Too many parents think in terms of “getting their kids saved” rather than “saving their kids”. One carries the idea of evangelism and happens in the miracle of a moment, while the other involves an extended period of character formation (instruction, discipline, etc. . .) and lays the foundation for the kind of person and Christian it is possible for them to become. The former is obviously crucial to the well-being of their eternal soul, but so is the latter! As Wesleyans, we believe that prevenient grace covers the hearts of our children until they reach an age of accountability. So when it came to children, John Wesley strongly advocated that an emphasis be placed on Christian instruction, discipline and training rather than childhood conversion experiences. He was not implying that we should not give our children an opportunity to appropriate and experience the love of God for themselves, but rather he was stressing the importance of the kind of childhood character formation that makes for great saints and responsible citizens.
I have watched this play out in real life. Parents, who by willful negligence or by ignorance, fail in their role of parenting and then pray desperately for a miraculous conversion are in for a bittersweet moment. Even if “bad boy Brad” does finally get converted, he will so badly lack the necessary character needed to be a real man of God and a productive citizen that he will have to face life with a certain level of dysfunction. In the last 30 years I have preached to and counseled with thousands of teens and young adults in camps, conferences and schools. I have yet to meet any that had Solomonic wisdom or angelic perfection, but I have been privileged to meet many wonderful kids. The kind of young person that made me say, “Your parents did something right!” I have also met some kids along the way that lacked the basic character training necessary to be responsible, respectful, truthful, and productive. In comparing the two groups, and all the individuals that fall in between, I have searched for the single most significant reason that has made the difference. I am convinced that a large part of the answer is parenting.
It is not my intention to put parents on a guilt trip, or to blame them for behavior that is clearly the result of the exercise of free will. But I do want to remind parents of the responsibility that belongs solely to them in the child rearing process. There is a period of time in the growing up process that a parent can shape the character, attitude and behavior of a child. If that formative work is missed, it is next to impossible to “insert” it later on! I am keenly aware that not all children are endowed equally with the same temperament, learning ability, and giftedness. But the ground is level when it comes to building character. Character and subsequent behavior is a personal responsibility that begins with Mom and Dad in the very early years of a child’s life. Character is molded and developed in the home and cemented by the choices one makes every day. One’s peers do not mold one’s character. They may well influence one’s decisions, but they do not form one’s character; they can only test and reveal what is there. Character is not really an environmental issue. I have watched as quality parenting has raised quality kids in situations that were far from ideal. I have also watched as poor parenting has produced problem kids in environments that offered every advantage.
If in fact this period of character formation is so important, shouldn’t there be certain well-defined traits that a parent should focus on? I think so! The list will no doubt vary from person to person but I believe that list must have the following “Big Four.”
In a recent search for Biblical passages on parenting, I discovered that the passages that do speak directly to parenting were divided equally among the subjects of discipline and instruction. What I also found was that all of these passages pointed to one thing: obedience! The formation of character through discipline and instruction is for the purpose of obedience. Once a child understands that he must obey and that he must do so with a willing attitude, then you scarcely have to teach him anything else! Once he knows he must obey, you can simply “ask” him to do whatever it is that you need or want him to do and he will do it. When a child has learned to obey willingly, then your discipline will be cut to a minimum and you can spend the vast majority of your time teaching, nurturing and forming that little one into the kind of man or woman you want them to be!
Responsibility slides off children like water slides off a duck’s back. There is no real mystery to this since the idea that you are responsible for things is not native to children. The realization of responsibility comes only with much training as children develop. Furthermore, children like to engage in fun things. Responsibility is tedious and boring to a child. The parental commands to, “clean your room, make your bed, put your things away and do your homework” are certainly not exciting or fun. It takes a lot of discipline and maturity to learn how to manage doing what is not fun and staying on task until the job is completed – this is where good parenting comes in.
Most parents tell their children the things they ought to be doing on a daily basis. However, the most important part is not just about giving the commands; it’s about how the parent responds when the child doesn’t do what they are told to do. In other words, the parent has to make sure the child does what he is told. This promotes accountability. You have to hold kids accountable for not meeting their responsibilities. Being held accountable requires that the parent make the consequence for not meeting the responsibility less pleasant than if the child had completed the task in the first place. And that act of being held accountable promotes a willingness to meet the responsibilities next time. Failure to hold the child accountable teaches the child that his complaining, whining, blaming others, excuse making and even lying works for him in his effort not to take responsibility for himself or his behavior.
Dr. Ruth Peters, psychologist and author of Overcoming Underachieving says: “Daily in my practice I see parents who have made the mistake of not taking the time and attention to teach their children to be workers and achievers. These kids have learned to settle for less rather than to face and challenge adversity, to become whiners rather than creative problem solvers, and to blame others for perceived slights and lack of success”.
One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is the intentional investment of our time in teaching them how to have a healthy work ethic. As someone has said, “the job fairy isn’t going to come in the middle of the night and sprinkle work ethic dust on your child”. A love for work must be taught as well as caught! This means we set the example of showing them what a love for work looks like but it also means we let them learn by trial and error. The old adage that says, “if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” will have to be permanently banned from your thinking if you are serious about teaching your children how to work. Every mother knows that it takes less time to clean the bathroom herself than it does with her “helpers” working alongside. But little helpers can only learn by watching and doing!
Developing a healthy work ethic by the time our kids are adults, means that we must start at an early age. One way to do that is to assign our kids age appropriate regular chores. Young children can put away laundry, make a bed and pick up toys. Older kids can vacuum, rake leaves, take out the trash, wash the car, cut the grass, etc. . . . When kids see work as a normal part of life, they spend less time grumbling and more time learning to enjoy the jobs assigned to them. Holding our kids accountable to complete their assigned task and to do those task well, is extremely important. It lays the groundwork for the kind of person that not only does good work but exceeds the expectations of a teacher or an employer.
Parents should be generous with praise for a job well done but should never give false praise for a job poorly done. If the job is done well, praise them for the job done. If it is done poorly, but with great effort, praise them for the effort. If it is done poorly and little effort was made to do it right, no praise should be forthcoming. Furthermore, parents should never say to their kids, “Johnny you can do anything.” Why? For the simple reason they can’t. Be real with your kids. Let them know that it takes time and experience to accomplish some things well.
Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” By offering our kids a healthy perspective on work, and teaching them how not to fear it, we free them to succeed in almost anything they do.
Respect is an attitude of admiration or esteem towards others, oneself and one’s possessions. In today’s world, where disrespect is so pervasive, we cannot expect our children to learn how to respect others through normal social interaction at school and play. Nevertheless, we can teach our kids this critical value. One of the most effective ways to do so is to model it. But beyond walking the walk, there are plenty of simple strategies you can use to instill in your kids crucial lessons in kindness, consideration, honesty, open-mindedness, and gratitude – all of which grow out of respect!
One of the most fundamental ways to show respect for someone, and to let them know you value them, is to give them your time and full attention. This is easy to model and teach. Setting boundaries is another way to teach our kids how to respect authority and to let them know the world doesn’t revolve around them. Making sure their actions have consequences is a way to teach our children to consider how their deeds and words impact others. Teach your child basic social interaction skills. It may sound old fashioned, but it’s very important to teach your child basic manners like saying “please” and “thank you.”
Parenting is not for the faint of heart, but it can also be one of the greatest joys a man and woman can experience. To willfully not do our best, is to commit a terrible wrong that can cripple a child for the rest of their life. There is a story in American literature that tells of a little girl whose mother had died. Her father would come home from work and just sit down, read his paper, and ignore the child. The little girl would come in and ask him to play with her for a little while because she was lonely. He told her he was tired, to let him be at peace. He told her to go out into the street and play if she wanted to play. So, she played on the streets. The inevitable happened. She took to the streets. The years passed on and she died. Her soul arrived in heaven. Peter saw her and said to Jesus, “Master, here’s a girl who was a bad lot. I suppose we send her straight to hell?” “No,” said Jesus gently, “let her in.” And then His eyes grew stern as He said, “But look for a man who refused to play with his little girl and sent her out to the streets and send him to hell.”