One of the great mistakes of parenting is to get the stages of parenting backwards. When children are young, they need significant guidance and discipline and a very narrow, black and white path. But as children grow older, they need to internalize and love the standards and exercising them for themselves. Another name for this process is discipleship in Christ.
The Text: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
What is the Way?
The “way” a child should go is the way of obedience to Christ. When he is old, when he goes to college or gets married that is the path we want our children to remain on. How must we obey Christ? We must obey Him right away, all the way, and cheerfully all our days because He loved us first (1 Jn. 4:19, 5:2-3). “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1). “In the Lord” means to obey your parents because of what the Lord has done and in the same way you would obey Jesus. This is similar to the command given to servants, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ” (Eph. 6:5).
Slow obedience is not obedience. Fussing and complaining obedience is not obedience. Arguing and eye rolling are not compatible with obedience. Partial obedience is not obedience. Having to be told more than once is not obedience. Obedience coerced from counting to various numbers is not obedience. Obedience resulting from threats of discipline is not obedience. This is because obedience is love. Cheerful, prompt, and thorough obedience is not only possible but makes for a very pleasant home.
Training is primarily a matter of practice. When a pile of third graders show up for their first football practice in the history of ever, the coaches do not expect the boys to know how to play football. Likewise, parents need to remember that these little people just arrived on this planet, and that is why they act the way they do. They really do need to be taught and reminded a lot, especially when they’re very young. The fact that they need to be taught about everything is a design feature, not a bug. And parents must be obedient to that command – prompt, cheerful, and thorough – in teaching their children: “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Dt. 6:7). Parenting is a full-time job, and it happens all day long, everywhere you go (and sometimes throughout the night, “when thou liest down”). This element of training includes lots of talking and lots of practice. To return to the sports analogy, you do not merely talk about the game and then go to your first game. You talk about it, and then you practice, then correct and talk more, then practice more. So too parents must talk a lot, practice, and prepare their kids for the game of life.
What will they face today, tomorrow, or next week? What temptations will they face in the grocery store, when friends or cousins come over, at dinner time or bed time or at the birthday party or school? Teach and practice for them all. This is love. Love prepares. When our kids were little we played the “obedience game” after dinner, where I would give the kids random commands (e.g. “go get your pillow”) and they had to say “yes sir!” and run and obey, and when they returned I often had a jelly bean or some kind of reward for them. Practice obeying quickly, cheerfully, thoroughly. Role play lots: what do you do if Johnny steals your favorite ball? What do you say when Mr. So-and-so comes over? If you suddenly require your 3 year old to say hello or thank you to the strange dinner guest, have you prepared them to run that play? Same thing goes for church. Practice obedience regularly, and do everything you can to make practice a joy. Lavish high praise, high fives, and candy.
When They Are Young
When children are young, they do not know the way. There is a sense in which they do not know the difference between good and evil, how to go out or how to come in (e.g. Is. 7:16, 1 Kgs. 3:7). And therefore, they must be taught. While you wouldn’t know it from most Disney movies, the hearts of children are not repositories of wisdom and knowledge. “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him” (Prov. 22:15).
Therefore, the opinions, wishes, and feelings of young children need to be formed and informed, and not really given the time of day. How they feel about bed time, nap time, what’s for dinner, what to wear, who their friends are — are all opinions which need to be given to them. For the first ten or so years of a child’s life, he or she needs to live in a benevolent totalitarian dictatorship. It should be full of love and joy and laughter and hugs and a very a small, well-defined world, full of black and white. Do not ask a five year old how they think that makes you feel. The justly administered spanking is teaching him exactly how he should feel, and besides, your feelings are not the standard.
Learning to Ride a Bike
Many parents will probably have the opportunity to help one or more of their kids learn how to ride their first bike. Lessons begin with lots of hovering and holding the bike upright, and you can feel the bike wavering back and forth. But as your child begins to learn how to peddle and balance, you begin loosening your grip, and you need to do that so that they can begin to feel the sensation of the bike’s motion and begin controlling the balance for themselves. Finally, at some point, you begin letting go, maybe for only a few seconds at a time, but eventually you let go completely.
That’s what Christian parenting should be like: lots of hovering in the beginning, then slowly loosening your grip with slight corrections, and by sometime in high school, you really should let go. Another way to describe this same process is internalizing the standard. What you were providing (balance/momentum) in the beginning is what they have to internalize for themselves in order to remain on the path of obedience. The Bible describes this process of internalizing God’s standards as coming to love them. “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart” (Dt. 6:5-6). Far too often parents get this backwards: they give far too much freedom in the early years and then when things start looking wobbly in middle school, they begin trying to clamp down, often resulting in collisions.
The Bible teaches that the law of God is sweet (Ps. 19:10). Obedience is like chocolate cake, like milk and cookies, like frosted donuts, like candy. When God gave the Ten Commandments, He prefaced them with, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt…” (Ex. 20:1). God’s standards are the standards of freedom. We get to worship God alone, keep Sabbath, honor authorities, defend marriage, etc. We love because He loved us first. Loving little ones means lots of training when they are young, so that when they are old they do not depart from that love.