At the other end of the phone, you could hear a pin drop.
Then a deep sigh.
And then, from my (very handy) father-in-law, ‘What?! You could have really hurt yourself!’
In my zeal to install metal shelving for my daughter, I had tried to cut it… using a blade for wood in my (power) circular saw. (I’m probably fortunate to be typing this with both hands!)
Believe it or not, that was a landmark event in my life with a huge takeaway:
I don’t even know what I don’t know.
But unfortunately, I wasn’t savvy enough to apply that lesson to my parenting. Not yet, anyway.
And I did a lot of damage to my kids in the process. I’m writing this post to help you dads avoid making the same mistake. Either now, with your own kids, or later, when you start a family.
Before you scroll down, just for fun, can you guess what my biggest parenting fail was?
Don’t Try This At Home
On the one hand, the Apostle Paul is a really smart, complex guy. Any time another apostle says that your writings are hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16), you know you’re operating at a higher pay grade than the average guy.
But on the other hand, Paul has this way of simplifying things so that we know where to start. (Which just further proves his brilliance, I suppose.)
Take being a dad, for example. In Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3, Paul gives Christians God’s wisdom for our relationships, especially in the home.
If anyone has the right to drop a bunch of knowledge, it’s Paul. But he basically gives each group of people one key command.
Here’s what he says to fathers:
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. (Colossians 3:21)
In essence, he’s telling dads to avoid anything that would lead their kids to become bitter or angry, and, lead them to give up all hope of pleasing them.
This is where, as a young dad, I totally failed. (And still struggle, despite improvement.) I was overly harsh, critical and angry with my kids on a regular basis, and I wound up really discouraging them.
I corrected nearly every mistake they made, telling them how to do things ‘the right way’. I got angry when they kept making the same mistakes, especially when they did it on purpose. And I was just really hard to please.
I was just as clueless in parenting as I was with power tools!
For Fathers (Mainly)
Notice that Paul gives this command specifically to fathers. He doesn’t say this (or anything, directly) to moms. Why?
It’s not that moms can’t be harsh. Or, that every father is more harsh than his wife. Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, understood this, too.
He could have said anything to fathers, and he chose to highlight one thing: embittering and discouraging our kids. He must have had a great reason.
And he did. Because, in general, dads are more likely to be harsh and critical toward their kids than most moms. And that can harm their kids.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m always talking about ‘the heart’, biblically the core of who we are (see Mark 6:14-23). If we want our behavior to change in a lasting way, it starts here.
So, dads (present or future), if we want to avoid discouraging our kids, we need to ask why we struggle with this. We can’t be content to just say ‘sin’. Or, ‘our culture’. No, we have to dig deeper.
Based on my own experience and observations, here are some of the usual suspects.
- We want to do right and help our kids obey the Lord. In general I think God wants dads to take the lead in instructing our kids with what it means to honor God. Part of that involves correction – sometimes quite firm – when they get off track. But we’re fallen, and that directness and passion for holiness can easily run off the rails.
- We got some bad advice or, misinterpreted some good advice. Early on, I read one Christian book on parenting and remember it saying each act of disobedience had to be corrected out of love for our children. But looking back, it may not have actually said that. It may be that I, being ‘overly zealous young Christian man’, just took it that way. Either way, we need to be careful who we’re listening to – and how.
- We’re haven’t had good examples. If you weren’t raised in a mature, Christian home, balancing truth and grace may be new for you. But even if you were, this is incredibly hard, especially with your first child. Part of this also includes (possibly) holding unreasonably high expectations, almost expecting our kids to act like mini-adults. (I totally did this with our oldest!)
- We demand heaven on earth in our homes. After coming home from work, many of us dads want to be passive and ‘left alone’. But our children, as imperfect as we are, will always get in the way of that imperfect dream. They love us and (rightfully) want our attention. And when they do, we often respond in anger.
- We don’t really get the gospel. Ah, now we’re getting to the root of the problem. When we’re nitpicky, when we yell, when we act like our kids are doing stuff we ‘would never do’… we functionally suspend our belief that, even now, God can only receive us because of his lavish grace through Jesus.
Hope For Fallen Fathers
All this might sound incredibly depressing, especially if this is an area of repeated struggle for you, like it has been for me.
But God never – ever – leaves us without hope or grace. So let’s reverse engineer this, tackling the last (and deepest) challenge from the section above first. With God’s help, we can become the gracious, encouraging dads our kids need us to be.
- Immerse ourselves in the gospel. I know, this can sound like a platitude, something we’ve ‘tried before’ to no effect. But we need to beg God – again and again – to help us not just believe the gospel on a mental, ‘yeah, it’s true’ level, but to treasure and prize the forgiveness and freedom we have through Christ. Seeing our own sin and God’s grace to greater degrees helps us extend gentleness and kindness to our kids. We can’t control the pace at which we grow, but if we keep praying and don’t give up, God will answer this (and our other) prayers (Luke 18:1-8).
- Engage our kids when we’re home. If we’re honest, for most of us, it’s harder to be at home than it is to be at work. (Probably a post in and of itself.) We need to accept the reality that closer relationships bring greater difficulties, and proactively move toward our kids when we’re home. Not that we have to be ‘on’ every second, but they shouldn’t get the leftovers. As a practical step, I’m trying to avoid using my phone until my kids go to bed.
- Seek out someone you can learn from. We need mentors who can incarnate what kind and gentle, yet strong, fathering looks like. I can think of one older dad who’s so gracious with his kids that I wonder if he sees their flaws! But although he might err in the other direction, his example has challenged me to see the heart of ‘God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace’ (2 Thessalonians 3:16). Books and other online resources can help, too.
- Screen the advice we receive. It’s easy to just run with advice we receive, especially when we trust and respect the person giving it… like I did. If I had taken a step back, I would have seen that it’s crazy to correct every mistake our kids make. God doesn’t do that, right?
- Celebrate our good desires for our kids. Are you a father who wants your kids to be like Christ? Take a moment and thank God for that desire; it’s truly from another – and better – world. Yes, it needs to be radically tempered by a foundation of grace, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
In all honesty I still feel like a rookie on this one. There are so many days where I get grouchy, harsh and critical with my kids. I long to give them more grace, but can’t seem to do it in the moment. My elevator doesn’t have all the floors that I want it to.
At the same time, I look back on where I was 10, 5 and even 1 year ago, and I stand in awe of what God has done. Dads, let’s take responsibility – in hope – of where we’re still being harsh, angry or critical, and cry out for more grace.
- If you struggle with being harsh, critical or angry with your kids, where do you sense it’s coming from?
- What would help you make progress in this area?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!