Children need a ton of gentle treatment. Previously maltreated children need a boat load. Seeing no relief from provocations and no resolution to the swirling morass of fear, anger, guilt, and shame feelings that result, the mistreated child may lose heart, a description we see in Colossians 3:21. It tells fathers to not exasperate their children lest they “lose heart.” Besides inducing habituated fear and anger, hurtful treatment can smother a child’s hope that life will ever be better. Often feeling weak, he carries deep-seated sadness.
One characteristic of Jesus’ ministry was His gentleness with the weak. Matthew 12:20 says,
A battered reed He will not break off,
And a smoldering wick He will not put out…
In those days, shepherds fashioned reeds into wind instruments. If the reed cracked, it became useless for making music. A wick that is smoldering is not burning brightly; it is useless for producing light. These are images of those who are weak and those who seem useless. With them, Jesus applied gentleness in His restoration work.
With the rebellious, Jesus was firm and confrontative. He didn’t mince words when rebuke was necessary. But with the weak, He was gentle, merciful, patient.
Yet even with battered reeds He spoke the truth plainly. For example, He spoke truth in a direct way with the woman at the well. She was one of society’s rejects. By her culture she was devalued and alienated from normal social interaction with other socially accepted women. No wonder she expressed amazement that Jesus, a man and a “good” man, would dare to be seen with her, let alone talk with her. He reached out with respect and gentle conversation that led her along one truth at a time. But when she avoided admitting her wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, He did not let her hide. He forthrightly unmasked it. When it came time to call on the woman to submit to the truth of His identity and His claim on her, He did not shy away from the speaking truth.
Gentleness does not necessitate equivocation. Equivocation, or refusing to clearly state truth, is itself not gentle but harsh because no matter how softly spoken or well-intended it misleads the other into a lie.
Gentleness does not imply fudging on certain rules or giving more chances. Rules can be upheld with absolute immovability while the parent’s manner about it is gentle.
When feeling angry, parents sometimes resort to a quick fix with chastisement. They need to guard their emotions. Consider how abandonment alone would undermine a child’s foundations. In addition, maltreated children may have been battered literally or battered with cruel words. The brightly burning wick of children’s natural trustfulness may have been smothered to a disheartened whiff of smoke. Is their anger provoking? Of course. Could this particular instance of anger be driven by hurt or fear? Parents need to cultivate the compassion and discernment that can spot when hopelessness is hiding under the facade of anger, when there is a need to “encourage the fainthearted” (1 Thess. 5:14).
There is a time to meet rebellion head-on, to “admonish the unruly.” Hurt children are not constantly weak; at times they can resort to hard-hearted rebellion. A tap might break the battered reed, but it won’t put a dent in a two-by-four.
When discipline is warranted, it needs to be wrapped in grace demonstrated by a level, quiet tone of voice tied together with affirmations of love. There needs to be reassurance that the underlying motive for the discipline is the benefit of the child. The parent knows what the child doesn’t, that sinful ways will lead to more heartache.
We cannot compromise in the name of gentleness or grace. The perfect standard of God’s Word must be taught so that the child will one day come to the conclusion that he cannot achieve it. Realizing this truth is exactly what he needs because that is the first hurdle for salvation, the understanding that he is a sinner and cannot fix himself. Hope is offered by teaching that if the child would repent and follow Christ, the Lord would strengthen the child to obey.
As we seek to convey the love of Christ to our children, it will require discernment to distinguish the unruly from the fainthearted. Overall, we need to practice much gentle tenderness, especially with a previously maltreated child, so as to not break a battered reed or snuff out a smoking wick.