Parents and Children

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This morning we're starting a new series on today's concerns and the Bible and my title is 'Parents and Children'.

Bringing up children is hard. A mother was taking her 13 year old to task for smoking in the garden shed. "And what about you?" she said, turning to her 10 year old daughter. "Have you been smoking too?" "No, mum" she said, full of righteous indignation. "I certainly have not. I've given it up."

This is such a huge and fundamental subject that it's hard to know where to start. We can only scratch the surface. Listen again, first of all, to Ephesians 6.1-4:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honour your father and mother' – which is the first commandment with a promise – 'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.' Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Now, in the light of that, listen to these two experiences of family life.

A young singer said this:

"The high spot of my childhood was when Mum finally left Dad and she and I and my sister Melanie went to live in a refuge. Mum had tried to get away several times, but each time dad found her, said he was sorry and persuaded her to go back to him. Things would be great for a while, then the rows would start. If Dad was in a bad mood the tiniest thing would set him off. If he didn't like his dinner he would set it flying across the table… I don't think he liked me. At times he could be quite violent towards me… I don't hate my father, but I don't love him because I don't know him. To me he seemed a very angry person, full of fire… Marriage scares me."

A writer and psychologist has this at the front of the book that is his most precious creation:

"This book is dedicated in deepest respect to my father, whose influence on my life has been profound. I watched him closely throughout my childhood, yet he never disappointed me. Not once did I see him compromise his inner convictions and personal ethics. Thus, his values became my values, and his life charted the path for my own. Now it is my task, in turn, to be found worthy of the two little ones who call me 'Dad'."

If we are parents, how can we avoid the first kind of influence, and reinforce the second kind? If we are not parents, how can we support those who are? I want to outline some simple but key Biblical principles. But first it is helpful for us to be clear about the context of parenthood. This context is twofold: current trends, and currents ideas in the area of family life.


First, THE CONTEXT OF PARENTHOOD

When we look at current trends, the statistics are frightening. And what is more disturbing than anything else is the slide away from Christian moral values and behaviour. The moral and spiritual capital of past centuries of Christian commitment in this country is just about used up. The result is that we are close to moral and spiritual bankruptcy, if we are not there already.

In the mid 1960's, the proportion of women marrying for the first time who lived with their husbands before marriage was 5%. By the 1990's, it was around 70%. In 1964, the proportion of births that took place outside marriage was 7%. In 1996 it was 36%. 1 in every 5 pregnancies is now ended by abortion.

At the turn of the century there were a few hundred divorces each year. In 1961 there were 25,000. In 1995 there were 160,000.

Now we need to keep things in perspective. Married couples still represent three-quarters of all families. The situation is not hopeless – but it is pretty desperate.

Those are some of the statistics. What about the other side of the context of family life today – the context of current ideas? What are some of the ideas that are being pushed in our culture?

The fact is that these changes are not just part of a fairly random swing of the moral pendulum. They are the result of deep rejection of a Christian framework for marriage and family life. The institution of marriage is under sustained attack.

One line of argument is that marriage should be rejected because it is simply old-fashioned. Another line of argument is that children do just as well in alternative arrangements (which is in fact very far from the truth). So fathers come to be seen as unnecessary.

Then there is the argument that says that in any case we have to go with the flow and we cannot change things. But God is in the business of changing things, and that means we are too.

But the environment is tough for parents. Much on the media is promoting promiscuity, maligning marriage, and encouraging illegitimacy. And what is the result of it all? Everyone gets hurt – and especially the children.

Well, all of that is the current context of parenthood, in which we need to hear the Bible's teaching, and it is important that we are quite clear about the cultural conflict that Christians are caught up in.

That brings me to my second main heading:


Secondly, WHAT CHILDREN NEED

One thing that children need is obedience. Why do they need that? For their own blessing. Ephesians 4.1:

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 'Honour your father and mother' – which is the first commandment with a promise – 'that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'

But what is it that children need from their parents?

It has to be said to start with that one fundamental thing children need is a mother and father in a faithful and loving marriage. The fact is that without that, they do get hurt. Thank God, he is in the business of healing wounds. But marriage is not, as so many say, 'just a piece of paper,' any more than birth is 'just a birth certificate'. Marriage is the God-given, vital framework of permanence, stability and security that every child requires.

With that in mind, here are some further things that children need. They are simple. They are attainable. They are certainly not easy.

Children need teaching. Teaching not from an institution but from their parents, and not least from their father. Ephesians 6.4:

Fathers … bring [your children] up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

So it's not just any old teaching that they need. Children inevitably learn their most fundamental lessons from their parents, for good or ill. They need training and instruction in the Lord. Godly teaching. Teaching founded on the wisdom of the Bible. Gospel-based teaching.

Children do not know best. We are born intellectually and socially ignorant, and with God-given characters already distorted and twisted by a deep-seated tendency to sin and evil. Left to our own devices we will self-destruct. We need moulding, training, teaching.

I like the style of one parent who wrote some "Household Principles for Children in the style of the Book of Leviticus". Here's a sample of "Laws When at Table". This is not exactly what I mean by Bible-based teaching, and you may have heard these before, but I can't resist reminding you of them:

"When you have drunk, let the empty cup then remain upon the table, and do not bite it upon its edge and by your teeth hold it to your face in order to make noises in it sounding like a duck: for you will be sent away. When you chew your food, keep your mouth closed until you have swallowed, and do not open it to show your brother and sister what is within; I say to you, do not so, even if your brother or your sister has done the same to you. And though your stick of carrot does indeed resemble a marker, draw not with it upon the table even in pretend, for we do not do that, that is why. And though the pieces of broccoli are very like small trees, do not stand them upright to make a forest, because we do not do that, that is why. Sit just as I have told you, and do not lean to one side or the other, nor slide down until you are nearly slid away. Heed me; for if you sit like that, your hair will go into the syrup. And now behold, even as I said, it has come to pass."

Parents can assume nothing, and we need to take responsibility for every area of our children's development, including the spiritual. This can be a tough assignment. One group of Sunday School children were told that they should try to be 'like God' in all that they did. Later on the mother of one of them noticed that her small son was doing everything left handed, although he was right-handed. She asked him about it. 'I'm trying to be like God,' he said. 'But why everything left-handed?' his mother asked. 'Well, God must be left-handed,' the child replied, 'because Jesus sits on his right hand.'

But let's remember that, important as direct teaching is, it is the model of living that we provide that is crucial: the model of a relationship with Christ; of how we treat others; of self-sacrificial service; of generosity; of forgiveness given and received – it is these things that make the deepest impression. We cannot divorce what we say from who we are. Children see through it.

The training and instruction of children will include discipline. Proverbs 3.11:

My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent this rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.

When a child wilfully rejects wise teaching – when a child is deliberately disobedient – then that child needs to be disciplined. Children need to learn in a safe environment that if they do wrong, then one way or another it will hurt them. If they don't, then they will find it out in an unsafe environment, maybe when it is to late.

One thing that needs to be said about the debate about smacking is that there is often a frightening identification of the punishment as crime. It is not wrong to punish. It is just. It is for the good of the child. And it is loving.

Ephesians 6.4 again:

Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Parents must avoid exasperating their children. Of course, it's only fair to note at this point that children can be pretty exasperating too.

Someone said: "Insanity is hereditary. We get if from our children."

But it is the prerogative of children to be exasperating. Up to a point, anyway. Parents, on the other hand, must not be. Instead, we must be courteous, thoughtful and respectful. And since we're all children, no doubt we are all aware that parents can be very exasperating. Mark Twain said:

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned."

I find that some comfort. We must not exasperate our children. But neither must we be timid when it comes to firm and effective discipline.

Someone has written:

"The philosophy we applied with our teenagers… can be called 'loosen and tighten'. By this I mean we tried to loosen our grip on everything that had no lasting significance, and tighten down on everything that did… Try hard not to hassle your children. They hate being nagged… And continue to treat them with respect, even when punishment or restrictions are necessary. Occasionally, you may even need to say, 'I'm sorry!'"

So here are six guidelines for the discipline of children:

1. Define the boundaries before they are enforced.
2. When defiantly challenged, respond with confident decisiveness.
3. Distinguish between wilful defiance and childish irresponsibility.
4. Reassure and teach after the confrontation is over.
5. Avoid impossible demands.
6. Do everything out of love.
7. Children need discipline. And discipline is a crucial aspect of love. Children need love.

Proverbs 3.12:

… the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.

The foundation for all 'training and instruction in the Lord' is a permanent, unconditional, love. A love that is sacrificial. A love that is ready to put the needs of the child before the needs of the parent. A love like the love of Christ. Here are three 'A's that characterise such love.

First of all, appreciation. Parents need to take delight in their children. The good things need to be praised and valued. Sourness and dourness are not Christlike. If we appreciate and enjoy the benefits and joys of family life – if we are grateful to one another and to God, and if we express that appreciation – then the hard times will be softer, and the confrontations that much less sharp.

Not that it's always easy to be positive. Rob Parsons, in his book The Sixty Minute Father, suggests that instead of catching our children doing wrong and criticising them, we should try catching them doing something right, and praising them. Take the issue of the teenager's bedroom in a mess. If you stumbled on this bedroom without warning your first thought would be to ring the police. The room looks as if a manic burglar who has personal grudge against the occupant has done his worst… How do we tackle this? There are three alternatives. First, put a health warning on the door and learn to live with it. Secondly, employ the age old management technique of yelling… Thirdly, try another strategy. Try praise. Praise is powerful. It gives encouragement. It makes us want to please the person who has encouraged us. It builds bonds of affection. But what about the bedroom? What can we possibly find to say about that bedroom that is positive? It's not easy. But try this: 'Son, well done for keeping your ceiling so tidy!'

Be appreciative. Then the second 'A' that characterises love is availability. Our heavenly Father is always available for us. He is there when we call. We are not God. Parents cannot always be available. But they need to be as available as possible.

Then the third 'A' is acceptance. Love teaches. Love is well aware of faults and shortcomings. Love disciplines. But love never rejects. God accepts us, not because we are virtuous. We are not. Not because we obey. We do not. But because he loves us. We are his children. He never condones or minimises our misdeeds. He punishes when necessary. But he accepts his children unconditionally. Children need love.

Well, briefly, my final heading is this.


Thirdly, WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

Being a parent is demanding. It is difficult. At times it is downright impossible. Those of us who are parents are all too often unwise in the way we treat our children. As someone said,

"When I got married I had four theories of child rearing and no children. Now I have four children and no theories."

Every parent carries with them the fear of failure. In one way or another, every parent does fail. One parent wrote:

"Everything we can think of has been tried with this child… We have enough guilt already, knowing that we are failures at parenting. Please help. We are desperate."

Sometimes it's the bad behaviour of our children that points up our failure.

For instance, John Cleese recalls seeing what he describes as a Python sketch in his local supermarket. Mum was there with two expertly naughty children and every time they did something they shouldn't have - which was about every eight seconds - she'd shout and threaten them with unimaginable deprivations and tortures, whereupon they'd go straight off and do something else naughty. And she'd increase the threatened punishment by five thousand lashes. So then they'd do something really naughty to let her know who was boss. "In the end," he says, "she had to give them a lot of sweets so they wouldn't burn the place down."

Sometimes it's actually our children's good behaviour that shows up our failure, in contrast to ours. At least when our children are behaving badly it is relatively easy to feel superior to them. It is quite disconcerting when at times they behave better than you, even with greater maturity, or with greater faith. That is shaming.

Where can we go when we fail? Well, we need to be able to go to each other. That is a challenge for all of us – to be the kind of fellowship in which we can seek out help from each other when we are feeling weak.

But above all, when we fail, we need to go to God. He is the one with the power to forgive. He is the one who can restore our reservoirs of strength. He is the one who can redeem our deficiencies and heal the wounds that we have and the wounds that we cause. That's why he gave his beloved son to die. That's why he raised him from the dead.

And he is the one who can remind parents that they too are children – his children. They too are still learning, still being trained, disciplined and instructed. They too are loved. God is the one who can supply wisdom and guidance for the task. He is the one who is perfect – not us. He is the one who can remind parents that though their responsibilities are onerous, there are limits to them, and the child bears responsibility as well. God is the one who can fill up in the life of a child the gaps that we or others leave. We can trust him. As Proverbs 3.5-6 says – not just to sons and daughters but to parents as well:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.

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