God promises, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

Parents, who see one of their children hit the fan, often have a hard time appreciating this verse. In fact, as the homeschool movement ages there are more and more parents claiming the verse does not mean what it says, because it didn’t hold true in their experience.

Here are just a few of the reasons a child is lost to the world and how parents caused it to happen without even trying.

I say “without trying” because when children turn out poorly, as many do, parents are at a loss as to why. It is always unexpected—certainly unplanned. An eighteen-year-old is unthankful and rebellious, walks around like the family is his enemy and he has been enslaved and abused by them his whole life. Anger is his first response to everything and to nothing.

If you view old TV programs made 50 years ago of families relating to one another, they look like today’s ideal Christian homeschool family. Daddy is respected and honored and Mother is cherished. Family problems were always resolved with good cheer and forgiveness. Teenage morality was taken for granted. The future was bright and full of hope, and there was no state of rebellion in the kids.

In contrast, modern TV and movies usually represent today’s average family—accurately I might add—as dysfunctional psycho wards of vindictive anger and disrespect. In most movies the family is already divorced or going through the painful process. If a movie were made with a teenager loving his parents as they love their children and each other, and everyone with good cheer and hope for the future, it would be considered corny and unrealistic to the point that the only people who could relate to it would be the ones who stopped watching TV thirty years ago.

So I am going to tell you how kids come to a ruinous end without their parents exerting any effort or attention to the process at all. In fact, that is the first step toward sabotaging your children’s future—no effort and no attention.

1. Get so busy providing for them that you don’t have time for them.

Children are like plants growing every day. They need regular attention and direction.

When children turn out poorly, as many do, parents are at a loss as to why.

I plant a garden every year. And about half of the time I wait too long to stake my tomatoes. A small plant doesn’t need staking. and I tell myself I will stake them before it becomes critical. But it may rain for an entire week, or I get busy doing something else and can’t get around to it. The plant gets so big the stems fall on the ground. When the leaves of a tomato plant are exposed to the soil they quickly develop disease. When the fruit touches the ground it will rot about the time it should be getting ripe. This year I had a second late patch that I intended to stake but waited too long. I finally staked them but too late to prevent the disease.

It is not what I did; it is what I didn’t do that spoiled the crop. So it is with children, they need constant pruning and fertilizing and training to grow up instead of down—to reach for blue skies instead of crawling along the ground. So the worst thing you can do for your children is just ignore them and allow nature to take its course. Plan on training them but never get around to it. Children need the constant sunshine of their parents’ smile and approval. They need to be pointed in the right direction day after day. They need admonition like a plant needs fertilizer. And as water activates the fertilizer, making it available to the roots, smiles activate our admonition making it available to the soul of the child. Children raised right grow up right, no exceptions. It is God’s certain promise (Proverbs 22:6).

2. Set a bad example.

The second thing parents do that will assure a bitter outcome for the children is to set a bad example.

Some people would say fighting in front of the kids has negative consequences. All fighting whether in front of the kids or in private will be destructive, but the most destructive things is not the fighting as much as how you fight and how it is resolved. I have known families that had big fights, but—I hope you can understand this—their fights were not personal. They were resolved as publicly as they were waged, and the public displays of anger did not create deep hurt in anybody. There are some loving souls that express themselves loudly and with emotion. They punctuate their points with explosive words and gestures, but they are equally as effulgent in their make-up and passionate love. Kids come to understand the heart of their parents and are more influenced by their intentions than their rhetoric. A wife of a certain temperament can scream at her husband that she hates him, and the children hear her saying, “I love you so much, you exasperate me to the point I could kick you just before we make love again.” The kids know the outcome is going to be as always, Mom and Pop making up and saying they are sorry and that they didn’t mean it and melting in each other’s arms. Public fights should be resolved in public so the kids can see the process of how it is worked out and how forgiveness and understanding occurs.

So the worst thing you can do for your children is…plan on training them, but never get around to it.

I have seen other families where the parents were careful to never fight in front of the kids, but the children are able to see the tension and ill will building, and they observe it being taken into the bed room where they occasionally hear muffled but raised voices. The parents come out not speaking to each other, followed by hours or days of emotional distance. Now that kind of fighting is indeed harmful to the children. They are able to read the souls of their parents and they feel the bitterness and hate in every moment of silence and self-control. Bad example. Leaf blight. Rotting fruit.

The bad example extends to every area of life. Any discipline you want your children to have you must exemplify it yourself. You can set a bad example in criticizing others, in carelessness with money, unthankfulness, unkindness, laziness, irresponsibility, and more. Be what you want your children to be and you will be providing the best training possible.

3. Expressing displeasure regularly.

This is a biggie. It is so subtle that parents don’t even know it is happening. I have observed parents relating to their children in intermittent displeasure and seen the negative effect it is having. When they ask my advice I have pointed out their destructive tendency to always criticize or show displeasure with their child. They are usually shocked and unbelieving. “I love my children,” they exclaim. And I respond, “But?” They fill in the blank, “But, he is so stubborn and willful, always doing the opposite to what I tell him.” And with exasperation, and what I detect as anger, they say, “I have spanked him and it seems to do no good; I just don’t know what to do any more.” I follow up with, “You say he is stubborn most of the time; how do you respond most of the time?” She answers, “Sure, I am displeased; what else could I be; I can’t be happy when he is so stubborn.”

It is a vicious cycle. A child’s bad behavior provokes looks of displeasure and looks of displeasure provoke bad attitudes leading to bad behavior. I have said it so many times. If you cannot train your children to do as they ought, it is far better to lower your standards and enjoy them as they are than to allow your looks of displeasure to become the norm. A kid may grow up to be undisciplined and self-willed, but there is no reason to add to it a feeling of being unloved and unable to please.

Any discipline you want your children to have you must exemplify yourself.

I am not suggesting that there is not a remedy that solves the bad behavior. I only emphasize that a vital part of stopping the bad behavior is to cease the cycle of looks of rejection, followed by more bad behavior, followed by more looks of rejection, followed by “I hate you and never want to see you again; why did you have to be my mother/father?”

I have spoken of it elsewhere, especially in my DVD, The Joy of Training, and the article, The Flavor of Joy (found in the back of To Train Up A Child), so I will not go into detail here, but suffice to say, child training is causing the child to want to please you and be like you. They will want to please you only when they find pleasure in your presence. You must become the vital source of their joy if they are going to give up their rebellion and choose to exercise self-discipline and self-denial.

4. Not enforcing boundaries.

The next best way to destroy your children without trying is to fail to enforce boundaries. It is easy to do—to not enforce boundaries. Just love your kids and believe they will turn out OK as long as you do not create any self-loathing or feelings of rejection like we talked about above. Smile and believe in the innate goodness of their sweet little hearts, and trust that someday they will grow up and take responsibility for their actions.

It is easy to avoid enforcing boundaries because it is the path of least resistance. You don’t have to stir yourself or upset the kids. Let them do as they please—free expression, you know—and they will become your average normal reprobate. But at the least you won’t look like the party pooper. It is a do nothing job that has been left undone by millions of parents.

If children all came into the world disciplined and wise and willing to deny their impulses for the greater good, we could just leave them to free expression, but every parent knows better. All children come to us innocent but fallen. They are hedonistic, self-indulging hippies in their natural state. Left to themselves they will bring their mothers to shame (Proverbs 29:15).

Adults are supposed to be mature enough to choose the virtuous path and do what they ought to do even if is contrary to their desires. That is character, something that you’re not born with; it has to be developed. And children don’t have character unless they are properly trained. Children do not see the need for self-denial or self-restraint. They feel desire and they do what feels good. So if a parent does nothing, their children will become quite schooled in the dark arts of self-indulgence. Therefore, parents must constrain their children to right behavior. In time their moral understanding will develop and they will begin to choose good, even when it is contrary to their carnal desires. Character is formed, and as training continues his character grows stronger until he matures into an adult.

5. Leaving them to choose their friends.

Many parents have done a good job in training their young children, and have put them on a path of virtue, but in their early teens they are influenced by their peers and yield to temptation while knowing it is not the right path. Even well trained children are flesh and are capable of falling into sin—just as is a moral, disciplined adult.

Kids are not wise. They do yet understand the consequences of wrong choices. They need guidance and oversight until they are about twenty years old—sometimes a little older. About the time kids graduate from college they are wise enough to discern good from evil. If you disagree with that assessment, explain spring break at the beach, or fraternity initiations. Woe!

It all starts very young. You must choose the social circle for your children and guard it. The quickest way to throw your children away is to enroll them in daycare or preschool or first grade. You lose all control over their friends, and they will become part of the social pool, eventually reduced to the lowest common denominator. If your child shares a pool with kids where just one of them has crapped in the water, your kid is swimming in crap. A few good kids don’t keep the water clean, but one bad kid pollutes it for everybody. I cannot remember the good kids in my third grade, but there were a couple bad ones I will never forget. I can remember their foul words and deeds to this day.

It all starts very young. You must choose your children’s social circle and guard it.

This is probably the hardest thing for a parent to do. It requires great effort and constant vigilance to sift your social circle. There are times your kids will not understand, and there are times that other parents are offended, but a mother hen should guard her chicks against the foxes and coyotes, regardless. It may require an adjustment to your lifestyle to protect your kids. A chicken that has roosted under a chicken hawk nest needs to move even if it is inconvenient. If your church is full of public school kids, you will need to keep your children at your side all the time and not allow them to get personal with a child going to public school. It becomes impossible to limit the social contact of a teenager in such an environment. They shouldn’t have the burden of constantly choosing or eliminating people from their acquaintance. Find a social circle that is righteous and productive where you have nothing to fear from 25 of the teenagers getting together to play soccer or go roller skating together.

Remember, they will evolve from you providing their complete social circle to choosing for themselves. You cannot control them past the age when they grow to be autonomous, so you must train them to wisely chose their friends. For the time will come when what you say has little bearing. Train them before they are ten and you can trust them when they are twenty.

6. Finally, you can destroy your children by not giving them any responsibility or holding them accountable.

Remember the key ingredient is “without trying.” Neglect or preoccupation is the culprit. It is operating under the assumption that somehow everything will work out. You are best suited to the task of training your children when you work under the assumption that they are destined to ruin unless you get proactive and do some things much better than the average parent.

Responsible action is the duty of all people, and accountability is the inevitable result of being part of a society where the principle of cause and effect is well understood. When there are two people in the room, insofar as they can have an effect on the other, each is responsible for his actions, and the law of love makes us responsible for our neighbor’s well-being. “Let no man seek his own [to advance self], but every man another’s wealth” (1 Corinthians 10:24). Seek to advance the wealth of your neighbor.

You should give your children responsibility according to their ability. A child who can walk should be held responsible to pick up his dirty clothes and put them in the laundry basket, clean up spills, and place his toy and books back where they belong. This is the foundation of all future responsible actions.

As they get older, they should be responsible to do their share in domestic chores. They should be held responsible to keep up with their boots and shoes if they take them off outdoors. If a kid loses his shoes he should have to work to make the money to buy a used pair at the second hand store. Even a five-year-old can appreciate the value of responsible action when he has to pay the price for irresponsibility. If a teenager throws a ball through the window he should pay to have it repaired.

Accountability is what you demand and exact when they are caused to answer for the way they have handled their responsibility. If you fail to hold them accountable, they are in fact not responsible. It is much easier to do it ourselves, but the children must learn, and the burden falls on us to stay involved for their sakes.

I have observed a beautiful principle. The children most accountable to act responsibly are the happiest and most secure in love and grounded in good will. You learn to love your neighbor one act of caring at a time.

This could have been a list of ten or fifteen ways parents destroy their children without trying, but these six are about all we can stand in one dose. I still believe the Word of God when it says, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

I know there has been a movement to disbelieve the passage as the Holy Spirit inspired it, but the fact remains that when they are trained right they stay right without interruption until they are old. I am an example of right training, as is my wife. My five children were trained in the way they should go and I now see all twenty of my grandchildren (more on the way) being trained that way. I expect a continuance of 100% positive results just as God promised. I will not lower the standard, and you should not lower your expectations because of the poor results others are experiencing.

It is difficult in our world “to train up a child in the way he should go,” and some very good and sincere people fail, not for want of personal righteousness, and not from want of trying, but from want of training the kids in the way they should go. Those who fail should not deny the standard but humbly admit their failure to have trained properly. They can analyze the reasons for their failure and have added wisdom to contribute to those parents who are still in the game training their kids.

Finally, if you have young children still in the process, but your oldest son has been a disappointment, don’t give up. Humbly ask your wayward son where you went wrong. It doesn’t matter what you said, or what you did, or what you intended; the bottom line is what did he believe and feel. If you cannot let go of the anger and resentment toward him or you spouse, and you cannot humble yourself enough to listen to him instead of condemn, then truly there is no hope for the rest of your children.

I have seen families lose their first child to the world, but take it as a wakeup call, and revive their hearts and efforts, resulting in saving the other children from the same fate. Even if you failed with your first child, the promise is still true and you can “Train up a child in the way he should go,” knowing of a certainty “he will not depart from it.”