Dinner is late again, and the living room looks like a failed disaster relief effort. You ask your son to put away his part of the mess, but he ignores you. You turn the TV off; he gives you a surly look. You say, “Don’t ignore me, and get that look off your face!” He mimics you under his breath and doesn’t move. Your face flushes, and you say, “I’m not going to stand for disrespect in my own home, and you’d better move fast if you want dinner.”
He gets up slowly and mutters, “Whatever.” Without thinking, you reach out and slap him. He stands speechless with surprise, anger, and embarrassment running across his face. Suddenly he’s respectful and listening to you! You’re surprised, but secretly delighted. It worked! Easy, quick, and effective! Who could ask for anything more?
Your conscience could, and it is. A small nagging voice in the back of your mind isn’t letting you walk to the kitchen feeling guilt-free and good about yourself. Your slap seemed to “work,” but you sense that it wasn’t right. That’s good. Your unsettled feeling means your conscience is still alive.
Why We Lose Control
This story might not fit you exactly—maybe you never slapped your child—but haven’t there been times when your child pushed all your buttons, and you said and did things that later bothered your conscience? Why is your conscience uneasy? Weren’t you just correcting your child’s bad behavior?
You are troubled because you lost control with your child. But why did you lose control? What was going on in your heart that made your child’s actions so infuriating? The reason you lost control was that, whether you’ve thought about it consciously or not, your child was not fulfilling your desires. Let’s take a moment to look more closely at what your desires were at the moment you lost control with your child. To help you, consider these questions:
• When you lose control because your child is disrespectful (or disobedient, or ungrateful, or anything else that annoys you), whose agenda for your child has become most important? Yours? Or God’s?
• When you lose control, are you most concerned with your child obeying God’s will, or your will?
• Whose desires (for peace and quiet, comfort, respect, obedience, etc.) are most important at the moment you are losing control?
• When your child disobeys you in front of others, are you most concerned for God’s reputation or your own?
When your agenda, your will, your desires, and your reputation become more important than God’s, that’s a sign you are trying to be your child’s god. That’s right. Whether you thought about it or not, you want your child to treat you like God.
It’s easy, as a parent, to confuse your agenda with God’s agenda. God does think that respect, obedience, and gratitude are important. And God does call parents to hold their children accountable and to discipline them. But there is a bigger picture. Since God tells your child to respect you, isn’t your child really disrespecting God (since he’s ignoring God’s commands) more than he is you? When you struck your son (or yelled at him, insulted him, pushed him, or knocked him down), were you thinking about your son’s disrespect toward Jesus? If not, then the way you treated him was more about how he ignored your demands, than it was about his violation of God’s commands.
Besides respect, there are plenty of other things we want from our children. Some of us want easy, comfortable lives; and our children take more effort, time, and attention than we want to give. Others of us want grateful children, who appreciate all we do for them. Maybe you want your children to excel and be the best they can be at everything they do. Or perhaps you only want your children to stay safe, and not do foolish things that will ruin their lives. You have your own list of things you want from your child. The list of things we want for and from our children is as individual as we are.
How a Desire for a Good Thing Can Be Bad
Some of the things we desire from our children are good things. But your desire for any of these good things—respect, comfort, gratitude, excellence, safety—can turn into an ungodly demand when you decide you must have it from your child or else!
To understand how your desire for a good thing can be bad, you have to understand the difference between desiring and demanding. You can picture this as the difference between open hands and closed hands. Open hands allow a gift to be placed into them; they’re not greedy or grasping. You might be disappointed if you don’t get a gift you really wanted, but it’s not the end of the world. The desire for your child to respect you is wonderful. It’s the right way for children to live with their parents. You can pray that your child will respect you and let God know how much you would like to have it. But if you don’t receive it, you’ll still bless God and love your child.
Closed hands with fingers curled tightly around a thing announce to everyone, “I must have this or I die!” You believe you have the right to receive respect—especially from your children. “Look at everything I have done for you!” When you don’t get respect you become angry—sometimes you lash out, sometimes you are filled with self-pity—but the bottom line is that you are angry.
Respect as a desire is a good thing. Respect as a demand is an evil thing. When you treat respect as something owed to you, then you expect it. When you expect it, you look to others to provide it. When they do, you like them. But when they don’t, you punish them. You can tell when your desire for your child’s good behavior has turned into an ungodly demand by the way you react when she does something wrong. When our desires are controlling us and we don’t get what we want, we often become angry and lose control.
Children’s Hearts Are Not Won by Force
Parenting, as with every area of life, can tempt us to focus on obtaining some good part of creation instead of worshiping the Creator. The apostle Paul explains it this way: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25). When we set our hearts on loving what God has given us more than we love him, we are rejecting God and making ourselves into gods. When we make ourselves the center of the world and look for meaning, purpose, and direction in people instead of in him, we end up with ruined relationships (Romans 1:29–31).
How does this happen with our children? When you lose control with your children, you are communicating to them that their priority is to wrap themselves around you. They must give you what you want or pay the consequences. You are, in reality, demanding their worship. Instead of teaching them to live according to every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, you are teaching them to live according to every word that proceeds out of your mouth (Matthew 4:4).
Such a warped world only works as long as your threat of anger and punishment is big enough to suppress your children’s resistance. Sure, you can motivate with fear. People do listen and change their behavior when threatened, but only because they want to avoid the consequences, not because they desire to love and honor those in charge.
Consider what happens in a police state. Nearly everyone tows the line; only a few transgress the rules. But people are obedient because they don’t want to be punished, not out of loyalty and love for their country. They are only biding their time until they can get rid of their oppressors.
Families work in similar ways. Children’s hearts are not won by force. When your children are physically, emotionally, and socially mature, their true nature and attitude toward you will come out. You have taught them that their relationship with you is not built on Christ and his ways, but on you and your rules. When they reject your rules, it is likely they will also reject you, and you will be left without a relationship with your child.
Is there any hope? Yes, there is. Jesus came to free you from the demands that turn his good gifts into your selfish rights. He takes clenched fists and opens them. Jesus doesn’t remove your good desires. Rather he reorders you on the inside so that your ungodly, twisted demands become godly, righteous desires. As this happens to you on the inside, the way you relate to your child will start to change also.
Winston T. Smith, M. Div., is the director of counseling at CCEF and has extensive experience as a marriage and family counselor. He is the author of many counseling articles. The booklet Rest, and is currently writing a book on marriage.