“Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6)
I suppose that most professing Christians are acquainted with the text at the head of this page. The sound of it is probably familiar to your ears, like an old tune. It is likely you have heard it, or read it, talked of it, or quoted it, many a time. Is it not so?
But, after all, how little is the substance of this text regarded! The doctrine it contains appears scarcely known, the duty it puts before us seems fearfully seldom practised. Reader, do I not speak the truth? It cannot be said that the subject is a new one. The world is old, and we have the experience of nearly 6,000 years to help us. We live in days when there is a mighty zeal for education in every quarter. We hear of new schools rising on all sides. We are told of new systems, and new books for the young, of every sort and description. And still for all this, the vast majority of children are manifestly not trained in the way they should go, for when they grow up to man’s estate, they do not walk with God. Now how shall we account for this state of things? The plain truth is, the Lord’s commandment in our text is not regarded, and therefore the Lord’s promise in our text is not fulfilled.
Reader, these things may well give rise to great searchings of heart. Suffer then a word of exhortation from a minister about the right training of children. Believe me, the subject is one that should come home to every conscience, and make every one ask himself the question, “Am I in this matter doing what I can?”
It is a subject that concerns almost all. There is hardly a household that it does not touch. Parents, nurses, teachers, godfathers, godmothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters—all have an interest in it. Few can be found, I think, who might not influence some parent in the management of his family, or affect the training of some child by suggestion or advice. All of us, I suspect, can do something here, either directly or indirectly, and I wish to stir up all to bear this in remembrance.
It is a subject, too, on which all concerned are in great danger of coming short of their duty. This is pre-eminently a point in which men can see the faults of their neighbours more clearly than their own. They will often bring up their children in the very path which they have denounced to their friends as unsafe. They will see motes in other men’s families and overlook beams in their own. They will be quick sighted as eagles in detecting mistakes abroad, and yet blind as bats to fatal errors which are daily going on at home. They will be wise about their brother’s house, but foolish about their own flesh and blood. Here, if anywhere, we have need to suspect our own judgement. This, too, you will do well to bear in mind.1
Come now, and let me place before you a few hints about right training. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost bless them, and make them words in season to you all. Reject them not because they are blunt and simple; despise them not because they contain nothing new. Be very sure, if you would train children for heaven, they are hints that ought not to be lightly set aside.
1. First, then, if you would train your children rightly, train them in the way they should go, and not in the way that they would
Remember children are born with a decided bias towards evil, and therefore if you let them choose for themselves, they are certain to choose wrong. The mother cannot tell what her tender infant may grow up to be—tall or short, weak or strong, wise or foolish he may be any of these things or not—it is all uncertain. But one thing the mother can say with certainty: he will have a corrupt and sinful heart. It is natural to us to do wrong. “Foolishness,” says Solomon, “is bound in the heart of a child” (Prov 22:15). “A child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Prov 29:15). Our hearts are like the earth on which we tread: let it alone, and it is sure to bear weeds. If, then, you would deal wisely with your child, you must not leave him to the guidance of his own will. Think for him, judge for him, act for him, just as you would for one weak and blind; but for pity’s sake, give him not up to his own wayward tastes and inclinations. It must not be his likings and wishes that are consulted. He knows not yet what is good for his mind and soul any more than what is good for his body. You do not let him decide what he shall eat, and what he shall drink, and how he shall be clothed. Be consistent and deal with his mind in like manner. Train him in the way that is scriptural and right, and not in the way that he fancies.
If you cannot make up your mind to this first principle of Christian training, it is useless for you to read any further. Self-will is almost the first thing that appears in a child’s mind; and it must be your first step to resist it.
2. Train up your child with all tenderness, affection, and patience. I do not mean that you are to spoil him, but I do mean that you should let him see that you love him
Love should be the silver thread that runs through all your conduct. Kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, forbearance, patience, sympathy, a willingness to enter into childish troubles, a readiness to take part in childish joys—these are the cords by which a child may be led most easily—these are the clues you must follow if you would find the way to his heart. Few are to be found, even among grown-up people, who are not more easy to draw than to drive. There is that in all our minds which rises in arms against compulsion; we set up our backs and stiffen our necks at the very idea of a forced obedience. We are like young horses in the hand of a breaker: handle them kindly, and make much of them, and by and by you may guide them with thread; use them roughly and violently, and it will be many a month before you get the mastery of them at all.
Now children’s minds are cast in much the same mould as our own. Sternness and severity of manner chill them and throw them back. It shuts up their hearts, and you will weary yourself to find the door. But let them only see that you have an affectionate feeling towards them—that you are really desirous to make them happy, and do them good—that if you punish them, it is intended for their profit, and that, like the pelican, you would give your heart’s blood to nourish their souls. Let them see this, I say, and they will soon be all your own. But they must be wooed with kindness if their attention is ever to be won. And surely reason itself might teach us this lesson. Children are weak and tender creatures, and, as such, they need patient and considerate treatment. We must handle them delicately like frail machines, lest by rough fingering we do more harm than good. They are like young plants, and need gentle watering—often, but little at a time.
We must not expect all things at once. We must remember what children are, and teach them as they are able to bear. Their minds are like a lump of metal—not to be forged and made useful at once, but only by a succession of little blows. Their understandings are like narrow-necked vessels: we must pour in the wine of knowledge gradually, or much of it will be spilled and lost. “Line upon line, and precept upon precept, here a little and there a little,” must be our rule. The whetstone does its work slowly, but frequent rubbing will bring the scythe to a fine edge. Truly there is need of patience in training a child, but without it nothing can be done.
Nothing will compensate for the absence of this tenderness and love. A minister may speak the truth as it is in Jesus, clearly, forcibly, unanswerably, but if he does not speak it in love, few souls will be won. Just so you must set before your children their duty—command, threaten, punish, reason—but if affection be wanting in your treatment, your labour will be all in vain.
Love is one grand secret of successful training. Anger and harshness may frighten, but they will not persuade the child that you are right, and if he sees you often out of temper, you will soon cease to have his respect. A father who speaks to his son as Saul did to Jonathan (1 Sam 20:30) need not expect to retain his influence over that son’s mind.
Try hard to keep up a hold on your child’s affections. It is a dangerous thing to make your children afraid of you. Anything is almost better than reserve and constraint between your child and yourself, and this will come in with fear. Fear puts an end to openness of manner; fear leads to concealment; fear sows the seed of much hypocrisy, and leads to many a lie. There is a mine of truth in the apostle’s words to the Colossians: “Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged” (Col 3:21). Let not the advice it contains be overlooked.
3. Train your children with an abiding persuasion on your mind that much depends upon you
Grace is the strongest of all principles. See what a revolution grace effects when it comes into the heart of an old sinner—how it overturns the strongholds of Satan—how it casts down mountains, fills up valleys, makes crooked things straight and new creates the whole man. Truly nothing is impossible to grace. Nature, too, is very strong. See how it struggles against the things of the kingdom of God—how it fights against every attempt to be more holy—how it keeps up an unceasing warfare within us to the last hour of life. Nature indeed is strong.
But after nature and grace, undoubtedly, there is nothing more powerful than education. Early habits (if I may so speak) are everything with us, under God. We are made what we are by training. Our character takes the form of that mould into which our first years are cast.2
We depend, in a vast measure, on those who bring us up. We get from them a colour, a taste, a bias which cling to us more or less all our lives. We catch the language of our nurses and mothers, and learn to speak it almost insensibly, and unquestionably we catch something of their manners, ways and mind at the same time. Time only will show, I suspect, how much we all owe to early impressions, and how many things in us may be traced up to seeds sown in the days of our very infancy by those who were about us. A very learned Englishman, Mr. Locke, has gone so far as to say “That of all the men we meet with, nine parts out of ten are what they are, good or bad, useful or not, according to their education”.
And all this is one of God’s merciful arrangements. He gives your children a mind that will receive impressions like moist clay. He gives them a disposition at the starting-point of life to believe what you tell them, to take for granted what you advise them, and to trust your word rather than a stranger’s. He gives you, in short, a golden opportunity of doing them good. See that the opportunity be not neglected and thrown away. Once let slip, it is gone forever. Beware of that miserable delusion into which some have fallen—that parents can do nothing for their children, that you must leave them alone, wait for grace, and sit still. These persons have wishes for their children in Balaam’s fashion: they would like them to die the death of the righteous man, but they do nothing to make them live his life. They desire much and have nothing. And the devil rejoices to see such reasoning, just as he always does over anything which seems to excuse indolence, or to encourage neglect of means.
I know that you cannot convert your child. I know well that they who are born again are born, not of the will of man, but of God. But I know also that God says expressly, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” and that he never laid a command on man which he would not give man grace to perform. And I know, too, that our duty is not to stand still and dispute, but to go forward and obey. It is just in the going forward that God will meet us. The path of obedience is the way in which he gives the blessing. We have only to do as the servants were commanded at the marriage feast in Cana—to fill the water-pots with water, and we may safely leave it to the Lord to turn that water into wine.
4. Train with this thought continually before your eyes—that the soul of your child is the first thing to be considered
Precious, no doubt, are these little ones in your eyes, but if you love them, think often of their souls. No interest should weigh with you so much as their eternal interests. No part of them should be so dear to you as that part which will never die. The world with all its glory shall pass away: the hills shall melt, the heavens shall be wrapped together as a scroll, the sun shall cease to shine. But the spirit which dwells in those little creatures whom you love so well shall outlive them all, and whether in happiness or misery (to speak as a man) will depend on you.
This is the thought that should be uppermost on your mind in all you do for your children. In every step you take about them—in every plan and scheme and arrangement that concerns them—do not leave out that mighty question “How will this affect their souls?”
Soul love is the soul of all love. To pet and pamper and indulge your child, as if this world was all he had to look to and this life the only season for happiness—to do this is not true love, but cruelty. It is treating him like some beast of the earth, which has but one world to look to and nothing after death. It is hiding from him that grand truth, which he ought to be made to learn from his very infancy—that the chief end of his life is the salvation of his soul.
A true Christian must be no slave to fashion if he would train his child for heaven. He must not be content to do things merely because they are the custom of the world—to teach them and instruct them in certain ways merely because it is usual; to allow them to read books of a questionable sort merely because everybody else reads them; to let them form habits of a doubtful tendency merely because they are the habits of the day. He must train with an eye to his children’s souls. He must not be ashamed to hear his training called singular and strange. What if it is? The time is short; the fashion of this world passeth away. He that has trained his children for heaven rather than for earth—for God, rather than for man. He is the parent that will be called wise at last.
5. Train your child to a knowledge of the Bible
You cannot make your children love the Bible, I allow. None but the Holy Ghost can give us a heart to delight in the Word. But you can make your children acquainted with the Bible, and be sure they cannot be acquainted with that blessed book too soon, or too well.
A thorough knowledge of the Bible is the foundation of all clear views of religion. He that is well-grounded in it will not generally be found a waverer and carried about by every wind of new doctrine. Any system of training which does not make a knowledge of Scripture the first thing is unsafe and unsound. You have need to be careful on this point just now, for the devil is abroad and error abounds. Some are to be found amongst us who give the church the honour due to Jesus Christ. Some are to be found who make the sacraments saviours and passports to eternal life. And some are to be found in like manner who honour a catechism more than the Bible, or fill the minds of their children with miserable little storybooks, instead of the Scripture of truth. But if you love your children, let the simple Bible be everything in the training of their souls, and let all other books go down and take the second place. Care not so much for their being mighty in the catechism as for their being mighty in the Scriptures. This is the training, believe me, that God will honour. The Psalmist says of him, “Thou hast magnified Thy Word above all Thy name” (Ps 138:2), and I think that he gives an especial blessing to all who try to magnify it among men.
See that your children read the Bible reverently. Train them to look on it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, written by the Holy Ghost himself—all true, all profitable and able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
See that they read it regularly. Train them to regard it as their soul’s daily food—as a thing essential to their soul’s daily health. I know well you can not make this anything more than a form, but there is no telling the amount of sin which a mere form may indirectly restrain.
See that they read it all. You need not shrink from bringing any doctrine before them. You need not fancy that the leading doctrines of Christianity are things which children cannot understand. Children understand far more of the Bible than we are apt to suppose.
Tell them of sin, its guilt, its consequences, its power, its vileness. You will find they can comprehend something of this.
Tell them of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work for our salvation—the atonement, the cross, the blood, the sacrifice, the intercession. You will discover there is something not beyond them in all this.
Tell them of the work of the Holy Spirit in man’s heart—how he changes and renews and sanctifies and purifies. You will soon see they can go along with you in some measure in this. In short, I suspect we have no idea how much a little child can take in of the length and breadth of the glorious gospel. They see far more of these things than we suppose.3
Fill their minds with Scripture. Let the Word dwell in them richly. Give them the Bible—the whole Bible—even while they are young.
6. Train them to a habit of prayer
Prayer is the very life-breath of true religion. It is one of the first evidences that a man is born again. “Behold,” said the Lord of Saul, in the day he sent Ananias to him, “Behold, he prayeth” (Acts 9:11). He had begun to pray and that was proof enough.
Prayer was the distinguishing mark of the Lord’s people in the day that there began to be a separation between them and the world: “Then began men to call upon the name of the Lord” (Gen 4:26).
Prayer is the peculiarity of all real Christians now. They pray for they tell God their wants, their feelings, their desires, their fears, and mean what they say. The nominal Christian may repeat prayers—and good prayers too—but he goes no further.
Prayer is the turning-point in a man’s soul. Our ministry is unprofitable and our labour is vain till you are brought to your knees. Till then, we have no hope about you.
Prayer is one great secret of spiritual prosperity. When there is much private communion with God, your soul will grow like the grass after rain; when there is little, all will be at a standstill: you will barely keep your soul alive. Show me a growing Christian—a going forward Christian, a strong Christian, a flourishing Christian—and, sure am I, he is one that speaks often with his Lord. He asks much and he has much. He tells Jesus everything, and so he always knows how to act.
Prayer is the mightiest engine God has placed in our hands. It is the best weapon to use in every difficulty and the surest remedy in every trouble. It is the key that unlocks the treasury of promises, and the hand that draws forth grace and help in time of need. It is the silver trumpet God commands us to sound in all our necessity, and it is the cry he has promised always to attend to, even as a loving mother to the voice of her child.
Prayer is the simplest means that man can use in coming to God. It is within reach of all—the sick, the aged, the infirm, the paralytic, the blind, the poor, the unlearned—all can pray. It avails you nothing to plead want of memory, want of learning, want of books and want of scholarship in this matter. So long as you have a tongue to tell your soul’s state, you may and ought to pray. Those words, “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (Jas 4:2), will be a fearful condemnation to many in the day of judgement.
Parents, if you love your children, do all that lies in your power to train them up to a habit of prayer. Show them how to begin. Tell them what to say. Encourage them to persevere. Remind them if they become careless and slack about it. Let it not be your fault, at any rate, if they never call on the name of the Lord. This, remember, is the first step in religion which a child is able to take. Long before he can read, you can teach him to kneel by his mother’s side, and repeat the simple words of prayer and praise which she puts in his mouth. And as the first steps in any undertaking are always the most important, so is the manner in which your children’s prayers are prayed, a point which deserves your closest attention. Few seem to know how much depends on this. You must beware lest they get into a way of saying them in a hasty, careless, and irreverent manner.
You must beware of giving up the oversight of this matter to servants and nurses, or of trusting too much to your children doing it when left to themselves. I cannot praise that mother who never looks after this most important part of her child’s daily life herself. Surely if there be any habit which your own hand and eye should help in forming, it is the habit of prayer. Believe me, if you never hear your children pray yourself, you are much to blame. You are little wiser than the bird described in Job, “which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in the dust, and forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them. She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear” (Job 39:14-16).
Prayer is, of all habits, the one which we recollect the longest. Many a grey-headed man could tell you how his mother used to make him pray in the days of his childhood. Other things have passed away from his mind perhaps. The church where he was taken to worship, the minister whom he heard preach, the companions who used to play with him—all these, it may be, have passed from his memory and left no mark behind. But you will often find it is far different with his first prayers. He will often be able to tell you where he knelt, what he was taught to say and even how his mother looked all the while. It will come up as fresh before his mind’s eye as if it was but yesterday.
Reader, if you love your children, I charge you, do not let the seed-time of a prayerful habit pass away unimproved. If you train your children to anything, train them, at least, to a habit of prayer.
1 As a minister, I cannot help remarking that there is hardly any subject about which people seem so tenacious as they are about their children. I have sometimes been perfectly astonished at the slowness of sensible Christian parents to allow that their own children are in fault, or deserve blame. There are not a few persons to whom I would far rather speak about their own sins than tell them their children had done anything wrong.
2 “He has seen but little of life who does not discern everywhere the effect of education on men’s opinions and habits of thinking. The children bring out of the nursery that which displays itself throughout their lives.” (Cecil).
3 As to the age when the religious instruction of a child should begin, no general rule can be laid down. The mind seems to open in some children much more quickly than in others. We seldom begin too early. There are wonderful examples on record of what a child can attain to, even at three years old.