Do Not Provoke Your Children

by Zach Sparkman

dad and son lying on bed with son angrily staring at camera

In the chaos that is our home of three boys, the only way to get their attention is to call them by name and directly address them (and sometimes that doesn’t work!). When you hear your name spoken in a crowd, your ears perk up and you instinctively scan the crowd to figure out who called your name.

When Scripture directly addresses us fathers, we ought to perk up and pay attention. Colossians 3:21 is one of those passages. It says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

The father’s role is to lead his family as the head of the home. Colossians 3:21 warns us about a parenting pitfall: fathers can misuse their God-given authority by provoking their children. A father should parent his children by not provoking them.

The word provoke is difficult to translate exactly into English. One resource defined it this way: “to become disheartened to the extent of losing motivation, to be discouraged, lose heart, become dispirited”.1 From this definition, we see three truths about provoking.

1. Provoking Exasperates a Child

To exasperate is to irritate to a point of frustration. I am not a natural home-improvement project guy. I’ve had to walk away from several projects because I’m too frustrated to continue. Sometimes even IKEA directions are difficult for me!

When a child is exasperated, it makes them feel like they can’t succeed. They shut down and throw up their hands in frustration, figuratively and sometimes literally. When a father provokes his child, he frustrates the child.2

2. Provoking Embitters a Child

Provoking creates bitterness in the heart of the child. Over time, as a child is frustrated and exasperated, resentment builds up. Resentment and bitterness will slowly choke the life out of a parent-child relationship.

A couple verses earlier in Colossians 3, Paul commands husbands not to be harsh and bitter with their wives. Harsh leadership creates resentment in followers, and children will resent harsh, provoking dads.

3. Provoking Disheartens a Child

The end result of provoking is that the child becomes so frustrated and bitter that they quit. The end of the verse highlights this: “lest they become discouraged”. The child loses heart, shuts down, quits on you, and possibly quits on God.

As much as we can, we must diligently avoid provoking because of these disastrous results. But that leads to another question: how does a parent provoke a child?

How to Provoke Your Children

This can happen both intentionally and unintentionally. Though not an exhaustive list, here are a few sure-fire ways fathers can provoke their children:

  • Showing favoritism
  • Depreciating their worth
  • Belittling or looking down on their achievements
  • Not listening to them or ignoring them over and over again
  • Setting unrealistic goals
  • Failing to show affection
  • Not providing for their needs
  • Criticism
  • Sarcasm that bites at them
  • Overprotection, specifically restricting rightful liberty
  • Neglect
  • A lack of standards and clear expectations
  • Inconsistent standards and expectations
  • Improper or excessive discipline, such as correcting in anger, being heavy-handed or overbearing, correcting for something that was not their fault or something done accidentally
  • Shaming
  • Bring up their past failures
  • Never ask forgiveness for your failures
  • Embarrassing them by talking about their failures, airing grievances, telling unnecessary personal details, etc.

The common denominator in all these provoking behaviors is that the child is not biblically loved. I admit I’ve done several of these things on the list. I’ve had to come face to face with the reality that parenting simply exposes what is in my own heart. We are not perfect. We will make mistakes, but don’t be too proud to own up to them. Model biblical repentance and forgiveness to your children. Confess your failures to the Lord and ask for his grace to parent differently in the future.

To move from a provoking parent to a loving parent, you must be Spirit-filled. You cannot parent if your flesh is ruling over your heart or emotions. If you are not controlled by the Holy Spirit, you will wound these precious little ones.

Day after day, aim for their hearts. Try to capture their affections by loving them unconditionally. Listen to your children when they talk. Be excited about the things that matter to them. Show them by the way you treat them that you care deeply about them. Talk to them about the Lord. Infuse them with confidence and build up trust.

Earlier this year my wife and I decided that I needed to spend one on one time with my boys. Each Saturday I take a different one of them out for a donut.3 It costs us $2-4, and we spend about 30 minutes driving and eating together. This time has been valuable for both me and my boys. They get to spend time with me (and get a donut!), and I can engage them with questions and conversation on a deeper level. But the unforeseen result of this time is that I have provoked them far less. My parenting has increased in skill and love as I know them and have learned what approach works best with each of them. I’m learning how not to provoke my kids as I love them and know their hearts.

Dads, find time to know your children’s hearts. This will help you love your children as you do not provoke them.


  1. Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

  2. Now, this is not talking about a child’s poor response to God-given, gracious authority. At times a child will not appreciate the structure or rules on him, and will become irritated. We try to help the child see his frustration for what it is. For a father to obey this command, he must not exasperate the child by his behavior.

  3. Chap Bettis has advocated this idea and was my inspiration for doing this.

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