I was in Fort Worth, Texas, standing in the foyer of a plush auditorium, waiting for the last of the families to arrive for my child-training seminar. I was a stranger to them. They knew me only through our book and our newsletters. Observing the different family personalities, I watched them file in, bounce in, crowd in, drag in, sneak in, and get shoved in.

One particular couple entered cautiously—but not their excited little six-year-old son. By the time he was three feet in the door his eyes had scanned everything with absolute wonder and delight. Observing his face, you would have thought he was entering a wonderland. The father was holding his son’s hand as if it were the bridle on a feisty horse he was trying to keep from bolting.

With a quick glance, I was able to read this family’s personality. The parents were obviously apprehensive. By their controlled posture, rebuking eyes, and the father’s slight jerk on the child’s hand, it was obvious they were reinforcing a warning given only moments before entering the building.

I immediately liked the kid. He was my kind of potential man—a ball of ready energy and curiosity. But I also knew from experience that he was probably labeled hyperactive, with attention deficit disorder. That’s a label they put on children whose potential does not lie in inactivity and sedimentation.

In my imagination I could hear the parents as they neared the building, “Look, Johnny, if you are ever going to be good, this is the time and place. These people are all coming to hear about how to train children not to act like you. Whatever you do, you had better be quiet and sit still. If you don’t . . . well, you will be sorry; that’s all I’ve got to say.”

So here came this apprehensive couple through the front door, walking as stiff as cedar fence posts. Five seconds through the door, I jarred their somber mood by springing over and offering my hand to the wide-eyed little fellow. He jerked his hand free from his father’s and with great appreciation began to shake my hand. I asked, “What do you do for a living, young fellow?” He readily responded, “Oh, I just eat.” I laughed and pumped his hand a little harder. He thought it was a fine game and began to try to out-pump me. About that time, I glanced up to see alarm growing on the parents’ faces. They both began to grab at the boy, hoping to cap the impending social disaster. By this time his arm was going up and down like a runaway Texas oil rig. Being a little hyper-ADD myself, I steered the boy away from his parents’ grasp and continued to try to out-pump him. All of a sudden he decided to upgrade the fun by jumping up and down. I suppose it made up for the difference in the length of our arms (I am six feet, four inches tall). Well, there was nothing to do but match his efforts, so I commenced to jump up and down as well. We were both laughing and jumping around in a circle, having a great time, when I glanced at the parents and saw horrified expressions. At this point I think they were torn between concern for their reputation and wondering if they had fought the six o’clock traffic in Dallas/Forth Worth only to come and hear this overgrown kid lecture on child training.

I quickly turned and left the now thoroughly ecstatic little fellow, never even acknowledging the parents—although I did look over my shoulder to see if they had changed their minds about staying. And all the time, I was wondering how I had gotten into that episode. It was definitely the kid’s fault—that is, the kid in me.

I am usually much more reserved. I am conscious of the need to pretend maturity while in public. I just have these moments when I forget and once again think I am a parent of young children. If you invite me to a seminar, I will try to do better. Just don’t bring any children for me to interact with, and I will probably be all right.

Parental Priorities

It is impossible to be a good parent if you do not enjoy your children. Your children should be your primary toys and your favorite comedians. They should be your most exciting sport and most frequent recreation. They must be your main investments, your best friends, your consuming passion, and the center around which all future plans revolve.

This does not mean putting them first, but it does mean putting their spiritual, psychological, social, and physical welfare first. That may mean that there are times when children need to be told to sit still and be quiet, but that only for their benefit.

Parenting is more demanding than managing a greenhouse. A farmer with a greenhouse may have additional interests, but he can never be far from his tender plants. He must always be mindful of them. If he neglects to water them, it must be a deliberate, thoughtful act designed for the good of the plants. If he allows the temperature to be lowered, it is for the purpose of toughening the plants. If he prunes the plants, it is to increase their yield. But he can never be careless or neglectful for even one day or night, lest his whole crop be lost. He must lovingly guard against disease and ever be alert for pests that creep in unawares to suck the life from the delicate plants.

A man who does not love plants could never be a good greenhouse man. Likewise, parenting is an all-consuming, full-time job, a job done well only by those who delight in it.

If you are a parent, it is too late to decide how you are going to spend your time. You made that decision when you brought children into the world. Like a farmer with a greenhouse full of tender plants, you don’t need to look for anything to fill up your spare time—you won’t have any for a while. Your Saturday companionship is already planned. You can go golfing with the boys—if your boys like that sort of thing. You can still go out on the lake fishing—as long as your boat will hold all the children. Or you can just cut the grass and relax at home. Kids love to help push the lawnmower or sit in the shade, drinking lemonade and telling tales.

Then They Are Mine

I always told my wife, “They are yours until they are potty trained, stop nursing, and can follow me around outdoors, and then they are mine.” I didn’t stick to my part of the agreement very well. I got anxious and put Rebekah in a backpack, taking her rabbit hunting when she was too little to toddle. I took the boys fishing when they weren’t much bigger than my bait. While Deb was teaching them to walk, I was teaching them to swim. Gabriel was still dragging his “blankie” around when I was teaching him to throw knives.

When the kids were just four years old, they could swim all over the old muddy pond. We would collect the green slime that grows in small ponds and have what we called gook fights. The object was to slime your opponent, preferably in the face. You got more points for getting it in their mouth. There were just two sides—mine and theirs, Rebekah leading the opposition. Several times when we were in public, I looked down to see a pale yellow-green paste stuck behind an ear. By the time Rebekah was twelve and the boys were seven and nine, I began to eat more gook than a carp. Retribution is a terrible thing. My wife said it was high in chlorophyll, but I sold the property before the children got any bigger. They were beginning to outnumber and out-fling me.

Alligator

There are times when you need to be an Army sergeant, but those times can be minimized if you learn how to be an alligator. The little ones love it. You wiggle across the floor with your mouth wide open, making an alligator sound. I don’t know what they sound like either. Just make sure it is a slimy, scary sound. The kids will scream and run in pretended fright, hiding from the slithering beast. When they climb up on the backs of couches you must pretend to struggle to get to them and then slide back down, defeated. Alligators are not supposed to be able to climb trees and couches. One warning, be sure to lock the front door and keep the key. If you have a wife like mine she might just sneak guests into the house. It would be hard to explain if they caught you slithering across the floor when the children were out of sight hiding in some other part of the house.

I know many of you now have only older children and you are probably thankful you will not be having any more young ones. You would hate to have to repent and learn to play alligator. If you acted that way now, your children would be embarrassed. At this stage, you want to appear to be the mature and honored head of the household. Dignity and respect are rightfully your present ambition. But there is still something here you must see, and it has to do with attitude.

Most Embarrassing Moment

By the time the boys were four or five, they didn’t want to play alligator or sit in my lap anymore. But then I didn’t want them to; they usually smelled like a cross between a swamp and a dead snake factory. Furthermore their belts strung with throwing knives, slingshots, tomahawks, and canteens made holding them an uncomfortable experience.

The girls continued to sit in my lap until they got so big they knocked the wind out of me. I still remember my most embarrassing moment. Just mention it around the house and you can still induce ringing laughter. They often sat in my lap or stood behind my chair combing my beard or hair while I was reading or talking. My hair has never been long enough to braid, but my beard has been alternately plaited, French braided, put in a bun, and tied to my ears.

One day as I was walking through the grocery store, I noticed I was getting much more attention than usual. The men looked suspicious and steered clear of me, but one lady had the audacity to laugh. Being six feet, four inches tall and weighing 230 pounds, people don’t usually laugh at me. But to top it off, when I arrived home with the groceries, everyone exploded into belly-slapping laughter, including my wife. When I noticed them looking at my head, I ran my hand through my hair, encountering several objects fastening my hair into two-inch pony tails. I started pulling them out and discovered a whole sack of plastic, dollar-store hair clips. The chartreuse-colored butterflies and yellow daisies, pink panthers and purple plums really stand out when carefully woven into a bushy black beard, and mine was still ink-black at that time.

I suppose you think I felt dumb. Yes, but not as much as I did the second time they succeeded in pulling the same stunt. If you see me at a seminar and notice that I run my hand over my head and beard several times during the lecture, it is not nervousness or vanity, just a habit I picked up from my kids.

If you want to know what all this has to do with training children, then you need to read my first book, To Train Up a Child more than you know. These illustrations teach that some things are simply necessary if you want to raise happy, obedient children. It is these relaxed, joyous moments that are woven together to construct the fabric of an abundant life.