Saturday, August 13, 2011

Encouraging Children

The Proverbial Rod of Discipline
My mother raised me with the proverbial rod of discipline. What I mean is that my behavior while I was growing up frequently merited corporal correction from my mother. She used a wooden paddle. Upon this paddle, which has now passed to me, is carved the following: “Prov. 22:15.” So, when I say she raised me with the proverbial rod of discipline, I mean that she raised me the proverbial rod of discipline. I did not know at the time the words of this verse, but I knew what it meant. Because of my mother’s just, moderate, loving, and even-tempered use of this paddle, its message was not lost on me. I knew paddling not as an act of angry violence, but as a response to behavior that I myself knew to be foolish. I knew better was expected of me than I had provided.

Proverbs 22:15 – “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” – helped me in the path away from folly and toward virtue even before I knew its words. I still think it is an important verse and that many in the modern age dismiss it too quickly, but it is not this Old Testament verse I want to focus on at the moment. Rather, I want to look at a New Testament verse that provides an important balance to the more numerous passages of Scripture that encourage the discipline of children, Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

This verse often comes into my mind when I find myself being too hard or harsh with my children, or when I set my expectations too high. It is an important reminder that the role of the parent is primarily one of encouragement, rather than force. I can force my children to memorize information and I can force my children to behave properly – to a limited degree – but it is more important to help form my children into people who freely choose a life of virtue and faith.

First page from the first edition of Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 
November 1880.
The most important way to help form my children into Christians is by example. First, I must be a good Christian myself, so that my children will know what a good Christian is like. The lawyer Fetyukovitch, in The Brothers Karamozov, puts the matter well (even if he is in the midst of defending parricide):
I cry aloud to all fathers: 'Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath.' Yes, let us first fulfill Christ's injunction ourselves and only then venture to expect it of our children. Otherwise, we are not fathers, but enemies of our children. 
This interpretation of Col 3:21 is a stark reminder that to be a good and loving father, I must first be a good and loving Christian. I must love my children the way that Christ does – unconditionally and self-sacrificially. Patience with their foibles is only a beginning. I must first love and seek to please the Lord.

In his commentary on this verse, St. John Chrysostom points out that love for our children is implicit and assumed. He writes, “He said not, ‘Love your children,’ for it had been superfluous, seeing that nature itself constrains to this.” I would certainly agree with Chrysostom that love and concern for my children comes by nature. Even I, who am evil, know how to give good things to my children (cf. Matt 7:11). Something beyond this is required.

Namely, I must seek to do for my children that which pleases the Lord. This is a theme of the passage from Colossians on the Christian household. Paul (or the Pauline author) reiterates this many times in a short space. “Do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (3:17). Behave “as is fitting in the Lord” (3:18). Do what “pleases the Lord” (3:20). Act “fearing the Lord” and “serving the Lord and not men” (3:22-23). It is in this context of living in the Lord that I, as a father, am to neither provoke my children nor discourage them. I am to make my household also the home of Christ, where my children can get to know Him.

After encouraging my children with a good example of Christian life, I must also bring Christ into our home is by His teaching. The passage in Colossians states, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom” (3:16). So teaching one another in the way of the Lord and in virtue is also an important part of the Christian household. After affirming this, Paul immediately points out a means of teaching: “Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (3:16). So, he encourages the prayerful use of Scripture and hymns in the home. In our home, we follow this injunction literally, singing psalms and hymns as a family every night (though my little children participate only by listening at this point). My mother’s paddle comes to mind again as another interesting use of Scripture in the home. As a family, we must allow the precepts of Scripture to teach and guide our behavior.

 Icon of John Chrysostom
in Veljusa Monastery, Macedonia
XI - XIV c.
Scripture admonishes us to practice virtuous and moderate behavior. It teaches me as a father both to discipline my children and to avoid excessive punishments or demands. Chrysostom, in his commentary on Colossians 3:21, gives an example of this moderation toward children, writing, “Make them not more contentious, there are occasions when you ought even to give way.” In other words, because I have the authority of God over my children, I must wield that authority as He would. The verse immediately prior tells children to “obey [their] parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” (Col 3:20). For this obedience to truly please the Lord, I, as a father, must not be stubborn, demanding, and rigid, but merciful, magnanimous, and yielding. I must not be over-yielding or over-indulgent either, but just, balanced, moderate, and even-tempered.

1 comment:

dunn10 said...

I enjoyed reading this post. Your blog has been very helpful for me thank you.

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