Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
Jesus said to suffer the little children to come unto him, and forbid them not, for such is the kingdom of God. I have spent a lifetime working with children, mostly nine and ten year olds, and I am still a bit amazed by the readiness with which a child receives the gospel. I have eight grandchildren, and each of them I found wonderfully open to things which would help them to know God. I believe that this openness, this readiness is what our Lord refers to when he says “for such is the kingdom of God.” Elsewhere, the Lord reminds us, “Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).
As a society, I think we often recognize this preciousness of the young child, and though the nine and ten year olds that I teach have begun to lose their “very young preciousness”, there is still much to see and appreciate that is just so wonderful. As a teacher in his last weeks, I am grateful to God that he allowed me to spend so many rich years in the company of young children. They have kept me young in so many ways (I learned to solve the Rubik’s Cube this year!). The Bible gives us much direction in raising children, but what specifically does it mean when it says we ought to train up a child in the way he should go?
As a teacher, my heart aches when I deal with children of split custody homes, or worse, homes broken completely, without the benefit of a mom or a dad. The children often are finding an equilibrium in my class, and some wonderful adaptations happen all the time. Still, I look down the road for those children, and my heart aches for the basic fundamental way that they perceive the world. Without regard for finding fault, or attaching blame, children of motherless or fatherless families, or children with an abundance of three fathers or mothers, will never gain a “normal” view of relationships.
Often we in the church teach that we should appreciate our heavenly father as we appreciate our earthly fathers. More than once I have had adults come to me explaining that their earthly fathers were horrible abusers, and asking how to gain a good view of a benevolent Father in heaven. It is not that salvation is not offered to all such people; if I read my Bible correctly salvation is offered to all. But those with a severely distorted image of their mother or their father will have such a more difficult time in coming to Christ, in seeing the goodness of God.
It would seem to me to be a fundamental mistake to talk about this verse without mentioning that it is so important that the essentials be met in the family. My heart aches for the parents who have experienced divorce and are trying desperately to give some sense of normal to a child in that context. It is not uncommon for me to see children who go to two different homes, with one home supporting the school homework model, and the other neglecting it. Often these children have to manage two different backpacks, and made decisions several days in advance anticipating their schedule changes. It is a wonder to me that some do it so efficiently! Yet many struggle. I have had situations with children in more than two custody situations—often with a loving grandmother in the background. Home rotation is an excuse for late homework, or long term assignments are left at the wrong home. When I as a teacher ask the right questions I realize the responsibility of such children is at least double that of the ordinary child. They must find strength from themselves, at an age when most of them have barely mastered the ABCs, or the multiplication tables.
I wonder what the outcome will be for these children, but then I look at forty and fifty year old adults who reflect deep distrust of long term relationships that originates in the decades past problems of their own mothers and fathers. They seem to have problems maintaining long term relationships themselves, and thus the weakness of the parents is endowed to the children. It is because of family decline that many prophecy the complete decline of American society.
How would I advise such parents? All such parents often reach the same conclusion. They must begin with the basics. Find that relationship with God. Make it fundamental—strip all priorities aside and begin living with Christ as the Lord of your whole life. Often I see someone bereft of their spouse with everything already stripped away. They are hurting—hurt bad enough to jettison a lot of the baggage that stops us from following God. But that is just the beginning of perhaps a decade of rebuilding the broken.
The children are understandably broken when families fracture. Often we teachers see children lose a year or more in education. Instead of paying attention to the classroom and the lessons being taught, their little heads are filled with all the confusion and trauma of what has happened to them. They begin to fall behind, and do not take the time to absorb the new steps, and sometimes do not have the reinforcement that is so important coming from home. This is the time for “acting out”, expressing the frustration that is filling their hearts. Parents readily get this without having to be told—I see situation after situation where a compassionate parent is working to shore up the deficiencies showing up in the child. Often well-meaning school counselors intrude at this point and diagnose the child with ADD, when the parent should know it is the frustration of their life which is not unfolding in the way they had expected. Many millions of children have been diagnosed thus, when a central focus on the basics of life is what their little hearts are really crying out for.
Which brings me back to the question: how are we to train up a child in the way he should go? In these cases the answers are varied with the ages of the children. One bit of advice is that if you make a big sudden change over to following Christ do not expect your child to automatically and quickly follow, particularly if it is an older child. One does not usually change overnight—if you stop for a moment and consider, it took years for you to follow Christ. Give your child time to consider what you are doing and thinking. More evangelism takes place by parent’s examples than we might expect, and it is not here the spoken word that wins, but rather the deed. Take pains to let your faith be known, but also take care not to make your child feel uncomfortable and pressured to change. Be prayerful, for it is the Lord who softened your heart, and it is to the Lord that we must go if we expect to see change in our child.
To those who are blessed with a cohesive family the answer is easier. Never stop doing the things that you are doing—Bible classes, church attendance, and all the rest. Along with it, be sure to fill the house with Bible stories that are read often, with prayer and devotions in which the child participates. Over all, bathe the children in prayer. It was my earnest prayer that both my children come to Christ at an early age, and they both did. It was my earnest prayer that they both meet that someone special who was devoted to God, and they both did. We do have a God who is concerned for us, and when we present our own children to him in prayer, we have every confidence that he loves them more than we do.
I cannot leave this topic without reflecting on a special meaning that some have given to this verse. I do not think the meaning is present in the verse, but I agree with the philosophy behind it. Years ago, I seem to remember James Dobson teaching this on the radio—but my memory being on it is, I cannot say for certain. Dobson taught a very useful meaning to the verse. We should look for things that our child finds suitable, and when we find them, then perhaps we have found a characteristic that needs building. In other words, if we find that the child is particularly interested in scientific things, then we should work to awaken that interest. If he is musically inclined, then we ought to do what we can to see those interests enhanced. In short, child-reading then becomes a life-long process where we help the child to find fulfillment. Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.
I think the verse studied is not meant to be that wide in its interpretation—but what a wonderful thing it would be to seek to give to our children. In the busy-ness of life, I think the Bible is remonstrating us to take care of the basic teachings that are so important: knowledge of the gospel, a readiness to take things to God in prayer, to respect their fellow man. If we teach them to fear God and love their fellow man, we have accomplished much.