Parenting isn’t an exact science, and every family is different. What can we do to have the best chance of raising happy, healthy and well-adjusted kids?
When my wife and I were newly married, we spent a great deal of time talking about our future, including our desire to have children.
In our own minds, we had analyzed and solved all of the child-rearing problems our friends and acquaintances were battling. We were going to have obedient, compliant children who never pitched a tantrum or embarrassed us in any way.
They were going to be perfect children, because we knew how to be perfect parents . . .
Happy is the man
It is God’s design that having children and families be a joyful and wonderful thing. “Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them” (Psalm 127:3-5). That seems straightforward enough.
But you may not be surprised to hear that my wife and I have learned a few things over the past few decades. We were not perfect parents, and parenthood didn’t turn out exactly how we had envisioned it in our idealistic youth.
However, there are some timeless biblical principles we picked up along the way that apply to every family and every culture.
Whether you have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of your baby for years or whether the news of your pregnancy came as a complete shock, nearly everyone starts out with the same goal. We all want to be good parents!
Let’s look at a few positive parenting principles we can glean from the Bible.
Teach your children about God
Let’s start with the most basic and fundamental thing we can possibly do—teach our children about God. Our experiences in early childhood impact the rest of our lives. So it is easy to see why teaching our children—from an early age—about God, His laws and His purpose for our lives is so important. Children need a strong spiritual foundation.
Wise King Solomon wrote, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
He understood the principle that what we learn as children tends to stay with us as we go into adulthood. As adults, our tendency is to fall back on the patterns we saw as children. And our proclivity is to live by the same principles of faith (or lack thereof) we saw when we were children.
God inspired Moses to teach the Israelites to make sure instructions from and about their Creator were a foundational part of family life.
In Deuteronomy 4:1 Moses told the people to “listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you.” A few verses later he wrote, “And teach them to your children and your grandchildren” (verse 9). He repeated this in Deuteronomy 6:2.
How can we do this? Certainly, there is a place for more formal Bible studies with our children, but they are not the only way—or always the most effective way—to teach our children about God.
The picture Moses gives is of a family living life and talking about God and His ways “when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (verse 7). This teaching is to be simply a part of the normal pattern of how we live.
If it is important to moms and dads, they will find many opportunities to talk about what is true, right and pure in God’s eyes.
As parents, most of us know there are windows of opportunity when our children are receptive to learning a particular lesson. We need to look for or, when possible, create those precious windows, to both show and teach our children the way to live. Spending quality time—and as much time as possible—with our children helps us find and create those marvelous teachable moments.
Set a positive example
There is an old maxim about actions speaking louder than words—and it is very true! If we teach our children that they need to be honest and truthful, but they see us lying, what can we expect them to learn to do? The parenting strategy of “do as I say, not as I do” just won’t work.
Children are incredible little mimics. Several years ago, country singer Rodney Atkins released a song titled “Watching You.” The lyrics describe a little boy and his dad, and how the little boy deliberately followed the example of his dad—whether good or bad. It is something for us parents to consider!
Many years ago, I remember being in a large crowd with a number of families I didn’t know. One woman was talking with several other women, standing with her hand on her hip and one leg slightly in front of the other. It was not hard to figure out who her daughter was, because just a few feet away was a little girl of about 5 or 6, posed exactly as her mother was. No doubt the little girl had seen and studied her mom’s stance, and she repeated it precisely.
Both of my boys are grown young men now, but I still see little mannerisms in them that I know came from me. They may not know why, but for better or worse, they copied me. That is how God designed it to be—that children will absorb the example of their parents.
The apostle Paul gave some instructions to Titus in his ministry that are also important for us as parents. “Always set an example by doing good things. When you teach, be an example of moral purity and dignity” (Titus 2:7, God’s Word Translation).
What do our children see in how we speak to or about others? Are we setting an example of integrity, faithfulness and honesty? Is our word our bond? Do our children ever see us praying or studying the Bible? Do they see us applying biblical principles to how we choose to live? They should!
Never ignore or underestimate the power of your example.
Administer loving discipline
The word discipline almost always brings negative images to mind of punishment or having privileges removed. Those things may be part of the process, but discipline should be so much more.
One of the definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”
Rules have a purpose, and isn’t teaching our children how to behave and get along well with others one of the primary goals of a parent?
Rules (often called laws when we are adults) are a part of the fabric of life. Children need to understand that concept from the beginning.
So, set fair rules. Boundaries are a key to success and harmony in the family. Children instinctively want to know where their boundaries are, and while they may chafe at some of them, they will feel more secure knowing there are limits.
We always want to keep our children safe, especially when they are too young to recognize many dangers. As parents, we must set rules for our children’s safety, such as:
- Don’t play in the street.
- Don’t play with electrical outlets.
- Don’t get in a car with strangers.
And there are rules that need to be established for the well-being of the household, such as:
- Put your toys away when you are done.
- Empty your trash can.
- Help clear the table after dinner.
We base our rules on the ages and abilities of our children, starting basic and simple, and gradually increasing what we ask as they get older. This way, they learn responsibility, as well as skills they will need when they are grown and taking care of their own homes.
Positive reinforcement is crucial. It is far too easy to point out bad behavior, but then just smile to ourselves when our children do something good. It is important our children get more attention for good behavior than for bad! When they do what you’ve asked, be quick to give a compliment. If they go above and beyond (they not only cleared the table, but also washed the dishes), be lavish with your praise!
Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” It is important for our children to hear compliments and praise from us.
Fair rules and fair consequences
However, they won’t always do what is right, and this is where correction and punishment must come in. Solomon wrote, “Correct your son, and he will give you rest; yes, he will give delight to your soul” (Proverbs 29:17).
When a rule is clearly explained, and maybe a reminder given, disobedience needs to be followed with punishment appropriate for the offense and the age of the child. It is for his or her good!
The ability to have and raise children is a miracle and an enriching experience. Paul advised, “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
God is not saying that we should never do anything to make our children upset. We are to love them, teach them and be fair in all we do. In doing that, godly parents will make sure that with fair rules also come fair consequences.
There is never a time to be cruel in correction. No matter what they’ve done or how we have to respond, our children should never doubt that we love them!
Don’t fall into the trap of making empty threats or threatening something you would never be willing to do. Revoking your child’s TV privileges for an afternoon may be reasonable, but selling the TV is probably not.
If children learn that consequences are not always carried out, they lose respect for the rule and the parent.
Discipline and the missing door
I know the story of a young man who would run to his room and slam the bedroom door when he was angry with his parents. It was disrespectful and also damaging to the door and door frame.
Dad let him know that if the door was slammed again, it would be removed. Within a few days the door was slammed again, and Dad quietly got up and removed the door.
After a few days, the boy not only apologized for his behavior, but promised not to slam it again if he could have his door back. He knew his parents were fair, but they meant what they said. And the door was not slammed again!
Natural consequences vs. overprotective parents
In our zeal to protect our children, it is natural to want to step in and prevent consequences for bad behavior. But we must ask, does such overprotective parenting really help our children and teach the right lessons?
Several teachers I’ve talked to have stories of parents storming up to the school to defend their children and object to a poor grade or loss of privileges or after-school detention.
Though it’s important that our children know we “have their backs” in situations where they really need protection, much of the time we need to let the natural consequences of their actions take place. Our children need to learn to respect authority, learn from correction and even deal with unfair judgments.
Natural consequences are necessary for our children to learn to deal with the realities of life.
Parenting—imperfect but positive
The ability to have and raise children is a miracle and an enriching experience. My wife and I did not turn out to be the perfect parents we had planned to be, and the job was more challenging than we could have imagined. If there were “do-overs” in life, there would be many things we would like to change. There is so much we have learned!
Your children’s temperament and personality may require some adjustments to what I’ve shared here. You may have to guide your children slightly differently than other parents guide their children. But I believe you’ll find these basic biblical principles to be timeless and beneficial to your family and your precious children.
Learn more in the articles in the “Practical Tips for Positive Parenting” section of Life, Hope & Truth.