One reason parenting is such daunting work is because of the balance required of us parents. We don’t want to be too strict or too lenient; not too consequence-driven and not so gracious as to overlook rebellion. Into this balancing act comes a question from a young mom who wants to be kind, but who expects to be obeyed. Her name is Emily.
“Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for your ministry. It has helped me in my delight in God immensely. Recently I have been stumped on how to blend two seemingly contradictory facets of biblical character into the parenting of my two small children: (1) displaying Christ-like humility and gracious servanthood (Philippians 2:1–11); and (2) requiring honor, respect, and obedience from my kids (Ephesians 6:1–3). Could you help flesh out what discipline looks like with both of those aspects — how to discipline children in humility while maintaining my position of respect and authority? I feel stuck bouncing between being too strong with the ‘obey me’ card, and then trying to balance myself by being ‘gracious’ and perhaps requiring too little obedience and respect. I am so confused. Can you help a momma out?”
I hope so, because of all the questions Emily might ask, I think she has asked an absolutely excellent, central question. This question gets at the essence of gospel parenting. That is, how to raise children that have a humble respect for God-given authority, whether in parents or husbands or teachers or policemen or pastors or civic laws.
But at the same time, also see that God’s pattern of leadership is servant leadership. That leadership is not synonymous with self-exaltation or pride or bragging or power grabbing, but as Philippians says, counts others more significant than itself and pursues the good of others even when it’s very costly (Philippians 2:3–11).
In other words, the challenge in parenting is how to parent so that authentic, gospel-shaped young people come into existence.
Before I give any particular counsel about that tension, I should remind us all that no matter how excellently we teach and model gospel leadership, we parents are not the decisive influence in whether our children come to faith and walk in what we have taught.
We are a huge influence, but we are not the decisive, final influence — which is why we soak everything we do in prayer and why we do not load ourselves down with the burden of being God, which we simply cannot bear.
Now, back to this specific question. I’ll make it even more paradoxical. How do you model the command to turn the other cheek while disciplining a child for disobedience? How do you model “love bears all things and endures all things” (see 1 Corinthians 13:7) while requiring compliance to the rules of the family? How do you model not returning evil for evil while spanking for blatant disregard for your authority? I have six suggestions.
1. Formal Teaching
There should always be a steady stream of more or less formal teaching. Call it catechism or catechesis or whatever. You need a steady stream of more or less formal teaching happening in the home, where, in age-appropriate ways, you are trying to explain what the Bible means.
That includes passages about children obeying parents and respecting parents and being kind and generous with siblings. It includes how parents are called to teach and discipline and not provoke their children for their good. You will teach them how we’re all to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us and return good for evil and bless those who curse us.
This ongoing, steady stream of teaching, over time, will include efforts to help children understand that there are authority structures — parent-child, police-civilian, pastor-church member, husband-wife, government-citizen. These are authority structures that God has created that give different shape to how we love each other.
In other words, God has given to parents a role for how to love their children that he does not give to children and vice versa. So parents love their children in ways that children don’t love their parents — for example, by teaching them, by setting boundaries for them, by showing them the painful consequences that happen in the real world if you disrespect God-given authority.
In other words, alongside the thousands of daily interactions in the family, which do teach, I’m saying there should be a steady stream (every day, virtually) of teaching that provides an ever-growing grid — a biblical grid through which a child comes to understand the world increasingly and all the relational dynamics of the home. So that’s my first suggestion, that steady stream of teaching.
2. Team Effort
I think one reason God designed families to ordinarily have two parents instead of just one is that this creates wonderful possibilities of interaction with children that display both vigilance for a parent being respected and the humility of a parent not defending himself.
If a child is very disrespectful to his mother — for example, say you got a twelve-year-old, or maybe just a four-year-old or a fifteen-year-old for that matter — and he says something very disrespectful to his mother, and the father is in the kitchen. That father goes over to the child, and the mom hasn’t said anything yet, and he takes his kid by the arm with a grip he knows means something really serious. Now dad has a hold of his arm, and he looks him right in the eye and says, “You may not talk to your mother that way in this house.”
Now, the mother, in the meantime, having been stuck up for by her husband, doesn’t communicate a self-pitying woundedness — “Oh poor me.” This kind of self-pitying woundedness makes for some really sick relationships in the home. At the same time, she does not communicate a smug sense that the child got what is due. Instead, what she communicates is a demeanor of love that says, “Son or daughter, I want what’s best for you, but daddy’s right.”
Now there are dozens of settings (it seems to me) in which the interplay of mother and father captures both sides of the tension between humble patience on the one hand and severe rebuke on the other hand. So that’s my second suggestion.
Now here’s a third one. Many families are single-parent families. And many times during the day, a two-parent family has one parent with the kids, right? Like eight, maybe ten hours a day, Mom might be the one who’s got to bear the whole burden of the discipline here. So what are some of the ways to help a child see both humility and servanthood in the Christian life of his parents as well as strong, God-appointed authority to be respected and obeyed?
Here are just several bullet points:
- Avoid correlating anger with the demand for respect. Insist on respect. Require respect in tones of strength without anger. Speak of it in times of happiness. Talk about respect and obedience in times of happiness, not just in the times of angry crisis.
- Let the appropriate apologies you owe your children be woven into your life. Never think, “Oh, this is going to weaken my authority if I get down low and say I’m sorry for some tone of voice I used this morning.” It won’t weaken your authority if you are lovingly strong when you should be.
- Constantly model for the child the role of servant in all your relationships that the child is watching, including your relationship with the child. Don’t come across just as a boss.
So many children feel like, “I’m just a slave here. All they do is say, ‘Do, do, do, do.’” Serving them does not mean picking up his toys when you have told him to pick up his toys. A lot of parents cave on that and think it’s humility. That’s not humility — that’s stupid. But it might mean surprising him by cleaning his room before you ask him to clean it, or offering to take him somewhere in the car as a teenager before he asks you.
Here’s a warning. Children — including teenagers, maybe especially — are slow to see this for what it is, this servanthood of Mom or Dad. They may have to wait twenty years before Mom and Dad hear back in a letter how brokenheartedly thankful they are for what they gave them, and how unthankful they were for so many years.
I lavished my mother with thanks in my mid-twenties. I lavished her with thanks one hundred times more than I did when I was fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen. I’m ashamed of it. That’s what parents have to reckon with.
Kids assume parents are going to serve them, and you can’t do much about that if you are a loving, firm, caring, sacrificial parent — except pray that when they turn 25 you get a letter or a phone call that’s brokenhearted in their lavish gratitude to you.
Let the dominant tone of the relationship be one of delight in your child. Let him feel cherished and admired and enjoyed, not just corrected and instructed. Otherwise, he’ll feel that you’re just using him for your private ease, not his good.
5. True Humility
Don’t equate humility with leniency, as if the only way to communicate humility is by not requiring rigorous obedience. Humility, in fact, may be what is needed to deny yourself the comforts of not dealing with a child’s disobedience.
And finally, teaching grace and mercy will mean that now and then, when wisdom dictates, you will in fact not punish a punishable offense just to give the child a taste of that form of grace, knowing that requiring obedience most of the time is also a form of grace. But you won’t neglect discipline so often that it begins to be expected by the child.
So parenting is an art, not a science. We must be praying constantly for wisdom from above, like James 3:17–18: “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.