If you’re looking for a gauge to measure how un-Christlike you are, try raising kids. At least that works pretty well for me.
In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis speaks of “the bad manners of parents to children.” Ahem. Guilty.
The other day I spoke harshly to my son. An hour later he was rude, and Megan corrected him. “In our home we honor each other with our words,” she told him. And I had to interrupt and apologize right there, lest I make her a hypocrite. I had not honored my son in my words and tone.
Exasperating our kids
When preaching through Paul’s marriage advice, pastors often make the comment that Paul has to instruct husbands to love and wives to respect, because if they’re prone to going off the rails, it’ll be in those directions: men growing cold and wives losing respect.
Apply the same thinking to Paul’s instruction to fathers. Twice he says, “Fathers, do no provoke your children.” In the letter the Colossians he adds “lest they become discouraged” (3.21), and he tells the Ephesians to not to provoke “to anger” (6.4). When I go wrong with my eldest, that’s exactly the direction I head: I drive him to discouragement and frustration.
I read some patristic commentaries on these verses, hoping for some dazzling insight. They mostly passed over this part, and I think it’s because there’s not much to unpack here. It’s like Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” routine. Paul and the fathers don’t need to give a lot of advice and teaching here because the point is clear:
As dads, you’re prone to exasperating your kids. Don’t.
What the monk says
I’m reading Elder Porphyrios’ advice about parenting in the book Wounded by Love. It slays me.
“[P]arents need to devote themselves to the love of God,” he says. “They need to become saints in relation to their children through their mildness, patience, and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children.”
Do I really do that — or do I build a file on my children, one that tallies sins more than it forgives them?
Children’s behavior, says the elder, “is not improved by reprimands, disciplining, or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them.” A parent must employ “disciplinary measures,” he admits but adds, “Above all, you need to pray.”
Lord, have mercy.
The answer is grace
It’s in reading words like these that I realize how much grace I truly need. I can correct my son all day, but if it’s coming from a hard heart, I will only close his. I will, as the apostle warned, drive him to discouragement or worse.
There’s a prayer in the Orthodox church for parents that has these words: “O Righteous Judge, who punishes children for the sins of their parents, punish not my children for my sins, but sprinkle them with the dew of Thy grace.” Amen.
Lord, help me bless my children in all things and see my own sins.
Side note: Sins of the fathers
One reader messaged me about the use of the word punish in the above prayer. The line itself comes from Exodus 20 in which we read that God “visits” sins from one generation to the next. Neither the text of the scripture, nor the theology of the church would suggest punishment per se; it’s probably clearer to say that kids bear negative consequences of their parents’ sins.
I am, for instance, divorced (having since remarried). Andrew Root has written very compellingly that children of divorce have a radically altered sense of self. Divorce is an ontological crisis for a child.
My kids from my first marriage bear the consequences of my sin in a very real way and will probably reap that whirlwind for the rest of their lives. My mistakes are being visited on them them, to use the language of Exodus. To pray the prayer above is to ask God for mercy in their lives, to relieve the ill effects of my sins, and instead to “sprinkle them with the dew of [God's] grace.”
Check out Frank Viola’s post about handling criticism. “[B]e thankful to the Lord for criticism,” he says. “Receive the constructive kind with a spirit of gratefulness and ignore that which is rooted in falsehood. . . .”