Don’t Exasperate Your Kids: A Father’s Day Meditation

Paul tells the Ephesians:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4 ESV)

Since Father’s Day is coming soon, I thought maybe we dads could be reminded of the awesome responsibility that we have been given by God.  As our families honor us, we can honor them.  We can recommit ourselves to being the kind of father that God would have us be to our kids.  Paul, first tells the Ephesian fathers what not to do.  He says, “Don’t exasperate your kids.”  Don’t provoke them to anger.  Don’t embitter them.  This is interesting in light of the similar language God uses of Himself being provoked.  In the case of God, clearly being able to be provoked isn’t a flaw.  I don’t think it is in our kids either.  It’s not their fault; it’s ours, when we provoke them through our fatherly mistreatment.

I recently listened to Alistair Begg on this topic and read some thoughts from Dan Doriani.  The following is a composite list from these two sources of ways that we can provoke our children:

We exasperate our children:

  1. By failing to allow them to be what or who they are having unrealistic demands.

When they’re young, not taking into account their age or level of development, expecting them to be “older” or more mature than they are.  When they’re older, refusing to allow them to be the adults God made them to be (trying to fit them into our mold or plan for them). 

  1. By treating them with harshness or cruelty. By using harsh words or constant criticism and correction.

In any way, pushing our weight around physically, emotionally, mentally, verbally.  Always giving them harsh criticism that makes them feel like they never measure up.  Criticizing their lifestyle, parenting, career success.

  1. By ridiculing them (in front of others).

Especially in front of their peers or the rest of the family, exposing them to shame and humiliation.  Treating them with contempt or mocking them about things that are important to them.  Mocking or belittling things that are important to them including their personal thoughts and convictions that differ from ours.

  1. By displaying favoritism or making unhealthy comparisons with others.

Treating certain children as special in the family or constantly comparing our children to their siblings or to other “model” children.  Treating our more compliant children as the ideal to which none of the others measure up.  Using “good” children as a means of shaming “bad” children into compliance.

  1. By failing to express approval of them and their accomplishments.

Not telling them that we are proud of them and what they have accomplished (even small accomplishments for younger children).  Competing with our adult children and needing to always outperform them.  Withholding affirmation, moving the carrot further out on the stick to make them reach for it.

  1. By arbitrarily exercising discipline. By being inconsistent.  By administering harsh discipline based on snap judgments.

Parents who are unpredictable in their discipline are even worse than neglecting parents.  The children are kept off guard not knowing what is coming next.  Often these parents instruct their children in one way and live in another.  Parents inconsistency in the standards set for their children is often the by-product of their own arbitrary self-discipline.  Discipline from fathers, by the way, is for younger children (pais), not for adults (Eph. 6:1).  Trying to “discipline” our adult children will be exasperating to them. 

  1. By neglecting them or making them feel like an intrusion.

Making our kids feel like our care for them is taking us away from something more important.  Treating our children, young or adults, as if it is a burden rather than a privilege to be their parents.

  1. By seeking to make them achieve our goals rather than theirs.

Not laying down our desires for them to allow them to pursue the calling that God has for them.  Always telling them what they should be doing and not asking them what they want or feel led to do.  Failing to raise them according to their bent or temperament, “the way that they should go” (Prov. 22:6).

  1. By overprotecting them.

Our love can be smothering when we don’t allow children at appropriate ages to live their lives.  Overprotection is about our anxiety issues being projected onto them.  Letting them live their lives, as fearful as that is for parents, is the most loving thing we can do.

  1. By withdrawing love from them.

Teaching our children with our words, attitudes or actions that our love for them is conditional on their obedience to us.  When our children don’t do what we want them to, punishing them by withholding our love and approval as a means of trying to regain control.  “Tough love” is often a rationalization for mistreatment.  True love remains constant and is articulated, even in the midst of differences and struggles.

  1. By not listening to them or not having appropriate empathy for their concerns.

The child who is not listened to has no place to express the inner thoughts and feelings that are part of normal living.  The failure to listen causes our children to internalize their fears and pain in unhealthy ways.  This may be the root cause of their exasperation.  Exasperation, a combination of anxiety and anger, results from not being heard.  Their cries to be understood are ignored.  This makes them feel unimportant and devalued.  They just want to be loved and heard.  When we refuse to do either, it is exasperating for them.

As a result of these kinds of treatment, our children can become discouraged, embittered and provoked to anger.  If they do as a result of our failure as their father, the accountability for the situation falls on us.  This is the primary command to fathers and yet one that many fathers set aside for the sake of “children obey your parents.”  It is very difficult for children in the home to be obedient when their fathers provoke them to anger.

On a positive note:

Paul tells us to “bring them up” (ektrepho) which means literally to nourish or to feed them, to cherish them fondly, to rear them tenderly, to sustain them spiritually, to nurture them.

In the “training” (paideia) which means to discipline through means of training including enforcement of reward and punishment.  The purpose of chastisement is to correct sinful rebellion, not childishness.  If we use corporal punishment, we need to be careful not to be tyrannical, not to spank out of envy, jealousy, anger, malice, pride, scorn, etc.  The use of excessive and inappropriate punishment by parents (a.k.a. abuse) is clearly in opposition to biblical principles.  This paideia applies specifically to the case of younger children who need godly discipline, not to adults.

And “admonition” (nouthesia) which means to lovingly confront at the heart level.  “It seeks to correct the mind, to put to right what is wrong, to improve the spiritual attitude.  The basic idea is that of the well-meaning earnestness with which one seeks to influence the mind and disposition by appropriate instruction, exhortation, warning and correction . . . admonition which is designed to correct while not provoking or embittering.” (Kittel)  This sort of loving admonition should be present between mature adults, even between parents and children who are adults and going in both directions as appropriate.

Of the Lord (kurios) reminds us that it is God’s training and admonition that we are to nurture them in.  They are His children that He has entrusted temporarily to our care.  Children are not our property.  No one is.  They belong to God who has entrusted them to us for a season.  We are stewards of Him and are accountable to Him for the way in which we care for His children.

Bottom Line:

Our job as fathers is a great privilege given to us by God.  God has called us to bring up these fragile beings with love and nurture, balancing grace and truth, exercising appropriate discipline that represents His plan for them, not ours.  May we not exasperate these precious little ones, but instead lead them to the loving arms of their True Father.  Happy Father’s Day.

This is a rework of an article originally written in 2010.