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The power of example

December 1997 | by J. C. Ryle

‘Train up a child in the way he should go.’Instructions, advice and commands will profit little unless they are backed up by the pattern of your own life. Your children will never believe you are in earnest and really wish them to obey you so long as your actions contradict your counsel. To give children good instructions and a bad example is but beckoning to them with the head to show them the way to heaven while we take them by the hand and lead them in the way to hell.

We little know the force and power of example. No one of us can live to himself in this world; we are always influencing those around us in one way or another, either for good or for evil, either for God or for sin. They see our ways, they mark our conduct, they observe our behaviour; and what they see us practise, that they may fairly suppose we think right. And never, I believe, does example tell so powerfully as it does in the case of parents and children.

Fathers and mothers, do not forget that children learn more by the eye than they do by the ear. Imitation is a far stronger principle with them than memory. What they see has a much stronger effect on their minds than what they are told. Take care, then, what you do before a child. It is a true proverb, ‘Who sins before a child sins double.’ Strive rather to be a living epistle of Christ, such as your families can read, and that plainly too. Be an example of reverence for the Word of God, reverence in prayer, reverence for means of grace, reverence for the Lord’s Day. Be an example in words, in temper, in diligence, in temperance, in faith, in love, in kindness, in humility. Think not your children will practise what they do not see you do. You are their model picture, and they will copy what you are. Your reasoning and your lecturing, your wise commands and your good advice – all this they may not understand, but they can understand your life.

Children are very quick observers, very quick in seeing through some kinds of hypocrisy, very quick in finding out what you really think and feel, very quick in adopting all your ways and opinions; and you will generally find that as the father is, so is the son. They will seldom learn habits which they see you despise nor walk in paths in which you do not walk yourself. He that preaches to his children what he does not practise is working a work that never goes forward; it is like the fabled web of Penelope, who wove all day and unwove all night. So you build with one hand and pull down with the other.