To Pick or Not Pick Battles With Your Children?

There is a common refrain among parents when they gather. As they discuss the latest parenting challenges, one of the parents relates the most recent “horror story” from the past week, for example, where his child was giving the car’s seatback a shower with her saliva as she incessantly buzzed her lips. Despite multiple commands to cease and desist, the child refused to obey. At this point, usually, another parent chimes in with the refrain, “Well, that isn’t that bad compared to my child’s bad habit(s). Sometimes, you just have to pick your battles.”

No doubt, it begins as a matter of convenience for parents. They are either running late or tired, and the child refuses to obey. After the second or third call for obedience, the parent drops the issue and moves on. The next time the same obedience issue comes up the child exhibits the same obstinacy. The cycle may repeat a few more times before the parent frustratingly decides it is not an issue worth addressing anymore. Feelings of parental slacking are assuaged with the refrain, “Sometimes, you just have to know which battles to pick.” So begins a pattern of conflict avoidance in parenting that will stretch into the teen years and more than likely grow worse.

As parents use the “pick your battles” philosophy more and more, their children begin to realize which commands they can disobey without consequence. Children begin to understand certain house rules are more of a priority than others. Consequently, they begin to manipulate their parents. The philosophy has taught them the line at which their parents do not enforce obedience and now there is a subtle campaign to move the line as far as possible in their favor. The parents’ acquiescence has eroded the respect deserved by the parents from the child and weakened the parents’ authority.

Nowhere, in the Bible, will Christian parents see God picking battles as He parents His children. The most illustrative and direct example of His parenting is seen in His leading of Israel through the wilderness into Canaan. During this time, God does not permit certain commands to be heeded and others to be ignored. Case in point, no matter how many times His children grumbled, He continued to deal with the issue and did not allow it to go unaddressed.

Surprisingly, God did not deal with every instance of grumbling in a punitive manner, but He always addressed each instance of disobedience, thereby reinforcing His authority. With God as the perfect parenting model, there is a key principle He used that can guide parents as they train their children in the area of obedience. This principle stands in stark contrast to the “pick your battles” approach, which consists of attempts to gain compliance and ends in acquiescence to a child’s continued rebellion.

At the outset, God reacted quite graciously to the Israelites grumbling. Only three days after miraculously crossing the Red Sea, the thirsty Israelites forgot the loving providence of their Father and complained about the bitter water at Marah. God responded with grace and provided sweet water (Exodus 15). A short time later, in the wilderness of Sin, the Hebrews grumbled about lack of food (Ex. 16). God once again gave them the object of their complaint without any retribution. The same thing happened again at Horeb with grumblings about lack of water (Ex. 17). The Lord responded again with grace.

In all three of these instances, God provided and then issued a warning to heed His commandments or bear severe consequences. Furthermore, at Marah, He gave them a promise to believe so they could be spared from any future punishment akin to what the Egyptians endured. Grumbling always stems from a lack of faith. God knew this and reinforced His love by giving the Israelites a promise to believe. In no way, was God acquiescing by not meting out punishment for their sin. He is not reluctantly giving in to their whining. He is giving grace in the moment based upon His wisdom.

God’s parenting approach changed later, though. In Numbers 11, the Lord was severe with His disciplining hand regarding Israel’s grumbling. His children had not learned from His graciousness. He did not acquiesce in light of continued grumblings nor did He continue to be as gracious lest His position and His authority be seen as weak. John Piper explains why: “The passing over of sin communicates God’s glory and His righteous governance are cheap and worthless.” Eventually, sin must be righteously dealt with.

Therefore, God punished their grumbling with His fire that “consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” Again, just as little children, the Israelites failed to learn from their punishment and they grumbled shortly thereafter. God graciously spared lives, but did punish those twenty and older by prohibiting their entrance into Canaan (Num. 14).

In these examples of God parenting His grumbling children, He suspended punishment as long as He deemed wise, i.e. He extended grace. He knew His children and understood at what point love and understanding should be expressed with the purpose of capturing His children’s hearts. It is also seen where grace was not the proper response to disobedience, but punishment was. Punishment is not a pleasant aspect of parenting, but it is a necessary one exercised at the right time.

Every instance of disobedience to the same command does not need to be addressed in the same way. The key, however, is that it is addressed with purpose. Like our heavenly Father, parenting with grace and timely punishment provides a proper amount of leeway without compromising a parent’s authority and the respect deserved.

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This article also published at Desiring God.