We rightly lament the world’s attempts to undermine parental authority and replace mothers and fathers with secular government in the name of “children’s rights.” Still, the idea that children have rights, properly defined, is actually biblical. No less than their parents, children are human beings made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), and parents dare not cross certain boundaries of discipline. In correcting their children, mothers and fathers are prohibited from inflicting serious physical injury even if they must use the rod wisely when appropriate (Ex. 21:20, 26–27; Prov. 22:15). Parents are also forbidden to embarrass, curse, or otherwise verbally, mentally, or emotionally abuse their kids (James 3:8–10). And of course, sexual exploitation has no place in the home (Lev. 18; Deut. 5:18).
That most of us likely think that the above principles are undeniable testifies conclusively to the Bible’s influence on Western culture. In the ancient world, almost no limits were placed on fathers. They could abandon their children to exposure as infants and even beat them to death with little fear of punishment. Paul’s words in Ephesians 6:4 against fathers provoking their children to anger limited the Roman impulse toward parental tyranny and gave children a far better home than they could have hoped for outside the church.
Parents who are not obviously abusive can also provoke their children to anger. A legalistic spirit that emphasizes rules over relationships, making sons and daughters fear for the security of their places in the family, can incite rebellion. Arbitrary disciplinary standards as well as expectations that kids can never hope to meet can also lead to anger against parents and against God — the One whom parents, especially fathers, image to their children. Mothers and fathers who are not overtly abusive nonetheless fail miserably if they wrongly anger their kids in these ways.
Proper child rearing that images God’s care for His people, providing children no true impetus to rebel, is the alternative. This is nothing less than raising kids “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). As one commentator has said, Christian fathers are to be “gentle, patient educators of their children, whose chief ‘weapon’ is Christian instruction focused on loyalty to Christ as Lord.”
John Calvin tells us that the remedy to provoking children to anger is not indulgence. “It is not the will of God that parents, in the exercise of kindness, shall spare and corrupt their children. Let their conduct towards their children be at once mild and considerate, so as to guide them in the fear of the Lord, and correct them also when they go astray.” Let us walk in wisdom in raising our children, patiently teaching them to love God and His law.