The Bible tells fathers to do two things: bring children up in the ways of the Lord and do not provoke them. How can a father avoid provoking his child?
There’s no shortage of parenting books out there. But you’ll find very few dedicated to the subject of fathering. What does it look like to father well?
Thankfully, God’s word includes much guidance for fathers. The Bible is filled with good dads (starting with God the Father) and bad dads (starting with Adam, our first father). Proverbs is in large part a collection of wisdom written by a dad to his son. In his letters to Timothy and Titus, Paul offers profound direction as aspiritual father.
Fathers, we have a sacred responsibility.
Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul warns fathers: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Dads, this is our God-given job description. We must strive to fulfill it “according to the power at work within us.” For starters, it helps to think about what the verse means.
Both parts of the verse are equally important—do not provoke and do bring them up—but understanding what it looks like to “not provoke your children to anger” is arguably less obvious.
In order to help, here are some examples of ways dads can provoke their kids. By God’s grace, father your children by avoiding these pitfalls:
1. Make more withdrawals than deposits
Encouragement is a deposit; criticism is a withdrawal. We provoke our children to anger when we make far more withdrawals than deposits. When it comes to encouragement, don’t be stingy with your kids. Say things like:
- “You did your best, and I appreciate that.”
- “You’re a blessing.”
- “I love you and I’m here to help you.”
- “Thanks for hanging in there. I know this is tough. Let me pray for you.”
In addition to verbal affirmation, write them notes, send them texts, pull them in for a hug and a kiss on the forehead. Inevitably, as fathers we’re going to make withdrawals because our kids will sin and we’ll need to address that. But we provoke our children to anger when all we do is point out the flaws and fail to provide any solutions or hope. We need to be their coach, not their critic.
2. Resort to physical or verbal abuse
Fathers provoke their children to anger through physically using their size advantage. This could be physical—hitting, shoving, kicking, intimidation—or verbal abuse. Some fathers goad their children. They’ll shame their kids in front of other children by saying things like, “You’re so stupid,” “You failed again,” “You’re fat,” “You’re an idiot,” and “You’re a loser.”
Such violence is sinful, reprehensible abuse that shapes an identity that is death for the child. Some either grow up to rage against their parents, particularly their father, or they just leave.
3. Be emotionally absent
Whether it’s intentional or not, some dads do everything they can to avoid engaging their children. You’re always doing something and can’t be interrupted, whether that’s woodworking, fixing the car, doing yard work, using your phone, or watching TV. You’re physically present but emotionally absent. Dad never gives hugs or says, “I love you.”
A lack of emotional attention provokes a child to anger. Imagine a child who craves emotional attention and appropriate physical touch from dad. He never offers his affection, and so eventually the child starts looking elsewhere, out of frustration and desperation. For a daughter especially, this can leave her in a very dangerous position.
4. Publicly humiliate and criticize
Rather than pulling a child out of the fray for a loving, heart-to-heart talk to address some issue, fathers provoke their children to anger by cutting them down in front of their family and friends.
When it comes to correction, we can belittle our children in an attempt to shame them into submission, or we can provide them a vision of the man or woman God is calling them to be, saying, “I see in you these gifts, abilities, godliness, and maturity. What you’ve done grieves Jesus and it grieves me. But I’m here for you, and I want to help you grow.” In this way, our communication becomes a loving invitation rather than harsh castigation.
5. Be no fun
Some dads are just no fun. They don’t know what to do with a Popsicle, a whiffle ball, a swimming pool, or a bike.
Kids should have predominant memories of enjoyable times with their dad. Which means when your kids are little, you have to be silly. You’re going to wear some outlandish outfits. You’re going to sit in on some tea parties. You’re going to wrinkle your clothes during living room wrestling matches.
If a dad is making memories, if he loves his kids and they know it, when it comes time to discipline them, it will be in the context of a dad who loves them. God our Father is like that. Proverbs says it and Hebrews repeats it: “For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (emphasis added).
6. Don’t be generous
I learned generosity from my Grandpa George. We were very close. He lived in a cul-de-sac, and he had a rule: whenever the ice cream man comes around, run out and stop him. Grandpa George would then have us invite all of the other kids in the neighborhood over, he would tell everybody to order whatever they wanted, and then he would pay for it all.
When the ice cream man came, I’d get excited, all the kids would get excited, and I’d look at my Grandpa George’s face, and he was happy. He was happy because he liked to be generous. That’s the heart of a father. That’s the heart of God the Father.
7. Never say “I’m sorry.”
Did you have a hypocritical dad who pointed out your sin but never admitted to any of his own? How frustrating was that?
As fathers, we’re going to sin against our kids. You’re going to bust them for something that they didn’t do. You’ll fail to listen. You’ll blow it. What do you do? Repent. Go to your kids and say, “Dad’s a sinner. I was wrong. I’m really sorry about what I’ve done and the way it’s affected you. Would you please forgive me?”
Fathers, we don’t need to be right; we need to prove to our children that God is always right, and sometimes that means we’re wrong. We are not only an earthly father, we are an earthly father who needs their heavenly Father.
Bring them up
Fathers, we have a sacred responsibility. If the Holy Spirit is in you, you’ll want to become a father like God the Father, and bless your children the way he has blessed you. We cannot do this apart from his grace and power—praise God we can rely on his wisdom and strength rather than our own.