Parenting children becomes complicated when they do not do what we ask them to do, and then we demand their conformity. Even if we are right, it is wrong to use anger or other forms of unkindness to manipulate children into obedience.
One of the more familiar passages addressing parenting is Ephesians 6:4 where Paul writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
This short passage can leave parents with a desire for more information, especially due to the complex nature of parenting. I’m going to give you a biblical expansion on Paul’s instruction by providing practical insights to help you apply the parental command.
To be effective parents, we must have a proper understanding of our children. Counsel from the self-esteem movement says a good understanding of children is how they view themselves. They teach the job of a parent is to help children love, accept, and feel good about themselves. When they have self-respect, they will not rebel or turn to self-destructive ways.
This poor teaching leaves parents thinking their primary job is not to scramble their self-esteem. We keep them busy with activities, spurring them on to do well in all of their endeavors and reaffirm them when they stumble quickly. We create environments where everyone wins.
This view of children does not line up with Scripture. In regards to the character of a child, David writes:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me. – Psalm 51:5 (ESV)
The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear. – Psalm 58:3-4 (ESV)
The Bible’s view is quite the contrast to the cute and innocent view of children. From birth, children’s hearts are corrupt with sin, bent away from God, desiring fulfillment of their sinful desires (James 1:14-15).
There is no pursuit of righteousness. Scripture teaches that evil is the natural inclination of a child’s heart, a counter thought to self-esteem ideology. Our parenting is not what messes up our children, for they are already corrupt. Godly parenting is a way to redirect their path.
Personal corruption is the context of parenting that Paul had in mind when he instructed parents to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Parents are called to instruct and restrain their children with the hope of conversion.
You can bring depraved people under some control by teaching them morality and punishing them in a proper way, a loving way, but nonetheless in a firm way. You can bring your children under control, but ultimately what you want to do is see them pass from darkness to light, right?
You want to see their hearts transformed so that instead of loving sin they love righteousness. Instead of wanting to give full expression to their evil desires, they want to give full expression to what is honoring to God. – John MacArthur
Children are a blessing from God, received with much rejoicing, but like their parents, they desperately need a Savior to free them from the natural inclinations of their hearts.
To better understand Paul’s instruction on parenting, it is best to look at each section of this verse separately; (1) do not provoke your children to anger, (2) bring them up in the discipline and (3) instruction of the Lord. I will discuss each one, but in reverse order.
Instruction of the Lord
Instruction of the Lord is teaching your children about the character of God, the presence of evil, the consequence of our sin, and how we have a Savior in Christ (Romans 10:14). Naturally, the depth of the teaching must correspond to the mental capacity of the child. You can see the basic ideas in the mind map below.
Today’s model for instructing children is often nothing more than giving a lesson, assuming they will learn. Presuming is not the biblical model. Jesus taught while living life with His disciples. Paul’s teaching was similar. He taught, modeled, and appealed to his disciples to follow him (1 Corinthians 11:1).
We must ask ourselves, “What kind of God concept are our children cultivating by their observation of our Christian walk?”
When instructing our children on how to ride a bike, we don’t just explain pedaling, steering, gravity, and the gyroscopic forces of rotating wheels. We show them, and we run alongside them. Instruction of the Lord is no different from that, but it is much more.
First, they should learn by watching us. And after our children begin their walk, we must run alongside them. When setbacks occur, we talk to them, hoping to help them navigate what is going on in their hearts.
Biblical parenting means for the instruction of our children to be comprehensive, we must model the teaching in their everyday lives. The second mind map highlights some of the facets of this concept.
Discipline of the Lord
In some Christian circles, discipline is exclusively about the use of the rod (Proverbs 13:24), which can be misconstrued by parents, thinking the rod is a command to punish children.
Proper biblical discipline is not punishment, but a form of teaching. It uses rules with positive and negative consequences. Fair and consistent discipline helps a child to mature mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually.
Discipline viewed as instructional helps the parents see how discipline is a way to love and serve their children. It helps children learn right from wrong and foolishness from wisdom, as they learn God’s universal law of reaping and sowing (Galatians 6:8).
Discipline from a parent is a means of common grace to the child. It is a process that brings stability to the life of an out-of-control rebel heart by teaching the child self-restraint (Galatians 5:22-23).
The failure of a child provides an excellent opportunity to share the Gospel. Just like the Israelite’s attempt to follow the ten commandments, we learn of man’s desperate need for help. The third mind map below describes areas of discipline and the intended teaching goals of discipline.
How we disciple and instruct, our children will change depending on the age of the child. See Rick’s article, A simple parenting model you can use at home.
Do not provoke
Usually, when a New Testament author gives an explicit command, it is a good indicator we are tempted to do otherwise, hence the command. The introduction at the beginning of Ephesians 6:4 is no exception. Believing and non-believing parents are tempted to provoke their children to anger or lead them to become discouraged (Colossians 3:21).
We are all works in progress and incapable of parenting correctly. When our children sin against us, there is a temptation for us to respond sinfully.
Confused motives in our hearts can turn the right desire for having well-behaved children into controlling demands, and if these requirements are not met, a parent can become bitter, frustrated, resentful, and angry. Once this occurs, parents can provoke their children. Here are a few ways how this can happen.
- Using shame, guilt, or fear to drive behaviors.
- Showing a little compassion for them (Psalm 103:3).
- Favoring other siblings (James 2:1).
- Expecting perfection, while ignoring their hearts, which can lead to legalism.
- Pushing them to excel in academic or athletic pursuits.
- Failing to sacrifice personal time for them (Romans 5:5).
- Speaking bitter words (Colossians 4:6).
- Smothering, which is a failure to let them grow up and assume responsibility.
It is interesting to note Paul’s emphasis on children becoming angry or discouraged. The dangers of unrighteous anger can create a destructive cycle, as shown below.
A child’s separation from God (Genesis 3:7-10) imparts indwelling shame, which colors their world and leaves them uncomfortable.
Their inherent awkwardness motivates them to choose what is wise in their own eyes (Proverbs 3:7). Their fleshly desires entice them (James 1:14), and over time, these desires morph into demands. The birth of anger is the result of them not getting what they want (James 4:1-2).
Anger is complicated. It has a visceral feel to it that is powerful. It can manipulate people into giving in, which can cause the child to think he has some control over the situation.
Unresolved anger becomes a habit (2 Peter 2:19) that will eventually harden the child’s heart (Hebrews 3:13). This little sin eventually turns into a dominating life sin.
As time passes, the real feelings of anger morph into more shame and guilt. The conscience of the child condemns his actions (Romans 2:14-15), and he becomes frustrated that he is not able to control himself. He realizes he is not in control and now the cycle repeats itself.
Provoking a child to anger has many negative consequences in addition to compounding his predisposed tendencies to respond wrong to the shame he inherited from Adam.
- Parental provocation turns the child away from God and toward self-reliance.
- Parental provocation results in sin, which negatively impacts his relationship with God.
- Parental provocation creates a foothold for the enemy (Ephesians 4:27).
- Parental provocation hardens the conscience.
Call to action
Parents are unable to rear their children in the instruction and discipline of the Lord without walking in the Spirit. Paul captured the context of Ephesians 6:4 in Ephesians 5:18—to be filled with the Spirit.
If the parent’s heart is not captivated by the Gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit, their motives will transform into fleshly cravings for comfort and control.
Paul’s command about parenting is a call for parents to live a more Spirit-dependent life. Though children are responsible for their actions, wise and humble parents want to self-assess to see if there is anything in their lives that needs to change (Psalm 139:23-24). Here are a few helpful questions to help you ponder your parenting approach.
- What hinders you from raising your child in the instruction and discipline of the Lord?
- Are there any ways in which you are provoking your child to anger?
- How does your identity in Christ impact your parenting?
- How should your relationship with Christ make your parenting look different from non-Christians?
- Where are you placing your trust? Do you believe in yourself or God (Galatians 3:3)?