“Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
The words of Proverbs 22:6 clang like a gong in the back of my mind. It was a favorite amongst the parents at the church I grew up in. It was used as a justification for some good and often not-so-good parenting techniques.
First, it is a proverb. A proverb by definition is a short, pithy saying that is sometimes but not always true. Looking both ways before crossing the street is a good example of this. The reason this is important is that many of our parents thought that by simply bringing us or making us go to church, this meant we would one day be saved. This verse is not a promise of salvation.
My hope is that relieves a little pressure. The salvation of your children is not on you. Our responsibility as parents though is to point our children toward the one who saves.
The goal of our parenting is to point toward Jesus and develop the character of our children. All of the skills in the world can get you places your character won’t keep you. Nobody likes a jerk and even if the world doesn’t love Jesus, it likes Christlike character.
Too often, as parents, we don’t listen, we lord, and we activate pressure.
We don’t listen. The chief complaint I hear from adolescents today and my biggest complaint at the time is that parents don’t listen. There is a point in the parenting journey at which we move from authority to coach. This is typically in the latter teenage years in which we have to trust that what we deposited in our children when they were younger is what is going to come out in the decision-making process. Much easier said than done.
We find ourselves too far removed from our own adolescence to remember what it was like to feel so unheard. And listen, nobody understands more than me how irrational teenagers are but that does not mean they are unworthy of being heard.
In reality, the closed ears start well before the teenage years. Small children are often not given the dignity and respect they are owed being made in the image of God. As the father of three small children, I know just how much seemingly nonsensical things they can say. But listening to them now sets the stage for the future. Many teens don’t talk to their parents because of the ways they did not listen in previous years.
Lords over our children. The other day I was down one of those mental rabbit holes. I imagined myself getting upset at one of my children for not handing me something when I told them to. For whatever reason, at that moment, I realized I would have been getting upset with them for my laziness. I’m not teaching them any grand life lessons at that moment, I’m simply using them as minions.
Too many of us grew up in homes where our job was to serve at our parents’ whims. What exactly were we training for? A life of servitude? Exerting power over those weaker than us? No wonder service workers are often treated so poorly, we’re paying it forward.
Children are a gift from God, not tools in our belts here to accomplish our tasks. They are not our punching bags but deserve all of our grace and patience as we try to train them toward the love of the Lord.
Activated pressure. One final problem is the amount of pressure we place on our children. From the parents trying to live their failed dreams by proxy to the immigrant who wants to keep their kids from struggling in the ways they did. We often place outsized pressure on our children to do or be something.
Based on the amount of stress children as young as ten are feeling today, something has gone incredibly wrong. While we can blame social media for some of the problems, it’s not all of it. The environment we’ve cultivated in our homes has contributed significantly to the prevalence of rising depression, anxiety, and suicide among this generation.
We all want our kids to succeed but how have we defined success? Have we made academics and extracurriculars ultimate but Jesus optional? What are we training our children for? Is it material success in this life or an eternal one? I have yet to meet the person who has enough money nor have I met the person who has said that money has made them whole. And yet, this is the most compelling vision we have for our children. We put untold pressure on them to get the right grades, go to the right schools, and work in the right fields so they can be comfortably unhappy.
This is hard
There’s no playbook for parenting. Every child is different and therefore requires different techniques from you but the aim should always be the same: point them to Jesus and develop character.
It takes an incredible amount of patience to do this well. I have so much more grace for my mom than I did twenty years ago. I understand that she was growing up as she was raising us. That’s all of us, raising ourselves as we raise our children. And if you think you’ve arrived, chances are that is doing or has done damage to your kids as well.
The Bible has grave warnings about the way we treat children. Consider Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. The discipline and instruction of the Lord is slow and patient work.
In truth, we only get a short amount of time. Eighteen years go by very quickly but the separation begins before that as the teenage years are a search for independence. I often find myself convicted over making the most of the time that we have while my kids are still young. Our hope is that in their twenties, they would return to us. We want our children to grow up to want to be with us even when they don’t have to be but so much of that is determined by how we treat them when they are small.
Do Your Best
You won’t be perfect. No one expects you to be. Just don’t let your kids be in therapy for the exact same things as you.
But do your actual best for real. Neal Brennan has this joke where he says that he knows his dad could have done better than getting drunk and beating them up. That’s dark humor but it’s true.
Consider yourself. Is lording your power over your children the best you can do? What about the short fuse and constantly losing patience? Working long hours pursuing ever more career goals at the expense of time with them, is that your best? Tripling down on the cultural pressure to be a straight-A student who goes Ivy, we can do better.
Be a model.
Model repentance. This is the number one trait we can model for our children. If we can never say “I’m sorry” how can we expect them to do the same? If we present ourselves as infallible what message does that send when we inevitably fail? Why would they feel the need to turn to God in repentance if the parents who claimed to follow him, never did the same?
Model humility. If Jesus can come down from the highest position to love and serve us, could we do the same for our children? Can we get our hands dirty literally and figuratively in the same ways we ask our children to?
Model generosity. Life is not about building our little kingdoms and accumulating more and more things. Teach your children to hold loosely the things we cannot take with us when this life is over.
This is what it means to train up a child. Show them who you want them to be. Teach them to be those people. The model that says “do as I say, not as I do” never works. A big part of the reason millennials and younger have walked away from the Church is that we were told to live in a certain way by people who didn’t do it themselves.
May you go with grace and with your cup full of the love of Christ. And as you follow Christ, in all your imperfection, may your children follow you.
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