What Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ Taught Me About Parenting

When my first newborn child trembled in my hands, all my convictions about parenting suddenly shook too. I longed for wise counsel. Later on, when I was experiencing excessive conflict with my 1-year-old, I turned to my parents for advice.

“Just love her,” my father said. For whatever reason, this cut me to the quick. I realized I was making my daughter my project instead of pouring out Christ’s love on her.

As I read Augustine’s Confessions this week, I felt a similar conviction. The great theologian pulled a “grandpa trick,” critiquing my parenting through storytelling. As he wrote about his own parents’ successes and failures, I knew he was graciously warning me against their errors. My soul smarted as I realized my own shortcomings, but Augustine’s wounds are faithful and his counsel sound. Let me share some of it with you.

1. Overlook some faults, even though at another age they must be addressed.

Augustine reflects:

What then was my sin? Was it that I hung upon the breast and cried? For should I now so do for food suitable to my age, justly should I be laughed at and reproved . . . but since I could not understand reproof, custom and reason forbade me to be reproved. . . .We bear gently with all this, not as being no or slight evils, but because they will disappear as years increase. (15–16, italics added)

As Augustine explains, reason and custom teach us not to discipline children for something they are too immature to understand. Scripture agrees. God acts mercifully, because he knows our frame, that we are but dust (Ps. 103:1–14). Do you know where your child is developmentally? Are you shocked and overly harsh when your 2-year-old refuses to share? Do you take stressors into account and treat your kids with greater mercy when they are overtired, overstimulated, or hungry?  Age-appropriate standards allow us to demonstrate God’s mercy and patience toward our children. 

2. Don’t steer your children toward the idols of glory or riches.

In reflecting on the goals of his educators, Augustine lamented:

People didn't examine the purpose to which I was putting what I learned, unless that purpose was to sate insatiable greed for what was in reality poverty aplenty and degrading glory. (17, 19) 

Scripture admonishes us to seek wisdom and other good things, but not to spend them on our passions (James 3:13–4:10). Do you encourage your child to “show off” newly found knowledge or skills? What pleases your heart more: when your child breaks out in a worshipful-but-perhaps-out-of-tune song to God, or when he wins a debate tournament or ball game? When we direct our children to seek God’s glory and approval, we avoid fostering their natural tendency toward self-glory and the idolatrous pursuit of human approval.

3. Teach your children about God.

Though the discipline in Augustine’s education was brutal, he saw it as a blessing, because it drove him to prayer:

For so I began, as a boy, to pray to thee, my aid and refuge; and broke the fetters of my tongue to call on thee. (17)Lightstock

God pleads with his people to call on him. Remind your children to cry to the Lord while fighting sin or enduring hardship. Let them see it in your own life as well. Rather than help your child avoid all struggles, teach them to seek God in the midst of them.

4. Help your children in their fight against sin.

After Augustine’s father informed his mother of their son’s sexual passions, she pressed Augustine not to marry, because she feared he wouldn’t attain the academic accomplishments she desired for him. Augustine relates: “She advised me toward chastity . . . for she feared lest a wife should prove a clog and hindrance to my . . . hope of learning, which both my parents were too desirous I should attain” (30).  

Whether or not this was the best advice, the question faces us: Are you aware of your child’s particular sin patterns? In view of their weaknesses, help them consider their choices wisely.

5. Be aware that children sometimes sin out of the sheer pleasure of being wicked.

Augustine confesses to stealing fruit only to throw it away. He just liked being wicked: “It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself” (31).

We often think and act as behaviorists, assuming that environment is the true culprit for our kids’ sinful actions. Because of the fall, however, our children naturally love what is evil. Only the Holy Spirit can change their desires to love what is good. So seek more than behavior modification—plead with God to change your child’s heart (Luke 11:15).

This is just some of the wise counsel I found in the first three chapters of Augustine’s Confessions. May his wisdom lead us to the feet of Christ as we seek to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

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