Scripture is clear that children are to honour their parents. The Apostle Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus that this is not only a command from God, but also the first commandment with a promise (Ephesians 6:1-3). In addition, God has clearly given parents authority over their children, and again this authority is to be used to “build up,” not to tear down.
Jesus reminds us of how dependent children are on their parents by using children as an example of how we must be if we are going to come to our heavenly Father (Matthew 18:1f). In this passage, the emphasis is not, as some might say, on the innocence or belief of children, but rather on the reality that they are totally dependent on their parents. Consequently, children are not in a place where they can protect, provide or in any other way parent themselves. It is the responsibility of their parents and other adult authority figures to protect them, provide for them, and in other ways parent them.
In two places Paul provides some general direction for parents in dealing with their children.
And, fathers [parents], do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4 NRSV).
Fathers [parents], do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart
(Colossians 3:21 NRSV).
There are two keys in this passage for understanding the role of fathering, and of parenting in general. First, in Roman society at the time when this was written, fathers were the absolute authority in the household. They ruled over children, slaves and their wives with unconditional, and often demanding, harsh authority.
If you grew up in a home where the only acceptable way to complete tasks was perfectly, you will understand what it means to be “provoked”, or exasperated. Elizabeth told me of her experience with perfectionism as a 12-year-old child. She had struggled the previous year in school, but this year she had worked hard and received all A’s in her report card, except for one subject where her grade was B+. She was so excited she ran all the way home. Her mother was in the kitchen preparing supper. Elizabeth flung open the door. Breathless, she said to her mother, “Mom, I got my report card today. Do you want to see how I did?”
Her mother replied, “Yes, dear, just leave it there on the table and I’ll get around to looking at it.”
Elizabeth was disappointed. She had wanted to share her excitement with her mother, but Mom was obviously too busy for her. So she went out to the garage where her dad was busy fixing something.
“Dad, look at my report card. I got all A’s and one B!”
Her father put down his tools, wiped his hands on a greasy rag and took the report card from her extended hand. His emotionless response was, “Hmm, so what happened in that one class? You’ll have to work harder next time.”
She could hardly believe her ears. But in her innocence she thought her Dad must be right, and she’d just have to work harder.
Throughout junior and senior high Elizabeth was one of the top students. Unfortunately, her parents seem to miss most school award ceremonies and said little at home about her exceptional marks. She kept working hard, missing out on most social activities at school so she could study. As the years went by, her heart grew angry and cold. Her desire to please her parents, coupled with their inattention and lack of approval, provoked her to perfectionism. Perfectionism had become a pattern that would carry on in her adult life.
There are other ways that fathers and mothers can set up their children to be angry. As discussed in the chapter, “Family Foundations”, any deficiency in providing basic physical, emotional and spiritual needs can do this. There are no perfect parents, but the damage can be minimized by parents who own their deficiencies and ask their child’s forgiveness. Godly authority is not afraid to operate in humility.