In this four-part series, Pastor Alan Hill considers what the Bible has to say about family life.
All in a panic, the two of you left home a few days earlier, but now three of you arrive back home. Wrapped up in a bundle is something amazing. Another miniature human, created from your own living cells. The big blue or brown eyes, the soft pink flesh, and above all those tiny perfect fingers!
What a responsibility! What a joy! But after a few weeks the thoughts become, What sleepless nights! What have we let ourselves in for?
Parenting is an awesome responsibility. No one feels prepared for it, yet we all cope. Why? Because God designed us to bear and raise children. It is in our genes.
Even those who don’t have children of their own usually have some contact with youngsters. It may be nieces, nephews, younger siblings, or even those in the church creche or Sunday school. We all need help in how to care for children. Thankfully, through the Bible God has left us an instruction manual providing the key elements of child rearing.
The foundations of child rearing
1. Your child is a gift
‘For you formed my inward parts; you covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; marvellous are your works, and that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in secret, and skilfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them’ (Psalm 139:13-16).
Your child is a loving gift to you from God himself. God gives life, and from the moment of conception, an independent being created in the image of God has come into existence.
One implication of this is that parents do not own their children.
Some parents seem to think of their child like a trophy they have won. They proudly display their little Johnny to their friends. Baby development can become competitive among parents: the first giggle, the first crawl, the first step, the first word.
But there is a great danger here. Your child is not some prize exhibit, but a unique individual.
Beware of the child becoming the centre of the home. Some families have become so child-centred that the child is at the centre! Such a child would discover on the first day of school that the universe does not revolve around them.
This is difficult, especially for new parents. The baby and its paraphernalia take over the house, with pushchairs, nappies, wipes, and baby clothes taking over every corner of space.
The baby must be taught that life does not revolve around them. Having routines helps: time for sleep, time for food, time for play.
This lesson is vital for another reason.
What is the most important human relationship in your home? Mother and child? No, mother and father. A child needs a strong marriage bond to both exist and be manifested by its parents.
Have you heard of ‘empty nest’ syndrome? Parents can become depressed when the children have grown up and moved out. Why? It is because the parents gave so much to the children that they had little to give each other.
2. Your child is a sinner
‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me’ (Psalm 51:5).
It is true that babies have a beautiful innocence about them. Yet, as parents, we soon learn a sobering truth. They have an in-built bias towards deceit and rebellion.
Did you ever have to teach your child how to do wrong? How to answer back? How to be selfish with toys? How to be demanding? How to hide something they’ve broken?
No. This bias is something that we have inherited from Adam and Eve.
Parents must be realistic. Even well-brought-up children can do the most awful things. We’re not surprised when we see a young fresh-faced teenager develop spots. We also shouldn’t be surprised if the spots of sin break out on children who have had even the godliest of upbringings.
2. Your child is special to God
‘Then little children were brought to him that he might put his hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven”’ (Matthew 19:13-14).
Parents may love their children, but God loves them more. He loves to see them cherished and cared for. He loves how they trust their parents. In fact, God wants us to have a childlike trust in him.
Because your child is precious to God, you must understand that you will answer to God for how you have brought up your child.
Jesus warns of severe consequences if we cause our children to fall into sin by our actions. ‘Whoever receives one little child like this in my name receives me. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea’ (Matthew 18:5-6).
What we teach our children about God, about living, about how to treat others, matters. We will answer to God for what we have said.
How we live in front of our children matters, and we generally teach more by example than by words. The parent who uses bad language should not be surprised if their child starts to swear. The parent who smokes should not be surprised if their child smokes.
We can show that we know our child is special to God by bringing him or her up using the principles of child rearing that God has given.
The principles of child rearing
‘Train up a child in the way he should go’ (Proverbs 22:6).
Our aim as parents is to help turn a helpless baby into a responsible adult, able to look after himself and be an upstanding member of society. How does this happen? Automatically by some kind of osmosis? No. It is by parents teaching the child.
As well as the practicalities of life (feeding, washing, dressing), we need to teach our children right from wrong, godliness from sinfulness. A good place to start is the ten commandments. Do your children know them?
Notice that eight of the ten are put in the negative ‘You shall not…’ Parents, don’t be afraid to follow suit and use that oh-so-special word no when instructing children.
Teach children the importance of the Lord’s day as a day of worship and of gathering with other Christians. Take your baby to church with you. As they grow, encourage them to take part by singing the hymns and following the Bible readings. When they’re old enough, why not help them follow the sermon by taking notes with them? They might start by underlining key points you’ve written using some coloured pencils.
For many years, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has campaigned for corporal punishment to be banned. They have done this for the best of motives. Physical abuse of some children by their parents is a tragic fact of life.
But not all corporal punishment is abusive and wrong. Look at what the Word of God says: ‘Do not withhold correction from a child, for if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell’ (Proverbs 23:13-14).
The Bible tells us again and again that discipline correctly applied is good for the child. In fact, the cruelty lies in the omission of discipline. Imagine just looking on while your child plays by railway lines.
Why are so many children badly behaved? Why are schools struggling to cope? Because proper discipline is not administered in the home.
Parents must bear in mind the purpose of discipline. It is not an outlet for your anger or frustration. It is to help train a child in the way he should go. Discipline is for the child’s benefit.
Picture a young toddler that has to learn they must not pull off the leaves of the plants. You tell the child ‘No!’ with a firm voice.
The child looks at you and understands, but still disobeys. What is the best course of action? A small smack on the hand. The child is brought up short. The child cries. You explain, ‘When I say no, it means no! Do not touch the plant!’ The child learns a lesson. On you go to the next one!
Parents, know that the Bible authorises you to administer a smack. Smacking is not the only form of discipline, but it is certainly one of the most effective.
You can discipline in other ways: denying the child a treat or imposing some activity as a punishment such as clearing up the mess they have made. But parents throughout history will testify that a short, sharp smack works.
‘These words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up’ (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).
We have seen that good communication is a theme running right through our series on the family. Good communication leads to a happy home and a long-lasting marriage. Good communication is also essential to child rearing.
Setting the rules and disciplining is not enough. In the musical The Sound of Music, the von Trapp children are drilled firmly by their father, but behind his back they are rebels! There’s an old saying that says, ‘Rules without relationship lead to rebellion.’
We need to cultivate and develop warm relationships with our children. We should aim that by the time they are eighteen years old, you are the best of friends rather than sworn enemies!
Tragically, the teenage years can become a battle ground for parents. Why? It is usually down to poor communication.
How can you improve communication? There are four ways:
i. Explain the rules
You must be clear in what the rules are. You cannot punish a toddler for breaking your lovely glass vase if you haven’t explained ‘Do not touch’ to the child.
How can you be cross with your teenager who buys a most inappropriate short skirt if you have not sat down and explained about modesty in dress and agreed some ground rules?
ii. Be consistent
This is so important and yet so hard. If you say you cannot have sweets as you go round the supermarket, then do not change your mind and give in, however strong the temptation.
The child must learn that, with you, yes means yes and no means no. Give in once and the child will constantly try to make you give in again.
We used to have a cat. Sometimes I gave the cat a tidbit of leftover food, much to the annoyance of other family members (our cat had a propensity to be sick soon afterwards). Now it might go for days without being given any food, yet after every meal it would follow me to the bin ‘just in case’.
Children do the same. They will pester you ‘just in case’ you will change your mind! Don’t give in and reveal inconsistency (unless you were genuinely mistaken first time round).
Ephesians 6:4 instructs fathers not to provoke their children to wrath. One of the main ways we do that is by being inconsistent. Children have a strong black and white sense of right and wrong. Nothing winds up a teenager more than inconsistent parenting.
If you make a mistake, own up to your child. How will they learn to say sorry to you and God if they never hear you say sorry to them and God when you wrong them?
iii. Talk and listen
Real communication is about speaking, listening, and then speaking having already listened.
You must teach this to children. Perhaps so many children struggle to pay attention these days partly because of too much television (which does not require a response) and not enough good old-fashioned talking and listening?
Start and encourage conversations. Tell them stories, play listening games, give even the youngest children tasks to do around the home.
Be ready at any time and in any place to communicate. That awkward question in the car on the way to school is important. When they come into the kitchen and ask what you are cooking, when they come into a room and ask what you are reading, take time to stop and explain.
iv. Spend time with them
It is a great mistake to think that what matters is quality time. What matters is quantity time. Time when perhaps very little happens.
Make mealtimes family times – not round the TV but round a table. Jesus did much of his talking around a dinner table, and so should we. Get them involved in cooking and clearing up afterwards.
Play hide and seek with your children; talk to them about their toys; build towers out of Lego; turn bath time into game time. As they grow up, play board games with them. Take them for bike rides. Or just sit around in the garden with them on a summer afternoon. Be creative!
Our children still remember the games we invented, all of which bonded us together as a family. I can still fondly recall playing Tenners, Cannies, and Sack of Coals. (Sorry, but these only mean anything to four readers!)
We have considered three foundations of child-rearing and three principles of child-rearing. We finish with the one great aim of child-rearing.
As said earlier, children are born sinners. The saddest thing that can happen to them is if they die a sinner, because then they will face God in judgment. Wonderfully, God has provided for sinners whereby they may be changed and forgiven. God has provided a way for us to escape hell and go to heaven.
It involved God becoming a child, growing up and living a normal life. That child was the Lord Jesus Christ. It involved that child becoming a man and giving his life unselfishly for others.
Consider the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.’
I’m not suggesting that we can ‘instruct’ children into the kingdom, but as a parent you must above all teach your child the way to be saved. Teach them that they must say sorry to God and trust in the Lord Jesus to be forgiven.
How awful if you brought up your child to be a fine upstanding member of society who then, after death, spent eternity paying for their sins!
God loves children, but above all he loves children to be saved. Do you?
Alan Hill, Pastor of Lausanne Free Church, Switzerland.