Train Up A Child
“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” is the very familiar text of Prov. 22:6. Many sermons have been preached, and some (awful) books written, on what exactly that means for parenting. But all seem to treat it as some kind of formula or guarantee (“if I do X, then Y will result”). Then, when children turn out to be autonomous beings responsible for their own lives, we either credit or blame ourselves for our parenting.
It ain’t that simple. Or easy.
I bore two children, and one thing I knew instinctively (means I didn’t have to read a book or hear a sermon about it) is that my most important task would be consistency. That is, I had to “preach” the right things but also “practice” them, every day, all the time. And it started before they could even talk. The old saying, “Actions speak louder than words”, is a vital lesson for parents to learn, because the actions come before the words. How you interact with your very young child will indeed have far-reaching consequences.
Yet at the same time, our parenting is not the only factor in the shaping of a child. They are, as we are, “made in the image of God” and thus sentient beings who will one day decide what to do with what they’ve been taught. They will have heard many years of what adults say at home, on every conceivable topic, and observed how adults respond or react to many things: injustice, lack, plenty, recreation, entertainment, interrupted plans, etc. But in the end, they will decide whether to follow in their parents’ footsteps or not— just as we did.
But in many cultures, and even ours in the past, much of how children turned out has hinged on societal pressure to conform. We believed and behaved as we did because... well, because that’s the way it was. And that rationale was fine for most people. But for children who are not satisfied with pat answers and old clichés, the parents must be prepared to give sound arguments for their beliefs and opinions, or the children will see such views as light and shallow... and not worth making their own.
This highlights the difference between a belief and a conviction. People can believe things but not act consistently with those beliefs, but they will not violate their convictions; the line you will never cross is the boundary of your conviction. How you live every day, not out of obligation but passion, is always consistent with your deeply-held principles. In politics, a person who is convicted that the Constitution is the law of the land and holds to its principles deeply will uphold and honor it in every aspect of their life. In the Christian faith, a person who is convicted that God is real and Jesus actually rose from the dead will live like Jesus is more than some deity to placate once a week. How deeply we weave Jesus into our daily lives is a measure of whether our faith is just a belief or a firm conviction.
Our children will perceive our convictions very early on, and though they may comply with our inconsistencies as long as necessary, they will eventually either adopt those inconsistencies themselves or rebel against them. Yet even if we are consistent and “practice what we preach”, children can still rebel through no fault of our own. The danger comes in either blaming ourselves for the latter or crediting ourselves for the former.
But there is another factor to place alongside consistency, and that is attention. We can be the most consistent practitioners of our convictions and yet, through neglect, fail to see warning signs in our children along the way. I remember, when I was a pre-teen or young teen, finding out that the “cool” kids didn’t actually go to Sunday School after the “opening” but hid out in a stairwell. I went along once or twice and listened to them talk about how they couldn’t wait to get away from their parents, our little town... the church. They smiled and sang and said all the right things in public, but their hearts were not in it because they had already rejected the environment in which they had been raised. But why? They all had enough food to eat, nice clothes, lots of kids their age to hang out with, so what was so bad?
Personally, I think it was the shallowness, the “that’s just the way it is”, the Sunday parents vs. the weekday parents. We all knew how our own parents acted at home, and how they acted at church. And we all saw right through it. Church, for all its good points, had an undercurrent of worldly politics, infighting, gossip, slander, greed, power, and sometimes much worse. Jesus’ term “whitewashed tombs” comes to mind here. It was more a façad or club than anyone’s conviction, because had it been the latter it would have been consistently practiced every day of the week. Nothing galled us more than to be belittled or yelled at or treated unjustly all week and then hear on Sunday how valued and precious and loved we were.
This is a common joke among anti-theists: “You’re a vile sinner who will burn in hell... but God loves you!” How many Christians know how to deal with that? How many can explain the error of mistaking the gospel (“GOOD News”) for a fire-and-brimstone sermon? When we are too lazy to face such errors being taught in churches, we allow this anti-theist mockery to go on unchallenged. And then we have the audacity to wonder why our youth, exposed to such ideas relentlessly in the world, leave the faith! If we ourselves are incapable (not to be confused with merely unwilling or lazy) of apologetics at even the most superficial level, then we must, for the sake of the youth, connect them with someone who is capable.
And I don’t necessarily mean the average preacher. In fact, they’re often the root of the problem. They are the ones breathing fire and hurling stones at pretty much everyone, reserving praise for only those loyal to them (and proving it with “tithes” and “volunteering”). They are the ones who have turned the Good News into a flame war. They are the ones who have exchanged a spiritual life for a business. And the people who blindly adopt the examples and teachings of such preachers spread them everywhere, starting with what are supposed to be Christian families.
Only when we begin to understand that our faith is to be a conviction lived out consistently and constantly will we see less attrition among our youth. And I’m not talking about leaving “church” but leaving the faith. “Church”, if you’ve read much of my earlier posts at all, is a ball-and-chain around our feet that keeps us in an insitution instead of “green pastures”. The faith, on the other hand, is the life we live and the people we are every day. I don’t mean the over-saturated “Jesus talk” life (see this hilarious video on Christian Tourettes) but a rational yet unashamed conviction.
I’ve said before that the traditional “bring them to church” paradigm is like dipping food into a bowl of salt instead of sprinkling the salt over the food. But this applies to parents as much as groups of believers. If you as an individual are not “salt”, then your children will only know about “salt” intellectually rather than experientially. That is, living the faith will only be an academic notion rather than something they know deep within. And that is the difference between religiosity and spirituality.
I know this all may sound like just another “do it for the children” pitch, but I wanted to try and articulate something that tends to simmer beneath the surface where it’s never faced. It should go without saying that what God wants from us is us, not just for the children but because we love God and are grateful that Jesus died for us and rose again. Because if he has us, our convictions, then we will do everything possible to pass it on to our children. So the real point of all this is for us to look in the mirror and ask, “Does Jesus know me? Would I die for him as he died for me? Do I live like I really believe all that?”
“Where your treasure is, there will your heart also be.”