I knew a man who grew up with a dad that didn't give compliments easily. This man's dad could sometimes be heard bragging about his son to others, but he rarely if ever expressed his pride to the very son he bragged about. The son grew up and fought to be successful in his chosen career. He had an impressive drive to achieve and win in his line of work.
When the son was in his forties, his father died. Suddenly the grown son discovered that his motivation to continue in his career vanished. It took months to piece together the mystery. He realized, after much consideration, that at each milestone of his career, he would carry his latest accolade to his dad and display it in hopes of gaining approval. Now that his dad had passed, the son was left with a vacuous hole in his motivation. He had spent his career trying to gain approval from his dad. What he needed was encouragement. He had sought it in his tight-lipped father for so many years he was hardly sure what to do once his dad had passed.
The dynamic between parents and children is the most formative relationships in one’s life. Let’s take a look at what Paul has to say about the relationship between parents and children:
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well-pleasing to the Lord. (Col. 3:20 NKJV)
That children ought to obey their parents is well known to both children and parents. Since most who read this are no longer adolescents, I’d like to ask what may be a surprising question. When do I get to stop obeying my parents?
The verse doesn’t say when you get to “stop” obeying your parents. In fact, the word children can mean “children of young age," or it can mean “children of any age.” Though this verse doesn't tell us whether we have to obey our parents forever, there are other verses that imply there is a diminishing role of one's parents as life progresses. Take, for example, Jesus' words when he said, "For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." (Matthew 19:5)
Obviously, leaving one's father and mother implies that the influence they have upon their children diminishes as their children grow. This is especially true when your children become married. There is a clue how we ought to deal with this verse in Ephesians, which Paul probably wrote and was most likely delivered around the same time. He says:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother,” which is the first commandment with promise: “that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3)
Notice that Paul expands on the obedience concept by reminding us of the first commandment with a promise, “Honor your father and mother.” I am commanded to honor my folks regardless of my age. Whether I'm five, fifteen, or fifty, I am expected to show them honor. When I was five, that meant unquestioning obedience. When I was fifteen, it meant obedience as long as what I was asked to do was not immoral. When I'm fifty, it will mean I still do my best to obey my parents as long as it doesn't conflict with my primary responsibility to my wife and kids. (as is implied by Matthew 19:5).
All of this is hypothetical for me since my parents don't give commands to their adult children. In western culture, it is less common for adult children to be ordered to do things by their aging parents. However, in other world cultures, such as the one that existed when the Bible was written, parental styles could be much more demanding even as children aged.
Even in western culture, there are parents who still give commands to their adult children. We'll discuss this from the parental side in just a moment. However, first, let's talk about what is expected of the child. Even if you're an adult child, it pleases the Lord when you obey your parents. There are certainly instructions, demands and dictates that God would not want an adult child to obey. If your parent commands you to do something immoral or sinful, don’t do it. You must continue to honor them as you respectfully disobey to sin at their request.
However, short of being commanded to sin, it pleases God for children to obey their parents. As long as your parents don’t command you to do anything immoral, and as long as it doesn’t conflict with your responsibilities to your wife and kids, it’s a standing order to honor and even obey your parents.
Some might say, "but legally, I don't have to obey my parents once I'm an adult." That's true. You can get away with it. However, do you want to please the Lord? If you do, then make an effort to obey. Some might counter, "parents of adult children should not order their kids around." I tend to agree, but if they do, it's our duty to try to comply as long as it isn't a sin to do so, and it doesn't conflict with our primary responsibility to our immediate family.
Our desire to look for loopholes is misguided, especially when we consider what Paul has to say to bondservants (slaves). We’ll see more on that in the next section.
When we play a submissive and even obedient role as children, it pleases the Lord. Now Paul shifts toward giving instructions to the paternal parent, though the advice is good for mothers as well:
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Col. 3:21)
It is of huge importance to notice that Paul doesn’t give this instruction: Fathers, force your kids to obey. Clearly, scripture instructs parents to discipline kids, sometimes using physical means. It's biblical parenting to spank when spanking is warranted. This would be a really natural place for Paul to explain to dads how to hit their kids harder, spank them more effectively, and lower the BOOM, but he doesn't. Instead, he takes a softer approach.
Paul reveals the tool of Godly parenting. Do you see it? It’s encouragement! The main instruction Paul gives for Godly parenting is designed to avoid discouraging children. That means that encouragement is what marks good parenting. Paul instructs us not to parent by discouragement but to strive to keep our kids moving forward with encouragement. Whether our children are kids or adults, we need to be generous with our encouragement and guarded with our unmet expectations.
Of course, he implies that fathers will be about the business of giving instructions, though the way in which those instructions are delivered and the expectations that come along with them are very important. I went digging to see how some other translators have rendered this verse. Here's what I found:
Parents, don't be hard on your children. If you are, they might give up. (CEV)
Fathers, don't make your children resentful, or they will become discouraged. (GWT)
Fathers, do not fret and harass your children, or you may make them sullen and morose. (WNT)
We have to read between the lines a little, but clearly, there is a theme. It's easy for dads to be too hard on their kids. I'm a dad, and I struggle with it. I often forget my son's age and demand that he “stop crying.” I sometimes find myself standing over him, ominously with a glowering face. I occasionally am reminded how I would feel in the presence of an angry man four times my height.
Paul is instructing us not to parent in a way that gives our kids a reason to be angry. That means we should NOT belittle, insult, or harass. I've known a number of men who grew up with dads that called them names and made fun of them. They were bullies in school and probably eventually treated their own kids the same way.
Children will respond to a parent's anger with anger of their own. That means we ought not discipline while we're angry. For me, this means I need to take a minute before I can address my kid's bad behavior. I don't always do this perfectly, but it is my goal. I learned it from my dad, who would always send us to our room for a few minutes so that when he came to spank us, he could follow it with a hug.
Just like with the previous verse, there is no age limit on this verse. If you have children who have grown up and flown the nest or are about to, then pay special attention to what Paul says here.
How should this verse guide us in relating to our adult children? It’s natural to only apply this verse, do not provoke your children to anger, to young kids although I know countless adults who are constantly at odds with their parents and in-laws. Parents who insist on giving unsolicited advice, voicing unmet expectations, and pressuring their adult children to follow certain strictures, are likely not obeying this verse.
If you have adult children, you can provoke them to anger simply by voicing your opinion. If they sense your disapproval, it’s possible that they will be provoked. Clearly, the verse implies that a father's (and a mother's) work is never finished. Hopefully, parents will continue to speak wisdom to their children for their entire lives, but Paul is warning about pressing too hard.
Based on what we’ve talked about so far, it seems that there is a natural letting go that happens as our children grow older. I like to use the analogy of a job. Here’s how I would explain it:
Babies: Overtime Parenting
Children: Full-Time Parenting
Teens-Adulthood: Part-Time Parenting
Adulthood: Consultant Parenting
When your kids are babies, it's not only a full-time job, but it comes with overtime. When they are children, it's at least a full-time gig. When they are teens and entering their early twenties, your job as a parent begins to shift into a more part-time role. This is a great time to gain some hobbies because your kids simply don't need you as much as they used to. When your children are grown, and if all goes well, you become a consultant. Nothing more, but beautifully, nothing less. Consultants don't demand, dictate, or insist. They give reasonable advice from a comfortable distance and let the consultee make their own decisions. This is healthy, and might I say biblical parenting.
Obviously, there are some unhealthy approaches to parenting. Here's one:
Children: Consultant Parenting
Early Teens: Part-Time Parenting
Teens-Early 20s: Full-Time Parenting
Early Adulthood: Overtime Parenting
Married With Kids: Fired From Parenting
There are parents who are very hands-off when their kids are young. They build very few boundaries for their young ones. As their kids grow and begin to demonstrate the kind of bad behavior which comes with higher consequences, the parents try to tighten up. They start putting in more hours. They try to become more involved as the kids need them less and less. As their children pass into adulthood, these parents see their offspring going in a destructive direction and try to pressure their kids into better decisions. The kids often get resentful, and it makes life miserable. This cycle damages relationships and often ends in a distancing or complete disengagement. Though many parents of adult children may still see their kids, they have sabotaged their right to have any influence in their grown children's life.
Paul’s instructions can safeguard against this damaging cycle. Let’s look at it once more:
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. (Col. 3:21)
So, how do parents of adult children influence their children toward a more Godly life? By using incremental encouragement rather than having astronomical expectations for sweeping lifestyle upheaval. Incremental encouragement is subtle, and it takes patience and self-control. Though it's natural for a parent to expect their adult child to change their entire lifestyle overnight, that approach is sure to provoke and discourage their child.
Let’s explore the astronomical expectations approach. Imagine for a second that you have an adult child who spent their college years partying but kept it a secret from you. Now they embrace the party lifestyle openly. Your child is living with a partner, though they are not married. They don't go to church. In fact, they have seemingly no interest in spiritual things. They might not even believe anymore, but you're scared to ask. They're drowning in debt and don't seem to be doing anything to change their spending habits. In addition to all this, your kid doesn't have a job. Your child's life is a wreck by your standards.
It would feel natural for you to expect them to stop partying, get married, believe in Jesus, go and volunteer at church, read their Bible, pray, get out of debt, and get a full-time job. Now imagine that you showed up at your kid's door and made a list of demands. How do you think that would turn out? I've seen this situation often enough. The child will first feel angry (provoked) and then feel discouraged. In many cases, the relationship will suffer if not break completely.
So, pressuring your kids to live up to your astronomical expectations is sure to backfire? So what do we do? We need a different approach, which I call incremental encouragement.
While I was working on this chapter, my three-year-old son, Eli, came up to my office to visit me. Well, technically, that's not true. He came up to visit the drum set. He crosses the yard and enters my studio about once a day to jam for a few minutes. My parents allowed me to learn to play drums in their house, so I guess I'm just paying my dues.
After a few minutes, he was done with the drums. I still had some work to do, so I told him he needed to head back down to the house, about thirty yards from my office door. As he was walking out, he said, "Daddy, I want you to come down and play with me all day." I explained, once again, how my work schedule filled much of the day. After reiterating that he needed to go to the house, he protested, not wanting to make the yard-sized trip alone. I encouraged him.
He made a few tentative first steps. I watched as he walked. Then he started doing something that surprised me. Every three or four paces, he would turn and look over his shoulder at me to see if I was still watching. I'd give him a reassuring smile, an encouraging gesture, or a nod of approval. "Good job, buddy. Just a little farther," I'd say. He'd take a few more, then check to see if I was still approving. In all, he sought my encouragement about fifteen times on his way to the house. When he got to the back door all by himself, I cheered and clapped loudly at his accomplishment. He could make the trip in confidence as long as his daddy was giving incremental encouragement.
Incremental encouragement is when we focus only on the next right step. As I stepped back into my office, I realized that that’s how most of us live our lives. We all need incremental encouragement. We all need to hear our elders saying, "Well done!" At what we've already accomplished, and a hardy, "you can do it," for what's to come.
How does this translate to our adult children? Take stock of your kid's life. Consider what is most important. The most important thing to me is what my kids believe. That would be where I want to focus my influence. We're not trying to enact tectonic upheaval in our adult children's lives; we're trying to move them one small (incremental) step toward a healthier mindset. Too much too quickly, and we damage the relationship and lose our influence. Here’s a good question to ask yourself:
“What’s one small thing I can encourage my child to do that would bring him/her closer to the Lord?”
Approach this knowing that it may be years before you succeed. In fact, you may never succeed. That’s why it’s so important to choose the one small thing wisely. Is it really of utmost importance that your 30-something son stop playing video games so much? It’s probably not all that important. Is it really so important that your daughter not let the grandkids eat cereal every meal of the day? No, probably not. You need to wisely and carefully pick the things that matter enough to discuss. Let the unimportant fade into the background.
Gently use the influence you have to encourage and invite your children toward believing, and if they're already believers, toward setting their minds on things above. This is delicate work because the parenting habit runs deep. You had multiple decades when it was entirely normal to command, demand, and instruct. That's not your role any longer. Now it's time to be a kind friend who offers consistent and loving advice from a comfortable distance.
They want to please you, but if you expect too much, it will discourage them. They want you to be happy with them, but if your expectations are so astronomically high that they can't imagine ever meeting them, then they will distance themselves from you, and you'll lose your influence in their lives. Use the same kind of social caution you use with other adult friends when dealing with your adult children. After all, they aren't kids anymore.
We looked at it in the last section, but it is worth repeating. Just a few verses down, Paul gives us this powerful motivation:
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ. But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality. (Col. 3:23-25)
We want to be children who understand who we are trying to please. If your life is marked by trying to please an earthly father, then you will ultimately be let down. If you are a child who honors and obeys your earthly father because it pleases God, then there will be reward for that.
Whether our children are kids or adults, we want to be good parents. Good parents are generous in their expression of encouragement and sparing with disappointment. It's encouragement that invites our children toward a rewarded life. Good parents are also cautious not to voice too many unmet expectations so that we can avoid discouraging our children. We want to be good parents, not just for the sake of our kids, but because it pleases the Lord.
Whether you’re an adult or a kid, do your best to obey your parents, not because it pleases them, but because it pleases the Lord. If you’re a parent, do your best to encourage your kids. Be a child and a parent that pleases the Lord.