In his helpful little book, The Fulfilled Family: God’s Design for Your Home, John MacArthur provides a list of ways parents may unintentionally provoke their children to anger. MacArthur encourages parents to recognize and avoid these potential pitfalls for the good of their children and for the general happiness of their homes. He also reminds parents that their child’s anger does not necessarily indicate that the parent is guilty of provocation; but parents who are responsible for inflaming their child’s anger are doubly guilty, for “[They] [n]ot only violate their duty as parents, but they also cause their own children to stumble” (109).
So how do parents needlessly rouse their child’s anger? One way is by excessive discipline. MacArthur writes, “I have known parents who seemed to think that if discipline is good for a child, extra discipline must be even better. They constantly waved the threat of corporal punishment as if they loved it. No parent should ever be eager to punish. And no punishment should ever be brutal or bullying. Parents should always administer discipline with the good of the child in mind, never more than necessary, and always with love” (109).
Another way parents can provoke their child’s anger is by way of inconsistent discipline. Here a parent may lazily allow several infractions to go unpunished, grow frustrated, and then lash out at their children. But this kind of inconsistency will cultivate both anger and confusion in the child since they can rarely know what to expect from their parents in terms of discipline.
Parents can also aggrivate their children with unkindness—making mean-spirited comments to their son or daughter both publically and privately—and by showing favoritism toward one child against the other.
Some parents are guilty of overindulgence–giving a child everything they desire without providing any boundaries. But MacArthur comments, “Research from many different sources shows that children who are given too much autonomy feel insecure and unloved. No wonder. After all, Scripture says parents who let their children misbehave with no consequences are actually showing contempt for the child (Prov. 13:24). Children know that instinctively, and it exasperates them” (111).
The opposite of overindulgence is the tendency toward overprotection, where parents do not allow the child legitimate and age-appropriate freedom. ”That’s a sure way to provoke a child to frustration,” MacArthur avers, “make your child despair of ever having any liberty at all unless he or she rebels” (111).
Constant pressure to achieve can provoke children to anger. MacArthur warns, “If you never praise your kids when they succeed but always drive them to do even better next time if you neglect to comfort and encourage them when they fail; or, worst of all, if you force your children to try to fulfill goals you never accomplished, they will certainly resent it” (111). Although it is natural for a parent to desire their child to work hard and to excel, such desires must be balanced with patience and wisdom.
Finally, parents often provoke their children through discouragement. ”[N]eglect, constant criticism, condescension, indifference, detachment, cruelty, sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy, a lack of fairness, or deliberate humiliation” can all cause profound discouragement in children. It is no wonder why Paul instructs us in Colossians 3:21, “Father, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (emphasis original).
It is easy to forget that a significant aspect of our duty as parents is to guard our children against cultivating anger in their hearts. We help our children in this regard by not only instructing them about the dangers of bitterness, resentment, and unrighteous wrath, but by taking care how our words and actions—or lack thereof—may nurture irritation and rage rather than patience and love.
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4).