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When You Make Your Child Work for Your Affection

When You Make Your Child Work for Your Affection

Children should not work for affection. Christian parents imitate God; one way to do this is by loving them just because they are their children. We know our children are not perfect, and there is a time to deal with their imperfections, but love should be an uninterrupted expectation in a child’s life. When it is, you have a foundation that shapes them toward God-centered maturity. If we don’t love them well, they will be like the four complicated kids in this story.

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Four Complicated Kids

Biff had to work for his father’s affection. He’s forty-four now. He told me the only time his dad would talk to him was when they were leaning over the hood of a car. Though the conversation was a request for a wrench, it was a cherished morsel of attention. When the teen years rolled around, Biff was not so easily satisfied. He quit trying to earn his dad’s love. Biff didn’t care about cars anyway. Coincidentally he “fell in love” with Mable—the seemingly perfect solution for a man craving affection.

Marge always felt her dad’s affection. She rarely did anything to displease him. He was a critical man, but that did not matter to her because Marge had a high IQ, which led to good grades—the thing that mattered most to her dad. All she needed to do was make A’s. Her brother Bart was another story. He did not care about school, putting a target on his back for his dad’s critical arrows.

Marge always got off scot-free, which generated a root of bitterness in Bart because his dad never appreciated him. Similar to Biff, after a while, he quit trying. The teenage years were beckoning, and there was love awaiting. What his dad would not do for him, there was a teen cutie willing to step into the insatiable void that was widening in his heart.

Back to the Future

Biff and Mable ended up divorced. Biff was a walking love cup who demanded Mable’s affection. His unquenchable desire became demanding enough to be annoying. Of course, Mable had her desires too, which made for an uncomfortable, self-serving competitive relationship. They never realized how they were mutually using each other during their dating years because of their unlimited and undistracted time to fill their love cups.

Three children later and the pressures of work cut into their unlimited and undistracted couple, cup-filling time, which led to more forceful demands for affection from each other. Mable checked out of the marriage while staying in it. Biff fed his demands for attention through a coworker.

Marge—the kid with a high IQ—is married but not happy. The affirmation she received from her dad ended when she married Brice. He never took up the mantle of encouragement. Brice said, “I’m just not the encouraging type. That’s not my style.” What Marge assumed would always be given to her was not. She had to work for her dad’s affection and got it. She had to work for her husband’s affection and came up short.

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Fallout and Commonality

Marge lives in a low-grade disappointment and has resigned that her marriage will never be anything close to God’s best. She decided to become the point person for her church’s Bible study programs for women. Marge enjoys a few “deep” relationships with her friends, which is satisfying enough. At least, that is how she has convinced herself to believe.

After drawing her out about this, she said, “If I can’t have a spiritual leader in the home, I can enjoy my ‘surrogate husbands‘ in our Bible study groups.” Her brother Bart—who never earned his dad’s affection—has been married twice, addicted to porn, angry with God, and can’t seem to hold down a job. His neediness has worsened as the years have passed. There are four things that Biff, Mable, Marge, and Bart have in common:

  1. God wired them to benefit from a community: a desire for love is a predisposition.
  2. They longed for affection and affirmation from their parents.
  3. Their parents did not provide it unless they earned it.
  4. Their desires for love turned into demands, which strained their future relationships.

What We Can Learn

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).

God wants us to know that He loves us, and He does not base it on what we do or don’t do for Him. To enter into the Kingdom of God requires no work on our part. It is a gift: love is a free, unearned gift from the Father, a worldview that is a hard lesson for those trained to earn affection. There is a world of difference between a “legalistic, always working for love mindset” and a grace-centered world that assumes and practically practices love.

Adam and Eve, the leaders of the legalists, struggled similarly (Genesis 3:7). As soon as they sinned, they tried to figure out how to fix their problem by working their way back to God. The Lord wanted them—and us—to know that our works will never satisfy Him as far as establishing and keeping a relationship with Him. He loves us freely.

To be free in God and undemanding in our relationships is to live in the knowledge that the only works God requires are the works of His Son. Our job is to come to Him empty-handed, embracing other-worldly, soul-satisfying affection. The individual who does not know this will always be posturing to discern how to manipulate and maintain love through self-reliant contrivances.

What Parents Can Learn

Every parent must take their cues from God the Father. Think about a child’s predisposition for love and then add the mind-altering effects of depravity, and you have an insecure, vulnerable child that needs carefully crafted, God-centered discipling. Just like God the Father gives us wise care, your children will need your wise care through the dispensing of love, affection, and affirmation.

If we do not care for our children wisely, we will mess them up in ways that could take decades to repair. Biff, Mable, Marge, and Bart struggled because of what I’m describing. They were born idolaters—totally depraved—who lived with parents who did not understand how to shepherd their idolatries. The “depravity problem” was worsened because of parental selfishness and ignorance. There are two possible missteps here.

  • You can give a child your attention when they meet your requirements, preferences, or expectations.
  • You can choose not to encourage your child and never learn the habit of regularly encouraging them.

What Dads Can Learn

When children first learn a word, they assume that all things within that category are the same. This concept is mutual exclusivity in psychology: everything that looks like “this” is, in fact, “that.” If you call something you drink a “beer,” a child will call all drinks “beer” because they cannot divide categories into individual parts. Every liquid is beer until they learn that there is water, juice, soda, and more. 

A father is the first and most profound imitation that a child will see of God the Father. A child will always map his dad over how he initially thinks about the Lord, whether good or bad. If you make your child earn your affection, you can guarantee he will struggle similarly with God. You can easily set your child up to be a legalist by withholding your love and affirmation or if you mete it out sparingly when they jump through your acceptable hoops.

When some children come to God, they have to relearn Him. If being loved, even when you’ve been bad, has not been your experience, you will have to reevaluate how you think about your heavenly Father. There are no hoops to jump through—only a cross for you to cling to, which says He loves you just because you are His child. He accepts you, not based on who you are, but based on who His Son is.

Loving Just Because

One of the most practical things a parent could do for their children is to love them “just ’cause.” You don’t need a reason. Just love them because they are your children. God loves us “just ’cause.” Because we are His, the Lord does not come to us and say, “If you make all A’s, I will love you.” He does not place conditions and requirements on His affection. He is crazy in love with you because of the works of His Son—Jesus Christ.

  • Do you love your children just because they are your children?
  • Have they somehow picked up on your subtle messages that if they perform such and such way, you will be happy with them?
  • Maybe you have been more overt. Perhaps it is clear: “Do this or else.” Your children know they have to hit your prescribed marks, or you will withhold love. Is this true of you?

Praise God that He does not do these things. I thank Him that His love does not have levels (righteousness) for acceptance. It’s not like an arcade game where the higher the level, the greater the reward or, in this case, the more love you get from the Father. Christ has already hit the highest level. The Son of God gave the perfect sacrifice on the cross, which was thoroughly satisfying to our Father. There is nothing to add to that work. What is our job? Accept the work of the Son and live in the freedom of the Father’s love.

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Making It Practical

Do you love your children just ’cause? Maybe you ought to walk by your son and rub his head and tell him you love him just ’cause. If he is older, you may want to do something else that communicates your approval of him. How about if you squeeze your daughter’s hand and tell her that you love her? If she asks, “Why.” Say, “Just ’cause you’re my daughter, and I thank God He gave you to me. You are my gift, and I appreciate you.”

Let them know you love them often and without an expectation that they meet your requirements. There is another time to talk about holiness, obedience, and following hard after God. But there is always time to say, “I love you.” Do you want to blow their minds? One of the best times to show your affection is just after they sin. It is an excellent time to reaffirm your love for them. Surprise them with grace, which is better than yelling at them or reminding them what a disappointment they are to you.

Grace is how our Father treats us. He does not excuse our sin, and you should not overlook a child’s sin. But even your discipline is in a context of love because the Lord loves those that He chastens. One aspect of engaging a child for their disobedience is making sure they know you’re crazy in love with them. Are you crazy in love with your children? Do they know it?

Call to Action

  1. Is there any hint in your child’s heart that he has to perform for you because you have put that notion in his heart?
  2. It’s one thing for them to feel like they need to please you, like the way Adam and Eve did, but it’s a horrible thing if a parent pushes them toward people-pleasing. I appeal to any parent: do not make your children work for your affection. It cannot go well for them or you if this is part of your parenting model.
  3. I have asked you several other questions throughout; will you go back and work through them? Perhaps talking to a friend about what you read and your answers will stimulate a richer conversation and needed areas to address.
  4. As you do these things, what is one specific and practical way you can change? You can repent at the moment of sin, which can clean up an episode, but another kind of repentance changes patterns. Is there an episode of anger, impatience, or disappointment that you should address with your child? Is there a pattern that has communicated to them that they must work for your love?

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