Countless books have been written about child rearing. Some approaches to rearing children are at opposite ends of the spectrum and give conflicting and contradictory advice. Where can we find sure, sound information to guide us in this crucial responsibility?
The Bible has much to say about this all-important subject, and parents should look to its pages for guidance. What should be our fundamental approach?
Our attitude toward our children is perhaps the single most important consideration in proper child rearing. Do we really love our children? Do our words and actions show our children we love them? Will we, and do we, sacrifice for them? Do we make time to show we care for them?
There is no substitute for time spent with our children. Our time is our life. To our children, our time with them is life. A parent who provides his children with plenty of material possessions but little personal time is missing a vital point. Children do not equate the parent's time on the job working to provide for the family with love for them. They think it means Dad doesn't like to spend time with them. Our time is the most valuable gift we can give to our children, especially quality time interacting and conversing with them.
Without a foundational approach of love, little that we can do in rearing our children will produce the favorable results we want to see: mature, responsible and caring young men and women.
Words and actions leave lasting impressions
All parents at times become frustrated with their children's behavior. It is easy for a father or mother to convey the impression that he or she doesn't love the child. Some parents, by means of angry, frustrated reactions and comments, make their children feel they are worthless or despised by the parents.
Parents must carefully consider the impression their words and actions make on their children. They may be upset about only one negative trait or action but make the child feel as if he is an altogether bad person. It is essential that parents control their anger when correcting a child and that they make the specific behavior, action or attitude for which the child is being punished perfectly clear.
The apostle Paul offers this instruction to parents: "Fathers, do not irritate and provoke your children to anger—do not exasperate them to resentment—but rear them (tenderly) in the training and discipline and the counsel and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4, Amplified Bible).
In other words, parents should be sure their children know, even when they are being disciplined and corrected, that they are loved. This is not to say parents should never display anger, but that it must be obviously directed toward the child's misbehavior. It should always be controlled and brief. God Himself becomes angry at times, but He doesn't lose His temper, and He always has a righteous purpose for His indignation and resulting actions.
When children know they are deeply cared for and that correction from their father or mother grows out of concern and is in their best interest, such discipline will not provoke them to anger and rebellion.
On the other hand, statements that a child perceives as painting him and his character and attitude as worthless make him feel rejected and can eventually lead to rebellious behavior, damaging activities and even running away from home.
If a parent tells his child he's no good, the child soon will start believing it and living up to that reputation. To show active rather than passive love for our kids, we must extend sincere compliments and praise when they're due. This reassures our children they are loved and appreciated.
Parents' responsibility to teach
Another essential ingredient in proper child rearing is actively teaching right values and behavior. God emphasizes this parental responsibility: "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart; you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
This does not mean just formal, classroom-style teaching, although such teaching is appropriate. The instruction God commands inspires practical, down-to-earth learning and application of God's way of life while we go about our daily activities.
This kind of teaching requires much more than a once-a-week session at church services. It must be a regular practice, all week long. Such teaching should become a way of life.
Children, of course, quickly perceive whether their parents practice what they teach. Therefore, the parents' example may be the most important teacher of all. Parents must do the things they teach. Nothing is more ineffective than for a parent who uses foul language to correct his child for using similar language. How can a parent teach responsibility if his own actions are irresponsible, if they bring needless hardship on the family?
Our example greatly influences our children. They are quick to pick up on inconsistencies. They consider how fair we are, how much information we seek before making a decision, how we treat their friends, how courteously and respectfully we deal with others. They especially watch whether we live up to what we say—particularly if we are judgmental of other people on those same issues.
The need for discipline
An important part of teaching is discipline, which can involve punishment. This is a controversial subject in many societies, with strong opinions on many sides of the issue. Some parents believe in corporal punishment; others are dead set against it. Governments, too, enter the picture, with some countries going so far as to outlaw spanking or paddling. The educational system is a major additional factor in this ongoing debate. Corporal punishment has virtually disappeared from many public schools.
Keep in mind, however, the various ways to punish or administer discipline. Verbal correction, removal of privileges, restricting freedoms and adding extra chores are a few. Sometimes such methods work well, and some may be more effective with one child than another. Some children are more sensitive and respond to scolding. Others require bolder steps to teach the lesson. The result is the important thing. A godly principle is to use only as much punishment as is required to achieve the desired result.
But sometimes none of these methods work. So what about corporal punishment?
The Bible teaches that corporal punishment, wisely applied, is appropriate when disciplining children: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death" (Proverbs 23:13-14, New International Version; see also Proverbs 13:24; Proverbs 22:15; Proverbs 29:15).
The word rod should not be interpreted to mean anything that could injure a child in any manner whatsoever. It implies only something small and light that would inflict a limited amount of pain without injury. The size might vary according to the age and size of the child.
Appropriate punishment involves temporarily inflicting minor pain with the specific objective of preventing future inappropriate behavior with its far greater and long-lasting consequences. This minor, short-lived pain is nothing compared with the suffering that would come later if the child should permanently adopt destructive behavior. But parents must wisely administer such discipline. It should be undertaken only for the child's benefit, never to vent a parent's uncontrolled anger.
Family and child-rearing authority James Dobson describes the proper approach in administering punishment: "It is possible . . . to create a violent and aggressive child who has observed this behavior at home. If he is routinely beaten by hostile, volatile parents, or if he witnesses physical violence between angry adults, or if he feels unloved and unappreciated within his family, the child will not fail to notice how the game is played . . . Being a parent carries no right to slap and intimidate a child because you had a bad day or are in a lousy mood. It is this kind of unjust discipline that causes some well-meaning authorities to reject corporal punishment altogether.
"Just because a technique is used wrongly, however, is no reason to reject it altogether. Many children desperately need this resolution to their disobedience. In those situations when the child fully understands what he is being asked to do or not to do but refuses to yield to adult leadership, an appropriate spanking is the shortest and most effective route to an attitude adjustment. When he lowers his head, clenches his fists, and makes it clear he is going for broke, justice must speak swiftly and eloquently. Not only does this response not create aggression in a boy or girl, it helps them control their impulses and live in har-mony with various forms of benevolent authority throughout life" (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992, p. 60).
Spanking should be a contingency plan, not the standard or sole way of punishing. It should be used when other approaches don't work or when a child is out of control and will not submit or when he shows a rebellious spirit. Spankings are not for accidentally spilling milk or for making a C on a report card. Nor should they become the dominant tool of child rearing.
Says Dr. Dobson: "In my opinion, spankings . . . should be reserved for the moment a child (between the age of eighteen months to ten years old) expresses to parents a defiant ‘I will not!' or ‘You shut up!' When youngsters convey this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you must be willing to respond to the challenge immediately" (Dobson, p. 20).
Taking a cue from God's discipline
Consider that God chastises Christians out of love for them. Notice Hebrews 12:5-11: "And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.'
"Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?
"For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it."
The preceding passage from Hebrews quotes Proverbs 3:11-12, comparing God's correction of us as His children to human parents disciplining their children out of love and concern for them.
These verses teach us several vital principles regarding discipline. From them we learn (1) God disciplines in love, (2) discipline is not rejection but part of our maturing and growth, (3) discipline produces respect, and (4) discipline produces good fruit and righteousness.
The Greek word for "discipline" in the passage in Hebrews includes the concepts of education and training, corrective guidance and corrective punishment. Proper child rearing involves all these elements of training.
Another biblical principle that parents should consider when evaluating discipline appropriate for their children is expressed by the apostle Paul: "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans 13:1-2).
Parents should understand that some disciplinary practices recommended in Scriptures may be restricted by local, state or national laws.
A blessing and responsibility
God's Word tells us children are a gift, a blessing from Him. Being a parent is perhaps the greatest responsibility we can have in this life, and it can bring the greatest rewards.
We can teach our sons and daughters many things, but we can also learn much from them about life and relationships. If we are effective in parenting, they can even surpass us and achieve more than we. That is truly an honor to any parent and a worthy goal.