A question we are often asked is, “How do we teach our children to be industrious/assume responsibility/do their duty/be independent/have initiative, etc.?” Having successfully gone through this phase in raising our children, the question that is of more concern to me is this: how do we bring parents to the place where they see the need to instill these qualities in their children?

Most parents take too much for granted. I have known several people who purchased a new lawn mower or generator and, assuming it was ready to run, cranked it up and promptly burnt it up, not knowing that it came without oil in the crank case. We assume too much. But it is one thing to lose a Briggs and Stratton engine. It is a much more tragic thing to lose your son to a state of lethargic dependence or to an attitude of unthankful entitlement.

Very few of us were trained to be parents. When we were young and being parented we were oblivious to the notion that the process was even taking place, so we never considered noting the technique. Then when we got to be parents we just assumed that the process is somehow automatic—you love them, feed them, keep them clean and healthy, teach them right from wrong, take them to church, and they will automatically grow up to be normal and well- adjusted just like we are. After all, our parents didn’t do anything special. Or did they?

In the past, when society and schools were more conservative and disciplined, the less proactive approach to child training had a much better chance of yielding positive results, but today the default position is geared to produce 20-year-olds still sitting in the basement in their underwear behind a computer screen surfing the web, social-less networking, or playing a sexy, violent video game. Not as bad—but equally disturbing—is the 20-year-old going to college on his parents’ dime, living his weekends in endless parties and fleshly indulgence while getting three months’ worth of useful education out of four expensive years of idleness.

Just the other day, Deb and I were discussing the young people we know and noting that some are focused and industrious, making the most of their days, gaining knowledge and developing a variety of skills, while others sit around waiting for life to come take them by the hand and lead them into a magical world of fulfillment. We mulled over the question once again: what makes one child aggressive on the highway of life and leaves another sitting to the side of the road with his engine idling, listening to the radio while downloading another song to his iPod?

Give me a hyperactive kid over a docile dunce any day of the year. Give me an inquisitive rebel over a passive lassie and I will show you the difference between an entrepreneur and the one who answers her phone. The public schools are drugging tomorrow’s inventors and rewarding dumbed-down darlings who never ask why or seek a better way.

The following two passages in the book of Proverbs address this subject.

Proverbs 6:6–11:
6 Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise:
7 Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler,
8 Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.
9 How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?
10 Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep:
11 So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.

Solomon addresses the sluggard, calling his attention to the virtues of the ant, who, though he has no one telling him what to do, nonetheless takes the initiative to prepare his food store for the long winter months, thus assuring his survival. In contrast, the sluggard is sleeping and will come to poverty like a homeless man who travels from place to place or like a man who lives by force of his weapons. It is pitiful to have a 20-year-old son or daughter who has less initiative than an ant.

Proverbs 30:24–28:
24 There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise:
25 The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer;
26 The conies are but a feeble folk, yet make they their houses in the rocks;
27 The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands;
28 The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings’ palaces.

This passage is interesting for the four things it suggests should receive the attention of an industrious man.

  1. They labor to maintain a storehouse of food.
  2. They build their homes in secure places (that would include secure from bankers).
  3. They maintain a community of friends and associates that offer mutual protection and oversight.
  4. Their industriousness exalts them to king’s palaces. They take steps that elevate them to be more than passive peons.

Wow! What a beautiful blueprint—food, home, community, and influence in powerful places. God made the little creatures thus, and they fulfill his will year after year. Only fallen man is capable of devolving from a son of God to a son of a slug (sluggard).

Solomon told us to observe and consider. It takes deliberation and premeditation to lift oneself and one’s children out of the sticky sluggardly slime of passive participation and dependence.

The problem is that adults are impatient and want results now. You are trapped in poverty with an insufficient variety of skills to adjust to the shifting economy, and you look to the system to open up a place for you, but the doors are few and there are so many who want to enter the same door at the same time. “If I had only learned—.”

It takes years to develop skills and confidence. A man with a family doesn’t have years. He needs to be successful right now. That is why it is so important to start that experience-oriented education when there are still eighteen years of grace and subsidy to see one through the training period. I am talking about training that begins at one year of age.

There is no mystery here. Think about it. Other than a few highly-gifted kids, I ask you, which kids are more likely to grow up to have self-confidence and be self-sufficient, the children of well-to-do parents who provide everything and allow their “children to be children” with no responsibility or demands placed upon them, or the children of poorer parents who require their children to participate in their own survival—doing chores, making do with less, and working for everything they get? No contest. Everyone knows that the rich kid (and those poor kids treated like rich kids) are most likely to be lazy loafers, dependent upon the system to provide their needs.

Have you ever noticed how many really successful people—the uber-rich and the movers and shakers—come from poor, struggling families? But they were not of that number of poor people who live with a sense of entitlement. Their parents worked hard and always shared a hope of building their web in kings’ palaces. The kids grew up believing that hard work and honest dealing would pay off, and it did.

We are addressing the question of how we as parents can instill that spirit of confidence and self-reliance in our children. There are many words we can use, but I prefer the word initiative. You cannot see entrepreneurship in a four-year-old—and all four-year-olds fail to be responsible and dutiful in so many forgetful ways—but you can see initiative. Initiative has nothing to do with skills or education. It is a positive spirit of inquiry and self-motivated action. Curiosity and conquest of one’s environment is the fruit of initiative.

Preparation—as in the ant preparing his food for the winter—is part of that spirit of initiative. While other people are waiting in line, the person with initiative builds shade for everybody and then sells them water. While the run-of-the-mill teenager waits for Daddy to buy him a car, the teen with initiative buys an old junker for four hundred dollars and spends his spare time fixing it up.

While some young ladies sit around at home brooding over their lack of suitors, those with initiative busy themselves with building a dowry of skill and money, making themselves interesting and productive. Guys like girls who are happy and going someplace. They are wary of the needy and dependent sponges who “just want to get married and have babies.” Girlie, how long has it been since you read Proverbs 31? Debi has a good exposé on it in her book, Created to Be a Help Meet. Read it again.

Now for the answer. First the don’ts, and then the dos.

Don’t allow your young children to spend more than one hour a day sitting in front of a screen of any kind. Little to no exposure would be best. Don’t provide a room full of toys. Don’t work for them, allowing them to be idle. Don’t buy the superfluous things they want. No cell phones or computers with social networking, texting, or email capabilities.

Now the dos. Understand that initiative is first a matter of attitude—not skill or knowledge—which should come later. Self-confidence is believing in the possibilities of opportunity. Even more, it is seeing opportunity where others see barriers. A boy who has leaped small walls grows up to believe he can leap tall walls, as well. Where some people see a wall as a place to sit down and wait for help, the self-reliant sees an opportunity to climb to the top and look down on the world. If he can’t climb by himself, he solicits the help of others or he uses whatever materials are available to build a ladder; but he has fun all the time because he anticipates victory. Failure is never failure to the confident person; it is knowledge gathered of what will not work, and it provides a catalyst to modify his methods and try something else. And try he will.

The parent’s responsibility is to provide the small child with walls just tall enough to make the task of climbing challenging—so he will feel satisfaction when he succeeds—but not so tall as to prevent him from succeeding. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s not complicated or profound.

Just this past week a man, who, among other things, is an electrician, brought his two sons—thirteen and sixteen years old—to assist me in wiring the house I have now been building for six years. They worked all week for free, every day, from early morning until late in the evening. The boys cheerfully worked without complaint, like they were having fun drilling holes and pulling unwilling wires throughout the sprawling house, weaving a giant spider web of copper threads. Toward the end of the week I asked him how he trained his boys to take responsibility and have self-confidence. His answer was that of a workman, not a scholar: “I give them jobs just a little bigger than they are and then hang back to observe.”

One more thing not to do. Do not give them jobs they are not capable of doing well unless you are emotionally able to pretend it was a job well done. Do not criticize to the point of developing an adversarial relationship. One father will give his sons walls to climb and then help them climb until they stand at the top celebrating, while another father will give his sons walls to climb and then ridicule and belittle them when they fail to immediately reach the top. The first kid develops confidence and initiative while the second assumes a defeatist, “I can’t do anything right” attitude. There it is, Mister: sons reduced to failures by critical words won’t have the means or the will to take care of you in your old age. Get ready to die alone in a government-run institution where “end-of-life-decisions” are made by college kids who, under a mandate to save money, are in a hurry to get back to their texting.

On my DVD Teaching Responsibility, I tell the story of a young Amish man who attended my Bible study regularly. One day he announced that he was going to pack up his family and go away to Bible College with some of the young kids that were headed to the mission field. It alarmed me because he was critically uneducated and couldn’t even read well. Taking him aside, I cautiously warned him that the college demands were stringent and would probably be too much for him. Undeterred, he grinned like I had just told him how to harness up his mule, and said, “I have broken wild mustangs; I have repaired all kinds of generators and other pieces of equipment, built barns and houses, put in plumbing and planted large gardens; I can do this, as well.” I didn’t believe him, but he did just as he said. He worked himself to death, staying up long hours to study and getting up early, studying on the weekends. His first semester he achieved a lot of Ds; his second had more Cs and his third was mostly Bs. Shut my mouth! Never underestimate the power of confidence and initiative.

I just took a break from writing and went out to play with Shalom’s children. Parker is ten months old and all man. He never did look like a baby. If the Lord tarries long enough for him to get old, he will be able to exchange his baby pictures for his age 75 photos—only four teeth, sunken eyes, bald-headed, bony face, a stumbling walk, plenty of will but very little way, and occasionally messes in his pants. We end up pretty close to where we started, don’t we—somebody else changing our pants, feeding us with a spoon and getting in our face to say sweet meaningless things. This has nothing to do with the article. I guess I am getting too close to that time and it is on my mind.

Back to our subject: I took the two girls and Parker down by the creek to explore. He didn’t want to be carried. He wanted to walk. The rocks are sharp and make walking difficult. He was slow and cautious, but he still wanted to walk. It dawned on me that this obstacle course was just what a ten-month-old needs to build a can-do spirit. Parker was facing his limitations and pressing beyond, building confidence and manly aggression.

Last week I took Jeremiah with me to a job site where Gabriel and Nathan have teamed up on a project, building a new auditorium and fellowship hall for a church. Five-year-old Jeremiah immediately spotted a ten-foot-high pile of dirt and gravel that just begged to be climbed. The loose gravel kept sliding under his feet as he gained two steps and lost one. I watched with amusement, remembering how it felt to be young and have a mountain to conquer. He didn’t quit until he reached the top, and then he celebrated with uplifted hands and shouting like a conquering hero. I am sure he heard the band playing and the gathered throng cheering as the workers ignored him and he stood unnoticed by all but himself and his proud grandpa.

That pile of gravel was one of those little walls that need climbing in order to have confidence to climb higher ones. Someday the wall may be a business decision or a career move. While others hunker down out of fear, Jeremiah will strive to reach the top—many tops—time and time again. It becomes a way of life to ignore the difficulty, the pain, the nay-saying of others and keep putting one foot above the other, resisting the resistance, until another goal is reached.

I took Jeremiah with me to the knife and tomahawk world championships recently. He had been practicing with his knives and was dressed like an Indian. He would walk up to a total stranger and very confidently announce, “I am a knife thrower.” Yeah, he is a knife thrower, and occasionally a knife sticker, but the rare sticks are enough to give him an inflated sense of self-worth. No, I don’t want him to be humble. Not yet. Life will eventually accomplish that unwelcome task in painful ways. Right now I want him to believe he can do anything he wants to do and that his support team believes he is the very best.

One day it will be about ability and accomplishment. Not everybody wins. But I hope you understand that today it is about spirit and soul. If you build strength, confidence, and courage in them when they are ten months old, they will be tomorrow’s movers and shakers, full of confidence, initiative, responsibility, duty, industriousness, and a spirit of independence from everything but God and family.