Discipline: Coaching Your Children to Greatness
January 15, 1995
“Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.” Proverbs 22:6
This is a sermon about children, but it is not a message to children. It is a message to parents about their children. I want you to know that as I thought about this, prayed about it all week long, I feel impressed that at the end of my message we should take some time to pray for our children. I want you to know as I start, where I will be finishing.
I address my remarks to parents and grandparents, not just to the parents who just have children living at home, but also to the parents whose children have grown up and left the home. Sometimes our greatest prayers are not for the children in diapers, but for our children who are out in the world by themselves. I want you to think about this for your kids, whatever ages they may be. If the Lord Jesus were here this morning and you could ask him for just one thing for your children, or one thing for each child, what would it be? We will come back to that thought in a little bit.
It has been kid’s week at our house. We never planned those things, but I guess God knew I was going to preach about this today, so he arranged it that the kids have been on the top of our agenda this week, much more than normal at our house. You could summarize this week at our house with three words: sickness, school and sports. We started on Monday with two of the boys home sick. We graduated on Tuesday to all three of the boys home sick. By Wednesday, Mom and Dad were home sick. Just about the time we got the boys O.K. again, on Wednesday it was term paper time. This is the time when the semester is coming to an end. So for hours on Wednesday Mom was making posters for our middle son, Mark, who was assigned this project weeks ago, but finally decided on Wednesday that it was time to get it done. Then on Thursday Dad was here at the church late, then home helping our oldest son after midnight. That is technically incorrect. I was sitting at the typewriter and he was sleeping on the couch till after midnight. Because though it had been assigned for two months, it was due Friday morning. So it was up before 6:00 and over to the church at 6:15 to make the laser writer work so we could print everything off and turn it in. Just about the time we were ready to relax on Friday night, Nicholas said, “Dad, you know we have my basketball game tomorrow.” So it was a meeting yesterday morning, then off to his basketball game, where he is the leading scorer on his team. Yesterday he shot an amazing five for 29. There were only 35 shots taken by the entire team, and he took 29 of them. He told me, “I want to be like Scottie Pippen,” and I am expecting him to ask for a raise any day.
What does God’s word have to say about raising children?
There is always a certain amount of hesitation when a pastor comes to speak on the subject of parents and children, especially when your own kids are not yet grown, when you’re still in process. You don’t know yet how your kids are going to turn out. I don’t know how old you have to be to be sure how your kids are going to turn out, but I’m not old enough yet.
I was thinking about so many people, even pastors in the ministry, who have sorrow in their hearts because their children are not following the Lord. Our kids today face so many dangers. I know that it is popular to say that every generation faces more problems than the preceding one. But I do think it is true to say there is a lot more cultural pressure on our kids today. There is a lot more media pressure today. There is a lot more inclining them to do that which is wrong out there in the world than there is inclining them to do that which is right.
But I am not going to talk about my family this morning. I am going to talk about what God’s word has to say, because I think that is one place where we can get some solid answers and advice.
I begin in my comments with two simple observations.
1. When it comes to the raising of your children, one of the most important things that all parents learn is that if you have more than one child, you have two very different people on your hands. Every child is different and unique. One child can be very gregarious and the other can be very quiet. One can be very gifted in the area of music, and another will be gifted with her hands. One child will be happy to stand up and speak in public, and another would die a thousand deaths before they would ever stand up in front of other people. You learn very quickly that there aren’t that many hard and fast rules because children are individuals and children are different. And each child has to be treated as an individual.
2. What you do to raise your children is going to vary. It is going to change because your children are going to change as they grow up. This week I was reading through some material that Bob Boerman gave me from Gary and Ann Marie Ezzo from their course “Growing Kids God’s Way.” In it they talk about the four phases of raising your children. They name them as follows: Phase One is discipline. This phase covers the period from birth until five years of age. This is when you establish that you love your children and that you care about them, but that you are the one who is in authority. Phase Two is the phase of training. It takes place from age six to 12. To use a sports analogy, a trainer works with an athlete each day in different settings, going through drills and exercises, getting the children ready to play the game of life. Phase Three is the phase of coaching. That is from ages 13 to 19. Now the children are in the game of life for themselves. We can send plays in from the sidelines and help during the time outs, but we can no longer stop the game and show them how it is to be played. They are now calling the plays themselves and moving forward. Phase Four is the friendship phase. The relational goal of our parenting is friendship with our children. Although the parent-child relationship does not cease, both the parent and child eventually enter into a new season of life. So what starts out with discipline goes to training, coaching, and if all goes well when your children become adults, they will eventually enter the phase of friendship. The way you are dealing with your children today is going to be specific as to who they are as individuals. It is also going to be specific as to where they are along the age spectrum of life.
For our purposes, I want to focus mainly on one verse of Scripture. It is certainly a central passage in all the Bible on the great challenge that parents face. It is Proverbs 22:6. Most of us know it by heart. It says, “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.” This is a much discussed verse of Scripture. It is also a verse of Scripture about which the people of God have many questions.
What does it mean to train your children and how do you do it?
What is the way he should go?
What does it mean when he is old he will not turn from it?
Many Christian parents struggle with this verse because they struggle with the fact that their children are not where they ought to be in relation with the Lord Jesus Christ. There are, I am sure, a number of Christian parents who wonder how this verse really applies. It is good if your children are grown up and serving the Lord. This verse is difficult to completely understand if your children are not what you always hoped and prayed they would be.
I want to take a look at this verse under three parts.
1. The Command.
Train a child. If you will, train up a child. What you need to know is that this word that is translated train is actually a word which if you trace it back in the Hebrew has a very unusual word picture behind it. It actually means to place a morsel of food in the mouth. You would never have gotten that from the word train. But it is a picture of what a mom or dad does for a little infant who does not even know how to eat. In the beginning you make sure not just that your tiny little child has food, but you take it to him and make sure the milk or formula is right there. You don’t tell your newborn child to go get it himself. To train your child is to take the food of life and bring it to your child so he will find the appropriate nourishment he needs.
To train your child is to take the food of life and bring it to your child so he will find the appropriate nourishment he needs.
Why is it that in the beginning the parent takes the food to the child? Because the child cannot do it for himself. What is the goal? You give the bottle to your child when he is young so that you do not have to do it when he is old. It is one thing to give a bottle to a child who is six or eight months old. That is normal and understandable. If you are still giving a bottle to your child when he is 14, 15 or 16 years old, something has gone badly wrong somewhere. So the word means that we give the child everything he needs in life when he is young so that later we won’t have to. That is why the marginal rendering of this text in the NIV is translated “start.” That is also a good translation of the Hebrew. It refers to starting children out in the way they should go. When you first have your child, get them started in the right direction. It’s just like the song says, that in the beginning the child is 100% dependent on you, and after a few years the child is 90% dependent, then 80%, then 70%, and the whole process of growing up is the process of your child beginning to break free, moving from dependence to independence. The Bible is telling us that the crucial, key, most important time is in those early days, months and years. Start your child, train your child, make sure your child has what he or she needs, because in the end, after you have started them, they are going to keep on going in that direction. Eventually they won’t depend upon you like they do now, and whatever way you’ve started them is the way they are going to continue down the road, long after they’ve left your family, long after they have left your direct control.
What is it going to take to do this?
1. Sensitivity to your children, to understand their individual needs.
2. Discipline. It is the willingness to get involved in the affairs of life with your children, especially when they have done wrong.
3. Flexibility, because you are going to discover that what worked yesterday and the day before and last month no longer works. As your children grow up, the methods have to change and be flexible.
4. Diligence. Staying with the stuff in regards to your children, because raising children today is difficult. It is not a one day or a one month or one year job.
5. A great deal of time. A specific investment of your heart and mind.
The command is to train a child. Take the food of life, the water of life, the truth of life, the instruction about life right to your child and put it on his lips. Feed him now so that later he’ll be able to feed himself. Show him the right direction to go so that when he is old he will stay in the same direction that you have started him.
2. The Direction.
Train a child in the way. The Hebrew word is debar. I should tell you that the commentators are somewhat divided about the meaning of this phrase. There are some Bible teachers who will give you a slightly different meaning than what I am going to suggest. There are those who suggest that this word debar, train up a child in the way he should go, should be translated “train up a child according to his way or his bent.” What they say it means is that you should come to understand each child individually, that God made each child with his own set of traits and temperaments and personality factors. As a parent, your job is to discover which way God made them so you can lead them toward their gifts, talents and abilities. You can lead them according to the way which they should naturally be going. That is certainly good advice and it is true, but I doubt that is what Proverbs 22:6 is really telling us.
This word debar “the way” almost always in the book of Proverbs refers not to an individual’s way, but to the way of the Lord. It is the same word that is translated over and over the way of wickedness vs. the way of righteousness. “There is a way,” same word, “that seems right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death.” It is a word used over and over by Solomon. So I believe that when we are being told here to train up a child in the way he should go, we are being told to train him up in the right way, in God’s way, in the way of righteousness, holiness and truth. As someone has said, you should not understand this verse this way: it is not train up a child in the way he would go, but train up a child in the way he should go.” That is one reason God made parents, especially Christian parents, because Christian parents who love the Lord ought to know the way their children should go—the way of righteousness, truth, obedience, honesty, integrity, and values.
3. The Principle.
“And when he is old he will not turn from it.” Our problem is not with the verse, our problem is with our kids. This verse sounds just right. Our problem is that our children aren’t robots or puppets. God made our children with minds of their own. So God has given our children a will, and each boy or girl has his own ability to choose which way he is going to go. Sometimes, to our own heartbreak and disappointment, our children choose not to follow the way we have taught them. That is true, yet this verse is still in the Bible. “When he is old he will not depart from it.” I think what this verse is telling us is this: God has given you the chance to plant the seeds into your children. Eventually, if you will hope and wait and pray, the harvest will come.
Our children grow up to be more like us than we realize and more like us sometimes than we would like to admit.
I read a commentary this week that used an unusual phrase. It said, “If you will but train your children up in the way of the Lord, ‘though later on they may drift from it as kids often do, at some point in life that training, those prayers, that hope, that commitment, will be like arms of love, reaching across the years and decades, bringing at last those children back to God.” It is in the Bible and I think we ought to believe it. If you start your children in the right way, when they are old they will not depart from it.
A mother who was raised Catholic used to quote the nuns who taught her at the parochial school she attended. “Give us a child until they are seven, they will be Catholic for life.” There is truth there. Give anybody a child for seven years and you will have set the pattern for the next 70. Children are like wet cement, but it hardens so fast. Our children do grow up to be more like us than we realize and more like us sometimes than we would like to admit.
What do you do if you’re a parent and your children are grown up, away from the Lord? I have four answers to that question, for parents who pray for 30 and 40 year old children.
1. Be honest about your feelings. Honesty is important. Admit the hurt and pain in your heart.
2. Never give up hope. Our God is the God of hope.
3. Love your children no matter who they are or where they are or what they’re doing.
4. Keep on praying. Don’t ever give up.
There are some things in life that should be taken lightly, and some that should be taken with utter seriousness. Your children must never be taken lightly. You can be haphazard about a lot of things in life and it won’t matter. But here is one area that you have to take seriously. You must take your children with utmost seriousness because you won’t have them forever.
Your children must never be taken lightly.
The goal of Christian parents ought to be to create a family atmosphere that makes it easy for your children to follow Jesus Christ. That ought to be the home goal—to have a home and a relationship that makes it easy for you children to follow in your steps.
Pastor Mark Bubeck told a story last year on Saturday morning during a Spiritual Warfare Conference. He was talking about the importance of praying for your children. He told the story of a family he knows. A father has prayed for years for his children. When his children went to bed, the father would go into the bedroom, stand over his children, praying for them every single night. They always knew that Dad was there when they were younger. As they got older, he would wait until they were asleep and then go in and pray. Even later when they were gone off to college, he would still go in and pray over where they had been. The father was talking to his children one day and he mentioned that he still prayed for them every night without fail. The kids said they knew that. The father was surprised and asked how they knew that. They said, “We see the footprints in the carpet.”
About a year ago I was invited to Moody Bible Institute for a retirement party for my dear friend John Tahl, who was retiring from Moody after 30 some years. They had a meal and some speeches. Different people said different things and it was all very nice. I have forgotten almost everything anybody said expect one thing. John’s daughter, Carol Michaels, got up and gave a testimony about her father. She talked about his love and hard work. Then she said, “But the thing that I remember most about my Dad,” and with that she broke down and started crying, “I remember that every morning when we would get up I would come downstairs and see my father praying and I would hear him praying for me. Nothing he has ever done has meant more to me than the knowledge that my father is praying for me.”
It is not easy to raise children. Everything in the word fights against it. It is not easy to raise God’s children, who will hold to godly values. The Devil fights against us; the world, the flesh fight against us. It is easy to be frustrated. God gives you these little gifts and you do your best and you hope and pray that some day when the job is done, your children will still follow the Lord. Only parents know the tears, the worry, the anguish and the fears.
There are many things that parents can do for their kids and many things they must do. But one thing is absolutely essential. You have to pray for your children. You can do many things once you are praying. You really can’t do anything for your kids until you’ve prayed.
I want you to take some time right now to pray for your children. Moms, Dads, together or alone. Pray for your little kids, your teenagers, your grown up kids. If you’re single or have no children, pray for the children you care about. Pray for the children of your family and friends.