The Need for Wisdom
Through the ages parents have passed wisdom along to guide their children while young so that it might direct them as they mature.
In 21st century American society, short, easy-to-remember admonitions such as “Say no to drugs” or “Stop Bullying Now” are expressed in schools, homes, and community programs. In 19th century America, Poor Richard’s Almanac shared wisdom such as “The sleeping fox catches no poultry” and “At the workingman’s house hunger looks in, but dares not enter.” In 18th century England, Lord Chesterfield admonished his son with sayings including “A favor may make an enemy, and an injury may make a friend” and “Above all things, avoid speaking of yourself.” Ahiqar, an Assyrian court official, expressed wise sayings such as “For a man’s charm is his truthfulness; his repulsiveness, the lies of his lips” and “Let not the rich man say, ‘In my riches I am glorious’” (as translated by H.L. Ginsberg). Amenemope, a minor official during ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom period, wrote proverbs for his son such as “Fraternize not with the hot-tempered man, and press not upon him for conversation” and “Better are loaves when the heart is joyous, than riches in unhappiness” (as translated by James Breasted).
Preparing young people to live properly in the world as youths and later as adults has always been a challenge, regardless of geographic location or historical time period. And, for Christian parents, the way to meet that challenge remains the same as outlined in Scripture thousands of years ago: teach our children to love, fear, and obey the Lord.
The Purpose of Wisdom
Christian parents believe that teaching their children from God’s Word can influence them now and guide them for the future. The idea that parental nurturing, in general, influences children is not an exclusively religious notion. Secular family experts promote its importance and effectiveness, too. Perhaps you have seen the poster campaign picturing a boy with the words “Awaiting Instructions” imprinted on the front of his shirt. Next to him are phrases such as “eat your vegetables” and “finish your homework.” The most prominent phrase exhorts parents to teach their sons to “Respect Women” in an effort to stave off violence toward females when their boys become men.
The examples cited above show it is an age-old principle that parents can, and should, train their children and nurture their character when they are young that it will guide them in the future. But Judith Harris, in The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated , challenges the effectiveness of parental nurturing by stating that a child’s character is not affected by parental influence or training. She “proves” that a child’s character is acquired and shaped by childhood and adolescent peer groups only and that this character is the one they will exude as adults.
Not all secular parenting experts and psychologists agree with this. And, if the content and popularity of Christian parenting books are any indication, Christian counselors and parents do not agree either.
Christian parents understand that we should nurture and train our children—especially with the truths of God’s Word—and that doing so shapes their character in the present and for the future. We believe this because the Bible charges us with that task (Deut. 6:1-9, Proverbs, Eph. 6:4). The greatest command in Scripture (Deut. 6:4) includes an admonition to parents to teach diligently God’s Word to their children. Proverbs stresses that wisdom is passed from mother and father to children. Parental teaching was deemed critical for the transmission of wisdom in ancient times. It is just as needful today.
However, those of us who use various church programs for our children several hours each week or month should consider whether the structure of our abundance of programs belies what we say we believe when it comes to the importance and effectiveness of parental nurturing and spiritual training of our children.
The Transmission of Wisdom
As times have changed, approaches to teaching the Bible to younger generations have changed. Based on the common structure of church programs targeting children and young people, the response to changing times has been to take parents out of the picture. Parents are encouraged to turn their sons and daughters over to experienced, well-trained teachers or youth leaders and their innovative programs because it is thought to be beneficial for the spiritual development of their character if biblical teaching takes place in the context of peer groups. This separation of young people from their parents and subsequent focus on group socialization gives the appearance that we believe Christian parents are ineffective, or inadequate at best, when it comes to biblical training. It appears that we believe our children are better off now and for the future if their character is shaped in the presence of their peers rather than their parents.
Churches form programs for “assisting” or “partnering with” parents. But if we truly believe in the importance and effectiveness of parental nurturing and training, wouldn’t it be better if these programs focused on teaching parents to fulfill their responsibility?
While collecting data for his book Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions: Why Children Should Be Your Church’s #1 Priority , George Barna discovered that 85-95% of parents believe they have the primary task of teaching spiritual matters and values to their children. But he also discovered that a majority do not spend any time during a typical week discussing religious matters or studying religious materials with their children, though two out of three attend religious services at least once a month and take their children with them. He writes,
Most parents proclaim that the spiritual nurturing of their children is their job, but are very happy to let their church shape the child’s faith. Unfortunately, no matter how hard a church tries, it is incapable of bringing a child to complete spiritual maturity: that is the job of the family. The more willing churches are to play the co-dependent role in this drama, the less likely we are to see spiritually healthy families and a generation of young people who grow into mature believers (May 6, 2003 Barna Update).
The biggest challenge facing Christian parents is to impart biblical wisdom to our children. With ever-increasing programs vying to do that job for us, it is easy to relinquish that responsibility to the church. Time constraints or lack of biblical knowledge may drive us to use these programs as an alternative. But these circumstances do not excuse us from our God-given mandate. The content of the programs may be acceptable. However, it is not the content but the method that challenges the biblical command. The results of these programs may appear to be positive initially, but biblical success is not determined by man-perceived outcomes.
Some may object, “What about children who do not have Christian homes? Don’t they need these programs?” That concern deserves an answer but the focus here is on the challenges facing Christian parents.
The intent here is not a campaign to abolish church programs. Rather, we must critically evaluate programs and honestly admit it if we are relinquishing our parental responsibility to those programs and fostering an unintended attitude of parental ineffectiveness.
Christian parents have more resources available today than God-fearing parents did in the days of Amenemope, Ahiqar, Lord Chesterfield, or Benjamin Franklin. Has this large quantity of resources and innovative programs lulled us into thinking we have devised better ways to train our children biblically than what is modeled in Scripture?
When churches and parents assert that these programs are crucial for their children’s spiritual growth, they (intentionally or otherwise)treat the transmission of biblical truth from parents to children as ineffective. One of the troubling aspects of many programs is the fact that they use enticements such as games, entertainment, awards, the Super Bowl, music that mimics pop culture, food, sports, etc. to lure young people to hear God’s Word.
How would our biblical teaching change if we thought our children would face the same threats as Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah? What if our children were snatched from their families at a young age, placed in a foreign culture for the rest of their lives, and told to disobey God or face fire or lions? If we knew all the threats that our children will face as they grow up would that give us a keener sense of urgency and responsibility to teach God’s Word to them personally and seriously rather than using alternative methods? If we still thought church programs were needful, would we continue to wed them with amusement, accolades, and secular accoutrements?
Richard Baxter exhorted parents,
In all your speeches of God and of Jesus Christ, and of the holy Scripture, or the life to come, or of any holy duty, speak always with gravity, seriousness, and reverence, as of the most great and dreadful and most Sacred things: for before children come to have any distinct understanding of particulars, it is a hopeful beginning to have their hearts possessed with a general reverence and high esteem of holy matters; for that will continually awe their consciences, and help their judgments, and settle them against prejudice and profane contempt, and be as a seed of holiness in them (A Christian Directory: Or a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience. 1673, Part II, p. 450).
It is a great challenge and serious duty of Christian parents to train their children biblically. May we soberly teach them the unchanging, timeless truths of the Bible that they may be prepared for the unknown, changing times in which they will live.
Brenda Thomas received her B.S. from Faith Baptist Bible College and M.A. from Faith Baptist Theological Seminary. She lives near Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and two children and is a member of a Baptist church there. In the past she has served as a teacher in Sunday School, AWANA, and Vacation Bible School. Currently, Brenda is a homemaker and M.A. student at California State University Dominguez Hills.