I didn’t grow up camping, but as a husband and father, I want to be a family that camps. I love being outdoors and see so many benefits to it. With the ever-present draw of screens and technology, I’m trying to cultivate a stronger joy in nature. In my head, camping with our daughter will lead to memories she will long enjoy. Maybe it will even start a family tradition she can pass on to her kids.
As we’re getting started on this journey, I’ve picked up some basic camping gear, including a six-person tent. We want to rough it, but not too much, so we wanted a tent big enough for small air mattresses. We can enjoy the great outdoors without sleeping on the hard ground.
Last weekend we practiced setting up the tent. I wanted my daughter to start enjoying it now and would like to test it out in the safety of my backyard. Since I geek out on new adventures and am riding the wave of this camping kick, this was an anticipated moment. We were taking the first step in my fantasy of countless family memories, not to mention some Instagram-worthy pics.
It didn’t take long for my excitement about what could be to turn into frustration over what was taking place. Setup was going pretty well, but my two-year-old daughter kept undoing the tent poles as I laid them out and prepped them for creating the tent’s frame. I should expect this from her since she’s two and it’s her way of trying to help, but sometimes her help isn’t helpful. And that should be okay. But my plans for how this amazing time would go were interrupted by her desire to help and play.
After telling her not to do that a couple of times, my tone started to shift from firm to harsh. I barked, “Don’t touch those poles again” and “I told you not to do that.” She’s sensitive (already) so it led to the flooding tears and thunderous cries of a toddler’s emotional storm.
My wife was kind enough to point out I was mean to her. I was quick to defend myself by saying she needs to listen. Though right, I was also wrong.
She does need to listen, and it’s sometimes necessary to be firm, but my response was more about my frustration and anger than about the caring guidance of a father. My good intentions and dreams for the day came crashing down into reality. Making it saltier, my wife reminded me God doesn’t treat us that way. I realized I didn’t react the right way. My plan had become more important than loving my daughter well. My angry tone hurt her more than it helped her see the need to obey. I had to admit my failure and ask for her forgiveness (always a bitter pill to swallow).
Reflecting on the whole experience later, I became more aware of some cautions I might need to consider as a dad. A few questions came to mind. How could I be firm in my instructions yet not harsh? What are similar struggles I might get into as a dad where my good intentions come out in unloving expressions? What do I need to guard against so I better reflect God’s Fatherly love?
Below are three cautions and encouragements for myself and dads like me.
1) Be Firm Without Being Harsh
All kids are sinners. We should not be surprised when they’re stubborn and selfish. They inherited more than looks from mom and dad. Kids come out of the womb strong-willed and eager to do and get what they want. That’s why God gives parents to teach, guide, correct, discipline, and instruct them.
Children need boundaries. They need taught right and wrong. The contemporary movement to trust your kid’s instincts and assume they’re good, and therefore, able to choose the right path without your help is extremely problematic (and naïve). Kids do what they think will benefit them. God gifts parents to instruct children on what’s true versus false, what’s good versus evil, and what’s right versus wrong. Your kids need you to be an authority enforcing some rules meant for their good.
This will require being firm with them. By being firm, I mean explaining and enforcing a boundary. They need to learn that just because they want to do something, it feels right to them, or it seems like a good idea, it doesn’t mean they should do it. My young daughter is attracted to scissors and knives. For some reason, dangerous objects draw kids with a magnetic power. They’ll ignore the dozens of toys you stock your house with but find the one sharp object barely visible.
My daughter would happily carry scissors around the house, cut the first thing she finds, jump on the couch with them in hand, and even glide down her backyard slide with them. But, in case you’re getting worried, I tell her no in a firm but loving way. She needs to know that’s a non-negotiable rule we’ve set in place for her good, and she must obey it. If she disobeys, I shouldn’t just say “that’s no big deal” and let her do what she wants. I take the scissors from her, and if she repeats the offense, there will be a consequence. Being firm is not opposed to showing love.
But where many parents need to be careful is not moving past being firm and into being harsh. Speaking or acting harsh could look like a lot of different things, but I see it as acting out of frustration, anger, and annoyance. It’s responding in unloving and hurtful words, behaviors, tone, or expressions. The Bible not only prohibits outright abuse—an obvious sin—but it also warns against even using harsh words (see Proverbs 15:1).
To return to my opening example, when I told my daughter to leave the tent poles alone, she should have obeyed. It’s normal to be frustrated by repetitive disobedience, or even irritated when she disconnects the poles and I have to start over, and it’s okay to be firm in asking her to obey what I said. The line I need to be careful to avoid stepping over is letting that frustration spill out in harsh rather than firm words. When my eyebrows fly back, my eyes bulge, my nose flares, my voice goes up, and my words become cutting, I’m no longer lovingly correcting her. I’m acting out in anger.
My intentions might be good, but the way they’re expressed undermines everything. She will not receive this as loving but firm correction. It will come across as an angry, hurtful reaction (because that’s what it is). The border might feel blurry between being firm to being harsh, but the drop is steep as soon as we step over it.
My goal as a dad is to—as much as possible and knowing I will be imperfect—reflect what God is like rather than distort my child’s view of God. God is firm but never harsh. He is serious about us learning to walk in His ways and committed to our good. But He never flips His lid, blows a gasket, or loses His cool. He never condemns or berates His children. He pursues our good with patience, understanding, compassion, and steadfast love. I want to be that kind of father, and so I must learn how to be firm without being harsh.
In part two of this series, we consider the need to encourage rather than exasperate, and putting people before our plan.