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We were sitting at an intersection when my 6-year-old daughter said, “Daddy, that Blue’s Clues paw print is orange.” Blue’s Clues was a once popular kid’s program about a dog named Blue who would leave his paw print in three different places during the show.
Each paw print sighting would reveal a clue. Once Blue found all three clues, the viewers would be able to solve the riddle. Blues’ paw print was, of course, blue.
My child knew all pawprints were blue, which is why she was a bit flummoxed to find an orange one on the back of a car. The orange one she found was a print representing Clemson University.
My daughter had no clue about Clemson University, which I believe to be the result of sound parenting, so when she saw the orange paw print, it confused her. Young children have only one reference point. They are not able to think in nuance and contours.
My child’s prior knowledge of what a paw print looked like established her reference point. As an aside, she described the hair on my arms as fur rather than hair. Her prior experience with stuffed animals and cartoons has shaped the interpretive grid, through which she views life.
The Lord made children simplistic. They work with the singular categories given to them, and they work with one at a time. They are not able to think outside the box. They prefer to live and think within the security of structure.
Nuance, ambiguity, categories, or a different frame of reference is not within a child’s capacity. This idea explains why my kids question me when I drive faster than fifty-five miles per hour.
They remember me saying the speed limit is fifty-five miles per hour. It does not dawn on them how there could be different speed limits or how it’s practically impossible to drive exactly fifty-five miles per hour.
In the future, they will learn how to parse things out, and think broadly, wisely, and differently about life. They won’t always think in tight, undeviating, black-and-white ways.
My daughter will learn there are many types, colors, and sizes of paw prints. She won’t have a tight singularity in her thinking. Blues Clues won’t always be her point of reference.
But for now, this is how she rolls, which is how all children think. One size does fit all. If you apply this to the word father, which you should, it ought to be a serious call for all of us who go by that appellation.
A young child has no way of thinking about alternate possibilities when it comes to how they interpret what a father is supposed to be. They believe what you tell them or show them. They believe what they see, and that is how things are. They can’t know what they can’t know, and if they don’t know, they have to work with what they do know.
For example, I’m an older father when compared to the statistics. Most parents with children the age of mine are under fifty years old. I’m not.
It has been humorous as my two oldest children have realized I’m older than their friend’s parents. From their perspective, all parents are over fifty. When they hear of other parents who are younger, they have to recalibrate their thinking.
Though they can readjust, some things require more recalibrating. One of those things is how they think about God the Father. I have counseled many adults who are still struggling with how they relate to God as a Father. This recalibration problem is almost always due to how they related to their fathers. This father/child problem is significant and can be spiritually crippling.
Though my six-year-old will overcome the complexity and diversity of paw prints, it is much harder to overcome dads who provide a dysfunctional picture of what a father should be.
In my counseling experience, I have encountered six father types, which seem to be the most common culprits in skewing how a child will eventually think about God the Father. Here they are.
The Passive – The most common flawed father is the passive father. The message he communicates is clear–God is distant, disinterested, and unapproachable. Passivity is the general makeup of too many dads and husbands in our culture today. This problem has been shaped and influenced, in large part, by two main things:
Men have an innate desire to take a backseat spiritually, while women, generally speaking, are more inclined to lead, especially in spiritual matters. Men seem to interpret spirituality and machismo as antithetical.
Too many men never make the connection to how Jesus was the most authentic manly man who ever lived. He was perceived and validated as a man by the full range of emotions that He exhibited.
You can’t reduce Christ to one facet of the male personality–being cool. (Whatever that means.) He was cool, and He was a crier too. This variety only enhanced His coolness. He got in touch with His inner self (Hebrews 4:15), and He didn’t hold back when it was time to unleash His outer self (John 2:13-17).
Jesus was man unleashed. Today’s male is more guarded and narrow, even to the point of being overly laid back (passive). Dads do not do well in connecting the dots regarding how this sinfully impacts children. Passive behavior gives a child their earliest misunderstanding of God the Father.
The Driver – The opposite of the passive father is the slave-driving father. He is a high-demand guy who presses for excellence and perfection from his children. Eventually, his hard driving will drive his kids away from him and God.
The child could very well turn into a well-oiled machine, but his relationship with God the Father will be deficient. His dad will have trained him to do well in the world, and he could probably be successful, according to how the world measures such things.
Being lax spiritually is a typical fallout with driven children. They can’t spin all the plates, and the spiritual plate is usually the first one to go. Too many of these exceptionally trained children do not become exceptional Christians.
There is also an opposite fallout from this kind of hard driving. Some kids can’t survive the pressure of the expectations placed on them. By the time they are teenagers, they are worn out and angry.
The Angry – Every person struggles with sinful anger, so in a sense, we’re all angry parents. This sin problem makes it imperative for the angry dad to be a repenting dad. His repentance must be comparable to his anger. If it is not, he will shape his child toward legalism.
The legalist believes his performance merits God’s favor or disfavor. “If I do well, God will be pleased with me. If I do not meet His expectations, He will be displeased.”
We were born legalists, which was part of the fallout with Adam. After he had sinned, he began to work (legalism) to fix his problems with God.
I call this the double-whammy effect–a child born as a legalist and further shaped into legalism by an angry father. There is a 100% chance this child will conditionally think about God. Grace will be a challenging mystery for him, which will create lots of relational conflicts.
The Critical – This dad is similar to the angry father. It is a component of the hard-driving father. The child will learn there is only one right answer. In all matters of life what Dad says is correct.
This child will be shaped to crave his father’s approval or acceptance and will learn the ropes to stay in his dad’s good graces. Though it’s a futile effort, the child will strive to please his father.
Eventually, he will become exasperated and give up. He will begin looking for affirmation in other places. By the time he becomes a teenager, the most likely candidates to affirm him will be girls.
The Adoptive – A parent who adopts a child is in a unique position to do a complete reorientation of the child. To not make the double-whammy effect more complicated, the parent wants to care for the adopted child by understanding these two things:
He will have to mature in Christ after he leaves home. He will have to be reprogrammed (discipled) regarding what a biblio-centric father should be like, specifically God the Father.
The Combos – I suppose all of us are an amalgamation–a combination of several of the characteristics mentioned above. We can be passive, driving, angry, and critical.
Regardless of these descriptors, the most important thing is what you should be rather than the bad behaviors you have exhibited. Fortunately for the Christian, there is good news. We can change.
We do not have to be the way we are now. There can be a clear transition from what you used to be to what you need to be. That transition is repentance.
Only repentance can remove the old and restore our lives into what God always intended. If you recognize yourself in any of the descriptors above, you have hope. You can change.
As you move from the old and on to the new, it’s helpful to understand what a new dad lifestyle should look like practically. The best way to think about this is to think about God the Father. Who is He? All you need to know is what is God like and how you can emulate Him.
While there are many attributes of God the Father, I’m going to zero in only on a few of those that we see in the gospel–the atonement: God reconciling Himself to man.
This chapter is about redeeming, reconciling, and restoring. The atonement (gospel) is about these things, and a good father wants to be part of the redemption of a broken child, rather than furthering the “dysfunctionalizing” of him.
The Father Loves – The love of God is profound. It was His love that motivated Him to send His Son to death. Love is a prominent character trait of the Father. Is your child more aware of your displeasure with him or your affection for him?
The Father Pursues – God the Father is a relentless Redeemer. His Son went to death to bring you to life. He pursued you until salvation, and His care for you continues. Is your child more affected by the redemptive nature of your relationship or is he more affected by the lack of spirituality in your relationship?
The Father Gives – A key component of the gospel is the time, planning, and preparation the Father imposed on Himself to pull off our redemption. From Genesis 3:15 to Galatians 4:4 and beyond, you see the activity of God on your behalf. Does your child experience quantity and quality time with you, both of which have a redemptive effect?
The Father Corrects – God the Father brings you from death to life. Nothing is more transformative than this, but He does not stop at redemption. He continues to bring correction for your good and His glory. Is the correction you bring to your child redemptive–does it compel him to want God more?
The Father Cares – Even the Jews were amazed at the care of God (John 11:36). If the pagan world is aware of the care of God, shouldn’t your children be even more aware of your care for them? How does your child experience your practical and redemptive care on a daily and weekly basis?
The Father Leads – You understand the Father’s way of leading from a biblical perspective. Here are some clues to how the Lord leads: serving, last, least, death, and others. All of these characteristics were key components in the Savior’s leadership style. In what ways does your child experience your servant leadership and in what ways is it having a redemptive impact on his life?
Dear Dad, your impact on your child is generational. You have the privilege of giving your son or daughter one of the greatest gifts a dad could give: a beautiful picture of God the Father. Apply Paul’s advice: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).
After you talk to your spouse about the questions above, I appeal to you to let this conversation continue. Let your loving heavenly Father reprogram you, so you will be in a strategic position in your child’s life to help reprogram him.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).