One particularly gifted young athlete played for several years on my Youth Baseball team that I coached. He had a mother and father who were both lawyers. At least one of them came to most of the games. He was a very emotional boy, and it was necessary to establish with him at the beginning of the first year that I would be doing the decision-making for the team. After that, except for several crying episodes when he didn’t get his own way, the boy caused no problems. However, because of his emotional instability, he was not coming close to his very considerable athletic potential.
In discussing his situation with his father, who wanted his son to excel, I encouraged him that, if he could work with his son to control himself emotionally and to gain confidence in and develop his skills, he had the potential to be a very good baseball player. His response was typical of several fathers who told me basically the same thing over the eight years that I coached: “You talk to him. He won’t listen to a thing I say.”
What a tragedy when a father believes his teen-aged son’s baseball coach probably has more influence with his boy than he does. As this young man was a child, I am sure his dad did not know that he had, not only the right before God, but also the responsibility, to make his son listen to him and then make him do what he told him to do. Not having used his first weapon in his arsenal initially, controlling his child, now, as a young adult, his son would not listen to him.
Not being able to help him learn the game of baseball was relatively insignificant, but I knew at the time that he would not be of much help to his son in the game of life either. The boy was the best athlete on the team, and was good at any sport he tried. Yet, by the time he reached high school, he was into drugs and heavy metal music instead of sports, and didn’t even attempt to go out for any of the school’s athletic teams. The last time I saw him, he was about 22, and was just starting to try to get his life back together.
This young man had never been forced to do anything he didn’t want to do. His parents had never crossed him, and as a result, when it was time for his father to teach him, he did not respect his father enough to listen and learn. It is a fact of life that we are very seldom willing to learn from anyone we do not respect. Children do not respect parents who have not ruled well over them. Oh, they may “love” their parents, or get to a point that they no longer give them trouble. But they will consider their parents to be essentially irrelevant, and they will learn the basic issues of life from someone else whom they respect.
During the control phase of child training, very little teaching is necessary or even advisable. Nothing is more frustrating than to see a grown man or woman trying to get little Johnny to do something, like brushing his teeth, by reasoning with him. Explaining to a five-year-old about the long-term effects of tooth decay is ludicrous. The issue is that the parent wants Johnny to brush his teeth every night before he goes to bed. Johnny does not need to know or understand why, nor does he really even care. He simply must learn to obey.
Even to an older child who refuses to obey until he gets an explanation, no explanations should be given, because he is still in rebellion. The divine order is, “Obey first, and then, if you are still interested, I’ll tell you why” (John 7:17). Most questions from children are simply attempts to evade the obligation of “obey your parents,” not an indication of a sincere desire to understand.
However, once rebellion is broken, it is mandatory that older children begin to know why certain standards are expected. If the parents have ruled well, the child’s mind is open to absorb and assimilate the family standards. Then they should be given reasons why—”Our family does this. This is why you are expected to do it as well. You are a member of our family.”
Pride of family identity is a good thing, and will help the child to withstand pressures that would tear him away from loyalty to the family and its vision. However, if a father continually answers, in response to the non-rebellious child’s questioning, “Because I told you so,” he will eventually lose that child’s respect. That son or daughter will be vulnerable to being captured by wolves that want to split him or her away from the protection the family provides by reasonable, but unbiblical and harmful information.
If the child is ready to obey, then the question is genuine and should be answered. If there is no good answer, the parent should rescind the command.
There is no distinct time when controlling ends and teaching begins. When the child is very young, child training is all control. When he is a teen, and not rebellious, it is all teaching. During the intervening years, controlling hopefully is becoming less and less necessary as the child learns submission to parental authority, and teaching becomes more and more possible.
Teaching does not occur only at formal times during school and the family devotions. The best times for the children to learn are as they face daily life with their parents. Each decision, each crisis, each victory, and each defeat, is the opportunity for the child to watch his parents, and learn godly character as they provide “show and tell” for him. This is the child’s primary source of instruction.
Who knows what the “model” is demonstrating for them during extended periods of day-care or while being kept by others. This makes teaching them much more difficult, but not impossible. You can see that teaching occurs constantly, even when the child is very young. But the bulk of it will be communicated as the child reaches a level of maturity and freedom from rebellion.
Once rebellion is broken, what character qualities should parents attempt to build into their children? With no goal, the children of parents who have controlled them will learn, more or less by osmosis, the character of their parents, or whomever they are with on a daily basis. If the parents have not controlled their children, the children will absorb the character of the peer group with which they identify, and the leaders whom they admire. Since parenting is not an exact science, both of these options are operative, in varying degrees, in the lives of most children.
Just as it is difficult for a rebellious parent to teach a child not to be rebellious, it is also very hard to inculcate the following character qualities in a child when the parents do not possess these themselves. Learning new tricks, if you are an old dog, is not easy, but not impossible.
As we were learning this biblical information together with our fellow church members years ago, we referred to the acronym READ as a basis for our teaching of character to our children: Respect for authority, Esteem others as better than yourself , Admit when you are wrong, and Diligence in all things.
Next week, we will discuss these four biblical character traits in detail and how to we can build them into our children’s lives.