Parents are instructed to bring up their children in the nurture and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Some parents, in attempting to do this, become overbearing and overly controlling. Fearful that their children will make mistakes, some parents keep too tight a rein on their children, often causing those children to rebel. While the Bible does not address overbearing or controlling parents directly, it does offer some guidelines to help children and parents create healthy relationships.
One of those guidelines is mutual submission. Submission is a recurrent theme throughout the New Testament (Ephesians 5:21). In the church and in the home, mutual submission to the needs and wishes of others is the foundation for healthy relationships. When family members embrace humility with each other, discussions replace arguments. Understanding replaces anger. When children are nurtured from infancy and taught with gentleness and consistency, the parent does not need to be overbearing. The relationship has been established. Parent and child can navigate through disagreements and teenage hormones without killing each other. However, if the parent ruled by fear from a child’s earliest memory, there is no trusting relationship upon which to build.
Children are instructed to obey their parents, even when they are overbearing or controlling (Ephesians 6:1; Colossians 3:20). Honor is to be given to parents, regardless of whether or not the parents deserve it (Exodus 20:12; Matthew 19:19). But when parents are wise and humble, the home is a healthy greenhouse for producing wise and humble future adults.
Imagine this scene in a household with an overbearing or controlling parent:
Dad: Get to your room and clean it spotlessly, or you will be grounded for six months!
Child: You’re hateful! I’m running away!
Dad: You will not talk back to me! Now you’re grounded for a year, and I’m taking all your electronics.
Child: I just cleaned it Saturday. Mom said it was fine.
Dad: Well, I’m not Mom, and I say clean it again.
There is no way such interactions will result in a good outcome. They begin in anger and end in anger. However, let’s look at this scene in a household where mutual submission has been modeled by the parents:
Dad: Your room looked pretty messy when I passed it a moment ago. When’s the last time you cleaned it?
Child: Saturday. Mom said it was fine.
Dad: It might have been fine on Saturday, but looks like you’ve been having a lot of fun since then. How about you go pick it up again, and I’ll check it before we go out for pizza?
Child: I don’t see why I have to clean it again when I just cleaned it.
Dad: Because I’m your dad and I love you. It’s my job to train you to be responsible with all God has given you. It won’t take you long. I bet you can have it looking nice in five minutes. C’mon! I’ll time you. Ready? Go!
The difference in those scenarios is the attitude of the father. In the second example, instead of being overbearing and controlling, the father approaches his child’s situation with openness and humility. A humble father partners with a child to accomplish his goals. He uses every opportunity to teach and model right behavior, and the child quickly picks up on who’s in charge. When parents model respect for themselves and their children, the children learn to imitate that respect. Instead of using force and coercion to control their children’s actions, humble parents use logic and consistency to train their children’s minds.
Overbearing parents operate out of fear. Using anger and accusation, these parents set themselves against their children as adversaries, with no hope of resolution. They see compromise and negotiation as weaknesses, rather than tools by which they can teach their children willing compliance. Overbearing parents fear losing control of their children, so they try to lead by intimidation. This rarely works the way they hoped. Naturally compliant children will cower down and obey outwardly while battling with self-image and confidence. Strong-willed children will defy such control and end up generating more trouble.
While God expects parents to curb youthful impulses and foolishness for a child’s own good (Proverbs 22:15), He also expects parents to model the kind of love He has for us. God often compares His tender love for us with that of earthly parents (Psalm 103:13). God is not overbearing or controlling. He sets healthy boundaries but allows us the freedom to choose whether or not to obey (Deuteronomy 11:26–28). Disobedience has consequences, but consequences are one way we learn. Overbearing or controlling parents are often afraid of allowing their children to suffer consequences, so they place such strict standards on them that they have no opportunities to learn from their mistakes.
God is the perfect example of a Father, and we can learn proper balance from the way He parents us (1 John 3:1). Instead of being overbearing, He guides us gently onto the right paths (Proverbs 3:5–6). Instead of being controlling, He sets us free to experience the consequences of our choices (Genesis 2:16–17; John 3:16–18). Instead of showing anger and impatience, He waits patiently for us to repent and return to Him (2 Peter 3:9; Luke 15:11–32). Some of His children abuse that kindness and reject His love, as will some of ours. But He knows that a child who refuses the love of a kind Father will also rebel against an overbearing one. When we allow God to be our model for parenting, we will achieve a healthy balance.