"I don't want to eat that!"
You put the supper meal on the table and call your child from their activity to come and eat. The child takes one look at what has been prepared and set before them and promptly announces that they do not want to eat what you have provided. What do you do?
Calmly and lovingly tell them that this is what has been made for supper and they will eat it.
Ask them what they would like to eat instead and then make it for them.
Begin negotiations. “What would you like?” “How about (pick their favorite) instead of what has been made?" "How about we eat part of this meal and then you can have your Captain Crunch or whatever?" Usually the child changes their mind 1000 times before they settle on something.
At first this may seem like a harmless interaction. But let me suggest that it is not. In fact, at the risk of upsetting some parents, let me suggest further that options 2 and 3 are parental failures while option 1 is the only one that Christian parents should take. My reason for saying things so bluntly is simple. In any relationship - of two people or more it doesn’t matter how many - someone is always in charge. All relationships abhor a leadership vacuum. The one who is actually in charge is not necessarily the one who has the position or the title. Labels and position simply imply authority, but they don’t necessarily mean that the person exercises the authority that should come with their position when the practical need to do so arises. The question of ‘who is in charge?’ in any relationship boils down to this - is the one who says they are in charge or thinks they are in charge or is supposed to be in charge actually in charge? Or are they simply such in name or position only with someone else pulling the strings to make him dance according to their desires?
The above supper scenario reveals a lot about the order of things in any given family. Do the kids listen to the parents and accept the authority of their parents? Or, do the parents dance to the tune of the kids and in doing so acknowledge and accept the child’s authority over them?
God has put parents in charge of their children for the purpose of teaching them about God, training them in the gospel, to develop a Christian worldview and help them use these things to navigate life. I think we all know this. It is as obvious to say as it is to miss in the everyday movements of family life. Scripture explains that as parents we are to disciple and discipline our children and to be an authority over them, and to do so in such a way that encourages and uplifts and trains them in the things of God and in the gospel,
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? (Hebrews 12:7)
Parents are called to be in charge of their families and we must not shrink from this God-given responsibility. We are not to be our child’s friend, buddy, social planner, teammate, servant, Instagram photographer, Facebook Public Relations Coordinator or YouTube videographer, etc.. We are to be the mother or father that they God says they need. Part of this role, a large part, is to be an authority over them for the purpose of discipleship, teaching them about divine authority from the pages of Scripture and in light of the gospel. Tedd Tripp puts things this way,
"As a parent, you have authority because God calls you to be an authority in your child’s life. You have the authority to act on behalf of God. As a father or mother, you do not exercise rule over your jurisdiction, but over God’s. You act at His command. You discharge a duty that He has given. You may not try to shape the lives of your children as pleases you, but as pleases Him."
He goes on to say,
"When you direct, correct or discipline, you are not acting out of your own will; you are acting on behalf of God. You don’t have to wonder if it is okay for you to be in charge. You certainly do not need your child’s permission. God has given you a duty to perform; therefore the endorsement of your child is not necessary."
Revisit the scenario above. In option 2 and 3 the child is in charge. She determines what will be eaten and probably when. The parent is simply there to make the child happy and to give her what she wants. She does not pay for the food, cook it or clean it up, she is not the parent and thus is not ‘in charge’ in any positional sense, but she is the one who is actually in charge because it is she who determines how things will go at supper time. She whines, the parents submit. She objects, the parents change the requirements they have of their child. The parent is reduced to the role of the child’s servant. This type of thing is probably (usually?) indicative of what is going on at large in other areas of family life - that is where the concern lies. Supper choices may seem mundane, but they often demonstrate a pattern that happens all over the place in the family. Bigger and bigger decisions begin to be made according to the child’s desires or what the parents perceive to be the best interests of the child (happiness, either the child's or the parents, is usually considered the ‘best interest’). In essence, the child is not being trained by the parents, the parents are being trained by the child. What a sad, dangerous and unbiblical reversal of the way God intended the family to function.
In option 1 the parent is truly in charge. They are the leader of the family. They don’t cede their authority, even in the simple act of having supper, and the child, if this kind of thing is done consistently in all other areas of family life, knows they have no way of getting out of eating what has been prepared. The child may object. She may cry or throw a tantrum. She may refuse to eat. But for all concerned there is no doubt as to how things will end. These types of standoffs are not easy, but if we act as godly parents they will always end in our favour. They are the small battles we must fight in order to remind all concerned about the meaning and nature of authority and how that plays out practically, even in small things like the dinner table.
But a parent does not force their child to eat what is served at supper because they are on a power trip. They do so because they are helping the child understand the gospel and what it means to live under the authority of another (ultimately God). In other words, these small battles, these mundane lessons, have eternal consequences embedded within them. Let me quote Tripp again,
"Being a parent means working in God’s behalf to provide direction for your children. Directors are in charge. It involves knowing and helping them to understand God’s standard for a child’s behavior. It means teaching them that they are sinners by nature. It includes pointing them to the mercy and grace of God shown in Christ’s life and death for sinners."
We are to teach our children that God-given responsibilities are not to be taken lightly and they are not up for negotiation. Children are to obey their parents because God has commanded them to do so and their obedience or lack thereof reveals intimate details about their relationship to God. Paul reminds parents and children alike of this reality when he tells children to obey their parents “in the Lord.” So we teach our kids that the problem with their disobedience, anger, complaining, etc, lies not with what is served for supper, but in the sinful inclination of our hearts to rise up in rebellion against ALL authority and against God’s designs for his creatures. They need to understand that sin kills and destroys and tears apart relationships, both between the child and God and between the child and everybody else in their lives. Obedience does the opposite. In other words, our kids need to know that obedience to their parents is good for them.
The food on the table is not really the issue. Supper, like a lot of mundane things, is the occasion for what is ultimately a spiritual battle with eternal consequences. The real issue lies in the heart of the child and the sinfulness that abides there that becomes manifest when her desires for supper clash with her parents. Because of this sinfulness and the need for gospel witness in the everyday aspects of family life (see Deuteronomy 6:4-7) God has placed us as parents in authority over our children not to force them to eat peas, but to help them deal with their sin and to disciple them in the gospel. By ceding authority to our children in family life - even at the supper table - we are preventing them from seeing the gospel and their relationship to God in all its beauty. But it is actually worse. When we abdicate our place of authority in the family we teach our children, little by little, that they can do the same with the authority of God, that sin is OK, that God’s desires for them can be thrown aside whenever they wish, and that personal desires trump our obligations to God’s designs.
Parents, take your position as a divinely appointed authority in the lives of your children as seriously as God does. He commands it and your kids need it.
Soli Deo Gloria