Raising Christian children (3)
One of the blessings of being an itinerant preacher is to live in other people’s homes. It is always interesting to see how others live, and the best way to find out is to live with their families.
It is also one of the best ways to see how people raise children. Living with the family gets behind the miracle of the church parking lot, where the tensions and conflicts of the early morning are instantly transformed into scenes of happy domesticity.
Some years ago I witnessed, close up, the saga of two families. Both fathers were ministers. They were in neighbouring parishes and their children were of similar ages. But the parenting style and family life could not have been more different.
A tale of two families
One family was ordered, organised, tidy, rule-keeping and quiet. The other family was warm, loudly extroverted, disorganised and even chaotic. This admitted over-simplification revealed a contrast between central planning and laissez-faire. Which was more virtuous? It depends on your theory of child-raising.
The first family taught personal responsibility and dutiful diligence. The children honoured their parents and were neither rebellious nor wild.
The second family was a place of personal encouragement. None of these children were provoked to discouragement (Colossians 3:21). They were allowed to enjoy their childhood as they explored the world in an open and honest development of their individual personalities.
As a temporary lodger in both homes, I was struck by the contrasting cultures. Yet I had as much joy in being in one as in the other, because both homes honoured Christ and were filled with genuine love and the wisdom of God’s Word. The joy of living an ordered life with one family was neither greater nor less than the fun of living in the rough and tumble of the other.
And the outcome of the child-raising was salutary. Both families had three children and today all are adults. Most are married and raising their own children. But the striking thing is that their Christian stance and well-balanced psychological health is indistinguishable. The different forms of child-raising seem to have had absolutely no effect.
Children are not toys
This raises several possibilities. Maybe child-raising patterns are not as important as we are commonly taught. Maybe biology and genes play a greater part than is politically correct to mention. Maybe deeper issues are at work than child-raising patterns. Maybe a sample of just two families tells us nothing.
However, the encouraging lesson for me is that Christian parents should have confidence in the Bible’s teaching and the fundamentals of living by God’s Word – rather than think there is some foolproof system of raising Christian children. The variables are far too great to impose some uniform technique.
Children are not toys. They are not even animals (though they can sometimes be beastly!). They are humans made in God’s image. Children have their own wills and minds, preferences and personalities. It is folly to imagine that we should, or could, mould them into exactly what we want. We have to respond to them as they do to us.
Furthermore, there are more parties involved in raising children than just one parent and one child – parties we cannot ultimately control. There is our spouse, whose experience of family life is different to ours. The child’s siblings and relatives have an influence.
There is the social environment, which varies not only between countries and cultures but also between generations. The environment in which I was raised was different to that in which I reared my children, and different again to the one in which my children are raising my grandchildren.
Then there is the influence of the child’s teachers, friends and neighbours – and of the church, its community of Christian families, its Sunday school teachers and its youth group leaders.
But even if we were to raise the child on a desert island there would be the problem of sinfulness – both ours and the child’s.
One strange aspect is the mistaken ‘loyalty’ of many Christian parents that means they do not expect, cope with or even acknowledge that their own child could be sinful. In their commitment to the positive humanism of modern society, they spring to their child’s defence and gullibly believe everything the child says – even though they know the human heart is deceitful and sinful.
On occasions our children lie to us – some more than others, perhaps, but all will do so at some time. Relationships are built on trust, so we have to believe our children, but we need to understand that our trust will sometimes be betrayed and they will try to deceive us.
The important thing about sinfulness is that, as Christian parents, we know how God has dealt with it and thus how we should deal with it. An unwillingness to accept sinful behaviour – while at the same time willingly forgiving those who repent and accepting the cost of their sins – sets a gospel way of life before our children.
Models for our children
So it is critical to teach our children the biblical principles concerning right and wrong, justice and retribution, atonement, repentance, forgiveness and pardon. But our teaching must be matched by our example – by the way we treat them, others and ourselves.
Our ability to model biblical repentance in our apologies to others is important for our children to see, especially when our sin has affected them. When parents repent and apologise to their children, the child is truly confronted by the message of reconciliation.
But modelling what we believe must extend to all aspects of our family life. Our examples of Bible reading and prayer, and the application in our lives of what God says, speak volumes to our children. The priority we give to Christian fellowship and ministering the gospel to others sets a pattern of life. Our generosity and hospitality teach them the way of Christian living.
Yet the most important part of this modelling is genuineness. For if families cannot hide from itinerant preachers when they come to stay, they certainly cannot hide from one another. Children will always read the hearts of their parents.