Parental Softness

by Glenn Conjurske

A Sermon Preached Oct. 18, 1989—-Recorded, Transcribed, & Revised.

I want to speak to you again tonight on the subject of the discipline of children. I plan to cover a lot of ground that we’ve covered before, but also probably some we have never talked about before. But let’s pray: God, we do pray that you might give us your wisdom and your help tonight, as we look into this subject which is so necessary to the well-being of our children, and so near to our own hearts. Give us a single eye, Father. And give us wisdom, understanding, and grace to act according to your word. Amen.

The verse that I’m going to start with is in First Kings chapter one—-a verse that I have spoken on a number of times before here, but I really think that it is perhaps the most important verse on this subject in the Bible. Certainly one of the most important. First Kings, chapter one. I’ll read beginning with verse 5. “Then Adonijah, the son of Haggith, exalted himself saying, I will be king: and he prepared him chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him. And his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so? and he also was a very goodly man, ” and so forth.

Now the key word here is “displeased.” If you are ever going to do anything with your children, or for them, you must displease them. The reason for that is very simple: they are depraved. They’re sinners. They are inclined to do the wrong things, and they need to be taught, and disciplined to do the right things. Now, our love for our children will very often lead us not to displease them. We don’t want to displease somebody that we love. That’s human nature. It goes without saying. It is a difficult thing to have to do it. But it must be done. You’ll notice that the result here of David’s failing to displease his son was (in verse 5, which I read), “Adonijah exalted himself.” He became very proud. Pride is the natural result of parental softness. There are two things which are, as far as I can tell, the root of all sins. Those two things are lust and pride. And both of them will grow to fruition under parental softness. And David’s son Adonijah is a perfect example of this.

Now love may be the thing that’s at the root of the softness, but it’s foolish love. We might make ourselves a proverb which says, “He that is soft on his son hates his son”—-as the scripture says, “He that spares the rod hates his son.” Sparing the rod is one kind of softness, but there are three kinds that I want to talk about tonight. I’m not necessarily going to give you these in the order of their importance, because I’m not sure if I can say what that order is. But I want to talk about three kinds of softness.

There is a softness in speech in dealing with our children.

There is a softness in requirement.

And there’s a softness in enforcement.

Now all three of them are bad, and lead to bad consequences. One of the most obvious ways in which softness manifests itself is in our speech. God does not speak softly to the human race. God speaks roughly, if you please. He speaks authoritatively. He spoke that way to Adam before he ever sinned. When Adam had none of those inclinations to evil within him which are in our children, God still did not use soft language when he spoke to Adam. He didn’t come to Adam and say (softly and sweetly), “Now Adam-honey, I really don’t want you to eat of that tree.” Nothing of the sort. That kind of speech is a sure sign of parental weakness. Mothers especially are guilty of this, but I tell you that any mother who has to sweet-talk and soft-talk her children to try to secure obedience is on the road to ruining them. God did not sweet-talk Adam. He did not adopt any pleading or pathetic tones, as though he were asking Adam for a favor. He didn’t say, “Now Adam-honey, you know it will make me feel very bad if you eat of that tree.” And Adam was not a sinner. He had no inclination in him to do wrong at that time. Nevertheless, God spoke with authority, and said, “Thou shalt not eat of it, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” This soft and syrupy speech that a lot of mothers use—-and some fathers, too—-is the first contribution towards ruining their children. It is, in fact, a pretty good indication that they are half ruined already. You ought to be addressing them as their superior—-from a place of authority over them. But many parents address their children from a position of equality, giving them reasons instead of requirements, and many others address them from a position of inferiority, pleading, and sweet-talking, and bribing, and pacifying. This is wrong, and it will be the ruin of your children.

You say, “Well, doesn’t love express itself in soft terms, and a soft tone?” And I say, “Yes, it does.” But love is not the only business you have with your children. God has committed to you a place of authority, and authority does not plead and sweet-talk. I don’t mean that we ought never to speak gently and tenderly to our children. I don’t mean that, because love certainly ought to be expressed in soft and gentle tones and words, but authority has another manner of expression, and we ought to be expressing both to our children. There is a time to use soft speech—-when my child needs love. And there is a time to use authoritative speech—-when he needs authority. Softness of speech tends to the ruin of a child. When you sweet-talk him, he has the upper hand, and he knows it. If God spoke in tough terms to Adam before ever Adam had any evil inclination within him, if God threatened him with death when he was pure and innocent, then it’s our business to use tough language—-not hard and harsh, but authoritative language—-to our children, who definitely are sinners and are inclined to do what is wrong.

But by speaking with authoritative language, I do not mean raising the voice and adopting a threatening tone. Threatening language generally raises the voice. Authoritative language may lower it. I’m not talking about volume. I’m talking about spirit, manner, intonation. A threatening tone indicates weakness in the person speaking. Authoritative language indicates strength. Threatening language implies, “Johnny, I really don’t expect you to obey me, so therefore I must put a threatening tone in my voice.” And it doesn’t work.

A threatening tone does not get results. And you’ll find—-now you listen for this: it might be a little difficult to listen for it in yourself, but listen for it in folks around you—-the person who uses a threatening tone of voice is usually speaking over and over and over. Repeating their child’s name over and over and over. The person who speaks with an authoritative tone needs only say the name once. An authoritative tone is spoken from a position of strength which expects a response. A threatening tone is used from a position of weakness, which doesn’t expect a response. That’s all communicated to your child by the tone of your voice. When you speak threateningly, he understands. I don’t know how kids are so smart, but they know these things intuitively. He understands that you are speaking from a position of weakness. He knows that he’s got the upper hand with you. You ought never to use a threatening tone, and it should never be necessary. We ought to speak in such a way as that the child understands that we mean business—-we’re not going to speak again. When my father used to lay down the law to us, he would finish with “I have spoken”—-spoken slowly and deliberately and authoritatively. We knew what that meant, and no one moved a wing, or peeped, or chirped.

But there is a time to speak softly. And by this I mean softness of tone, not volume, because I don’t believe we ought ever to have to raise our volume in speaking to our children. If your child is subject to you, you may speak to him in a whisper, and get exactly the same results that you’ll get when you’re yelling full volume. If you speak authoritatively, you don’t ever have to speak loudly. As a matter of fact, if your child is subject to you, an authoritative look will do as well as an authoritative word. Just a glance of the eye. An authoritative glance of the eye. If you have to raise your voice to get results—-or try to get them—-this is the absolute proof that you have already failed altogether to maintain your place of authority. It is the proof that your child is not subject to you. When I speak of speaking authoritatively, I certainly do not mean raising the voice, yelling, speaking reproachfully, or threateningly. Such things are only resorted to when parents have lost their authority over their children.

When I talk about speaking softly now, I mean gently and tenderly. There is a time when we need to speak softly. Soft and tender tones to express love. There’s a time to be tender with your children. But that time is not when you are giving them orders. And that time is certainly not when they are disobeying your orders. Then it’s time to be tough, and to speak authoritatively. None of this, “Johnny-honey” or “Janie-honey, I really don’t want you to do this. Johnny, Mommy doesn’t think that you should do that.” Such language, on the very face of it, proves that you have abdicated your place of authority. You are a lobbyist, not a legislator.

So much for the first point, softness in speech.

Another kind of softness, which is just as serious, or perhaps more serious, is softness in requirement—-not requiring enough from my child. Now I don’t want this to be misunderstood. I’m not talking about requiring things of them which are more likely to puff them up with pride than anything else. The largest portion of our requirements of our children should be negative ones. They should be restraints. You read God’s commandments in the Old Testament, and you’ll find a great deal of “Thou shalt not”—-restraining us from doing what we ought not to do. This is not requiring us to do great things, or to assume responsibility, or anything of that sort. The biggest share of God’s commandments are negative ones. “Thou shalt not.” And our commandments to our children, especially little children, ought to be of the same character. I’m talking about restraint. This is what children need. This is what the human race needs—-restraint.

But I have known mothers enough who are actually afraid to restrain their children, or to require anything of them. Little Johnny is a little angel until his will is crossed, and then he is transformed into a bear and a tyrant. So mother dutifully refrains from requiring anything of him. When she must, she knows she will have a scene and a confrontation. Then she resorts to sweet-talking and bribing. But I have talked a great deal about restraining children before.*

I pass on to the next one, which I think is perhaps the most serious. This is softness in enforcement. It may be a serious thing if I don’t require enough of my children, but it’s a much more serious thing if I don’t enforce what I do require. If I don’t require enough of them, or don’t restrain them enough, they will likely grow up with a character which is unrestrained, and, of course, proud. This is the thing that you see in David’s son. David didn’t displease him, and the natural result of that was, he exalted himself. But if I do require, and don’t enforce, I make him a rebel. Every time you command and fail to enforce, you teach your child to despise your authority, and so you teach him to despise God’s authority, for your authority is derived from God, and a child who is not subject to his parents cannot be subject to God. And I want you to understand that in all of this dealing with children, we are not merely regulating their conduct. We are forming their character.

Now the enforcement which I am speaking of is to require immediate, exact, and cheerful obedience. It is the business of authority to enforce its dictates, to require submission. God does not give suggestions to the human race, but commandments.

Now listen, I understand completely that it is love on the part of parents that leads to softness. I know that by my own experience, but it’s the worst thing for the child. It’s like the father of a wild sixteen-year-old who loves his son, and therefore gives him a motorcycle. He might just as well give him a ticket to the grave yard. He thinks he’s giving his son a motorcycle because he loves him, and he no doubt does love him, but love is dangerous and destructive where it isn’t controlled by holiness. David no doubt loved Adonijah, and there is no doubt he loved Absalom, but he ruined both of them by his softness. And ruined them for eternity. Parental softness ruins a child’s character, and it ruins his present happiness also. A child who does not submit immediately, and exactly, and cheerfully to his parents’ commands cannot be happy. He can’t be—-and he isn’t. You will observe that the children who are disobedient are always the same children who are fussing and crying and pouting. They are unhappy children. A child who is not subject to his parents can never be happy. Is that what you love him for, to make him unhappy?

Children need authority for security. They need parents that they can’t manipulate. They need parents that they can’t push around. They need parents that speak authoritatively to them, and require things of them, and enforce their requirements. That will give them security. But more important, it will give them character. I don’t mean authority without love. You’ve got to have both, and you can have both. The one certainly does not exclude or any way qualify the other.

Now we want immediate obedience. I think it should go without saying that this implies that you ought to speak once only when you tell your children to do something. Some parents have to tell their children the same thing over and over, and threaten besides, before they get any response. I’ve never been imp enough to count how many times some of you repeat yourselves, but I know it’s too many. Why is it that you have to repeat yourself when you’ve already told your child what you want? There’s only one reason: because he didn’t obey the first time. Why didn’t he obey the first time? Because he knows he doesn’t have to. He knows you have no intention of enforcing your command the first time. You have taught him that. He’s waiting for you to say it again. He probably knows exactly how many times he can push you to say it, before you start getting serious, or before you intend to enforce it. If it’s six, he’ll push for six every time. Actually he’ll push for seven. The six he has already. He knows how many times you will speak before you enforce—-or he knows when the tone of your voice changes—-knows when you mean business and when you don’t. And the more you speak without enforcing, the more you teach him to despise your authority. This is the most destructive kind of parental softness. Obedience ought to be immediate, and it is your business to require that and enforce it.

Next, a child should be required to obey without answering back. A child who is generally subject might be dealt with in a different manner from a child who is generally insubordinate, but a child who is generally insubordinate should always be required to obey without speaking at all. When you give your child an order, he has only one reason to speak, and that is to challenge your authority, and push you as far as he can. There are two words that you should especially watch for, and never allow. Those are the words “why” and “but.” You get a child that’s insubordinate—-and I heard an example of this just this evening before the meeting—-you have a child that’s insubordinate, and you say, “do such and such,” and his first word will be “but.” What he’s saying is, “But Mother, but Father, I don’t want to do what you’re saying.” He will make some excuse, of course, but the sum of all those excuses is, he does not want to obey you. And I will insist on this: you ought to spank that child every time he uses the word “but,” when he’s given a command. Never allow that word “but” to come out of his mouth, but spank him every time. And I’ll be bold on this: if you don’t do it, you’re ruining your child. You’re allowing him to challenge your authority, and push you every time you give him a command. There’s no reason for a child to say “but” when he’s told to do something.

And there is no reason for him to say “why?”—-and I would never allow either one of those words to proceed out of the mouth of my child. Now if you give him a command, and he cheerfully obeys you, and then comes back and says, “Daddy, why did I have to do that?”—-that’s a different story altogether. He wants to know why. But when you tell him to do something, and he says, “Why?” he doesn’t want to know why. He only wants to challenge your authority. I had one child that used to try that on me, and when she would say, “Why?” I would say, “You tell me why”—-and her proper response was, “Because you said so.” But after a while she learned to say, “I have to do it because you said so, but I want to know your reason.” Now it may be legitimate for a child to want to know your reason, so long as he understands that he is to obey whether you give him a reason or not. God does not require children to submit to your reason, but to your authority. They may have no capacity to understand your reason. A fourteen-year-old girl may have no ability at all to understand why you forbid her to wear tight clothes, and an explanation of it may do her more harm than good. Her business is to submit to your authority. To demand a reason for submission is to undermine the essence of authority, and reduce it to a non-entity. God gave Adam a reason when he gave him a command, but that reason was, “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”—-that is, because I have commanded you, and I mean to enforce it. This is the proper exercise of authority, and it is perfectly effectual where it is exercised in an atmosphere of love and trust.

Now if you’re a tyrant, and if you lay foolish, unreasonable, irksome, or humiliating requirements upon your children, you should not be surprised if they demand a reason. If you exercise authority without love, you forfeit their respect, and your ability to rule them. But if you exercise your authority with reason and love, for children to demand a reason is generally to challenge your right to command, and you cannot allow it. If you have a child that is generally insubordinate, he will regard every requirement as irksome, and I would consider it one of the most important things you can do for such a child, to require him every time without exception to obey you without speaking—-for whatever he says will likely be a challenge to your authority.

Next, obedience should be exact. If you say, “Johnny, come here,” and he walks up within ten feet of you, he knows very well you want him to come farther than that. That’s just pushing you, challenging your authority. What should you do then? Say it again? Say, “come all the way here”? No, you should spank him, and send him back where he was, and call him again. And by the way, if you don’t believe in spanking, you don’t believe the Bible. Throw the old Bible away, and found your own religion, with some modern psychology book for your Bible, and some liberal educator for your pastor. I believe in spanking, but I’ll tell you, I have seven children, and the whole seven of them, all put together, don’t get a grand total of one spanking in a year. They would if they needed it, but you raise children the way you ought, and they will soon cease to need any spanking.

The next thing is, obedience should be cheerful. Turn to First John, chapter five. We read in the third verse, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not grievous.” Now God requires some pretty hard things of us. But it says, “his commandments are not grievous.” We have submitted to his authority. We trust in his wisdom and his love, and therefore his commandments are not grievous. The same ought to be true of a child. If your child finds your commandments grievous to him, if, in plain English, he doesn’t want to obey, I can tell you absolutely that your child is not happy. A child cannot be happy unless he obeys cheerfully. You want your children to be happy? Get them right, and they will be happy. But a child who is insubordinate, or who obeys reluctantly and grudgingly, can never be happy. He can never be secure, either. And if all you secure by your discipline is the reluctant and grudging submission of your children, you haven’t secured anything at all. You may as well spare yourself the trouble, and let them go their own way—-for they will as soon as they can.

But I want to talk about character. Your discipline of your children is not merely to regulate their conduct, but to form their character. It’s to train them up in the way they should go—-which is the way of godliness—-that when they are old they may not depart from it. Your softness will absolutely destroy your child’s character. Softness will produce both pride and lust in a child. He’ll become proud, self-important, and accustomed to having his own way—-and not accustomed to self-denial. I had a little conversation with one of you on this subject, and was asked, “What can I do about pride in a child?” And I said then, just as a suggestion, which I had never thought of before, the way to deal with pride in a child is to get him to submit to his parents. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it was divine wisdom given to me at that moment, and it is, in fact, the truth. The way to deal with pride in a child is to get him in subjection to his parents. It is naturally humbling to submit to somebody, and obey somebody. You may be pretty sure that these big-shottish, self-important children are as insubordinate as they are proud. Pride and insubordination go together. They’re twin sisters. Humility and submission go together.

There’s another thing involved also: parental softness will foster lying in children. Lying is one of the most difficult things to deal with in a child—-but also one of the most necessary things to deal with. The Scripture says, “outside are liars”—-everyone that loves and makes a lie. A liar is not saved. He’s not going to get saved until he repents of his lying. Now it’s one of the most difficult things to deal with because very often you don’t know when your child is lying, and when he isn’t. You say, “Johnny, did you do that?” (when you’re almost certain that he did), and he says, “No, Daddy, not me.” And because you’re not absolutely sure he did, you can’t discipline him. So he gets away with whatever else he did, and with lying also. What do you do? Well, I think a little wisdom will enable you to set him up and find him out, by asking him questions when you know what the truth is. And you’ve got to make it your business to know. A child that is suspected of lying should be kept under your eye. You can’t let him run loose as he pleases, and then ask him what he’s been doing. He knows he has the upper hand on that plan. The Bible says, “A child left to himself bringeth his mother shame.” One reason for parental softness is parental laziness.

But love is another source of softness, and I think one of the difficulties that parents have in dealing with lying is that they’re not inclined to believe that their children are liars. I understand that. But you can be pretty sure that every child who is insubordinate is also a liar. They go together. C. H. Spurgeon says, “Every liar has some other latent vice”—-in other words, some other evil in him. That’s why he lies, to cover it up, or to get away with it. Children will lie just for pride’s sake, because they don’t want to be exposed as being wrong. That’s pride. They will lie to avoid embarrassment. That’s pride. They will also lie to avoid getting a spanking.

Now you can very often get a pretty good idea if your child is lying by the simple fact that he won’t look you in the eye. If your child will look you directly in the eye, and say what he has to say, that’s probably an indication that he’s telling you the truth. Not necessarily, though, because I’ve seen the contrary, and I’ve seen it in three year olds, who have become such habitual liars that they can look their parents in the eye, never bat an eye, never wink, and speak calmly, and cooly, and deliberately, the most far-fetched lie on earth. But if you catch them at a stage when they’re just learning to lie, they won’t look you in the eye when they lie. You will say, “Look at me,” and say, “Did you do this?” and they’ll avoid eye contact, look at the floor, and say, “No.” Or they’ll look at your forehead, or your nose, or anything but your eyes. That’s a pretty good indication that they’re lying. But I’ve seen some three year olds that can look their mother right in the eye and lie, when I know they are lying. When you’ve got one like that to deal with, you’ve got a job on your hands. But I really think that lying can be dealt with the same way as pride and everything else. You get that child subject to his parents. A child that’s subject to his parents doesn’t have much occasion to lie. That’s a fact. He’s humble. He knows how to take “No” for an answer—-cheerfully subject. He has nothing to hide. He isn’t trying to get away with anything. He has little or no occasion to lie.

But the parental softness that allows insubordination, foments and fosters pride and lust and lying. Your authority is given you by God to put your children in the right way and keep them there. If you use it properly, it will accomplish that. It will curb lust and pride. It will teach them self-denial, which is the grand essential of discipleship to Christ. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself.” A child cannot follow Christ without self-denial, and a child who does not know how to deny himself is in a bad way. I have known a child of Christian parents, who time after time apparently wept her way to the cross of Christ, but never could manage to stay there. And it was as plain as day to me that parental softness was the real problem. The poor girl grew up manipulating her parents, getting her own way, knowing nothing of self-denial—-and oh, what a struggle she had to try to submit that wayward will to Christ. I have given great offence to the parents of “strong-willed children” by affirming it, but I believe it to be the very truth: strong-willed children are made, not born. They are made by parental softness. I have watched some of them being manufactured—-observed the whole process—-and I know whereof I speak.

But God says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” And that implies that he didn’t depart from it when he was young. You can train up a child in the way he should go, and one of the main ingredients in that training is your authority. Curb his lusts and his pride. Conquer his insubordination. You do that by requiring him to do as he ought, and enforcing your requirements.

Glenn Conjurske