I Kings 1:1-14

As the old saying goes, “Charity begins at home.” In other words, helping others begins at home. We have a God-given duty to nurture the relationship with our spouse, to raise our children, to take care of our brothers and sisters, to provide for our elderly parents. Charity begins at home. If we are serious about following God’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” then the closest neighbors are the persons in our immediate family. Loving our neighbor begins at home. 

The opposite is also true. Hurting begins at home. This certainly is true in homes where a child is beaten or a spouse is abused. But even in wholesome families, hurting begins at home. For rarely do wordshurt as often as they do in homes. Insults, ridicule, snubs, and affronts leave long lasting hidden bruises. Family members, particularly parents, wield tremendous power to hurt their children with words. 

No self-respecting parents want to hurt their children. We want the best for our children, our grandchildren. We want to protect, nurture, and cherish them. Yet, what honest parent can say that he or she has never in an outburst of anger made a demeaning remark to a child? “Why don’t you get grades as good as your brother?” “Can’t you get through one meal without spilling something?” “Look! All the cute girls in your class picture have dimples. It’s too bad you don’t have any.” 

We grown-ups know well the lasting power of words because 30, 50, even 60 years after the event, we can quickly recall wounds that our parents’ insensitive words inflicted on us. Those painful words are on instant replay in our memories. Those painful words hurt again and again. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow correctly observed: “A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child.”

Words have tremendous power, power to bruise. Hard words, such as gossip, slander, insults, lying can hurt children for a lifetime. But words also have tremendous power to help them. 

A young mother confessed to her pastor an experience in which she learned the power of words upon her child. Because she was frustrated with her son’s frequent misbehavior, she scolded him repeatedly. But one day the boy had clearly shown effort to be cooperative. That night, after she tucked the boy into bed and started downstairs, she heard her son crying. She went back into his room and found his head buried in the pillows. Between sobs he asked, “Mommy, haven’t I been a pretty good boy today?”

“The question went through me like a knife,” the mother said. “I had been quick to correct him when wrong, but when he had behaved, I hadn’t noticed. I had put him to bed without a word of praise.”

A word of praise from a parent has great power on children, even on middle-aged children. A word of praise from a parent has incalculable power. There is an old-fashioned formula for parenting that says parents are supposed to be “heavy on criticism and light on praise.” Whoever coined that formula never asked his or her children what they thought about it. For children, like adults, benefit most from a balanced diet, a balance of criticism and praise.

 Hiam Ginott advises mothers and fathers: “If you want your children to improve, let them overhear the nice thingsyou say about them.” What was the last nice thing your child overheard you say about her or about him? Including your children who now have children of their own?

Ninety years ago John B. Watson was one of the first psychological experts to publish a book on parenting. His book, published in 1928, was entitled Psychological Care of Infant and Child. In his best-selling book on how to parent, he offered a “foolproof” method of child rearing. He guaranteed that, if parents followed his advice, they could produce any kind of child they wanted...”a doctor, lawyer, artist, a merchant-chief.”

Watson’s approach became a popular style of parenting during the 1930s and 40s. Although your parents or grandparents may have never read Watson’s book, they lived in the era that endorsed and reflected his views. I presume that his book was popular because so many people already agreed with his approach. He informed parents that, if they wanted the best results, they should show little to no affection toward their children. He wrote:

“Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning...”

“Remember when you are tempted to pet your child, that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”[1]

Some of us were children in homes where Watson’s advice was the rule of thumb. My parents grew up in that type of upbringing. Words of affection for children, words of endearment were not to be spoken. Somehow love was to be understood but never explicitly stated. For a parent to hug and say to a child “I love you” was taboo. 

What was the result of Watson's expert advice on a generation of children? Maybe I should ask some of you who grew up in such an atmosphere. My impression is that many children became adults who sensed they were unworthy of being loved. Some of us still feel that way well into adulthood and middle age.

The wrong kinds of words spoken have the power to hurt, and the right kind of words when notspoken also have the power to hurt. I cannot verify the historicity of the following story, it may only be a made-up story, but it states a truth even if it did not actually happen. 

 King Frederick II conducted an experiment with fifty infants. He wanted to see what language infants would speak if they never had the opportunity to hear a spoken word. To carry out his experiment, he assigned foster mothers to bathe and nurse the infants, but did not allow them to fondle or talk to the babies. No displays of affection were permitted. The observers waited for months to see what words the children would speak instinctively. By the end, the experiment failed dramatically. All fifty infants died. Without words of love each child died. Through withholding words of love, children are still dying. 

To be fair, loving and congratulatory words alone are not adequate to raise a healthy child. A balanced diet is needed for a child to grow up. That apocryphal experience proved that when void of loving words, a child will wither. At the same time, void of words of correction to guide his or her behavior a child will also waste away.

In ancient Israel, King David was a powerful monarch whose word was law. David was also a heroic warrior; his rousing speeches stirred armies to fight. David was a marvelous poet; his psalms have inspired God’s people for centuries. David used words with great power, but in his own home his words were weak. 

As we heard in the story from I Kings, when David became old, too old to perform the duties of his royal office, the court discussed who would succeed David, who would become the next king. Adonijah, one of David’s sons, came up with an answer. He would become the next king. For weeks Adonijah went around the capital city, Jerusalem, boasting to all the citizens that he would become the next king.

What an arrogant disrespectful son he was! While his father is on his deathbed, Adonijan is running around town with 50 chariots parading before him, declaring himself to be his father’s successor. Instead of comforting his father on the eve of his death, Adonijah is congratulating himself on his future royal throne. 

What can account for such arrogance and disrespect? According to the Bible, David himself was to bear some of the blame. For I Kings 1:6 reads: “His father [David] had never at any time displeased him [Adonijah] by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” 

David had never confronted his son for his actions. We infer from the narrator's remark about David's parenting approach, that David should have questioned what Adonijah did, that David should have asked his son for an explanation when Adonijah did something wrong. The narrator carefully avoids suggesting that David should have criticized Adonijah’s selfish character. This distinction is not hairsplitting. This distinction is invaluable.

To find fault with what one’s child doesis not the same as finding fault with a child’s character. A wise scholar [Johann Paul Friedrich] wrote over two centuries ago: “If a child tells a lie, tell him that he has told a lie, but don’t call him a liar. If you define him as a liar, you break down his confidence in his own character.” We discipline our children (or grandchildren) when we tell them that what they are doing is wrong. We shame our children when we tell them that who they are is bad. 

I grimace whenever I hear parents reprimand their children by saying: “You are a bad boy! You are a bad girl!” When a child misbehaves, the child is not at fault for falling short in being a boy or in being a girl. They are not bad at being a boy or bad at being a girl. They are doing what is bad. They are at fault for doing something bad, not for being bad. 

 Criticizing the child’s character is to wound the child without necessarily correcting the bad behavior. My opinion is that discipline is more effective when parents say: “Son or daughter, what you did was wrong. You are not to do this because...[fill in the reason].” Even as an adult, I can handle criticism much easier when something tells me that what I did was wrong, rather than telling me that I am a fool for having done so. 

God has entrusted parents with a tremendous responsibility, namely the nurture and development of children. Children do not come with built-in self-control and generosity; both must be taught, instilled, and nurtured in children by parents. In the fulfillment of that responsibility, God has given us a great power— words. We can use the power of words to heal or to hurt our children. 

We parents and grandparents must, therefore, be careful how we use words. For according to the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6:4, parents are not to exasperate their children, but raise them in the nurture and instruction of the Lord Jesus. Paul combines the two responsibilities of parenting that are so hard to balance: nurturing our children through affection while instructing them through discipline. Children need both to be held in love and to be held accountable for their actions. Probably grown ups need both as well.

Back in the days when Lisa and I were parenting two young children, I occasionally was caught off guard by overhearing my words to them. It dawned on me that most of my sentences were imperatives, telling them what to do. "Clean up that mess." "Do your homework." "Hang up your coat." Far fewer of my sentences were statements, telling them how I felt about them or appreciated them. "I am proud of how hard you worked at school." "I thank you for clearing the table." "You are gifted at music." 

It dawned on me that my words were out of balance. My words were heavy on instructing and light on nurturing. Since children need both nurturing and instructing, I needed to balance the scales. I needed more times saying "I love you," and fewer times saying, "Do your chores." 

If I had been really smart I'd have realized that the same balance applies to relationships with a spouse, friends, even parishioners. People need more than my telling them what to do; people need as much my telling them how much I care and respect and value them. I know that I need it. I guess you do too.   

 Therefore might I suggest two ways to avoid exasperating our children, our grandchildren, our spouse and our friends: first, use more words that voice praise, and second, use words for criticizing a person's actions not shaming their character.  

We grown-ups well know the power of parents’ words to hurt. May our children and grandchildren know the power of words to help.


[1]John B. Watson & R. R. Watson, Psychological Care of Infant and Child  (Norton & Company, 1928), pp. 81-81, 87.