I tend to think that when parents see the words “Parental Discipline” in a sermon title, they immediately think, ‘Great, a good strong sermon from the pastor telling us to be firm with our kids.’ There is certainly an element of that theme in this message. But that’s not where we start. Rather, we start approaching the theme of “parental discipline” by first recognizing that before parents and grandparents can exert positive discipline upon their offspring, they must first exercise strong self-discipline upon themselves. Before we try to impose healthy guidance on our kids, we must exercise healthy guidance on our own personalities and character. Parental discipline begins with our pondering Paul’s wise words in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath.” Remember that Paul was writing advice amidst a culture that observed a strict hierarchal and paternalistic family model. In Paul’s day, the father was regarded as the absolute authority of the household, whose word was virtual law. Indeed, he had the power of life and death. But Paul was making the point that having the authority to impose discipline is not license for tyranny. Parenthood is not simply the raw exercise of power. Yes, parents have a mandate to discipline their children. But Paul reminds parents that they are not to wield their authority in such a way that their parental power becomes an oppressive force engendering lasting resentment in their children. Do not provoke your children to wrath! In other words, says Paul, before you attempt to exercise discipline upon your children and grandchildren, you must exercise the spiritual strength to discipline your own character.
I think of a young father who was shopping for groceries and had his squirming, whining, balky young son in his shopping cart. A matronly woman in the same aisle heard the father speaking calmly: “Now, George, don’t get excited. George, keep calm. George, let’s use your inside voice.” The woman could not contain herself; she came up to the young man and said, “Sir, I just want to commend you for keeping your child so perfectly under control.” The man smiled and responded, “My dear lady, you need to understand something. My son’s name is Bobby. I’m George.” This parent understood instinctively that the disciplining of his child began with the disciplining of himself.
Similarly, a journalist researching an article on the Amish people spent time watching Amish children on the playground. After a couple of hours of such study the journalist went to the schoolmaster with an astounding observation. “I don’t understand. None of these children ever yell or scream at each other. Can you tell me why?” The schoolmaster responded, “Sure. Have you yet heard an Amish adult yell or scream at each other?”
When Paul counsels, “Parents, do not provoke your children to wrath,” he is reminding us that if we want our children not to live lives of anger, we must discipline ourselves to drain from our personalities the anger that sometimes swells within us. We can make our children wrathful with the world because we are often wrathful with them. I realized early on in my own career as a parent that young lives are always watching us. Their eyes are video cameras; their ears are recording studios. They pay close attention to our behavior and are intensely curious about how we will respond on sundry situations. Our children want to know how we handle success and failure, how we grapple with defeat and disappointment. They want to know how we will react when we prove ourselves foolish or incompetent. Do we display the ability to laugh at ourselves? Or when we are vulnerable, do we respond with flashes of temper, a display of wrath and an attempt at shifting blame?
If we do not want our children to grow up characterized by anger, we must first discipline ourselves against the tendency to display destructive anger, which we often mistakenly equate with corrective discipline. If we find our children constantly angry, they may be holding up a mirror that reflects our behavior toward them.
I came to realize that parenting is an art form that hinges on balancing the interplay of saying two words — Yes and No. No is in fact the word that looms as most important. I know that when we hear the words of Paul, “Don’t provoke your children to wrath,” our first thought as parents is, ‘I don’t want to be so strict, so overbearing, so controlling of my children that I turn them into angry, resentful kids.’ In truth, that is a real danger. It takes real parental discipline of ourselves to ensure that this does not happen. But here’s the deal: you can also create children of wrath by not establishing for them firm boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. You can create children of wrath by not expressing toward them firm and high expectations and challenging them to make utmost use of their talents. Many years ago, when my daughter Clara was young and our golden retriever Suzie was young, I took both for a walk. I had Suzie on a retractable leash, but I was giving her maximum license to roam, which she used to get herself entangled around every obstacle along the way. Finally, after she had extricated Suzie about a half-dozen times from one mess or another, young Clara looked at me and said, “Daddy, you are giving this dog too much leash!” She was right. For the next couple of months I kept Suzie on a short leash until she learned to navigate the obstacles along the way. Children need us to be willing to hold them on a tight leash. They ache for limits. And the truth is, children will skirt the edge of every boundary we establish just to see if we care enough to enforce the structure we have imposed. Children are looking to see if we have the self-discipline to say that unpopular word, “No.” Of course, they won’t always like to hear it. They may often temporarily resent it. But they know they need us to say it. We can create children of wrath by not caring enough to establish boundaries of discipline and articulate high expectations that challenge them to make the most of their lives.
There was a famous study done some years ago on children with high self-esteem, and the study established that most of these kids came from homes that imposed firm structures of discipline. Conversely, they found that children with low-esteem tended to come from families where they felt they could break the rules in their homes with impunity because nobody cared enough about them to establish and enforce authority. Nobody cared enough to say No. It is not easy as parents and grandparents to keep our kids on a tight leash, but children need to know that we care enough about them to summon the energy to establish and maintain boundaries. Children who don’t have those boundaries are constantly acting inappropriately in the hope that somebody will notice and somebody will care. When parents don’t notice and don’t care, they create children of wrath. The Bible has a lot of sad verses, but one of the saddest is found in I Kings, chapter one, verse 6, where the narrator said of King David, “He never at any time displeased his son Adonijah by asking him, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” For all of his many gifts, King David was a terrible parent who never learned the skill of saying No. As a result, Adonijah grew up arrogant, reckless, spoiled and headstrong, bound for destruction.
We’ve been studying I Samuel in our Wednesday Bible study, and that Biblical book provides another painful example of parental ineptitude. Eli, the high priest and head of the tabernacle, did an effective job of nurturing Samuel and training him for leadership – but he did a terrible job shepherding his own sons. The Biblical narrator offered this harsh assessment: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men.” (I Samuel 2: 12) Worthless men! They grew up nigh to the sanctuary, but its virtues never penetrated their souls. Eli was blind to the fact that his own sons were growing up vain, selfish, greedy and faithless. By the time he noticed, it was too late. By the time he summoned the courage to say to his sons, “What you are doing is not right,” it was too late: the characters of his sons Hophni and Phinehas were already formed, and they were headed to destruction, ensuring the doom of the house of Eli.
In that famous study I referenced concerning children with high self-esteem, the psychologists discovered that positive households were actually bracketed by two distinctive dynamics. On the one hand, the parents in these households articulated high expectations and established firm boundaries of discipline. On the other hand, those same households were characterized by a high degree of democracy and openness. In other words, once boundaries were established, within those boundaries there was good deal of freedom of discussion and many opportunities for children to exercise autonomy, so that they might pursue and develop their own aptitudes.
Paul’s famous admonition in Ephesians 6, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath,” is an oft-quoted bit of Biblical advice on parenting. However, equally important, and less well-known, is Paul’s admonition in Colossians 3:21, where he writes, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Like I said, parenting is an art. We must as parents and grandparents establish firm boundaries and articulate high expectations. But those demands and that discipline can become so controlling as to discourage our children and kill their dreams. We must say enough Yesses to our children that we encourage them in their ambitions. Dave Simmons, a Georgia Bulldog and former cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys, wrote some years ago of his military father whose standards and personality were so high and exacting that as a child he always felt belittled. When he was drafted by the NFL in the second round, Dave called his father with the joyous news; his dad’s first response was, “So how does it feel to be the team’s second choice?” Dave Simmons grew up hating his father’s discipline, because he felt his father’s whole purpose in parenthood was to dash his every dream. You can kill a child’s dreams by continual discouragement.
By contrast, I think of a father in a restaurant who witnessed a youngster at a nearby table who had spilled his drink and made a big mess. He heard the father scream in disgust, “What are you good for?” The child dropped his head in shame and replied, “Nothing.” A couple of weeks later, when that man’s own son had accidentally created a huge mess in the kitchen, the father heard himself parroting the other father’s question — “What are you good for?” But when he heard his own son hang his head in humiliation and say, “Nothing,” the dad knew that he was the one in the wrong. He quickly hastened to hug his son and said to him, “I’ll tell what you are good for. You are good for loving. You are good for loving.” It became their private joke. From that point on whenever the son committed some minor transgression, the father would ask the son, “What are you good for?” and the son would answer, “I’m good for loving.” That’s a father who realized that the importance of not discouraging a child.
There is no rewind button on parenting children. We are blessed to nurture them for about ten or eleven years, then they disappear into adolescents. Then we wrestle with them for several more years, before they disappear into young adulthood — and then parenting has to take on an entirely different angle. By then, the formative work in molding their character and outlook has mostly been done. And at times it will seem to us that we are making no impact on the young lives around us. But know this: you can never accurately gauge the impact of your influence. Some years ago I coached an AAU basketball team that was something of a social experiment. Half the team was constituted of white, suburban boys like my own sons; the other half was comprised of inner-city black kids drawn from some of Charlotte’s toughest neighborhoods. Needless to say, there were several cultural clashes along the way in trying to blend those kids into one unit, and I invested a lot of myself trying to be a father figure to those African-American kids who didn’t have one. Much of the time I felt like I was making no headway with these young people. Finally, the kids graduated, the team disbanded, I moved away, and I lost touch with most of them. But a couple of years ago, one of my sons received a Facebook message from one of those inner city kids in whom I had invested a lot of energy. He and Stewart ended up talking on the phone, and this young man said, “You tell Doc and Mama Kremer that I’m doing all right. I’ve got a good job, and I’m supporting my family, and you tell Doc that I’m staying on the straight and narrow. I’m staying on the straight and narrow. You tell Doc that I think all the time about what he and Mama Kremer did for us, and I’ve come to appreciate the lessons they tried to teach us far more now than I did at the time. You tell Doc I’m trying to live those lessons every day and teach them to my own kids.”
That, my friends, is what we do as parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, mentors – we try to instill in young lives positive patterns for living, lessons that can nurture and guide them for good in the present and for years to come. But that can only happen if we discipline ourselves first to develop the spiritual strength and purity of character that is necessary to fill that role effectively.