Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Provoking our children

I've been cogitating lately on Colossians 3:18-21, "Instructions for Christian households." This chapter includes the fiery verses so many people (especially women) find objectionable, namely "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord."

But putting aside the horrific (to feminists) word submit, it's verse 21 that caught my eye: "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged." The King James Version has it translated, "Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged."

It is, of course, necessary to discipline children. That’s biblically mandated. But what does it mean, to provoke or embitter children?

We all hear about the duties of children toward their parents – it's enshrined in the Ten Commandments, after all – but what duties do parents have toward their children, beyond taking care of their physical needs? Do they have a duty not to "provoke" or "embitter" them? And what does that mean?

Endless people will interpret that verse in endlessly different ways, but I think a lot of it has to do with nagging or forcing kids to do things against their nature. Children must be "forced" to do things they don't want, for many years – they must be "forced" to share household chores, "forced" to do their schoolwork, even "forced" to attend church. But at what point does forcing backfire and rebellion ("bitterness" or "discouragement”) results?

I'm no psychologist, but my guess is it happens when parents totally and completely disregard the wishes, needs, natures, or interests of the children as not important or worthwhile. Kids are not robots who will unquestioningly obey regardless of their opinion. Children have their own personalities, emotions, and opinions. Within the bounds of rationality, these should be respected.

In the patriarchal hegemony of the Bible, children were expected to instantly obey a father's directives without question, regardless of their opinion. Fathers were expected to know best. They were expected to guide their children away from whatever dangers awaited. They were expected to shield their children from the dangers and temptations they knew existed in the world.

But undoubtedly many parents (particularly fathers) took this to such an extreme that the children naturally rebelled. Enforcing rules that are too strict or oppressive will make children hate whatever it is you’re trying to encourage, including matters of faith.

Child rebellion is as old as the Bible (hence the many verses in Proverbs addressing it) but parental despots were also common. As Colossians 3:21 illustrates, such unyielding dictatorship could result in bitter and discouraged offspring.

I've met parents who suppress every original thought their child harbors lest it depart from parental supremacy. Yet our children must learn to think independently, even if they go through stages where they’re wrong, or where we disagree (again, within the bounds of rationality).

And sometimes rebellious kids will grow into adults, still harboring those rebellious thoughts – and won’t learn differently until they’re clunked upside the head with Real Life.

As young children developing their theories of their world through observations, a child may tell his mother that "the sun goes to bed at night." Mother scoffs and tells Junior what a dumb idea it is. Does this reaction encourage Junior, or embitter him?

Growing older, again while trying to make sense of the adult world they are soon to enter, teens may develop opinions contrary to that of their parents in an effort to either claim independence, or to provoke. Many parents quash these contrary views and tell the teen he's wrong to believe thus-and-such and he'd better darn well change his mind OR ELSE. This often causes the teen to cling harder to his idea until it becomes part of him rather than just a passing fancy.

If this keeps up – if children are not allowed or permitted to have their own unique opinions, thoughts, or conclusions – then they may indeed become provoked to the point of embittered. I've seen it. It's sad… particularly because teens change as they mature into adults. Had they not been provoked or embittered, these young adults might eventually have dovetailed their opinions and attitudes with those of their parents – except they were provoked otherwise.

In short, while children have the biblical mandate to obey their parents, I believe parents have a biblical obligation to their children as well, not to provoke or embitter them lest they become discouraged. It's not our job to stifle their creativity, their opinions, their emotions, or their interests. It's our job to guide those qualities into acceptable and respectful channels.

Just my $0.02.


  1. Setting up unrealistic expectations. Never noticing or praising a job well done. Expecting them to follow rule that you are not putting into practice. These things embitter. I am sure there are many more.

  2. Wonderful. Add 0.03 cents of love into the mixture and call it done!

  3. Amen! I am blessed because my parents understood that verse. They weren't perfect, but they saw me for who I am. I really like your exposition on the subject. Your kids are blessed too. :)

  4. I think the phrase "raising children" really get people thinking in the wrong direction. What you are raising is "future adults" and when you keep that thought up at the front of your mind you look at the process much differently.

    1. While I agree that we are "raising future adults", that should direct parents, or Aunts, Uncles, cousins, to treat their young tweens/teenagers as adults. This article basically goes in a round about way of saying that "setting boundaries" will embitter a child/future adult. Until the future adults are 18, if they live in my household, they will be boundaries and expectations. If these future adults do not learn this, the workforce will not be friendly to them as they grow up believing that a workplace should not have boundaries either. You would be doing a disservice to the future adults if you set no boundaries for everyday living.

  5. Great post,thank you-

  6. I've heard an analogy that fits the contrast you are drawing - some parents treat kids as a block of wood to sculpted into their vision; other parents treat kids as a seedling to be nurtured and assisted to grow to its full potential.
    Sometimes children must obey when they don't want to - but you are right, pushing them beyond what is necessary embitters and separates them from the parent, creating problems for their future.

  7. When I was teaching, I found that the students whose parents modeled, channeled, and encouraged good habits were the students that excelled the most. By excelling I mean successful, not just in academics but also in relationships. Most of the time angry kids came from angry homes. Unchanneled anger leads to failure.
    You are spot on, Patrice.

  8. Patrice, This post is wonderful! It should be your WND column, too! Just a suggestion. Many more people need this info. It conjured up deep emotions for me...I know, from having lived with parents who did not know (or apply) these truths. I suppose they did the best they could. Thank you for the sweet pics, too.
    Your girls are blessed!

  9. Great post, I have thought about this as well, the admonition is there, I like your take on it. There are many truths that are better understood if we think about the meaning of the words and put them in context. Good thought provoker!

  10. This post belongs on the Patrice's Greatest Hits album.

    Thanks for sharing the photos of the kids and their Dad. They're very special and very sweet, especially the tractor photo. It prompted some very fond childhood memories.

    A. McSp

  11. First time I comment here. This is one of your best posts, Patrice. Lovely! God bless your family.
    Vicente - in .br

  12. Right you are. Now, how do I fix what I never intended to damage?

    1. Dear Anon - ah - that is the temptation - to undue what you did. You cannot fix it. That would be salvation and is not ours to give.
      The good news: As I face my own sins without anger, they are resolving and my daughter is getting better too. Not through our own efforts but only by recognizing our own helplessness and yearning to be free.

    2. Thanks NancyLee, I also grew up in such a family, my father is a retired state patrol and investigator. I spent 10yrs serving our country from1983 to 93 and now have worked as a corrections officer for 20yrs. The family is very active in our church as well as many others in the area and I have often studied Colossians, some would say I'm a good father, however I feel I'm failing in this area. Bethany is soon turning 16 and Joshua is 14. I hope it's just tough years and not my doing...My wife has been through two major boughts of cancer in the last 8yrs and We recently purchased a perfect 40 acre farm, 20 woods/20 tillable, getting the kids to help with anything is horrible and begins battles. Oh they love the animals, 4wheelers hunting and trapping but can't see the need for chores.... Thanks again

    3. To anonymous: As a child that grew up in such a situation, I have a little advice. team building! your children resist assisting in chores because they don't feel like part of the group responsible for chores. so build that connection based on their own talents, interests, and ability. whether you meant it to happen, your children don't view themselves as part of your team, and that isn't their fault, it's yours. i'm not trying to imply you are bad or wrong, i just wanted to point out what is different in your family and patrice's family. they pull together because they all recognize they are on the same team working towards a mutually beneficial goal. it's not something that can be talked through either, actions, bonding, affection, praise,respect, these are what is needed. make most corrections to behavior be positive reinforcement and rarely negative reinforcement, as often as possible. i would bet it's currently the opposite. you must regularly openly display the respect you want them to have towards you. if you are frustrated and irritated toward them they will be the same towards you, and even worse they will repeat such behaviors in their own marriages. the way you conduct yourself every day is teaching them how a man acts, and it's mostly your actions, not your words. good luck to you and yours

  13. Well said Patrice. I think that you have modeled that in the lives of your daughters according to what I have read in your blog posts. Kudos to you and Don:)

  14. Patrice - this is so true. I grew up in such a household - we were "told" it was good to question but any questions or dissent were immediately quashed. The resulting confusion has taken many years to be uncovered and revealed. I passed this to my child. Waking up has shown me that my child has been conditioned by me who has been conditioned by my parents, who were conditioned by their parents and on and on to the first parents. Truly the sins of the fathers are passed on to the next generations.

    When I first perceived my own actions, I became aware of how my parents had felt and how they truly didn't realize what they were doing.

    The wonder of all of this is the waking up, the realization, and the
    previous darkness falling by the wayside. All has been forgiven - we just have to realize it and we will be free.......

  15. ...and mandates are no adequate replacement for time spent with children. For while some parents attempt to assuage the guilt of not taking 'time' with their children, something that validates the child's worth without a word said, with gifts, other parents use mandates as a vehicle to control when they are unwilling to take the time with their children.

    It's just another form of selfishness and manipulation. Sad to say. And a rather transparent form as children are often far more intelligent than parents give them credit for being. That is why they can see past the empty mandate to the hypocrisy of a parent who has no desire to spend the time to form them or even listen to a child's voiced agreement. The resulting 'rebellion' is often the only means of getting any parental attention whatsoever.

    Well said, Patrice!

  16. Living in the city I have seen so many parents be too overwhelmed with the burdens of their own life to give their children the love and attention they deserve. Their children become part of their burden, and they buckle under the weight of it all and lash out. It's hard to love and guide someone with gentle care when you've never received that yourself, and you have such a lack of love and gentle care for yourself in your life.

    On the other end of the spectrum, nowadays many people are helicopter parents, obsessed with getting their kids into the best private schools and colleges, and preparing them for the SAT from the time they're 5. Their constant hovering and efforts to prevent their children from making mistakes that will cost them frustrates and numbs the children. They need goals, aspirations, and dreams of their own, that they believe in and that they can be responsible for - mistakes, successes and all. No one will fight for someone else's dream as much as they will fight for their own.

    I love your post, and wholeheartedly agree. Love the pictures, too.

  17. Very astute, Patrice.

    Others have already said the rest of what I'm thinking: the other ways to frustrate and embitter a child are to ignore them (as if you view them as an annoyance and an impediment-- not to say kids aren't annoying at times, but there's a difference between "annoying" and "an annoyance") and to set the bar SO HIGH and be so free with criticism and so sparing with praise that they feel they'll never be good enough, ever, no matter what they do.

    My husband's parents made that mistake. In their defense, they both came from childhoods of common abuse, and they did manage to break that cycle and do better by their kids. Still, the effects of their provocation have been excruciatingly painful, both for the children and the parents as they have borne their fruit (or failed to) in later years.

    Definitely consider this one for a WND column. It's a message that gets too little discussion-- seems like the exhortations are always on one extreme or the other, and our kids are paying the price.

  18. i agree with all of the others...this is an incredibly well-written article and in order for it to be read by the widest possible audience, should be submitted as one of your WND articles.

  19. I love this. I am in post divorce action with two teenagers, representing the mother. the father is ignoring the dreams and aspirations of these two girls and insist that they do it his way or else. He is not a believer and the mother has raised the girls with daily Bible study. Both girls believe that Jesus is their Lord. Father left home and moved in with another woman and keeps punishing the wife by making the girls lives miserable. Please add these girls to any prayer list you might have.Include the Judge and pray that I have wisdom to say the right words in this case. Thanks,

  20. I LOVE this post! It's definitely WND worthy. Too often I see fathers treat their sons worse than dogs under the guise of "toughening them up" or "obeying parental authority by breaking them". So either they end up producing MEAN-JERKs (the treat others the way they were treated) or broken souls that can't stand on their own. We need to encourage and exemplify the middle ground. Even with 'rebellious children' (as I commented more fully in another post) we should guide their personalities in healthy ways (ie: become a argumentative lawyer, a fierce football player, an inventor who thinks outside the box). Guidance toward the right path versus 'breaking a child' - to which they further rebel in all the wrong ways or are broken people. Children ofcourse follow the examples given to them aswell. We must ask ourselves if we're happy, comfortable people who are a "Light onto the World" that others would want to live by and emulate (especially our very own children!) or if we are abrasive miserable, uninspiring people.

    Just my $0.02 too