Children don't read footnotes...

Children, while great observers, are poor interpreters. Literalists rather than ironists, they grasp what they see but fare poorly when it comes to reading between lines.

This means that the character of many fathers is misread by their children. Or, more accurately, read with greater clarity than most fathers would like.

The man who thinks that the love he buries beneath a gruff exterior is all the more sweet to his children for its crusty shell is a fabulist. Children don't read love when the text is hardness. They don't intuit affection from winks and nods. Though later in life they may grasp that there was affection beneath the brusque exterior, as children they see only a hard man whose fleeting acts of tenderness, like crocuses in spring, peep out rarely and briefly.

Most men think otherwise, believing that the message they deliver the majority of the time to their children can be countered by short bursts of qualitatively different interaction: twenty hours of stoicism overturned by ten minutes of light-heartedness; eleven months of gruffness undone by a week of frivolity at the beach.

If God is the ultimate Father and the ultimate example for human fathers, we should learn from the lack of footnotes in the text of His relationship to us. God always says what He means and always means what He says. He is immutable. His consistency never fails. He is as faithful, true, reliable and predictable as the sun in the morning. All He does is consistent with His nature. He never acts against Himself, never says one thing but means another, never exaggerates, never underplays, never deceives, never pretends. There is no guessing with God. His children always know precisely what to expect from Him.

Children of men read their human fathers like the children of God read their heavenly Father. They don't look for footnotes. They simply read the text. If their human father tells them to submit to authority, but constantly struggles with submission himself, they learn rebellion rather than obedience. If their father declares Christianity the good life, but lives joylessly, they grow up viewing Christianity as drudgery. 

So many fathers embrace irony with their children, acting as though they're David Letterman, and their children the knowing studio audience. But children don't appreciate irony. Children appreciate Mr. Rogers, not Jon Stewart.

How tragic that human fathers think they're raising happy children when they are obviously less-than-fully happy themselves. How tragic that human fathers think they can be truculent in public without raising truculent children themselves. How tragic that fathers who laugh at their children's little acts of rebellion believe that their children will never grow up to be big rebels. 

If we want our children to be legalists and hypocrites, all we need do is spend the majority of our time correcting them for doing things the Bible doesn't forbid. We think they grasp the underlying truth, that these are just our rules, not God's, but they don't. They understand all too clearly that what we emphasize is what's important to us, and they inevitably read these things as important to God as well.

Irony is death to fatherhood. Nowhere in life do the things we say and do more directly reproduce themselves than the way we act with our children. They will be what we are. They will not examine our lives for footnotes. They will not look for our subtext. Children are literalists. And this is what we must we be as well if we are to be fathers after the image of God.


Thank you for this exhortation. It was helpful. 

Most of that is excellent.  I would add that we will all be hypocrites and sinners in front of our children.  This isn't the biggest problem though we should strive against it..  The biggest problem is that when we are what we are in front of our children we have a choice of showing them repentance or unrepentance and it is far too easy to fail to repent.  That is something they will definitely take away.  But if we show them repentance then that is a powerful witness.

One very useful piece of wisdom I received from a seasoned dad who leads my bible study is that he not only strives for openness, but to be clear exactly when and how he is using his paternal authority.  He told the story of a time when his 23 year old and unmarried niece wanted to make a fairly major life choice he and her mother disagreed with.  He and her mother kept telling her that they really would rather not have her do something, here was why, etc., and they kept getting pushback.  He told his brother-in-law that if it was absolutely crucial to him that this thing not happen then he needed to pull out the dad card and forbid it, using the authority God had granted him, and that otherwise, he needed to accept that if he put himself in an advisory role, he had no right to expect advice to be heeded in the same manner that an order is followed.  

To mention David's point, as a schoolteacher I face this issue a lot.  There have been 2 or 3 times in the last couple of years where I have been too harsh or mean with my students, particularly when concert time is near, and I have tried to suck it up and apologize to the class.  I find myself tempted by thoughts like "Roger, these kids are 11 and 12 and if you apologize and repent of your sin, they're not going to get it, they're just going to view it as something that delegitimizes you in their eyes and your authority will erode."  I suspect many Christian parents have similar fears of apologizing and repenting before their children, but I think that at the end of the day that misses where the authority comes from--not from the children themselves, or the virtue of your own performance as a mother or father, but from God.  Thank you for this post!  


don't know why I typed "he and her mother"- should be "his brother and her mother," the story is about his brother-in-law's family.

The implications of understanding this - that children don't "get" nuance or, as you said it, David, the "footnotes" - for preaching seem significant if our children are part of God's people and present for worship.

Our verse-by-verse (or syllable-by-syllable) expositions which focus on rather arcane ("scholarly") elements of the text often leave our Reformed youth cold.  I'm beginning, with my own children, to see why.  I've certainly been guilty of this myself and see it in others. 

Thanks for a good reminder, David.

Thanks, cle David. Great post. I know better than to use irony or sarcasm with my children, but it slips in. I second the comment above: our parenting should be characterized by repentance. It does not weaken our authority to apologize to our children when we have been tyrants or when we have been negligent in discipline. Both need to beapologized for. 

*Uncle* David Sorry!

The first time I read this excellent exhortation I thought "this principle surely applies to mothers too." The second time I read it I thought "and it can certainly apply to some spouses." 

Thank you. This is likely something that I've done poorly.

Dear Friends,

Jessica is right about mothers, though this tends more to be a trait of fathers, I believe.

Thank you David Gray, and others, for pointing out that repentance must be visible. This is something I've been learning more and more as my children reach adulthood. Seeing my sins repeated in them makes me regret not fighting those sins more vehemently and not repenting of them more publicly in the home. Father's sins so often become areas of pride in their children. This is especially true if we are close to our children--they don't always understand that we are sinning in certain areas, they view it as us having an edge, our being cool or unique, and they repeat it with pride. 

My family, growing up, attended a church in Wheaton for over a decade without my parents joining it. Dad and Mud finally joined the church when it gave up its ban on drinking. But Dad later said to me that if he had known how I would turn to alcohol as a teen and young adult, he'd have joined the church and given up wine immediately.

We don't know what effect our attitudes will have on our children. 

The only solution for our sin as fathers, short of perfection, is thorough-going repentance in the midst of our homes, and repentance especially for attitudes, not just gross sins.

Love in Christ,


"Father's sins so often become areas of pride in their children."

Yes. Yes. Yes.  Harry Chapin was (is) wiser than many Reformed churchmen in this regard.  Our children become like us and that's not always a compliment.



Add new comment