“Your job as a parent is to make your child socially desirable by the age of four.”
—Dr. Jordan Peterson
I wish I had constructed that sentence. I have expressed the same sentiment a hundred ways, though never so succinctly and precisely. Jordan Peterson is not a professing believer in Jesus Christ. He is a sincere and thoughtful clinical psychologist who demonstrates great insight into human nature. He sees many emotionally twisted adults who have difficulty functioning normally. He recognizes the source of most adult maladjustment as beginning in the first four years of life.
The Word of God offers the solution: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Children come into the world untrained, uncultured, geared toward complete selfishness. It is the parents’ duty to train up a child in the way he should go. Otherwise he will go his own way. And “a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15).
I have often said, “What a child is at four he will be at forty.” If by four years of age you have not molded the little ones to be happy and thankful, creative and positive, they will have problems for the rest of their lives. The arrow is aimed in those early years, its trajectory determined. Later in life they may exercise their free wills to practice self-denial and persistently reject those natural tendencies imparted in the first four years, but they will always be like the alcoholic that must make an effort to stay “on the wagon” of right thinking and doing. An unthankful four-year-old will be an unthankful adult, or an adult that must put forth an effort to express thankfulness. I have lived long enough to see this reality demonstrated in several generations.
Dr. Peterson put it so well: “. . . make your child socially desirable . . .” That is the perfect objective test of our parenting. When people who know your child seek him out to carry on a conversation and you see their satisfied grin and absolute delight at his manner, you have made him “socially desirable.” When you are proud to take your three- or four-year-old into adult company, never fearing he will embarrass you, it is because you know he is socially desirable. “A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother” (Proverbs 10:1).
Many times I have observed the results of poor parenting in the father/son relationship. A syndrome begins by about age four as the father negatively reacts to his son’s foolish manner. The father is disappointed and pushes his son away with criticism and rejection. The son’s foolishness increases, and by the time he is ten years old there is obvious open hostility. A stern, commanding father may establish a regime where the son is tacitly obedient, but his obedience is that of a servant, not a son. The time will come when the “servant” will become obstinate and express open rebellion. “A servant will not be corrected by words: for though he understand he will not answer” (Proverbs 29:19). “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Any time a child is provoked to wrath, it is the fault of the parenting style.
Mother sees the harm being done to the son, and, in a misguided attempt to bring balance, swings the pendulum in the opposite direction. She overindulges her son and excuses his foolishness as she seeks to protect him. As the child bounces between two harmful extremes he is the recipient of a well-rounded, social misfit upbringing.
There are many degrees of poor parenting—and of good parenting as well. No parent is so balanced as to perfectly train up a child. Life throws many curveballs and none of us are so wise and attentive as to hit every ball out of the park for the benefit of our children. We win or lose in various degrees. We just hope in some measure to be on the winning side for the sake of our children. I think all parents leave their children unfinished in various measures. When children become adults they must perfect their flaws and hone their gifts to become all they can be. Those who don’t will pass on their flaws to the next generation.
We can be certain that we will leave our children with plenty of distance to travel to reach perfection. There comes a time when the parental umbilical cord is cut and they take charge of their own lives. What we instill by four years of age will be the foundation of all we attempt thereafter and the foundation on which they will continue to build their lives. A well-laid foundation will extend into all future generations, as will one poorly laid. God said of Abraham, “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (Genesis 18:19). God chose Abraham because of his parenting skills. Wow! Read that again.
Enough of the negative. We must understand the road carelessly traveled that brought us to desolate parenting if we are to avoid the same mistake with the next child. Furthermore, though a child’s character and temperament are formed by the time he is four years old, if we understand the principles, there is much we can do to train the older child to “refuse the evil, and choose the good” (Isaiah 7:15). We can partner with our children, even the arrows poorly aimed, to walk in truth and make the right choices based on a love of righteousness. It is a steeper road than the one we could have traveled before they were four, but a road many have successfully climbed. “Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul”(Proverbs 29:17).
So, on the practical side, how do we make our children socially desirable by the time they are four years old? I can best answer that with real-life examples. It has been so long since I had children I have forgotten most of my experiences, but every day I see fresh examples of little ones being trained up in the way they should go. My youngest daughter, Shoshanna, living nearby, is a beautiful example of excellent child training. Her four children range in age from a boy sixteen to a one-year-old girl. In her training I see some recycling of the way we trained her and some new or different ways that are her own creation.
A parent must relate to his child the same way God relates to his children: law, love, instruction, provision, fellowship, chastisement, grace, and forgiveness, all in a spirit of good will with a common shared hope for the future. The list is not chronological; all things occur simultaneously. Such a list can seem overwhelming, and it would take another book to cover the subject; so I will sum it up: the most important aspect of child training is not the technique; it is the spirit of the parent. Having the Holy Spirit indwell a parent may be the only way to be an effective child trainer.
Children are properly reared by excessive eye-to-eye contact. When a child can look in your eyes and see approval, it relieves the tension and independence that leads to rebellion. When you make fellowship the rule of the day, children become addicted to it. Your unreserved joy in their very existence, in their presence, in everything they do becomes their daily manna from heaven. Children who feel your absolute good will and devotion do not want to do anything to mar that spirit of joy and communion.
When you can cultivate a state where the spirit of the child is always willing, you will still come up against the reality that the flesh is indeed weak. The world is full of competing lusts, and the body of the child grows into ever-increasing passions. So the parent is always competing for attention and relevance. The older they get, the less power we have. They must be trained and conditioned to right thinking and acting before the need of correction arises. When the flesh of the child rises up to mar the fellowship, and we discover the child is incubating a little of the devil, we must not allow the aberration in attitude to rob us of that fellowship, for our power is that communion upon which they have come to depend. The danger is that insecure, impatient parents with a dictatorial spirit may take personal offense to the child’s untoward behavior and rush to crush resistance. When fellowship is broken, all that is left is constraint, intimidation, fear, and bullying.
It takes a lot of time to be an effective parent. It is a full-time job. I observe that Shoshanna never puts her children aside when she is working in the home. The little ones are always sitting on the countertop when she is cooking, usually covered in flour or the like. Every dish served has been combed by little fingers. The kids are proud of meals because the two-year-old knows that she has prepared a meal for the family. All housework involves the kids. All cleanup. They love to read a book with you. When I go to the house (at least twice a day) the little one will hand me a book. She doesn’t expect all the excitement of a visit to stop so we can read. It is just an automatic impulse to express fellowship. I look at the book, turn one page and say, “Wow, that is a big lizard.” She grins in satisfaction and walks off with the book. She has greeted me, I have acknowledged her pleasure, and she is satisfied.
There are rare times when a child’s will is thwarted and they express displeasure with a screwed up face and maybe a trembling lip. Shoshanna never ignores such a display. All conversation stops until the child is in fellowship with the family and guests. She speaks in her “I mean business” voice, which is alarming even to me, and says something like Solomon that addresses the issue: “You know that is not yours; it is hers. So dry it up and be thankful for your sister. Give her a kiss and tell her you love her. Now give Mommy a kiss. Give Big Papa a kiss. Now give teddy a kiss. But don’t kiss the cat; he is nasty.” By now the little fellow has forgotten his grievance and is smiling with all the fun and humorous attention. Only once or twice have I seen one of her children act in a way that required a swat or two to get their attention and convince them she means business. Our book To Train Up a Child goes into more detail on disciplining children, a subject too big for this article.
You ask, “How will it work out when they are older?” Her oldest child is Jeremiah, now sixteen, and he is the most stable teen you will ever meet. His confidence level is off the charts. He is highly intelligent, a competitive conversationalist on politics and world affairs. He takes full responsibility to help raise the younger children and will no doubt make an excellent father someday if the Lord tarries. Moms, it is too early to bring your daughters around. I talked to Jeremiah about it and he says, “Wait another month.”
This is a subject dear to my heart. About twenty-eight years ago we wrote the best-selling book To Train Up a Child. It sold well over a million copies in English, with many additional copies in a dozen foreign languages. Tens of thousands of parents credit it with saving their children, some with saving their marriage, and a few with saving their souls. The biblical truth of it was so offensive to the leftist progressives, especially to the sodomite crowd, that they came against it with lies, even to national news outlets. We received death threats from homosexuals. But the ministry just increased many times over and continues to do so. If you are a young parent and have not read To Train Up a Child, you should get a copy before it becomes illegal to publish biblically based child training material.
Proverbs 22:15 Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.
Proverbs 19:18 Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.
Colossians 3:21 Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.
2 Timothy 3:15 And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. Proverbs 15:20 A wise son maketh a glad father: but a foolish man despiseth his mother.
21 Folly is joy to him that is destitute of wisdom: but a man of understanding walketh uprightly.