Teaching Children About Self-Denial

Should I teach my child about the importance of self-denial? We don't hear much about it in the modern American church, and contemporary secular culture doesn't value it at all. But I'm not sure how our kids will understand what it means to follow Jesus if we neglect this aspect of the disciple's calling.

We’d suggest that the answer begins right where your question leaves off – with Christ’s call to radical discipleship. If we’re going to talk about self-denial, we have to start with the words of Jesus: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).

Christ Himself was the greatest example of this principle that ever lived. As the apostle Paul tells us, though Jesus “existed in the form of God,” He nevertheless “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

This idea of “emptying oneself” or “setting oneself aside” for the sake of others is what real Christian discipleship is all about. That’s why Paul, just two verses earlier, appeals to believers to, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians2:3, 4).

As a parent, you may want to pay special attention to what Paul has to say about the connection between self-denial and “becoming obedient” (verse 8). If you stop and think about it, you may begin to see that self-denial is the heart and soul of discipline. To be disciplined is to accept the idea that there is something bigger than myself and my own agenda; something that claims a higher place in my allegiance. That “something” might be a goal or a prize, as when an athlete denies himself leisure or pleasure in order to train for a race (I Corinthians 9:24-27). It might be another person or an authority figure, as when a soldier submits his own will to that of his commanding officer (II Timothy 2:4). When a child learns to obey, he is actually learning to put his own desires aside in favor of what mom and dad are asking him to do.

That means that the answer to your question – “Should I teach my child about self-denial” – is a resounding yes. Discipline is basic to sound Christian parenting, and you can’t discipline your child without teaching self-denial. At the same time, when you do discipline your child, you are automatically giving him an important lesson in what it means to set his own impulses aside and “esteem others better than himself.”

Here at Focus on the Family we have always maintained that the key to effective child discipline is learning to balance love and limits. Children cannot thrive without experiencing consistent and unconditional love. From the first day of life until the journey to adulthood is complete, your child must know that your love is rock solid; that it is the foundation on which she can build and the home-base from which she can safely and confidently launch her exploration of the world. But children also need, and actually seek, boundaries and ground rules. There is nothing contradictory about the expression of love and the enforcement of limits. In fact, the two are closely related. Allowing a child to have his way without any restraint is not an expression of love. At the other extreme, harsh, rigid or authoritarian treatment of children, even if on the surface it would seem to produce model citizens, isn’t an appropriate way of limit-setting. In between lies the goal: the kind of loving control that helps a child grow into the sort of person who is capable of imposing limits on himself. That’s what self-denial is all about.

The application of this principle will expand as your child moves through adolescence and into young adulthood. It will, for instance, directly impact his attitudes toward sexuality and his relationships with members of the opposite sex. It will also affect the way he views money and other forms of material wealth – how much he spends, how much he saves, and how much he gives away. In a culture that glorifies self-indulgence and promotes a sense of self-entitlement, it’s especially important for Christian parents to avoid falling into the trap of giving children everything they want whenever they want it. What Christian kids need to understand is that restraint, discipline, and self-denial are absolute requirements for anyone who seriously desires to serve others in Jesus’ name.

If you’d like to discuss these ideas with a member of our staff, feel free to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department. They’d be pleased to assist you in any way they can.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream

Don’t Waste Your Life

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God

Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations

A Selfless Pursuit of God

You May Also Like