Children are like plants. They need attention and direction every day.
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; 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. Then the plant gets so big the stems bend and 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. You don’t realize you are losing your crop until it is too late. This year I had a second late patch that I intended to stake but again waited too long. I finally staked them but too late to prevent the loss.
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 withering on the ground. Raising children is an in-season and out-of-season job. You can’t just allow nature to take its course. Children need the constant sunshine of their parents’ smiles 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 child’s soul. Children raised right grow up right—no exceptions. It is God’s certain promise (Proverbs 22:6).
Every parent needs to understand this: more is caught than taught. Instilling thankfulness in a child is done by example and training. When children’s souls are full of thankfulness, they don’t grow up being irritated or hurt because someone mistreated them. Thankfulness goes a long way in child training.
Honesty is of key importance. Children see when a parent is a little dishonest in the way they handle money, and it can be very destructive to their souls. Much of the book of Proverbs is written to admonish people to deal honestly and uprightly with all people. God cannot bless your family if you are cunning in your dealings with others.
The good example extends to every area of life. Any discipline you want your children to have you must exemplify yourself. Be what you want your children to be and you will be providing the best training possible.
This is a biggie. I have observed parents relating to their children in intermittent displeasure and seen the negative effect it has. 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 of 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, so how do you respond most of the time?”
In Debi’s book, Create a Better Brain through Neuroplasticity: A Manual for Mamas, she shows how brain scans are revealing that parents can actually groove their child’s brain to think in such a way that the child will want to do good. It is important not to get into the negative habit toward your child. This can become a vicious cycle that is patterning the brain for an automatic response. I have said 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 vital part of stopping the bad behavior is to cease the cycle of looks of rejection and begin to look for ways to encourage and show appreciation.
I have spoken of it elsewhere, especially in my DVDs, 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 it to say child training is causing the child to want to please you and be like you. Children 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. Training a child to be a good human does not save their soul before God, but it does make it easier for them not to be caught up in the world before they can come to a knowledge of where they stand before God.
Enforcing boundaries builds security and responsibility in children. This takes diligence. It is much easier to not enforce boundaries. It is a mistake to just love your kids and believe they will turn out okay as long as you do not create any self-loathing or feelings of rejection like we talked about above. It is naive to just 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 reprobates.
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 it is contrary to their desires. That is character—something that no one is born with and that has to be developed. Training children to respect boundaries will build character. Small children do not see the need for self-denial or self-restraint. They feel desire and they do what feels good. Therefore, parents must constrain young 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, their character grows stronger as they mature into adults.
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. In Debi’s book, Create a Better Brain through Neuroplasticity, she teaches how the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain where wise decision making is established, is not yet fully developed until a person is about 25 years old. Before this time, all young people use the area of the brain called the amygdala to make decisions. The amygdala is referred to by scientists as the seat of emotion. No wonder kids are not wise! They do not have the brain yet to understand the consequences of wrong choices. They need guidance and oversight until roughly 25 years old. Not until several years after kids graduate from college are they wise enough to discern good from evil. If you disagree with that assessment, explain spring break at the beach or fraternity initiations. Whoa!
It all starts very young. You must choose the social circle for your children and guard it. The quickest way to throw your small children away is to enroll them in daycare or preschool or first grade. You lose all control over their friends and they 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 pooped in the water, your kid is swimming in poop. 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.
This is probably the hardest thing for a parent to do. It requires great effort and constant vigilance to sift your social circle. There will be times your kids will not understand, and there will be times other parents are offended, but a mother hen guards her chicks against the foxes and coyotes, regardless. To protect your kids may require an adjustment to your lifestyle. 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 the other children. 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; that is your job. 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, at some point they will transition 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 choose their friends. For the time will come when what you say has little bearing.
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 a room, insofar as they can have an effect on each 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 toys and books back where they belong. This is the foundation of all future responsible actions.
I have observed a beautiful principle: the children most accountable to act responsibly are the happiest and most secure in love and grounded in goodwill. You learn to love your neighbor one act of caring at a time.
Today’s world is different from any other. 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 for want of trying. Over the years we have watched our culture change as we listen to the weeping of parents sitting in front of us as we counsel. Children are being exposed to some of the most horrific evil imaginable while they sit on their couch with their parents. The cell phone is the devil’s favorite toy. It is Satan’s direct line to most every child.
In the next article you will read just how prevalent the wickedness has become. You can do all to raise a happy, obedient child that comes to know the Lord at an early age, then lose them in one afternoon as they play with another child and view men doing things to very little children that are too gross, evil, and demonic to speak of. I despair for the parents of this generation. More than ever before, I exhort you:
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;
And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:
Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;” Ephesians 6:11–18