Recently in class, I was reminding pastoral students that they learn to shepherd a congregation, and show they are qualified for it, by caring for their own families (I Tim. 3:4-5; Tit. 1:6). As fathers, one of the Scriptural duties we have toward that end is not to provoke our children to anger. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart” (Col. 3:21).
What are some of the ways fathers fail in this area? Here are at least six provocations to avoid.
Neglect of time and attention. Babies are born attention-getters, with parents devoting day and night to their care. As they develop into young children, they keep asking for attention. They ask a thousand questions, and want the parent’s approval, confirmation, and affirmation for every little thing they do. By nature, the nurturing mother provides a great deal of this attention primarily (though not exclusively) in the earlier years. Yet as the child ages, there is an increasing need for attention from the father. Without diminishing the mother’s role, teenagers and young adults need the guidance and wisdom their fathers are to bring to them. The Book of Proverbs illustrates this truth for us, as it is written by a father to his maturing son on the edge of adulthood. He is preparing his son for life in the world, and not only reminding him of Biblical wisdom but how vital his own fatherly counsel should be to the son (Prov. 6:20-24). An absentee father, too wrapped up in business pursuits or pleasurable hobbies, will exasperate his children.
Mothering rather than fathering. In this age of snowflakes and safe spaces, parents can tend to overprotect their children. Every time my wife and I discuss whether to let a child do something or not, often one of us will say “Bud and Me.” Bud and Me is a book about the Abernathy brothers who were raised by their widowed father, an U.S. Marshall in Oklahoma and friend of Teddy Roosevelt. In 1909 the father sent these boys on horseback from their home in Frederick, Oklahoma, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, when Temple was only age five and Bud was nine years old. Though they encountered harsh conditions, wild animals, and dangerous people along the way, they returned home safely. A year later, they rode their horses to see Teddy Roosevelt in Washington (some 2200 miles away), bought a car, and then drove it back home. Though we may not recommend a cross country horseback ride or car trip as a suggested child-rearing guideline, dads should work at letting their children experience age-appropriate situations where they will learn about life from the bumps and bruises they receive.
Pressing them beyond their maturity or ability. Despite the story of the Abernathy brothers (who came from an unusual family – their father caught wolves bare-handed!), one must be careful not to overpress his children. Young men can grow frustrated if they are never able to measure up to an impossible standard set by dad, either because they are not old enough yet or do not have the natural giftedness a father might wish the son possessed. A father who expects his eight year-old to mow the grass perfectly or who wants his spindly teenager to be the middle linebacker for the football team when he prefers to play the clarinet in the marching band will not only exasperate, but will be exasperated himself. Spiritually, expecting perfection in Christian graces and not giving sufficient room and time to mature can build resentment in the heart of our offspring.
Showing mean-spiritedness. Fathers can be cruel in their strength. In the days when Paul was writing, children were the absolute property of theirs fathers. James Boice reminds us of the Roman law of Patria Potestas (Father Power), where “a Roman father could,…sell (children) as slaves, make them work in fields, even chains; he could take law into his own hands..he could even inflict the death penalty on his child.” Though a dad may not go to these extremes, he can still exasperate his child with abusive speech or overly harsh discipline. As Proverbs 22:29 says, “An angry man stirs up strife, and a hot-tempered man abounds in transgression.” Anger begets anger. Know then that one of the fastest ways to provoke children to anger is to act in anger toward them.
Favoring one child over another. Jacob made no secret that he loved more the first son, Joseph, from his favorite wife, Rachel. Despite having ten other, older sons, he placed his favoritism of Joseph on him in a very visible way by giving him a fancy robe and exalted position in the household. Though we cannot blame Jacob completely for the cruelty that his sons displayed in selling their brother into slavery, the fact they presented him with that coat bloodied with an animal and claiming he had perished showed that Jacob had sown envy into their hearts. Treating a child with partiality creates animosity in the hearts of the other children, thus provoking them.
Failure to give correction & guidance. Proverbs 29:15 says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” An undisciplined child will grow sullen, angry, depressed, frustrated, and ultimately shameful in behavior. And just because they may not be under roof does not mean they should be overlooked. Young adults need their parents more than they know. In an article begging parents to take responsibility even for teenage and college students, Rebecca Hagelin, speaker and columnist on family and culture, wrote about college kids, “Finally, stay connected to your child. Help your son or daughter locate a strong church that has a vibrant college program. Attend services with them each time you visit. It’s also vital to pray for them like you never have before, and let them know that you are. Make it a point to talk at least once a week so you can share their excitement and challenges in real time, and detect early if there are signs of trouble. And don’t forget to write.”