregnancies, violent homes, and other social ills, but their warnings have been given in vain. Now we are reaping a bitter harvest. All this makes it more urgent than ever for us to rediscover God’s original intent in creating man and woman, and in blessing them with children.1
Having children today requires courage.
Modern society despises the family. It is difficult for a family with several children to find a house, and in many places it is impossible to rent an apartment, even if there is only one child. Children are simply not wanted. Many people think it regrettable to leave jobs or other pursuits to have children, and they often look down on women who choose to stay at home to raise children instead of pursuing a more “acceptable” career.
Having children in these times certainly takes great courage, but that is what faith means: not knowing what lies ahead, and yet still trusting that God has his hand over all things and will have the final say. More than ever, parents need to trust God. The health of a society (and the health of any church or movement within society) depends on the strength of its marriages. Where there is reverence for God, there are strong and stable families, but as soon as this is lost, there is rapid disintegration and decline.
Those who know what it means to see a child smile for the first time, to love him or her, and to feel love in return know something of the greatness of God and the nearness of eternity in each child. They know that their child is like no other, and that no child could replace this one in their hearts. They will also realize what an awe-inspiring responsibility it is to bring a child into the world – a responsibility that only grows with the child – and will sense that they are too weak and sinful to bring up even one child in their own strength.
But our recognition of inadequacy should not lead us to despair. It should make us realize how dependent we are on grace. Only the adult who stands like a child before the grace of God is fit to raise a child.
On what basis should a family be built?
If we think of starting a family, our first question should be: on what foundation? Complete dedication to Christ and his church is the only dependable foundation. On him alone can we build a rich and fulfilled family life that will withstand the forces that attack it.
It is the task of every couple to bring up their children in God’s stead, to represent the creator. For the small child especially, father and mother stand for God. That is why the commandment to honor father and mother is so vital to the upbringing of every child from the start. Without it, the commandment to honor God has no real meaning for the child. Actually, every child has an instinctive longing for the security of father, mother, and God. It is terrible, then, when parents do not fulfill this longing, when they see parenting merely as a role and are not truly fathers or mothers. Children will sense such hypocrisy wherever it occurs, and they will become resentful, bitter, and rebellious as they grow older.
The same is true if a couple lives in dissension – if a wife does not support her husband’s task as head of the family, for example, or if a husband does not love and honor his wife. When children cannot see a picture of God in their parents, they have trouble finding a secure and healthy foundation for their later lives. They may even experience emotional difficulties.
I once counseled a family I had known since their four children were very young. The parents had all the right intentions, yet they were divided over whose role it was to lead the family. While friends and neighbors were presented with a peaceful enough picture, within the family tensions and rivalry developed. As their children grew up, the parents were too disunited to lead them properly, and thereby set a poor example for them to follow.
Now their children are adults. They are all lovable, bright, and talented, yet they are floundering. Because their parents never dealt with the elements of mistrust and disunity in their marriage, these young adults now find it very hard to trust anyone. Like their parents, it is difficult for them to be sincere and honest with themselves, and they always need to feel in control. Sadly, they don’t realize how this cuts them off from other people, and they have become lonely and disillusioned. Worst of all, they are wholly unrealistic in their expectations and seem to think the world owes them success.
It is of greatest importance that from the first day of a child’s life he or she is surrounded by love and by reverence for God. To the same degree that children experience the love their parents have for each other, they will find the inner security they need in order to develop and grow.
In questions of discipline, a husband and wife should do their utmost to be fully agreed as to what they expect in terms of behavior. Children should not have to decide which parent is right. Their position should be one of trust, not judgment. They look for consistent boundaries and for the security that comes from unity, love, and mutual respect. These things are the basis of true love for children.
Children need living examples, not religious words.
The first five years of a child’s life are the most formative, and therefore the best time for parents to bring Jesus and the gospel alive to their children. This can be done quite simply by telling them about Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. All these things can move the hearts of children at a surprisingly young age and awaken in them a love for God and for Jesus.
We cannot bring our children to Jesus, however, if he is only a figure in our Bibles. Children will always want to come to Jesus, but they will instinctively rebel against false piety. As Blumhardt once put it, “If we try to drag children into the kingdom by means of our religiosity, they will flee from our pious homes as fast as they are able.”2 Therefore we should be careful not to put our children under any religious pressure or plague them with talk about sins they can neither understand nor commit. We want them to have a childlike attitude toward God, toward Jesus, and toward the Bible. It is of no use, for instance, to make children learn even the shortest passages of Scripture if God does not speak directly into their little hearts. Rather than try to “teach” children faith, it is much better for their parents to live their faith by example in a spontaneous, genuine way. When our children see that we, their parents, rely on God for everything – when they see us thank him and obey his commands – they will feel an inner urge to pray and to follow him of their own accord.
Our task is to guide our children, not control them.
Raising children requires daily discipline, but we should never forget that caring for them in God’s stead means guiding, not controlling, them. Children must be encouraged to overcome themselves and look beyond their little worlds from a very early age, and they must learn to love and respect others. They cannot be left to swing with every mood and follow every selfish whim without restraint. Clear directions and consistent boundaries are always necessary. In fact, discipline is the greatest love we can show them (Heb. 12:10–11). But it is not love to coerce them or crush their spirit.
We must remember that every child is a thought of God (Ps. 139:13–17) and try to understand why it is said that “a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). In guiding our children, we cannot and should not try to shape them according to our own intentions or plans. We should not force on them anything that has not been born into them, awakened from within, or given them by God. God has a specific intent for each child; he has a plan for every one, and he will hold to it. Our task is to help each child find God’s purpose for him and fulfill it.
Carrying out this task means continually exercising self-denial in our own human efforts to lead a child. Sometimes, it may mean refraining from tearing children away from their own thoughts. Blumhardt notes how quickly we hurt our relationship with children when we interrupt their thoughts and happy disposition and attempt to influence them with our ideas or advice: “When left undisturbed, children learn obedience and respect best of all.”3
Naturally, we must be on guard against permissiveness. Flabbiness is often a fruit of an unhealthy emotionalism between parent and child. It inhibits the childlike spirit because it subjects the child to the spinelessness of an adult who has lost the clarity of Christ. We must always watch that our children are free from such false ties.
True authority strengthens and stimulates a child.
Children must never feel ill-used if spoken to or admonished sharply. They need to learn to take themselves in hand and face up to what has happened when they are shown to be in the wrong. They should not give half-answers that could mean this or that. Yet even if a certain sharpness toward children is healthy, impatience is not, especially when it results in corporal punishment. That, Eberhard Arnold writes, is a “declaration of bankruptcy.”
Parents must reject both the harshness of physical punishment and the power of manipulation: both are forms of authoritarianism that fail to take the child seriously as a bearer of God’s image. The one fails in mercy, and the other in honesty. Both fail in love. True authority stimulates and strengthens what is good in each child by leading him to make his own decisions between right and wrong. Only when we lead children with trust and love will they feel the desire to struggle against the evil that tries to work in them and in each of us.
I thank God that I had a father who could be very firm with us children when necessary. Like any child, I rebelled at times against his strictness, but I always knew it was a sign of his love for me. From early childhood on, our parents instilled in us children the value of the fifth commandment, to honor father and mother. We knew that if we did not love and honor them, we were actually dishonoring God.
As for my mother, my father insisted that we children show her respect. He would not tolerate disobedience to her. Only in later years did I realize his wisdom. It is the father’s task to uphold respect toward the mother, since she carries the weightier burden in raising their children, especially when they are small, or sick.
Though my father could be stern, I never once felt threatened by him. Whenever he reprimanded me for doing something wrong, I could count on his complete forgiveness and love once I had accepted my responsibility and wanted to make amends. I knew that the wrong I had done would be forgotten, and that I would be able to make a fresh start.
My father showed me the significance of loving authority, an authority that only God can give. In each child’s heart is a longing to hear a “no” when a “no” is needed, and a desire to set things right when he knows he has done something wrong. True parental authority gives inner security to a child, because it provides the child with the stability of set boundaries.
Most fathers and mothers do not intentionally mislead their children, and if they do misguide them without meaning to, they are likely to suffer the consequences along with their children. Some parents are confident about their child-rearing abilities, and others are not, but there are times when both will throw up their hands. When this is the case, it is vital that they find the humility to ask someone for help – whether a close friend, a relative, a teacher, or a trusted pastor or family counselor. Of course, help must be enlisted in such a way that it reassures the child in question – and not at the expense of a relationship with him or her. Even the best expert assistance may, at the end of the day, be a hindrance – not a help. I say this because ultimately, “successful” parenting is not a matter of capability or wisdom, but of grace. My father writes in this regard:
Christ calls us to become like children, and this means we must drop everything and become completely dependent on God and on one another. If we as parents love God with all our heart and soul, our children will have the right reverence for us, and we will also have reverence for our children and for the wonderful mystery of becoming and being a child. Reverence for the spirit that moves between parent and child is the basic element of a happy family life.4
1. I explore this theme in great depth in my book Why Children Matter (Rifton, NY: Plough, 2012).
2. Johann Christoph Blumhardt and Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, Thoughts on Children (Rifton, NY: Plough, 1980), 29.
3.Thoughts on Children, 9.
4. Discipleship, 169.