As parents, we are commanded to raise our children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). But how do we do that?
You see, everyone goes through life with a set of guiding principles and presumptions. The big question, however, is whether we recognize them or not. My wife and I have no desire to float through life without considering what our guiding principles are, especially in the realm of parenting. Together we have put down on paper how we aim to actively obey Ephesian 6:4, and we thought that it might be worth sharing with others. I hope to expand each point into its own post sometime in the future, but having them all together will be best for the present.
These are certainly not exhaustive and will undoubtedly be tweaked as our daughter continues to grow and we gain two more little ones. Therefore, I do not offer these up as an aged guru whose journey is complete but as a fellow traveler pointing out whatever provisions or snares that I see along the way.
YOUR CHILD IS HUMAN, A FELLOW IMAGE-BEARER OF GOD, WITH DESIRES AND FEARS, EVEN AS A NEWBORN.
This may seem like a rather obvious point to make, but sometimes the most obvious things are also the most easily forgotten. Your child, at every point of their development, is a human, one who bears the image and likeness of God, so make a point of frequently pausing to consider life from their point of view. Newborns are perhaps the easiest example because, at first, they offer very little feedback to their parents other than crying. This, in turn, makes the newborn stage highly stressful to the parents, whose main concern typically becomes, “how do you keep (or stop) them from crying?”
Imagine, however, the stress of being a newborn. They are thrust into the world without any knowledge whatsoever and have virtually no ability to navigate or fend for themselves in it. They are fully and completely dependent upon others for everything. This entails far more than just having physical needs met; rather, they are entirely ignorant as what anything is. Indeed, they are so comforted by their mother’s chest because her heartbeat is one of the only things familiar to them. When we add the fact that they can only see about 8-15 inches away from them, the question, therefore, is not why is a newborn crying but why should they ever stop crying?
Personally, this is why my wife and I don’t believe that pacifiers are generally wise to use. I would be “fussy” too if I were in a newborn’s situation, and I would not want to be pacified. I would want to be comforted. The Golden Rule, after all, isn’t just between humans that can speak. Treat your tiny human as exactly that: a small, understandably-fearful, overwhelmed-by-the-novelty-of-existence, fellow human.
DISCIPLINE IS A WAY OF LIFE, NOT SIMPLY A MOMENT CORRECTION.
I’ve mentioned this in passing in several sermons and articles, but it’s worth discussing again in this context. Again, the aim and goal of Christian parenting is to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Too often, however, we view discipline as the various moments throughout the day whenever we correct our children’s behavior, whether through spankings or other forms of correction. While physical correction certainly is a critical component to disciplining a child (Proverbs calls it the rod of correction), discipline is so much more.
While my wife and I believe whole-heartedly in the value of rightly administered spankings (more on that in the next principle), we believe that proper sleep and nutrition are more important in the long run. Consider how you feel, as an adult, after a night of poor sleep and/or an unbalanced meal. We might be lucky if brain fog and irritability are the only symptoms that we experience. If you, as an adult that can hopefully manage your feelings and emotions reasonably well, have a difficult time wrestling with such things, why would we think that they wouldn’t also affect children?
We have noticed this to be true with our daughter. When she is sleep deprived or has consumed more sugar than normal, her ability to focus and control herself declines steeply, and it is an act of love as her father to guard her from (and when it cannot be avoided, guide her through) such states of intoxication. Discipline is a way of life, and it particularly begins with a bedtime routine and good nutrition.
NEVER USE PHYSICAL DISCIPLINE WITHOUT CAREFULLY EXPLAINING WHAT THE CHILD DID AND HOW THEY CAN CORRECT THEMSELVES
Before my daughter was born, my wife and I resolved that we would only give our children a spanking after we first told them exactly what they had done and why it was sinful. After the spanking, we would then express our dislike of spankings, our unceasing love for the child, and how he or she can be more obedient going forward. I can honestly say that so far in our walk as parents we have consistently followed this pattern.
I remain squarely unconvinced that time-outs are a better form of correction. Spankings are quick and when reconciliation immediately follows, the child is comforted by your commitment to love them (by the way, we hold to the view that the force of the spanking is far less important than the consistency of it). Time-outs, however, seems to be subtly teaching the child that “when you sin, I will leave you, at least for the moment.” Personally, I believe that the quick and intentional process of physical correction that I described is much more loving and securing to the child than a time-out or similar corrections.
DON’T BE LEGALISTIC ABOUT DISCIPLINE
When it comes to discipline, the best strategy probably goes something like this: consistency, consistency, consistency. After all, how can we expect them to behave if the rules and consequences are constantly influx? Overall, fifteen light swats on the behind are likely to be more effective at correcting a child than one large spanking after fifteen warnings. Yet as the child gets older make sure that discipline does not become legalistic.
Here’s an example. My daughter has been going through a phase of being scared of the dark, so going to sleep has been a struggle for the past couple of weeks. One evening, I came home from an elders’ meeting at church to find her still awake in bed with the light on and reading a book. Being a fairly common circumstance at the present, I could have entered her room with a scowl and disciplined her for being knowingly disobedient; however, she immediately threw the book into the floor and began to cry, admitting that she wanted to stay awake until I got home. In place of a spanking, I held her, assuring her that I understood her but that she still needed to be asleep. We sang a hymn, and she went to sleep.
The point of discipline is to guide them into the path of the Lord. Do not be so obsessed with following your own rules that you fail to minister to the heart of your child.
HAVE PROPER EXPECTATIONS, NEITHER TOO LOW NOR TOO HIGH.
Balance is almost always harder than jumping toward one extreme or the other, and expectations are no different. I know that it’s incredibly broad to say that we must have proper expectations of our children, neither too low nor too high; however, again, sometimes the obvious needs to be said because once it is assumed, it is easily neglected.
If we are not careful, we can either expect our children to act like adults or expect little-to-no responsibility from them at all, and both are not mutually exclusive. My 4-year-old, of course, is not an adult. If she fails to meet an adult-sized expectation that I have set for her, her behavior is not broken; my expectation is. Yet I can also do her the harm of having set my expectations for her too low. The danger of low expectations is much more subtle and, therefore, in some ways even more deadly. In reality, I do my daughter no favors by treating her as less competent than she is (and could be).
This, of course, means that our expectations must be constantly shifting as our children continue to grow and mature, and it requires us to truly know our children, not just as they once were but as they are now. Again, this is why raising our children is a life posture rather than a hobby or even a full-time job. Both hobbies and jobs can be set aside for a time, but even when you are not with your child, you never cease being a father or mother.
DON’T LET THEM DO ANYTHING THAT MAKES YOU DISLIKE THEM.
This is a happily stolen principle from Jordan Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life. Although Peterson is not a Christian, much of the book’s wisdom echoes and applies biblical wisdom, particularly from Proverbs and the Sermon on the Mount; nevertheless, you should read with caution (as I hope you always do). The best chapter, in my opinion, by far is the one in which he discusses this rule, and I would even say that, for a parent, reading that chapter alone is well worth the price of the entire book.
Peterson’s overall argument is that if you, as a parent, allow your child to do either disobedient or socially inappropriate things that make you dislike being around them, you are setting them on a course for failure throughout life. He summarizes the effects this notion toward the end of the chapter:
If their actions make you dislike them, think what an effect they will have on other people, who care much less about them than you. Those other people will punish them, severely, by omission or commission. Don’t allow that to happen. Better to let your little monster know what is desirable and what is not, so they become sophisticated denizens of the world outside the family.
A child who pays attention, instead of drifting, and can play, and does not whine, and is comical, but not annoying, and is trustworthy—that child will have friends wherever he goes. His teachers will like him, and so will his parents. If he attends politely to adults, he will be attended to, smiled at and happily instructed. He will thrive, in what can so easily be a cold, unforgiving and hostile world.
EXPLAIN & INVOLVE THEM IN EVERYTHING, AS YOU SHOW THEM JESUS (AKA DISCIPLESHIP)
This sort of piggybacks onto some of the previous principles but expands them beyond the realm of discipline. Remember that your children are born with zero knowledge, and you and your spouse are their starting point for learning everything. Don’t take this marvelous time of discipleship for granted, especially since the world will happily teach your children its version of anything you neglect.
Christ gave us the command to make disciples of all nations, but our own homes are not excluded from that Great Commission. Indeed, discipleship begins in our home. Paul required elders to be able to “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church” (1 Timothy 3:5)? The household is the church in miniature. Godly families will lead to a godly church, while worldly families will lead to a worldly church. Not vice versa. Thus, if you want to fulfill the Great Commission, begin by doing the slow and steady work of discipling your children, which means involving them in your life as you teach them.
GIVE THEM REAL RESPONSIBILITIES (NOT CHORES).
My wife and I do not believe in paying children for household chores. After all, why should I as a parent give money to you the child for doing things that need to be done in the home that you live in? If our children want to make some money, they’ll need to figure out a way to earn it. Our daughter, for example, is wanting to make and sell loaves of bread, which we whole-heartedly support.
There is great benefit in giving them responsibilities to fulfill rather than chores to be compensated. Since we eat most meals in the home, most of our daughter’s responsibilities are kitchen related. Rarely do we cook a meal without our daughter contributing in some way (last night, she cut the potatoes before roasting them in the toaster oven). I believe that such practices build familial connections because she has a real part to play in what we are doing collectively.
Yet I see two large, practical benefits. First, it gives them the joy of being competent. Second, it teaches them gratitude. When our daughter makes scrambled eggs (which is the only meal so far that she can make from start to finish with very minimal help from us), she gets the happiness of being able to actually make something to eat, and she gets see our gratitude and enjoyment while eating her eggs.
In turn, this also gives her a bridge for understanding the effects of her own gratitude or lack thereof in other circumstances. If she calls a new food “yucky,” we are able to say something along the lines of “it’s okay if you don’t like the way this tastes very much, but don’t say that it’s gross. How would you feel if I called your eggs yucky?” If they know the joy of thankfulness after serving others, they will also better understand the harm that ingratitude can cause.
Of course, this all requires time, patience, and knowing your child.
TEACH THEM OF GOD’S PROVISION THROUGH FOOD.
In case you missed it the first two times, the goal of parenting is to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). These next two principles center around moments that we use as natural points for instructing them in the ways of the Lord.
Family meals can be stressful and messy; however, what better time each day is there to discuss the goodness of God? “Blessing the meal” can so easily become an unthinking ritual, yet with a little bit of intentionality, it can instead become a time of remembering the Lord’s provision. After all, is not every bite of food or drink of water that enters our mouth a grace from our loving Father? Should we not teach our children this reality, especially when Jesus called Himself the bread of life and the living water?
Furthermore, we happily teach our daughter that she does not need to love all food, but she does need to try everything, especially the raw foods that God has made and the flavor combinations that His image-bearers have thought up. She does not like peas or corn, yet we instruct her that God still made them for our good and our health so they should be eaten with thanksgiving.
This also provides a wonderful analogy for reading the Bible. Not all portions of the Bible are as exciting as the book of Jonah, yet the whole Bible teaches us about God, so we should receive it with thanksgiving. Of course, a child could grow up to be disciplined in their Bible reading without being disciplined in their nutrition, but why should we not strive to build a consistent approach to all of life?
SHOW THEM GOD’S GLORY IN CREATION
Another everyday opportunity for teaching our children the truths of Scripture is found in creation. Famously, in Psalm 19, David noted that an element of God’s glory could be seen in the heavens above. Our God has created an amazing world for us to dwell within, and we should both enjoy it and consider His fingerprints within each design.
The amazing documentary The Riot and the Dance is a great starting point for rewiring how we view the world around us. The host and narrator, Gordan Wilson, notably says in the film, “To be bored in this world is to be boring in this world,” and he does a wonderful job of teaching how the wonders of creation reflect upon the wonders of our Creator, as well as our position as stewards of the earth.
Don’t let your children be bored of our Father’s world, and encourage their natural inquisitiveness and amazement in the so-called “little things.”
NO FANTASY UNTIL SEVEN.
This is easily the hardest principle for me to follow. In fact, I asked my wife last night whether she thought our daughter might be ready at five to read Narnia. I don’t think she will be.
This is a principle that my wife learned from the Montessori method, but we’ve adopted it because it makes sense to us. Year seven has a long tradition of being a milestone in childhood development. As one article notes,
But the age of seven has been considered the age where common sense and maturity start to kick in, for centuries. In Medieval times, court apprenticeships began at age seven. Under English Common Law, children under seven weren’t considered responsible for their crimes. Turning seven can even be symbolic within a child’s religious upbringing, as it’s the age around when the Catholic Church offers first Communion.
One way to figure out if your child has reached this age of development is keep an ear open for any suspicious questions about fairies, Santa Claus, or the monster his older brother swears is living in the basement. While your child’s imagination can still roam free, his belief in make-believe may start to fade.
Seven is, thus, more of a mindset shift than an actual fixed age. Nevertheless, we want to give our daughter a solid grounding in reality before we ever introduce the concept of make-believe. After all, once they learn that Santa wasn’t real, what’s to stop them from thinking the same to be true of God? Of course, plenty of kids (myself included) still believe in God and were taught such stories growing up; however, the argument of “I did it, and I turned out alright” is not very appealing, especially when we consider that more than half of all teenagers drop out of the church. Our family might be wrong, but the current pattern clearly isn’t working so why not try another approach?
NO SCREENS UNTIL DOUBLE DIGITS.
This is another principle that I have gladly stolen, this time from Andy Crouch in his book The Tech-wise Family, which is another book that you should buy today if you haven’t already done so. His rule is to keep kids away from digital screens until at least age ten. Here is a brief explanation why:
The biggest problem with most screen-based activities is that because they are designed to keep us engaged, we can learn them far too quickly. They ask too little of us and make the world too simple. To learn to play an acoustic guitar requires hundreds of hours of practice involving physical strength and stamina, the development of calluses on the hand (usually the left) that holds down the strings, the ability to hear tiny variations of tone and timbre as we pluck and strum at different speeds and angles and to adjust our movements accordingly. A “guitar app,” on the other hand, vastly oversimplifies all these dimensions of embodied music making, replacing them with a skill that is far more easily acquired and requires far less learning.
He goes on to remark what a gift the lack of screens will be to our children:
This is one of the greatest, most radical gifts that we can give our children: ten years free to be embodied human beings, before we begin helping them manage the complexities as well as the gifts of the screen-based world. Give them those ten years, and I believe many of the patterns that are over-whelming parents as well as teenagers and young adults—let alone the frustrations that teachers are experiencing with ever-declining attention spans and capacity to concentrate—will be far more manageable.
Putting this principle and the previous one together, no, my daughter does not know who Elsa is, and we don’t think she’s missing out at all.
REMEMBER THAT YOU TOO ARE UNDER AUTHORITY
My daughter is slowly moving into the age of reason, and a couple of weeks ago, she justly asked why she needed to obey me. In other words, why did she have to do what I say instead of the other way around. I took her to Ephesians 6:1, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.” “God says so,” I told her. “When you obey me as your father, you obey God.”
But I didn’t stop there, I also brought up Ephesians 6:4, telling her that God has commanded me to teach and take care of her. If I fail to do that, I am sinning against God. In other words, I quickly wanted to point out to her that we should both be aiming to obey God, but my obedience as her father looks different from her obedience as my child. Yet despite the differences, we are both in the same boat. We are both under God’s authority. Keep this in mind as you demand obedience from your child.
DO NOT MISTAKE DEPENDENCY FOR TRUST
Your child, especially in his or her early years, is utterly dependent upon you, yet do not mistake his or her dependency for trust. Many parents believe that it is only the child who must earn their trust. Trust, however, is not the default status of any relationship, and your relationship with your child is no different. Trust must be built, and it begins from the beginning. To return to the first principle, if you are more concerned about silencing your crying baby than meeting their need, you are already laying an unspoken foundation that you care more about how your child behaves than about how they feel and what they need. Of course, they won’t remember those early years, but a mark will certainly be left (especially considering that the first three years are some of the most important developmentally).
Parents are not entitled to their children’s trust, so earn it. And, no, all the unnoticed parental sacrifices, particularly sleep and money, don’t count nearly as much as you might think. As Christians, those sacrifices are made to the Lord anyway. I go sing to my daughter in the middle of the night because I want to honor the Lord in my parenting, not so I can remind her of everything I did for her as she grows. Instead, earn their trust by listening to them and actually taking an interest. Some of my favorite moments are talking with my daughter in a coffee shop or while walking in a park. Even at only 4-years-old, she has a lot that she wants to say. And I want to hear it. Her trust is a privilege, not a right. I’m resolved to earn and keep it.
NEVER STOP LEARNING
This principle goes far beyond parenting, but it’s also a good one to conclude with. If the responsibility of raising little humans in the discipline and the instruction of the Lord is great, why not keep trying to do better and better. Of course, the greatest stumbling block to learning is pride. Only the humble are able to truly look for help and guidance.
In this regard, my wife and I are scavengers. We are always on the look for new ideas and strategies for parenting, whether from books, podcasts, or observing other parents around us. Although two of these principles were explicitly lifted from the books of others, we don’t claim lay claim to creating the others either. Somehow, we stumbled upon each of these thoughts, and even though we have forgotten most of the sources (and probably the exact wordings), our mindsets were changed. I hope that some of these principles will have the same effect on you, and I would also love to hear any parenting principles that you would like to share with me.
 Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, 144.
 Andy Crouch, The Tech-wise Family, 128-129.