The final verse in our short passage from last time reads, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart” (Col 3:21). The parallel passage in Ephesians 6 exhorts fathers, “Do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).
It is a sad observation that the role of fathers exasperating our children is an easy one to fall into. I have been there myself. It is also a sad fact of fatherhood that many of us dads park on the discipline and control part of parenting while we seem to overlook the “don’t exasperate your kids or provoke them to anger.” How do we exasperate our children?
We exasperate our kids when…we punish for childish irresponsibility. James Dobson, in his original The Strong-Willed Child, drew an important distinction between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance. In short, we do not punish a child for leaving their baseball glove out in the rain or placing their glass of milk too close to the edge of the table. These acts are simply part of being a child, part of the “not thinking ahead” of being a child. We teach responsible action to children through various means, but punishment is not one of them.
Willful defiance is another story. This is crossing the line when a child clearly knows it is wrong. This is refusing to pick up their toys. This is choosing to outright disobey when they know the rules or what is expected. Willful defiance must be answered with discipline. It breaks the will of a child without destroying the spirit. It teaches children about self-control; about doing the right thing whether they feel like it or not.
We exasperate our kids when…we demand perfection. When we require perfection, we send the message, whether intentional or not, that you must perform at some level of accomplishment to earn my love, my pat on the back, my acceptance. Communicating an expectation of perfection is a relationship killer with your kids. Do we want them to do their best? Of course. But just be aware of the wide gap that may exist between their best and our perfection expectations.
We exasperate our kids when…our first answer is always “No”. This was a challenge for me in the early days of our child training. And what I realized is that I usually said “No” because it was the easy answer. No thinking or evaluating was required on my part. It was the response of a lazy father. I have also found that it is easy to say “No” when we don’t have a plan. When you approach your parenting with a godly well thought out plan, it becomes easier to respond with thoughtfulness and grace rather than a natural knee-jerk reaction of “No”.
At our house, Rhonda and I put a new plan into action. We tried to make our first answer “Yes” if at all possible. If there was a glimmer of hope as to this working out, if there was a possibility of this moving forward, if there was some idea of this building up our relationship, we said “Yes”. You will have to ask our kids how this turned out.
We exasperate our kids when…we fail to lead with love. In pursuing the goal of being a loving father, I must convey two messages to my children. First, “I love you. I love you more than you can know. You can never lose my love. You can’t do anything to cause me to withhold my love. I would choose you over all the other eight-year-olds in the world. I love you.” Second, “I am in charge. I am in control. I demonstrate my love by taking charge. God has put me in charge. I am in charge because I am the mature one. I love you and I am in charge.”
In summary, we exasperate our kids when…we have no plan. We fly off the handle with anger or unwarranted punishment because someone upsets us and we have no thought out plan that distinguishes between childish irresponsibility and willful defiance. We have no plan for the evening or weekend, but we answer their suggestions with “No” out of convenience or laziness. We have no plan to develop a relationship with our children, so we keep our words of encouragement to ourselves. After all, we would not want our kids to get a big head. Oh really?
I’m sorry, but I want my kids to have a giant head filled with compliments, encouragement, instruction, and great memories of the relationship we have built. The world will do a fine job of tearing them down. They need to know that we are in their corner. They need us there spurring them on to love and good deeds; spurring them on in the “training and instruction of the Lord.” And in the end we will find a close relationship built on love rather than an emotional separation built by our exasperating approach to being a father.