The hardest part in raising any child is achieving a balance between providing challenges that help them grow and providing the encouragement necessary to keep them trying. The positive effects of challenging a child come down to the manner in which challenges are introduced. Letting a child know they may not be an automatic winner is important because few kids succeed at anything the first try.
On the subject of raising children, it is fascinating to study a famous Bible from Ephesians 6: 4. The translations of this passage vary from version to version, so we’ll cite a few here.
New International Version
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
New Living Translation
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger by the way you treat them. Rather, bring them up with the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger [do not exasperate them to the point of resentment with demands that are trivial or unreasonable or humiliating or abusive; nor by showing favoritism or indifference to any of them], but bring them up [tenderly, with lovingkindness] in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
We can see that subtleties in translation do make a difference. The simplest, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children…” cautions against pushing kids to the point of frustration through criticism or impatient pressure. That only makes a child want to quit or react in anger.
Pushy fathers and mothers
Driving a kid so hard that they grow angry or resentful is a famous tactic of fathers (and mothers) projecting their own fears and insecurities on their children. Parents whose self-esteem is dependent on the achievements of their children are notably insecure and prone to public remonstration of anyone that stands in the way of the success of their child. Those are the folks known for haranguing referees or umpires, for berating coaches, or conniving behind their backs. Meanwhile, their children either adopt the same entitled attitude or cower in shame as their parents make fools of themselves. Sometimes these relationships become co-dependent, with parent and child echoing their mutual frustration at how the world treats them.
None of these situations are healthy.
I’ve written about the fact that for long periods during his childhood development, my father had no role model for raising kids of his own. His father required legitimate treatment for depression brought on by life events far out of his control. So my dad was raised by an uncle and two aunts. They made the best of things given the death of my dad’s mother when he was just seven years old. My heart fills with compassion at the thought of him left with so little to cling to.
By the time he became a father, I still think he did a pretty good job with us. But there were definitely some aspects of our upbringing that mimicked that warning in Ephesians not to exasperate your children. My dad had a habit of challenging us in exasperating ways. He often meant well by asking us questions in the face of something we’d said, but mixed with the harsh criticism he sometimes dealt out, the dynamic drew anger from us as often as it drew healthy interaction.
Add in the physical stuff that got passed down the line from father to son to son to son to son and our family somewhat resembled that scene in Saturday Night Fever when people were smacking each other around the table.
Saturday Night Fever
I got smacked a few times at the dinner table. One evening I spilled some milk by knocking over the glass in front of my plate. My dad reach over and grabbed the mustard, took his knife and dished some out, and slathered it across my forehead. “Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he instructed me.
Now, I agree that paying better attention at the dinner table was a reasonable demand. Spilling milk all over the place interrupted the meal, and who knows what other frustrations he’d endured during the day. Perhaps he’d “spilled the milk” in some way at work, and he was still upset at himself for that. The result is that he passed along that frustration to his child. Meanwhile, my brothers sat there smirking at the sight of yellow mustard on my face. I burned with resentment at all of that. After dinner, I went up and cried at the disturbing shame of it all, and vowed to get back at someone, somehow.
In fact, my brothers called me The Mink because there was a fierce creature lurking just beneath the sheath of my skinny body. They’d provoke me to anger quite often just to see me react in fury and spit. One afternoon my brother hooked up his record player to the big guitar amp in his room and blasted the song “My Skinny Minnie” at 90 decibels to tease me. I pounded on his door in anger but he just laughed.
And so it went, round and round the family. My dad kept asking us to do chores and expected us to obey his orders, but my brothers often escaped to go fishing or run around with friends… and my dad’s resentment toward them grew in return.
The problem with the chores he prescribed is that many of them were interminable. After a year or two of living Lancaster, he took down all the shutters off our house and wanted my brothers to strip all the paint off them. There were dozens of those shutters as I recall, all clogged with thick black paint that had to be scraped off using a blow torch and a scraper knife. My dad wanted to repaint and re-hang them all, but the job wore on through the summer, and all through winter the shutters sat outside in the snow. The house itself was a charred mess from all the places where my dad scraped and burned paint off the wooden siding. We apparently could not afford to have someone do that work on the house or else my dad believed in doing it himself and reasoned that with the help of his sons he could get it done.
But we loved our sports and games and friends far more than scraping shutters in the summer heat. So my dad grew exasperated, and exasperated his sons in return. We didn’t respect his wishes, which in a biblical sense of honoring your parents was quite the insult.
That said, we all did evolve a work ethic eventually. My eldest brother became self-supporting quite quickly during college after we moved from Lancaster to Illinois. My next oldest brother even helped support my mom and dad at one low point in their work lives. I became my father’s caregiver for fifteen years after he had a stroke. And my youngest brother is one of the most focused, hardest working guys I know on top of having been a Division 1 athlete in basketball.
But early in our lives, we struggled to abide by our father’s directives because of the way they were delivered. My failures in math particularly frustrated him. He had zero patience when my grades slumped into Ds during junior high. He took me out of basketball, the one area where I was really succeeding, and the embitterment between us was palpable. The same dynamic occurred whenever he want to cut off my hair. I liked it long per the style of the era, but it was thick and bushy and kind of ridiculous. Looking back, I can see his point. So it went, back and forth. None of it was helping my self-esteem.
Because I think about the Amplified Bible version of Ephesians 6: “do not exasperate them to the point of resentment with demands that are trivial or unreasonable or humiliating or abusive; nor by showing favoritism or indifference to any of them…”All I know is that my struggle with poor self-esteem lasted years and years. At least some of that came from those family circumstances. I even had young women that I liked tell me as much. “You just need to think better of yourself,” one of them told me. “Girls find that attractive.”
For all of the sidelong frustrations of family life, my father would indeed play catch with us out in the side yard, tossing baseballs back and forth with his boys until twilight and darkness forced us to quit. We all learned to throw the pitch called the knuckleball. When thrown correctly, a knuckleball swerves and flutters through the air. There is an art to throwing knucklers that involves neutralizing the spin on the baseball so that the seams catch the air. A good knuckler creates crazy wobbles and dips as it travels.
One evening my father tossed a knuckler that dropped straight down from eye height to the knees, nearly hitting my brother in the feet. We all erupted in roars of laughter at the sight of that pitch. That unpredictability was the joy for which we all lived. After throwing the pitch that defied physics so wonderfully, my father lightly swung his arms and raised a baseball glove on one hand to smile, “Now… that was a good one, wasn’t it?”
What a symbol for life itself.
We all compete for attention and love, for direction, truth, and inspiration. All that my father ever tried to teach us is that life isn’t easy, and his certainly wasn’t. Part of the reason he exasperated us at times was to teach us that sole, important principle. That life isn’t always going to be easy. I truly believe he had a purpose in that.
And he also taught us that the best we can do sometimes is throw good knuckleballs, and enjoy the ride.