Role Reversal

In this lesson, we look at several spiritual lessons our children teach us.
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I am an only child and my worst experience as a son came when my mother was near the end of her life, suffering from Alzheimers and living in an extended care hospital. She had soiled herself and was crying for me to change her diaper because the floor attendant was not responding to her call for assistance. It was an awful, embarrassing moment of total role reversal. Me, the son, had to calm and change my own mother as if she was a crying baby. Thankfully the nurse came and quickly took charge of the situation saving me and my poor mother from the prospect of having to violate her dignity in this way.

This episode makes me think about my own children, now all grown, and how in many small ways the role reversal between us has already begun. For example, my sons do not play as rough with me as they used to because they know that they are stronger and faster than the "old man," and then there are the constant reminders from our daughters to be more careful going down steep stairs or carrying heavy boxes into the garage. They are not parenting the parents yet, but we can already see that there is an element of concern for us that was not present when they were children, when they thought we could do just about anything.

This role reversal in my family is nothing new. It did not just start when I had my 65th birthday. God has been using our children to teach us things from the very beginning, it is simply that we, as parents, do not realize what is going on until we are older and have time to reflect. I think Jesus was getting at this when He said that we had to, "become like little children" (Matthew 18:3). He did not mean that we had to take on a child's immaturity, but rather that we had something to learn from our children that would enable us to better enter into the kingdom/will of God. Of course, the school where we learn something from children is called parenthood. Oh yes, we are the teachers, the authority figures, the leaders in the parent/child relationship, but this does not mean that we cannot also learn valuable lessons from the interaction we have with our children.

Gary Thomas, in the book "Sacred Parenting," describes how raising children "shapes our souls." In this chapter I would like to share some of the precious spiritual lessons he mentions that our children teach us as we parent them. Here, briefly, are three of these.

1. Character and Service Over Comfort

Raising children teaches us to value character and service over comfort. Our material inclination in raising children is to make life as easy as possible for them. We want them to have a better life than we have had, and not make the mistakes that we have made. All we want for them is to be happy.

These are good and noble objectives, however, one thing that God is trying to teach us through child raising is the value of service and character over comfort. As Christians, we know this but it seems that we forget it once we become parents. As parents, we work hard at making our children as safe and comfortable as possible, and hope that the elements of service and character will somehow develop automatically. As a result, we become hyper-vigilante parents that advocate for our children at every point of their development. For example, if the child gets bad grades it must be the school, environment or teacher's fault. If our little athlete does not get enough play time in the game, it is the coach's fault for being biased.

We over-value and over-protect our children to the point where they never learn from failure. Schools ban dodgeball because of the fact that there are clear winners and losers in this game and, consequently, could harm a child's self-esteem if they are on the losing side. Imagine! When every child is "special," and failure or weakness is papered over with meaningless report cards or awards for being "friendly," children become programmed with a false image of the world which will be a cause for confusion and resentment later on in their lives. Success (even if it is fake success) may gratify parents, but failure (produced by an honest assessment of ability and performance) instills wisdom in children.

In his book on parenting, Gary Thomas quotes Dr. Melody Rhode, a child psychologist, "If we protect our children from all risk, challenge, and possibility of rejection, they likely will become developmentally stunted and... immature" (p. 26). Over-protection is for our benefit, it is comforting to us but, in the end, it is a grave disservice to our children because it traps them within childhood. I am reminded of an episode from my time serving as the Dean of Students at Oklahoma Christian University where I was responsible for student discipline. A female student had failed a breathalizer test administered by one of our Hall Directors who had checked her into her dorm after the school's curfew. She was under-age and had also violated the college's rules concerning alcohol. To my disappointment, her father threatened to sue the school for false accusation instead of helping us deal with his daughter's alcohol consumption and joining us in encouraging her to participate in the counseling that was required when such incidents occured. This man, when confronted with the facts of his daughter's misbehavior, could not accept the failure of his "princess." Rather than work with us to help her with this problem, he blamed the school.

Raising children forces us as parents to choose what we really want in life. This is important to understand because what we want for our children is really what we want for ourselves. Gary Thomas says that his children are the mirror of his heart. If, by our actions and influence we see that what our children are striving for is only to be happy, safe and successful, then God, through our children, has shown us how worldly we are. What profit is there if a child has good esteem because he thinks he is special, never been seriously injured, polite, popular or successful but unaware that his soul is in danger and the world is a fallen place in need of a Redeemer? I suppose what I am trying to get across here is that you will see how important spiritual things are to you by the place these things take in your child's character and soul. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the rule.

God reveals the depth of our commitment to Christ by the intensity of His presence in the life of our children. And we will see His presence in them if they:

  • learn the truth about failure and how to deal with it their own lives.
  • are trained to place service over comfort in their families and society.
  • are allowed to suffer the normal setbacks that happen to everyone in this life.

Parents do not want their children to struggle, but in allowing them to do so we permit God to work out the character of Christ in their souls. This is hard for us as parents, but eventually brings joy to our children.

2. How to Handle Anger

A little story about anger: A preacher decided to preach a sermon on anger. When he offered the invitation at the end of the lesson, 19 people came forward for prayer, and every one of them was the mother or father of small children.

I never realized I had a bad temper until I became the father of four young children. Parenting brings out all kinds of emotions in us, especially anger, and God uses these moments to teach us how to deal with this explosive and potentially destructive emotion. Here are some of the situations that provoke parental anger:

  • The terrible twos or tween stage.
  • Breathtaking ingratitude.
  • Disobedience and defiance.
  • Dangerous behavior and foolish conduct.

In general, men tend to get angry because of emotional frustration. Men are not always well suited to deal with the variety and subtleties of emotions stirred up by parenting, especially parenting small children. Many times it comes out as anger, not just towards the children but a shot-gun type of anger that bruises everyone in the family. Women, on the other hand, are more adept at handling complex emotions and tend to express their frustration as a type of woundedness. For example, in the place of raw anger some will say, "After all I have done, this is how you treat me?" This type of reaction is not evident as anger but it gets the job done emotionally.

God did not give us children simply to show us how easily we can become angry, but He does use this natural consequence of parenting to mature us spiritually. Gary Thomas says, "Learning to deal with anger [...] is graduate level Christianity. Our children constitute our homework, our mixed emotions become our textbook, and the character that results will reveal our final grade" (pg. 117).

Dealing with Parental Anger

Our goal as parents is not to eliminate anger but rather to learn how to handle anger without falling into sin. Anger by itself is not sin, it is simply an emotion. Anger can be righteous and motivational when it is a reaction to sin, waste or injustice of some kind in the world or ourselves. It is righteous and thus correct when it moves us to action in seeking God's righteousness. For example, Moses' reaction when the people sinned with the golden calf (Exodus 32:19-21) or Jesus, in righteous indignation, cleansing the temple (Matthew 21:12-17).

Anger, however, is sinful when it is an expression of annoyance, inconvenience, wounded pride, loss of control or the desire to impose one's will, etc. For example, King Saul becoming angry because the people were praising David more than himself (I Samuel 18:8), or the elder brother angry with his father in the parable of the Prodigal Son because he resented his younger brother's return and restoration (Luke 15:11-32). The same emotion was being expressed in every one of these stories from Moses to the older brother, but made right or wrong by the cause and direction of that anger.

In parenting children, we have to first acknowledge and accept that this experience will provoke us to strong emotion, but thankfully God will help us through this process and guide us to spiritual maturity when it comes to anger. In the meantime, here are four ways to manage anger so that it does not become sinful:

  1. Go Slow - James 1:19
    • James tells us that we must be, "slow to anger."
    • Parents need to be cautious when using any type of strong emotion with children, especially anger.
    • Anger to point out and remove sinful, foolish and dangerous behavior can have its proper use.
    • Anger to simply express annoyance, or bully our way into accomplishing our will is counterproductive for parenting and sinful before God (James 1:20).
  2. Have a Time Limit - Ephesians 4:26
    • Paul says, "Do not sin by letting anger control you. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."
    • This is not a reference to actual time in minutes or hours, but rather a warning to keep anger in perspective.
    • "The sun go down" is a metaphor suggesting that our anger should have its season, its time and not more lest it control us.
    • Sometimes we have a right to be angry, but being angry all the time is not right.
    • You cannot avoid being angry at times, but you can contain it to its proper season and thus escape the bitterness and resentment that prolonged anger can produce.
  3. Control the Anger - I Corinthians 13:5
    • "Love is not irritable (easily angered)."
    • Paul says that those who aspire to be elders must not be "quick-tempered" (Titus 1:7).
    • We need to govern our anger with reason, maturity and patient wisdom.
    • Controlled anger is like a surge of energy that moves us to get things done, said, finished or started.
    • Uncontrolled anger, on the other hand, is like a bomb going off that hurts everyone in the area.
  4. Be Honest About Your Own Failures - Matthew 7:5
    • Jesus said, "Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye."
    • Some parents are easily provoked and give vent to their anger caused by their children, but rarely get worked up over their own failings.

Anger becomes a problem when we only use it to chastise or motivate our children, but not ourselves. If we hate the sin and foolishness in our own hearts first, we will grow in the ability to practice slow, controlled, righteous anger with others, especially our children.

Of course, the response we ultimately want to cultivate is love, not anger. When the immaturity or sin of our children does provoke anger, God can use those moments to build into our character the highest form of Christian maturity. I again quote Gary Thomas where he says, "Just as God's response to His children reveals His character, so parenting reveals our character." God quickly teaches us the limits of our own patience through our children and invites us to be more perfectly remade into His image through the discipline required in parenting.

3. What Really Matters

Billy Joel, the musician and singer once said, "You cannot feel at home in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You cannot get hugged by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and you cannot have children with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I want what everybody else wants: to love and be loved and to have a family." Despite his fame and fortune, Billy Joel has managed to maintain his focus on what is truly important.

There are two things that are sure in this life:

  1. We will all die. This includes people, elements in creation, as well as human institutions like companies and governments.
  2. We will be forgotten. How many know the name of their great-great-great-grandfather's wife, or who won the gold medal for swimming 50 years ago? Except for the very famous, most are quickly forgotten.

And yet, despite the fact that we know this to be true, why is it that we invest so heavily into things that will surely pass away? For example, we live like there will be no death, or we build and work and save as if all of this activity will actually mean something in 100 years from now. Thankfully, through our children, God connects us to the reality of passing time. We once were children and now are parents with children who will soon become grandparents welcoming our children's children. Through these experiences we come to know that time really does pass and with it our lives will pass as well. This sobering thought enables us to clearly fix our soul's attention on what truly matters and what is worth passing on to our children while there is still time.

Through the parenting experience, therefore, God reveals to us that the only thing that lasts beyond this life and this world is faith. The only intergenerational gift to pass on to our children that will endure beyond time as we know it is not wealth or power but the faith we instill in them that they will be able to pass on to their children's children as well. We often skip over those long boring passages in the Bible that simply list the names of the generations of the Jewish people (Genesis 5; I Chronicles 1-9; Matthew 1; Luke 3). For us, these are simply long lists of names that are difficult to pronounce, but in reality they are a roll call of the faithful, not the famous. These people lived and died like everyone else with nothing noted about them in most cases except that they passed on their name and faith to the next generation.

The insight into our own mortality that we gain from seeing our children being born and growing into maturity moves us to search for what is truly significant, what is valuable and what really matters. Again, to quote Gary Thomas, "Sacred parenting calls us to focus our brief lives on what will create the most impact for future generations. We will soon be forgotten on earth but remembered in heaven."


My mother had a hard life. She was single and pregnant with me when, unlike in today's society, this was a great shame and hardship (1947). She was poor, isolated from her family and had little formal training. She did not have the means to provide me with a good education, always had to work and when she died, left me with no inheritance. However, against all odds she chose to have me, and for this one decision I will be eternally grateful to her. She enabled me to have a life, and now it is my turn to pass something on to my children. In addition to a life and a name, Lise and I have given our children the one thing that will outlive us and them: faith in Jesus Christ.

My great hope and constant prayer is that when the Lord comes there will be a sacred family here on earth related to us still faithfully calling on His name.

Thomas, G. (2004) Sacred Parenting: How Raising Children Shapes Our Souls. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Discussion Questions

  1. What would you change in your parenting approach if you knew in the past what you know now?
  2. Can you identify some lesson or principle that you have learned from your child?
  3. What would be your "best" advice to new parents?
  4. Who has been a mentor or good example to you as a parent? Why has this person been an influence on you?
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