Children are for life - Proverbs 4:1-9

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 15th May 2005.

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Children are for life-Proverbs SJN. MP. 15.5.05.

A man was pushing his shopping trolley through the supermarket one day, and in it sat his little boy, screaming and lashing out at the cans on the shelves a happy bundle of acute embarrassment. As the red-faced parent made slow progress around the aisles, he was overheard by a lady in the same aisle saying, `Calm down, George. It will be alright, George. Be patient, George.' And suitably impressed on hearing this, she went up to the man and said, `May I congratulate you Sir, on your calm and collected handling of the boy. And how is little George today?' To which the father replied, `Madam, I'm George!'

I guess that those of us who are parents very much identify with that man. We are George. However, one of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that we are not left alone to wander along shopping aisles of life floundering and frustrated; we do have God's book as our guide and God's Spirit as our teacher- in short, we have the way of wisdom.

So as we turn to that source of wisdom to find out some of what it has to say about raising children, let me begin by asking: what do we want for our children, whether they be our own, our grandchildren, nephews or godchildren? Because the answer we give will shape what we teach them, the kind of values we impart to them and the goals in life we set for them. This is certainly the concern of the Book of Proverbs, it is primarily the parents who are seen to be responsible for the educational welfare of their children: Proverbs 4:3: `When I was a boy in my father's house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he taught me and said, "Lay hold of my words with all your heart"'. It is also the task of the mother to impart instruction to her children: `Listen, my son, to your father's instruction and do not forsake your mother's teaching' (1:80.)

Now, the way of wisdom, sees a child's education mainly in terms of character formation. That is, a person is said to be educated not by the quantity of information they have absorbed but by the quality of life they are living. So, words like love, faithfulness, righteousness, discernment, truthfulness, litter the pages of Proverbs. Acquiring a moral repertoire, as well as understanding nature and the workings of the world, is seen as integral to a wholesome education. Indeed, while it is true that `Wise men store up knowledge' (10:14), it is also the case that `The truly righteous man attains life' (11:19). Being a good pupil means being a good person.

So how is the parent to raise their child, or as Proverbs puts it, 'Train a child in the way he should go so that when he is old he will not depart from it' (Prov 22:6)? Well, as with most other things in the Bible, it is a matter of following the way of love: Proverbs 3:3-4: 'Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on your heart. Then you will win favour and a good name in the sight of God and man.' This is the kind of love we were looking at a few weeks ago the Hebrew word is 'hesed' - and it is the type of love God shows to his people- a consistent love, in some ways a tough love, a love which will do what is best for the beloved come what may. Here these words are addressed to a 'son', but if the child is to show such love and faithfulness, then it follows that the parent should too.

Let me ask another question: How do we measure our love for our children? The answer many would give today is in terms of the things bought for them: This was a point so well made in the Beatles song, She's Leaving Home. Here was a young woman who had decided to elope with her car salesman boyfriend, much to the utter bewilderment of her parents whose perplexity was expressed in the refrain, `We gave her most of our lives, we gave her everything money could buy.' But the one thing money could not buy, and which they did not give, was love. It is only too possible for a child to have the most amazing bedroom, littered with mouth-watering toys and still be the loneliest child in the world, because he or she is a stranger to love.

Now the love we are to give our children is to be the same as our heavenly Father loves us - a selfless love- hesed love. It is an unconditional love in that it is given no matter what he or she looks like, no matter what his or her assets or liabilities are, no matter how they act. This love will not increase or decrease according to their achievements or failures. The message conveyed will be: I love you for who you are and not because of what you have done.

Sadly, it is all too easy for us to fall into the trap of offering only conditional love. So we have this scenario. A child comes home from school. `Dad,' he says, `I came second in the geography exam.' How does Dad reply? `Oh yes, who came first?' What is the message being sent? It is that Dad will really love me only if I get to the top. And so the vicious treadmill of `parent pleasing' begins.

Now in all of our loving treatment of a child it is important to recognise that adults are mainly verbally orientated; that is, we often express how we feel by what we say, but children are mostly behaviourally orientated, actions go a long way with them. And there are three things in particular we need to do day in and day out if our children are going to know deep down they are loved unconditionally.

First, there is focused attention. Imagine the following scene: It is tea time and the family is gathered around the table. `Dad, guess what I did at school today? 'Dad, have you seen what I've drawn? 'Dad, Billy pushed me over again.' Mum has already heard all of this of course, she got it the moment they walked in. But, Dad, well, his mind is on something else, it's that same familiar distant look in his eyes - he is there in body but not in spirit. Then the phone rings, it's for him; suddenly, like magic, he is alive, chatting away, giving advice, listening intently to the person on the other end of the phone. His children may not say anything or be able to put it into words but what is firmly lodged in their minds is this thought: `This is what makes my Dad tick - not us.' In the United States a survey was conducted amongst young executive fathers to determine how long they spent with their toddler children. First, they ascertained how long they thought they spent with them in talking and playing. They replied - about twenty minutes a day. The researchers then fixed them up with microphones and monitored them. The results were shocking. The average time spent with children in meaningful interaction was thirty seven seconds. The havoc caused by this use of time in family life is well captured by the song, `The Cat's in the Cradle;' `A child arrived the other day, he came into the world in the usual way. But there were planes to catch and bills to pay. He learnt to walk while I was away and he learnt to talk before I knew it. And as he grew he used to say `I'm going to be like you, Dad, I'm going to be like you.' The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon and the little boy blew and the man in the moon. When are you coming home Dad? I don't know when, but we'll get together then son, we'll have a good time then. My son turned ten the other day, he said thanks for the ball, Dad, let's play. I said not today son, I've got lots to do. He said that's OK and he walked away, and his smile never dimmed, it said `I'm gonna be like him, I'm gonna be like him. The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon and the little boy blew and the man in the moon. Well, he came home from college the other day so much like a man that I just had to say `I'm proud of you son. Can you sit for a while?' He said, `I'm sorry Dad,' and said with a smile, `what I'd really like is to borrow the car keys, could I have them please?' When are you coming home son? I don't know when, but we'll get together then, we'll have a good time then. I've long since retired and my son moved away. I called him up the other day, I'd like to see you son if you don't mind. He said, `I'd love to Dad if I could find the time, but the new job's a hassle and the kids have got the flu, but it's been nice talking to you, Dad, it's been nice talking to you. And as he hung up the phone it occurred to me, he'd grown up just like me.'

The fact is, children need our full, individual attention and that takes time. `Ah,' we say, `but I give quality time.' No we don't, it doesn't work like that for we can't choose on our terms when our children will relate to us. It's only as we give quantity time that out of that arises quality time - a precious window of opportunity. It is as you are clearing away the toys with your son in his bedroom that he will suddenly say, `Mum, it's been horrible at school today.' It is as you are sorting out your daughter's cupboard that she will say, `Dad, someone asked me to go out with him. What should I say?' In our family we have found that washing up together at the sink has provided the most helpful occasions to chat. I can assure you; with rare exceptions will a teenager seek you out for an in-depth talk. However, it is as you are there doing something together that, quite spontaneously, issues will be raised and away you go in conversation. But time has to be made.

Linked with focused attention is the importance of eye contact. It is amazing what we convey with our eyes, often unconsciously - love, anger, approval, disapproval. Have you ever noticed how some people find it difficult to look at you and make eye contact? Their eyes are always darting away. That is a sign of insecurity: But our children need to know they are secure with us and sustained eye contact when we are speaking with them or listening to them conveys the message that they matter. Try it out sometime, look into your children's eyes and notice the difference it makes. You will be quite surprised.

Thirdly, there is physical contact. Ross Campbell, in his excellent book How to Really Love Your Child, describes how each one of us has an emotional tank which needs filling. Physical touch is vital to that filling - slipping your hand in theirs as you walk together, cuddling up for TV, or sitting on the knee for a bedtime story. You will be amazed at how many children today are undernourished in this biblical sense, suffering from emotional malnutrition - and a television is no substitute. What may surprise many is the knowledge that even when they grow into big, gangly teenagers, they still need their hugs.

Now, no one prepares you for parenthood, do they? No one warns you that your teenage sons will be wearing the same `T' shirt for six weeks or that you might need a tetanus shot to enter their bedroom. But at the end of the day, whether they are six months, six years or sixteen - there is one thing required of Christian parents-unconditional love- 'Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on your heart.'

However, there is another crucial aspect of raising children, namely; correction - that is what the word training means discipline- 'Train/ discipline a child in the way he should goThis certainly involves punishment: 'He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him' (Prov. 13:24). And this is linked to a proper understanding of a child's nature. You see, the Bible teaches what is called original sin: (22:15), `Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him' Because of natural, moral corruption, children are inclined to selfishness, cheating, bullying and being spiteful. Punishment is meant to make them less inclined to satisfying these fallen tendencies. They are to learn that it does not pay to do wrong and is rewarding to do right. I know it is not fashionable to speak of corporal punishment, but that is often because of exaggerated pictures of abuse portrayed by the anti-smacking lobby. But wisdom is insistent: `Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death' (23:13). How many children's souls have been all but ruined by a failure to do this very thing? Proverbs 29:15 'The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother.'

Without doubt some have used verses like these to justify harsh treatment of children - but that can only be done by ignoring the wide setting in which this takes place- hesed love. It is because God loves us that he disciplines us and he is the perfect parent and we are to follow suit; Proverbs 3:11 'My son, do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.' So love is the motive for discipline and shapes the nature of discipline. But how?

Here are a few pointers.

First, children like to know what are the limits beyond which they cannot go. No limits lead to bewilderment. If you say to a child that they can watch TV for an hour that is clear. If you say they have to be in at a certain time, then you need to stick to it. Of course, we need to make changes as appropriate, as circumstances change and children grow older. But what is so frustrating for a child and will inevitably lead to resentment, is if the parent says one thing and then persistently does another. `Oh, Mum always says that, she won't do anything, neither will Dad.' And it is vital that parents support each other. There is nothing so demoralising for one parent who says to their child, `You must not do that,' only to find the other parent coming along and sweeping it all aside or failing to back them up. That is a recipe for friction and failure. If parents disagree about the boundary limits, then it should be sorted out privately and some agreement reached. One thing is for sure, children will try and play one parent off against another and that has to be resisted.

Second, if a sanction is given, it should be fair and seen through, and certainly not done in rage. The punishment should be proportionate to the offence. I came across someone who as a little girl wanted a doll's house for Christmas and was told that if she woke up on Christmas night it would be taken away. She woke up and the next morning it was gone. That was not fair, and was harsh. Conversely, it is silly making idle threats, though one hears it -'You do that and you won't have any pocket money for a year.' The children know you don't mean it so why undermine your standing by saying it?

Third, the punishment must not only fit the crime but fit the child. Children vary so much. For some you just have to look at or raise a voice and that is punishment enough. Some will only respond to a well-placed smack, while for others physical punishment is water off a duck's back - something else may be needed to make the point. We need to be wise and flexible.

But, and this is an important but, once the discipline has been carried out that must be the end of it. It must never be extended or the child is persistently reminded of it - that will exasperate them. Once it is over, then it is focused attention, eye contact, hugs - telling them that is all in the past and you still love them unconditionally.

Finally, let us remember that children are God's gifts to us and so they primarily belong to him. They are ours on trust and so we should be making it our main concern that they come to know God and serve him in the Lord Jesus Christ. There are those who say they will leave all spiritual instruction until their children are of an age to make up their own minds. That doesn't work. From a very early age they will already be having their minds formed - they will pick up ideas from school, the home, the TV. And most of those ideas will be anti-Christian. As Christian parents one of our greatest responsibilities, for which we will have to answer to God, is to bring up our children in the Christian faith. And since they are more impressed by example than by simple instruction, they will be looking to us and seeing what difference it makes to the whole of our lives. If attending church is only a once on a Sunday affair for us, then don't be surprised if it ceases to become even a once and a while for them. But if they see we are consumed with a passion for the Lord and his people, then by God's grace they may be consumed too. But I did say 'by God's grace.' There is no guarantee that even if we were to do all of these things our children will turn out in the way we had hoped. Many a Christian parent's heart remains broken. There are limits to what even a parent can do and our children do grow up and have to be responsible for their own actions. So we should not take on to ourselves unnecessary guilt. We are to do our best, and sometimes we fail- but God is merciful and good- even to the George's of this world. Let us pray.

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