On the Road to Building Character in Children
JOSEPH AND HANNAH
We were planning a picnic with some friends . Joseph was doing dishes before we could leave. He was about four or five and Hannah is 18 months younger. Hannah said “Joseph won't get his dishes done on time.” Joseph, frustrated, turned and said, “Hannah if you had a job as an encourager, you would probably get fired.” This true story prompts me to ask myself how much of an encourager I am to my children? And how can I do better?
GRAMMAR BEFORE DISHES
The question of developing character in children is important. When we began homeschooling I was very focused on academics. I can remember frantically working through Winston grammar when David was about five-- circling and underlining the different parts of speech in the sentences while the the breakfast dishes sat on the table until lunch, the younger children ran around, hair uncombed, and not obeying when I gave instructions.
It was many years later that I heard about a survey of home-school moms who had finished the job. When asked what they had learned that they wished they had known earlier, they said "Character First!!!" Now I understand why they said it. It is true. If your children have not learned to obey, are unkind, uncooperative and deceitful -- it will be very hard to teach them anything.
Today I want to accomplish three things: First, I want to point you to the gospel – the essential element in good parenting, and the only basis for hope. Then I want to share some principles that are not original with me but which I have learned from godly authors. Thirdly, I want to suggest how you can use the proverbs in child training.
HEADED IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION -- THE GOSPEL
First I want to say that parenting is one of the hardest things I have ever done. And I have not arrived. I am merely on the way. Martin Luther said "We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road."
TELLING IS NOT ENOUGH
First, how shall we find hope in this daunting task? If we have parenting for any length of time you may have discovered that explaining what we expect of our children and having them do it are two different things. We can explain good manners to Susy but then find her spreading her jam on her toast with her fingers. We can tell Johnny not to take toys from other children but when Freddy has a new yellow tonka truck, we may come into the room to find a tug-a-war. In our day many believe that man is basically good. They tell us that young children simply need encouragement and kindness and then they will do what is right. But this theory does not fit reality. It is just not enough to tell Johnny "Be good." We can plead and weep and cajole, but Johnny can't be good. It feels like you are knocking your head against a brick wall, doesn't it? And in a sense, we are.
The BRICK WALL
The brick wall is our sinful human nature. It is critical to have a Biblical view of man. And the Bible is very clear that though man was made without sin, he chose to disobey God and things have never been the same. The Bible says that "All have sinned and fallen short of the kingdom of God." That means that our children are born sinners.
Recently our youth pastor, Pastor Turner, had a new little daughter, whom he dearly loves. A brother in the church introduced Pastor Turner to a group of people and said that he had a new little angel in the house. Pastor Turner corrected him by saying, 'No, a new little sinner in the house." This may sound harsh, but if we get the diagnosis right, we will treat the problem appropriately. If it is only a scratch, a band-aid will do. If it is cancer, the knife will have to come out. If we are good and only need encouragement, OK. But if we are basically evil, we need a treatment far more drastic than a band-aid. We won't even be surprised when our children disobey.
JOHNNY IS BAD
So I am saying that little Johnny is bad. How can I say this? What is our standard for determining this? It is the 10 commandments. Romans says that the law is the schoolmaster to Christ. What does that mean? It means that it leads to Christ. Let us see how that works. Let us look at part of the implications of the fifth commandment:
THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT
"Honor your father and mother that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you." If that only means cleaning your room and doing homework when told, one might be able to think that he is a good boy or girl" But when you do a deeper study of the fifth commandment, you see the implications: An excellent way to do this is to study the Westminster Confession of Faith and specifically the part on the Larger Catechism. This includes a study of the 10 Commandments, and it is done very carefully with scripture proofs for all of the points. First of all the commandment is to all those under authority and to those who are in authority. We will just look at the part for those under authority, although the part for those in authority is also very important for helping parents to see their own sins. The call for those under authority is that they be reverent in heart, word and behavior, --no rolling eyes, even when noone is looking --praying for and thanking God for those over them, (There are two kinds of sins. The church used to refer to them as sins of commission and sins of ommission. Sins of commission are doing something they should not do, like sassing their mother or mocking their father. The second, sins of ommision, are neglecting to do something they should have done such as praying for those in authority and giving thanks for them.) Then the confession says they are to be imitating their virtues and graces (In other words, if their parents are hardworking, kind and forgiving, they should imitate those qualities) willingly obeying their lawful commands and counsel, (You notice that the call is not just to obey but to do so willingly -- without grumbling or complaining), submitting to their corrections, defending and maintaining their authority, (for example, if someone else speaks ill of their father, the son sins if he laughs along instead of defending him), bearing with their weaknesses and covering them in love. (They do not talk about their faults to others but cover those sins -- unless someone has a good reason to know). If that is what is involved for those under authority keeping the fifth commandment, none of us keeps it. For you see, I still have a mother to honor, and my husband is also one that I need to honor though not in the same way as children need to honor their father and mother. Then also, I need to honor those in authority over me in the church and in the state. We all do poorly. Very poorly. We are sinners.
WHO GOD IS
Now we need to look at who God is. He is sinless and holy. The Bible says he is too holy to look upon sin. It also says that he is angry with the wicked everyday. And so, sinners are under his wrath.
It is interesting. If we talk about the wrath of God, some object that it is too frightening to talk to children about this. But our culture is always scaring children with vampires, bogeymen, witches, aliens and haunted houses. And this is all make-believe. The wrath of God is not make believe. We sin not to tell our children the truth about the wrath of God.
CHRIST IS GLORIOUS
This leads us directly to Jesus. If we are not sinners, we don't need his sacrifice. If God is not angry with sinners, we don't need the sacrifice of Christ to appease his anger. But if we are sinners and unable to help ourselves, we do need someone to do two things for us: obey the whole law perfectly for us and to take the punishment we deserve for breaking the commandments. And so this is a wonderful introduction to the gospel. As we point out the sin of our children (and confess our own sins to them) we don't rant at them for not living up to perfection, but we thank God for sending Jesus to wash us clean and to give us his power to begin to live a holy -- though not perfect – life. Christ is glorious. Christ is our only hope for forgiveness of sin and a clear conscience, our only hope for renewed friendship and fellowship with God, our only hope for everlasting rest and joy. Christ is that treasure that a man found and then sold all else in order to have. If we are in Christ, he is our song and our salvation. He never disappoints and will never make us ashamed.
Now I want to talk about six principles that I love. They are not original with me. Most of my mentors for parenting have been dead for many years, but low and behold, they have taken pen to paper, and thus are still teaching today.
J.C. Ryle, one of the wisest men who writes on training children, and one of those whose material I am using for this speech, said the following about being tender with your child:
"I do not mean that you should spoil him, but I do mean that you should let him see that you love him. Kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, forbearance, patience, sympathy, a willingness to enter into childish troubles, a readiness to take part in childish joys -- these are the cords by which a child may be led most easily; these are the clues you must follow if you would find the way to his heart." Without their heart you do not have their ear. Ryle goes on to say that "Children are weak and tender creatures...We must handle them delicately, like sensitive plants, lest by rough fingering we do them more harm than good."
This is so important that I am beginning with it. I am a list person. I am very satisfied when my list gets done by the end of the day. And so I can be very impatient and irritable when my children are not doing their lists. When children are young you have their hearts -- God made it that way to enable you to influence them. But do not presume upon always keeping their hearts. If we alienate our children by sinning against them, we may well lose their hearts and it will take painful tears, sincere repentance and a new tenderness to win those hearts back.
SPECIFIC INSTRUCTION TO LITTLE ONES -- COUNSEL TO OLDER ONES
I learned from Doug Wilson to give very specific instructions in the early years of a child, and counsel in the older years.
In the early years children are extremely eager to please and they are moldable. They are also foolish. Prov. 22:15 says "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child." Therefore, says Ryle, "...we must not leave him to the guidance of his own will. We must think for him, judge for him, just as we would for one weak and blind; but we should not give him up to his own wayward tastes and inclinations. It must not be his likings and wishes that are consulted. He knows not yet what is good for his mind and soul, any more than what is good for his body. Do not let him decide what he shall eat, and what he shall drink and how he shall be clothed. What shameful scenes at the table might be avoided if parent would seek divine widsom as to what is best to put on the child's plate."
When our children were young, we had tupperware bowls with lids. We served moderate portions and required the children to try whatever was served. And we served a wide variety of foods. If the child left food in the plate, the food was put into the fridge with the lid on. This food would later be heated in the microwave. They say that "Hunger is the best sauce" and it proved to be true in our case. Our children have learned to eat a wide variety of food. There is almost nothing that they dislike.
We unwisely give young children a zillion choices when young and not wise.
See mom standing at the closet Sunday morning. "Susy, do you want to wear this pink dress or this green one?"
Susy says "No!"
Mom is frustrated already. "Or you can wear this purple jumper with the white blouse."
Susy turns around and picks up the comfortable dirty clothes that she wore yesterday. "This one" she says.
And so the battle is on and the child does not learn obedience.
Later, at 16, when we see them making bad choices we want to micro manage them --no, you cannot see that friend, you must be home before ten, do not watch that or wear that. But at this point the concrete is setting fast and we have lost opportunity to train them.
To be clear, though you are to give specific instructions to young children, they still have a choice of whether to obey or disobey. Let them clearly see that they do have a choice – and that obedience will end in good results and disobedience will end in bad results. This is the way God deals with men: Deut. 28 and 29 is a whole litany of blessings that would come to Israel if they obeyed and curses that would come if they disobeyed. In this way you train the child's will to obedience. You want their will to be bent toward doing right. In later year, we need to be more of a counsellor to our children. Gregg Harris tells of counselling men in his congregation. He will not tell the man what to do about his problem, but instead will tell him what he would do and tell him that he trusts him to make a good decision. That is, I believe, what we should be doing more and more as children grow up. That will be much harder if they have not learned obedience (wisdom) as a young child.
BIBLE AS MAP
We would do well to have the Bible as the final standard of truth, as the map for life. How can we speak with authority if we are only expressing our preferences or opinions? It will be good for our children to see that we are under authority also. There is something very winsome about saying to a child. "You need to obey God. Daddy and mommy needs to obey God too. We are in this together." In this way we can model a sweet submission to God's Word.
The Bible is the word of God, a light upon our path. You should read it to our children every day. I am grateful that my husband does that in our home. Mr. Paul Tripp said he would especially read the Old Testament to his teens with all of its warnings to young men about the adulterous woman (see proverbs 7 especially) and generally about dangers of picking bad friends and its record of Israel falling into sin and that sin always bringing them under God's judgement. How will we or our children be able to identify falsehood if we do not know truth? It is said that people who work at banks study real money in order to gain a sense for money that is counterfeit. We ourselves need to go to God's word for wisdom and direction and we should point our children to it.
SOMETHING TO LOVE
.Another bit of advice that Greg Harris gives which I love is that we should give our children something to love. We should not only be building fences – forbidding bad behavior – but building sidewalks. He says we should “keep them engaged in something that they enjoy doing." I have an article that is an interview with him in the "Recommended Reading" list along with some other recommended resources on parenting. An example of what he is talking about is if you have a child who has a natural gift for drawing, buy them some supplies and try to get them some lessons. Or just buy them some tools to experiment with. One of my sisters and her husband have a son who early on showed a love for woodworking. His father wisely invested in some tools when he was 13 -- a band saw and a drill press. Today he is 22 and this year he entered a contest for furniture making and he was one of five finalists. I love his chair. He didn't win but seriously I thought his was the best entry.
ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER
C. S. Lewis said that we should not only read modern books but balance them out with books from from previous centuries. Richard Greenham lived in the 14th century, and wisely said: "Experience teaches us that children like or mislike more by countenance, gesture, and behavior than by rule, doctrine, precept or instruction." In other words, our actions speak louder than our words. I really believe this. What if you tell your children that they should obey but then when your husband asks you to do something, instead of respectfully appealing or asking for clarification, you proceed to criticize the plan and give reasons why if is a bad idea. You want your children to obey but your have modeled a quarrelsome spirit. The children are watching. You tell them that they should love their father but you do not even get up to greet him when he comes in the door. And you are stone-faced and withdrawn when he does not please you. They are learning how to treat those over them. You quote the verse “Whatever your hand finds to do do with all of your might as unto the Lord." but you do not oversee the table being set properly and your husband sits down to find he has no napkin, cutlery or hot sauce. You tell them they should say sorry when they are wrong, but you regularly shift blame and find excuses for your sins.
Voddie Baucham tells the story of a distressed husband and wife who came to him for counsel. They explained that their son had gone off to college and was no longer attending church. They had taught him that attending church was important and could not understand his behavior. As they talked further, Mr. Baucham found out that sometimes when the boy was younger there was a conflict between sports events and church, and in these cases the sports event had won out. You see, explained Mr. Baucham, regardless of what you said, you demonstrated that there are more important things than going to church. Your son has learned exactly what you have taught him.
NO SUBSTITUTE FOR GODLINESS
Since children see better than they hear, we must be most careful how we live. We must not be like a horse pulling a carriage always looking back to see if the carriage is following properly. The horse will begin to leave the path and so will the carriage. If the horse instead points his nose forward and stays on the trail, the carriage will follow just fine. This analogy has its limitations, but the main point is that if we will walk straight, it will be the best way to instruct our children. What we love they will love. What we are indifferent about, they will be indifferent about. Recently I was sitting waiting at the dentist's office when a mother came in with her five year old son. He was looking at a book and pointing to something, said to his mother " See Mom. Daddy likes baseball." I thought: "This boy knows what his father likes though his father may never have said so in that many words."
If we want godly children then, we must be godly. J.C. Ryle says it this way: "There is no substitiute for godliness --- reality with God in the lives of the parents.... Your children will never believe you are in earnest, and really wish to obey you, so long as your actions contradict your counsel.... Fathers and Mothers do not forget that children learn more by the eye than they do by the ear....Strive rather to be a living epistle of Christ, such as your children can read, and that plainly....As you enjoy Christ for yourself they will believe it is something real." .
THE USE OF PROVERBS
Chip and Dan Heath in their book Make to Stick say that one way to be an effective communicator is to use proverbs. And some of the men who have had great influence have done so. L.E. Maxwell, who headed up the Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada, did this. One of my favorites is "The hardest thing in the world is to keep your balance." He didn't mean physical balance, but mental. We can be too clean or too messy, too scheduled or too spontaneous, too social or too isolated. You get my meaning. Well, isn't it amazing that in the Bible God has given us a whole book of proverbs? And they are short, powerful and to the point. I would recommend using them in the training of your children.
Here are some of our favorites:
For the boaster: "Let another man praise you and not your own lips." Prov 27:2
For a lazy child: "A worker's appetite works for him; his mouth urges him on." Prov.25:28
For a quarrelsome child: "The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so abandon the quarrel before it breaks out." Prov.17:14
For one suspected of lying: "He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy."
For one making excuses for not obeying, or one fearful: "The sluggard says, 'There is a lion in the road! There is a lion in the streets."
For one lacking self-control: "A man without self-control is a city broken into and left without walls."
A. W. Pink talks about having a Christian father but going off into a dark pagan religion -- I think it was theosophy. One evening he came home preparing to speak the next day in one of his religious meetings. His father, deeply burdened for his son, greeted him. The son did not stop to talk but started upstairs to his room. However, his father sent up this proverbs after him that forever changed his life: "There is a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof is death." Prov.14:12 Arthur Pink sat down to work on his speech but he could not get the proverb that his father had spoken out of his mind. He did not give the speech. He did not leave the room for three days and when he did so he was a new man. In his words: "God's Word planted doubt and hisitation where was great passion and confidence in the wrong direction." This is the power of God's Word. It will not return void. Let's use this sword of the Lord.
There we are then. I would never want to parent without the gospel. It is my foundation and hope. Then I am most grateful for the Biblical principles imparted by godly men both alive and dead. And I love the proverbs. Come along as we set about to build character in our children. With Luther we say, "This is not the end, but it is the road."
RECOMMENDED READING LIST
Raising children is time-consuming but I would urge you to evaluate your commitments and carve out some time for reading. Good books can be a source of incredible instruction, encouragement, correction and hope for you. They can be true mentors.
All written by people who actually have children, the following books cover the nitty-gritty establishing of good habits and attitudes in our children.
ESP (Explain, Show & Practice) Character Training by Kim S. Doebler.
Practical Parenting Tips by Ray Bradley
Hints on Child Training by Clay Trumbull
This article is FULL of practical wisdom on how to transition our children out of the home life into the world
“Outgrowing the Greenhouse: A conversation with Gregg Harris”
The following link takes you to a booklet by J.C. Ryle that I mentioned above, one of the best for the practical spiritual training of our children. Besides what I have mentioned, he talks about training children in the knowledge of the Bible, to a habit of prayer, to assemble with the people of God, to obey you without always knowing why, in a habit of prompt obedience, to always speak the truth, to a habit of always redeeming the time, and with a constant fear of overindulgence. J.C. Ryle is one of those who though dead still speaks and with great wisdom
The next two books help us use the Bible to guide our children. The first one is the Proverbs, but in categories such as "Reverence for God," "Wisdom and Instruction," and "Self-Control." The second book is broader, gleaning from all of scripture, and shows how to use scripture to address specific sins in our children such as jealousy, laziness, discouragement and ingratitude.
Proverbs for Parenting by Barbara Decker
For Instruction in Righteousness by Pam Forster
These two books teach us how to get past the outward behavior of our children to discover and address what is in their hearts. Heart sins are sin too and must be repented of. God must give clean hearts and clean hearts will bear fruit in obedience.
Shepherding a Child's Heart by Ted Tripp
Age of Opportunity (teen years) Paul David Tripp
If you want to love God more passionately, read:
Desiring God by John Piper
Here is where you can find the exposition of the ten commandments. See question 99 and following.
This CD teachs us how to encourage our husbands to lead. We may want them to lead while unconsciously discouraging them in a number of significant ways.
"Wise Woman's Guide to Blessing Her Husband's Vision" by Doug Phillips (CD from Vision Forum).
God made men and women equal in value and dignity but he made beautiful and rich distinctions in their roles.The fall of man messed it up pretty bad (along with everything else) but the fall did not erase the distinctions. If God made them, it is well for us not to ignore them.
What's the Difference? by John Piper and Wayne Grudem.
One of my favorite writers is Doug Wilson and his wife Nancy Wilson. He had oodles of wisdom about raising children -- and on how raising boys is different than raising girls. He is published by Canon Press. The two books by Nancy Wilson are specifically for women and very encouraging. The last book is also from Canon Press. I haven't read it personally but have read excellent reviews of it. And I love the title.
http://www.canonpress.org/store/pc/home.asp carries these.
Future Men by Doug Wilson
Standing on the Promises by Douglas Wilson
Her Hand in Marriage by Doug Wilson
The Fruit of Her Hands by Nancy Wilson
Praise Her in the Gates by Nancy Wilson
Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches by Rachel Jankovic
Kevin Swanson knows that our culture is God-hating, devoid of truth and meaningful relationships. He has practical, biblical wisdom for how we can recover the rich biblical culture that we once had in this country. It is an uphill climb but the alternative is very dark. Go to
http://www.generationswithvision.com/ to order these resources.
The Second Mayflower by Kevin Swanson
Proverbs Study Guide by Kevin Swanson
First, a word on why I believe that the Puritans should be read today. Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson summarize it very well in their excellent book Meet the Puritans: they say that the Puritans "shape life by scripture....marry doctrine and practice....[addressing the mind, heart and conscience] focus on Christ....show how to handle trials....show us how to live in two worlds....and....show us true spirituality." Beeke and Pederson recommend the first five books below if you are just starting into the Puritans. I added the last one. As I mentioned I read sometimes just a few paragraphs at a time (they are so rich -- like Godiva chocolate), and I like to copy great quotes into my journal -- with or without commend. An excellent source for the Puritans is Reformation Heritage Books. http://www.heritagebooks.org/
Precious Remedies against Satan's Devices by Thomas Brooks. This book teaches how to recognize the devices of the devil and fight them.
Keeping the Heart by John Flavel. Flavel calls keeping the heart THE great work of the Christian. If our heart strays, we stray. We follow our hearts. So for our joy, safety and growth in grace we must learn to keep our hearts.
The Fear of God by John Bunyan. This is the author of the classic Pilgrim's Progress.
Heaven Taken by Storm by Thomas Watson. This book is excellent, passionate instruction on how to grow in grace through such things as self-examination, prayer, scripture reading, conversation and use of the Lord's Day.
Glorious Freedom by Richard Sibbes. Here Sibbes shows the great liberty of the Christian and its relation to the law. Spurgeon said of Sibbes: "he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands."
The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. How can we find contentment amidst the troubles and disappointments of life? Burroughs gives deep, satisfying, biblical counsel.