God has given my wife Lori and me four amazing daughters. Raising them has been the most important thing I’ve done or will do. I love being a pastor. I look back fondly on my years as a church planter. And I’ll always be an aspiring writer. But there’s nothing like being a father—except, of course, being a daddy, and there’s a difference. My gravest responsibility and greatest legacy is raising the children God has entrusted to me. The final chapter isn’t yet written, but I’m deeply grateful for how it’s going so far at ages 22, 20, 18, and 16. There are divine factors that determine how children turn out, from the power of the gospel to God’s mysterious work in their hearts. So we pray for our children, knowing those things are beyond our pay grade. Still, I think it’s helpful to emphasize three relational “musts” for parents—things we can do.
I used to hear—actually, I used to preach—that parents must strive to be authorities, not friends. “You don’t have to like me, but you will obey me.” That sounds good. There’s no question that Scripture commands parents to discipline and train their children (Ephesians 6:4; Proverbs 22:15), just as it repeatedly commands children to honor and obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1-3; incessantly in Proverbs). There’s far too little authority in most homes today. Children need to learn the meaning of no, and the sooner they learn it, the better. Authority must be asserted by the parent and accepted by the child, by God’s grace.
Affection Matters More
I am my children’s father. But I do, in fact, want and need to be my children’s friend. I’ve influenced my girls deeply, by God’s grace, not by lecturing them, but my enjoying life with them. From their births, I began making “affection deposits”: tucking them in, playing with them, tickling them, taking them on dates, even taking them on trips, when possible. And when I needed to occasionally make an “authority draft,” I had something in the account. I have their hearts because they know they have mine. I often counsel parents that while the writer of Proverbs 23:26 invites his children to “give me your heart,” there is a very real sense in which you must earn it.
Affirm, Affirm, Affirm
Affirmation is one expression of affection. But I think it deserves its own focus. Proverbs speaks often of the power of a “word fitly spoken” (25:11; see 12:25; 15:23; 16:24). In recent years, I’ve gone out of my way to commend my daughters—lavishly and sometimes publicly. I want them to know how proud I am. It might be a FB post on a birthday, telling all the world a few of their many virtues. It might be our family tradition of telling the birthday girl what we all admire about her after she blows out the candles on her cake. It might be a text or phone call or whisper in the ear, giving a quick “I love you, and I’m so proud of you.” It might be a long letter at a challenging time or on a Christmas morning—the most memorable gift you’ll ever give, I assure you! But I want them to know—and not have to guess—what I admire. This is, then, formative affirmation; I praise what I want to promote. I include in my praise their beauty and strength. This isn’t foremost, but neither is it something we should neglect. I include specific strengths—things I couldn’t say to just anyone. I’m proud of how you’ve stayed up late at night to earn that A in biology. I’m proud of how you supported this friend during a challenging time. You’ve worked hard on that piano piece, and you’ve crushed it. But I especially praise character qualities they should continue to embrace: kindness, hard work, perseverance, a refusal to gossip, evidences of spiritual growth, a love for the Lord, for His people, and for sinners. Yes, I’ll occasionally mention (at separate, carefully chosen times) areas where they need improvement. But I’ve found that praise is often more productive than reproof. Beyond that, reproof is about as productive as it is rare.
You can demand your child’s obedience, but you must earn your child’s respect and affection
These are the ramblings of a flawed father. Perhaps they will be a help to you. As we look forward to a new year, may God give us grace in our resolve to be more effective parents. I urge you to remember this: You can demand your child’s obedience (for a fleeting time), but you must earn your child’s respect and affection. How are you intentionally doing that?