Raising Children With a Long-Term Perspective
Child-raising is on the decline. You need to have kids before you can raise them. And we’re not having nearly as many of them as we used to:
The birthrate hit a record low in 2020, followed by a slight uptick in 2021.
The good news is that Christian parents are more likely to have kids, and to have larger families, than non-religious adults. So, if our children retain that faith into adulthood, it would counteract the societal trend towards secularism. But passing down the faith to our children is hard work. It’s work that starts in their earliest years.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s break down child-raising into two phases: pre- and post-adolescence. The early years and the later years.
What do infants most need to know, aside from their sinfulness and need for a Savior?
- Mom and Dad are in charge.
- God put Mom and Dad in charge.
- God put Mom and Dad in charge for my good. (Eph. 6:3)
Kids build from the simple to the complex as their mental abilities expand. Initially, there’s no use explaining the why. Just the what. “Eat this.” “Don’t eat that.” “Don’t hit your sister.” “Go to bed.” “Stay in bed.”
Kids need to know that these huge, powerful people who change their diapers and save them from death on a daily basis — these people are in charge. Our kids’ sinful inclination will show itself early and often. It must be met with a consistent message: “No, this family doesn’t revolve around your every whim. Actually, Mom and Dad are in charge.” If they understand this, things will go better for them. Routines of sleeping, eating, and playing/learning are not determined by toddlers. Our culture encourages us to discover and honor our children’s preferences, but children feel more secure when their parents establish these rhythms for them. Think of this as setting guardrails around what expressions are permitted, and when.
But why are Mom and Dad in charge? God designed it this way. And why did God design it this way? For their good. This can be spoken to them repeatedly long before our kids can even speak. Before they can articulate it themselves, they will surely know it. Truth spoken in love, and demonstrated in love, will embody to them the goodness and love of God the Father.
As they get older, kids’ ability to ask and to understand the why increases. It’s important that they view their parents not just as having positional authority but as having moral authority. Think of positional authority as power by virtue of a role or a relationship. Your boss, police officers, elected government officials — they each have positional authority, within their respective spheres.
Moral authority works differently. It’s influence due to a sense of respect and admiration. A co-worker might have more moral authority, in your eyes, than your boss. For better or for worse, your teenagers might look up to someone at school or church more than they value Mom and Dad’s input. Unlike positional authority, moral authority has to be earned. And there are degrees of moral authority. The amount of moral authority we possess with our kids can ebb and flow, fall and rise. If we fall short, a sincere apology can boost our moral authority, while also modeling to our children how to repent and ask forgiveness, from God and from others. Giving our kids the benefit of the doubt boosts moral authority.
Positional authority can lean on “Do it because I said so.” And there’s certainly a place for that, especially in the earlier years. But as time goes on, that should give way to “Do it because it will go well with you.” Our kids will entrust us with moral authority if they believe that we love them, that we want the best for them, and that we have wisdom they need for their journey.
Playing the Long Game
It really helps to play the long game. Exercise positional authority, but always aim to grow your moral authority. The effectiveness of positional authority will wane as kids age. They become too old to spank. They have more opportunities to do wrong apart from your watchful gaze. But if your moral authority is growing, if they view you as trustworthy and mindful of their long-term best interest, then they will involve you in their lives out of choice, not obligation. You’ll have influence at the level of their hearts, where it most counts.
Don’t win the battle but lose the war. Remember the relationship. Keep that at the forefront. Use teaching opportunities to shore up and strengthen moral authority. Ephesians 6:4 says “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” We can provoke our children by disciplining in anger. Or by disciplining without love in our voice. Or by nitpicking. Or by assuming the worst. Many battles must be fought, but choose wisely which to fight and when to fight them.
Remember that you’re fighting for your kids, not against them. Both formative and corrective discipline must always be demonstrably for the child’s greater good. Their long-term success must always be in view. They need to know of this overarching aim.
When they mess up, and all kids do, allow them to experience natural consequences. These help them learn cause and effect, but also that failure isn’t final. The Psalmist said, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray.” (Ps. 119:67) But leading by intimidation is toxic for the relationship. Notice that in Ephesians 6:9 Paul tells Christian masters to stop threatening their slaves/employees.
Withholding affection as a way to secure compliance is cruel and manipulative. God doesn’t do that with us. In correction, show your children where they’re going wrong as if presenting them with a gift. Love them throughout the process. This love is something they need to feel at a deep level.
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Regularly make deposits towards this end. Catch them doing right at least as often as you catch them doing wrong. Be lavish in affirmation. Be genuinely interested in their passions. We’re far more likely to receive correction from someone who likes us, who clearly wants us to succeed. It’s similar in the workforce: People work the hardest when they think and feel that their boss actually likes them. Fear and intimidation, in contrast, can at most secure perfunctory compliance.
In all training, appeal to self-interest. Jesus did this too: “Lose your life and you’ll save it.” (Matthew 16:25) “Give up houses or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, and receive a hundredfold now in this time, and in the age to come, eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
Moral authority gives us deep and abiding influence — an influence that extends into the years when our positional authority drops to near zero. It more naturally leads to our children incorporating our values and worldview so that they’re making wise choices for many years beyond our physical presence.
That’s our aim. That’s the long game.
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).