Want to see how un-Christlike you are? Try raising kids

If you’re looking for a gauge to measure how un-Christlike you are, try raising kids. At least that works pretty well for me. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis speaks of “the bad manners of parents to children.” Ahem. Guilty.

A while back, for instance, I yelled at my eldest. I really let him have it. When he was rude an hour later, my wife, Megan, corrected him. “In our home we honor each other with our words,” she told him. I had to interrupt and apologize right there or make her a hypocrite.

Exasperating our kids

When preaching through Paul’s marriage advice, pastors often make the comment that Paul has to instruct husbands to love and wives to respect because if they’re prone to going off the rails, it’ll be in those directions: men lacking kindness and wives losing respect.

Apply the same thinking to Paul’s instruction to fathers. Twice he says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children.” In his letter to the Colossians he adds “lest they become discouraged” (3.21), and he warns the Ephesians about provoking children “to anger” (6.4). When I go wrong with my boys, that’s exactly the direction I head: I drive them to discouragement and frustration.

I read some patristic commentaries on these verses, hoping for a few dazzling insights. But, no. They mostly passed over this part. I think it’s because there’s not much to unpack here.

It’s like Bob Newhart’s “Stop It” routine. Paul and the fathers don’t need to give a lot of advice and teaching here because the point is clear: As dads, you’re prone to exasperating your kids. Don’t.

But is that all?

What the monk says

I have been reading Elder Porphyrios’ advice about parenting in the book Wounded by Love. It slays me. “[P]arents need to devote themselves to the love of God,” he says. “They need to become saints in relation to their children through their mildness, patience, and love. They need to make a new start every day, with a fresh outlook, renewed enthusiasm and love for their children.”

Do I really do that—or do I build a file on my children, one that tallies sins more than it forgives them?

Children’s behavior, says the elder, “is not improved by reprimands, disciplining, or strictness. If the parents do not pursue a life of holiness and if they don’t engage in spiritual struggle, they make great mistakes and transmit the faults they have within them.”

raising kids 2

A parent must employ “disciplinary measures,” admits Porphyrios but adds, “Above all, you need to pray.” And it’s in reading words like these that I realize how much grace I truly need.

The answer is grace

There’s a prayer in the Orthodox church for parents. “O Righteous Judge,” it says, “who punishes children for the sins of their parents, punish not my children for my sins, but sprinkle them with the dew of Thy grace.”

This is what’s behind Porphyrios’ comment about transmitting our faults. The idea stems from Exodus 20 where it says God “visits” sins from one generation to the next. Neither the text of the scripture, nor the theology of the church would suggest punishment per se; it’s probably clearer to say that kids bear negative consequences of their parents’ sins.

I can correct my son all day, but if it’s coming from a hard heart, I will only close his. I will, as the apostle warned, drive him to discouragement—or worse. To pray the prayer above is to ask God for mercy in their lives, to relieve the ill effects of my own sins, and instead to “sprinkle them with the dew of [God’s] grace.”

As we say in the litany, “Grant this, O Lord.”

Image credit: Internet Archive.


  1. Joel, I’ll thank you to disengage the camera you so obviously have installed in my home. And let’s limit our meddling in other people’s lives to the areas where I don’t struggle from now on, shall we?

    I would thank you for this, but I’m too busy repenting. Let’s not let this happen again!

  2. Thanks for the awesome blog post. Man, I am a complete disaster of a father. I got in my son’s face yesterday and yelled at him like a drill sergeant. I’m short tempered, abusive. I reprimand them and talk too much. I do all that and expect my kids will not be affected negatively? I feel like jumping off a cliff right now. But that won’t help…Lord please forgive me and help me to repent and be a loving father instead.

  3. This post cuts me to the quick. I have been so authoritarian, angry, and controlling with my sons.
    And it has all failed. If I told you the extent of the failure, you wouldn’t believe it.

    How hard I tried to do the right things, but I lacked the one thing needed, love of God and a true love for them.
    We make projects of our kids and they become little idols we erect to ourselves. And when those idols begin to express their free will, we often crush them in our attempts to control them. Love does not coerce, or shame, or bully, or intimidate.

    Thankfully, I think my children still love me, but I have a lifetime of repenting to do. And the whirlwind I am now enduring is merely my own sins thrown back in my face.
    May God forgive me and may he save them despite my sins.

  4. With children (and probably adults too), I have found that when we tell them what not to do, it leaves a vacuum that they don’t know how to fill. This is most obvious with toddlers. In my experience, the whole scene works better when, as “correction,” I show the child what to do rather than tell them what not to do. It seems to work because the child then has something they can replace the former behavior with.

    1. Yes. Thanks for sharing that. I’ve seen that work with my own kids. Sometimes we role play or get them to pre-think their responses (“When this happens, how will you respond?”). That works well with my two little guys. I think sometimes with my eldest, I assume he should know everything. But no, that’s not how it works.

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