Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it. – Proverbs 22:6 (Tanakh)
It’s the time of year when kids go back to school. Here in these parts, they started nearly a month ago while in other places they will be going back almost immediately. It’s one of those yearly markers that come around every year and which mark another milestone in the lives of children and parents alike.
Children begin to learn from the moment they are born. By the time the start pre-school, they’ve learned to breathe, to eat, to crawl, to walk, to say words, to carry on conversations, to feed themselves, to share their toys, to help with chores, – an almost incredible list of accomplishments they’ve managed to do in just a few very short years. A lot of what they learned has been through imitation. They see their mother or father smiling at them, they try to imitate it and get more smiles in return. They learn to ask questions, including the seemingly unending “Why?” questions, and from the answers their parents give them, they learn about the world they live in, how to behave, what is safe to do and what could get them hurt, what things mean, how to tell true from false. They look to their parents for clues as to what is important and what is not, what is good and what is not, and what is proper and what is not. Parenting is a big job, and sometimes it’s not hard to forget that little sponges are around, soaking up what we say and do and, quite often, repeating it back at the most inopportune moments.
Scripture tells us to teach a child what they should do and they will continue on that path for the rest of their lives. Take church, for instance. If a parent takes a child to Sunday school, drops them off and then comes back for them in an hour or two, the child figures that Sunday school is fine but that’s all there is. Church is not a priority, while a golf game, doing laundry or going to the grocery store during that period is. It’s easy to tell a child that they have to follow certain steps but if, in our adulthood, we skip some steps (because we’ve done this so often it’s routine to do so), we teach them that (a) what we say and what we do are two different things, and (b) it’s the objective that is important, not the way we obtain the objective. If we are constantly telling a child “No,” or continually criticizing them for mistakes or infractions, are we really teaching them to make better decisions and to do things perfectly or are we making them fearful to try something new for fear of failing in our eyes?
When we come home late from work, bolt down dinner and then rush off to the upstairs office to answer emails, work on a proposal or review some figures, what are we teaching them about their value to the family? What if the child’s teacher ignored their lessons and sat there polishing her nails or reading his email? We’d be incensed. Teachers are paid to teach. It’s their job. Yes, it is their job, but it’s also the parents’ job to teach the child things that textbooks and drills won’t; it’s the parents job to teach the next generation how to be good parents and to model positive traits for their own children.
The next time you drive in your car with your son or daughter (or both or plurals of each), ask yourself what you are modeling for them. Are you yelling at the yahoo who cut you off on the freeway? That could be teaching your kids that anger is acceptable and name-calling when it comes to other drivers is okay, even if they aren’t allowed to call their little brother anything nearly as bad. At the soccer game, are you yelling instructions at your child and reminding them that you’re judging their performance when you tell them they missed a shot or didn’t run as fast as they could have? You could be teaching the child that they are failures, just not good enough, and that could trickle over to other parts of the child’s life — like the inability to conquer math. Do you remind your child to do book reports for their class but they never see you pick up a book and actually read it? How can they get the idea of how valuable reading is if nobody shows it to them, especially their primary and most important teachers, their parents?
Training up a child is a huge job but it’s probably one of the most important jobs in the world. Just as scripture reminds us, doing it sets them on a path that will impact their whole life — and potentially impact the world along with it. If we want to plant the seeds for the kingdom of God on earth, we have to be willing to tend the young plants that will grow and then produce the next generation of kingdom seeds. It’s more than about just taking them to Sunday school or cheering them on at the soccer game. It’s about showing them what we expect and want from them by doing it ourselves. We learned from our parents, and now it’s time to pass it on. No need to wait for summer vacation to be over; it begins the day they’re born and ends the day we parents take our last breaths. In between are a lot of years of teaching and, oddly enough, learning from our kids.