Attention, Affection, Authority
Primer for Parenting Young Children
My wife, Julie, and I have been parents now for 43 years. During that time, God has graciously given us 6 children and 22 grandchildren, with more on the way (grandchildren, not children!). That’s a lot of parenting experience, even if many of our experiences only showed how confused we were at the time.
When people ask us for counsel on raising kids, as our children often have, it can be difficult to respond briefly. Parenting is complex, and there are few simple answers.
Of course, the most important words are those God himself has given us, such as these from the apostle Paul, in Ephesians 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” And similarly in Colossians 3:21: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”
It’s significant that Paul issues a common warning in these two verses: “Do not provoke your children.” Don’t tempt them. Don’t overly burden them. Don’t frustrate them. But how do we keep from doing that? In our early years of parenting, I remember how often I thought the answer to any parenting problem was more rules. Unfortunately, that became a primary way I provoked my children. And it became especially obvious when I lost track of what rules I had actually made.
A wiser way to avoid provoking our children is to consider what kind of father God is to us. In these years far removed from the daily pressures of raising little ones, Julie and I have identified at least three ways God calls us to reflect his fatherly heart in the way we raise our children.
In this age of nonstop, ever-present, competing spectacles, giving children our attention can be more challenging than we think.
The voices of distraction are loud and persistent. Dirty dishes. Dirty house. Dirty laundry. Dirty children. Grocery shopping. Time with friends. Deadlines. Text messages. Unfinished books, magazines, and articles. Internet browsing. The nonstop allure of social media, phone games, and podcasts. It’s easy to stop paying attention to the little ones right in front of our eyes. We have an uncanny ability to tune out a whining child or ignore little fingers pulling on our shirt when we have something “more important” to do.
But God isn’t like that. “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8). As our Lord teaches us, his eye is on us. In fact, he is always watching us: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18).
We are never out of God’s sight. We always have his attention. Likewise, our children need to know they have our attention. That means patient listening. Focusing. Stooping down to eye level. Spending time. It often requires saying no to other activities. Turning off or turning down the TV or music. Closing your computer. Putting down your phone.
Of course, children should be taught not to interrupt adults and to respect the conversations of others. But too often, we seek to parent our kids without really knowing them or understanding them. We can view them more as interruptions, nuisances, or obstacles to what we want to accomplish.
But raising our children for God’s glory is what we want to accomplish. And to do that, we need to give them our attention.
Our young children need to know not only that we notice them, but that we love them. They were made to respond to and benefit from our affection.
J.C. Ryle reminds us in The Duties of Parents,
Love should be the silver thread that runs through all your conduct. Kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, patience, forbearance, sympathy, a willingness to enter into childish troubles, a readiness to take part in childish joys — these are the cords by which a child may be led most easily — these are the clues you must follow if you would find the way to his heart. (11)
Consider God’s affection for his people — the kind of affection we’re to reflect to our children:
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:3–4)
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Psalm 103:8)
Affection begins in the heart, but it leads to physical contact: holding, touching, hugging, kissing, cuddling — and typically for boys, wrestling.
We can easily withhold affection when we want to “teach our kid a lesson.” They’ve been disrespectful. They’ve blatantly disobeyed. They’re being selfish and arguing — again. Our responses are short, even cold. There’s nothing warm or inviting about the way we’re addressing or interacting with them.
“It’s God’s kindness, not his harshness, that leads us to repentance. The same will be true with our children.”
But no matter how irritated, frustrated, bothered, inconvenienced, or bad we’re feeling, we don’t want to withhold the kind of lavish affection God has poured out on us through his Son. Showing such affection doesn’t mean we don’t speak clearly, firmly, or even sternly at times. There are directions we want our children to understand, sins we want them to avoid, and dangers we want them to flee.
But far too often, self-centered anger motivates us rather than wisdom and compassion. Paul reminds us in Romans 2:4 that it’s God’s kindness, not his harshness, that leads us to repentance. The same will be true with our children. God doesn’t withdraw his affection from his children when they disobey. Neither should we.
The Bible isn’t vague about children needing to obey their parents.
My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching. (Proverbs 6:20)
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. (Colossians 3:20)
“Authority combined with attention and affection is crucial for our children, especially in their early years.”
But a parent’s authority is never to be confused with demanding, bullying, manipulating, shaming, deriding, abusing, venting, belittling, crushing, domineering, or distancing. It’s never to be harsh or cruel or rooted in selfishness or vengeance. That kind of authority drives our children away from God, not toward him. But authority combined with attention and affection is crucial for our children, especially in their early years.
We exercise authority over our children not simply because we’re the adults, but because we want to point them to God’s authority. His rule over us is perfect and absolute; ours isn’t. So, as we exercise authority, we can look for ways to communicate the beauty, necessity, and delight of God’s commands to our kids. For example:
- Talk regularly about what God wants us to do and why he wants us to obey him with joy.
- Reference God’s word at planned times and spontaneously throughout the day.
- Distinguish between God’s rules and our own preferences.
- Point out the consequences of disobeying God’s commands.
- Bring appropriate discipline when commands have been clearly heard, understood, and then disobeyed or disregarded.
- Consistently bring discipline with a calm, hopeful, and faith-filled spirit.
Where Godly Authority Leads
Because authority is so often ignored or abused, it’s also helpful to remember why exercising authority in our children’s lives is so important.
First, authority teaches our children how God wants us to live. “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies” (Psalm 25:10). Teaching our children not to lie, steal, hurt, or be disrespectful isn’t merely our preference — it’s God’s command. Likewise, being kind, truthful, generous, merciful, and faithful doesn’t just make them good citizens — it reflects their Father in heaven (Ephesians 5:1).
Second, authority shows our children their inability to keep God’s commands perfectly. As Paul Tripp has said, “Parenting is not a behavior-control mission; it is a heart-rescue mission.” Our job isn’t to keep our kids from sinning (an impossible task), but to teach them what to do with their sin in light of the Savior. There is a difference between doing good and being good, between the way we act and the way we are. God’s authority, over time, is meant to reveal our children’s waywardness, rebellion, deception, and inability to save themselves.
Finally, authority is meant to point our children to the Savior who perfectly obeyed his Father so he could take God’s punishment for our disobedience. Parental discipline is necessary to keep our kids from harming themselves and others, but it can’t change their hearts. They need to know that hope comes not from their spotless record but from the spotless record of Jesus. Regardless of how good our children look on the outside, they are never beyond the need for a Savior. And regardless of how bad our children act on the outside, they are never beyond the power of a Savior.
As in all things parenting related, we’ll never carry out these plans, or any others, as well as we hope. But we can take great comfort knowing we have a heavenly Father whose eye is always on us, whose heart is always for us, and who is always working in us what is pleasing to him (Psalm 121:7–8; Psalm 103:17; Philippians 2:13) — even, and especially, as we parent our young children.