Great Texts of the Bible
The Training of Children
Train up a child in the way he should go,
And even when he is old he will not depart from it.—Proverbs 22:6The text may have originated with Solomon. If so, it contains the judgment of the most observant and sagacious of men. More probably it was a proverb in Israel, and therefore expresses the general judgment of the race which has trained its children more admirably than any other which has yet appeared on earth.
It is the Scripture expression of the principle on which all education rests, that a child’s training can decide what his afterlife is to be. Without this faith there could be no thought of anything like education; when this faith is elevated to a trust in God and His promises, it grows into the assurance that a parent’s labour will not be in vain in the Lord.
“The Lord hath given the father honour over the children, and hath confirmed the authority of the mother over the sons,” says Ecclesiasticus. It is a rare opportunity which is given to parents. No sphere of influence which they may acquire can be like it; other spheres may be wider, but they can never be so intense or so decisive.
1. To govern their children, parents must first be able to govern themselves. A large part of parental discipline must consist in rewards and punishments. God’s government is full of them. Every act of obedience to His law is rewarded; every act to disobedience is punished. But the Divine punishments are administered without a tinge of passion. When parents punish children, it is often only bad temper at work. A child by his fretful ways makes the house a purgatory until his mother’s patience is exhausted. Then she boxes his ears, and so makes him realize, not that she can govern him, but that she cannot govern herself.
The way to train the child is to train yourself. What you are, he will be. If your hands are morally dirty, his life will be dirtied by the home handling he gets. If he is to obey his mother he must breathe in a spirit of obedience from his mother. Your child will never obey more than you do. The spirit of disobedience in your heart to God, of failure to obey, of preferring your own way to God’s, will be breathed in by your child as surely as he breathes the air into his lungs. A spirit of quiet confidence in God, in the practical things that pinch and push, will breathe itself into the child. A poised spirit, a keen mind, a thoughtful tongue, a cheery hopefulness, an earnest purpose, in mother and father will be taken into the child’s being with every breath. And the reverse is just as true. Every child is an accurate bit of French-plate faithfully showing the likeness of mother and father and home. We must be in heart what we would have the child be in life.1 [Note: S D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 253.]
2. A successful parent will be one who makes the training of the children a constant and religious study. It is the last subject in the world to be left to haphazard. From the first a clear aim must be kept in view. “Is my great object that this boy shall be a true, a noble, a God-fearing man, serving his day and generation in the way God shall appoint?” That is the question which the parent puts to himself.
Among the Bishop’s obiter dicta on education is the following:—“The old heathens had very right notions about the way in which a child ought to be trained up. They had great belief in a pure domestic education. One of them said, ‘Let nothing unclean ever enter into the house where a little child is,’ no drunken man, no quarrelling father or mother, no bad language, no careless, slovenly habits; let nothing of the sort be seen in the house where dwells the little child. A Roman poet has said, ‘The greatest possible reverence is due to a child.’ Some parents are wonderfully careless about what sort of things they say before their children. They seem to forget that the little children are listening, and that their characters are being formed by ten thousand insensible influences that surround them day by day.”1 [Note: J. W. Diggle, The Lancashire Life of Bishop Fraser, 231.]
3. Parents must live near to God if they are to make God real to their children. A mother must hold very real converse with her Lord if His reality is to become obvious to her little ones. “As a child,” says one, “I have had a feeling that God and Jesus were such particular friends of mamma’s, and were honoured more than words could tell.” If such an impression is to be created, depend upon it God and Jesus must be particular friends of ours. No talk, however pious, can create that impression unless the hallowed friendship actually exists.
Mrs. Haldane [the mother of James and Robert Haldane, who did so much for evangelical religion in Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century] belonged to a family in which there had been much true religion. “She lived,” said her eldest son, “very near to God, and much grace was given to her.” When left a widow, it became her chief concern to bring up her children “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” From their infancy she laboured to instil into their minds a sense of the importance of eternity, particularly impressing upon them the necessity of prayer, and teaching them to commit to memory and understand psalms, portions of the Shorter Catechism, and of Scripture. In a memorandum found among his papers, her youngest son James says: “My mother died when I was very young, I believe under six, yet I am convinced that the early impression made on my mind by her care was never entirely effaced; and to this, as an eminent means in the hand of God, I impute any serious thoughts which, in the midst of my folly would sometimes intrude upon my mind, as well as that still small voice of conscience which afterwards led me to see that all below was vanity without an interest in that inheritance which can never fade away.” He adds: “I mention this more particularly because it may lead Christian parents to sow in hope the seed of Divine truth in the minds of their children, and may prevent their considering their efforts unavailing even where the things which they have taught seem to have been uttered in vain. No means of grace is, I apprehend, more, perhaps none is so much, countenanced of God as early religious instruction.”2 [Note: The Lives of Robert and James Alexander Haldane, 11.]
4. Without love in the home, all the parents’ efforts will fail. Love is the only atmosphere in which the spirits of little children can grow. Without it the wisest precepts only choke, and the best-prepared knowledge proves innutritious. It must be a large love, a wise love, an inclusive love, such as God alone can shed abroad in the heart. Love of that kind is very frequently found in “huts where poor men lie,” and consequently the children issuing out of them have been better trained than those whose parents have handed them over to loveless tutors or underlings.
Perhaps there is no criterion by which to estimate a Christian’s life and influence so just, so simple, so ungainsayable, as that of the fruits of his faith and of his works in his own family. It is a quality of virtue, as truly as it is of sin, to reproduce itself! And there is no soil so favourable for the manifestation of a man’s graces as that of his home. He is master of the situation. His sway is almost unlimited. He can plant what he will, and very largely destroy what displeases him. To leave the best soil to itself is sufficient to ensure an abundant crop of weeds. But of what use is the gardener unless he uproots and replaces them with flowers? This is his business. That he can, with care, succeed, is aptly illustrated in the family history of Mrs. Booth. She commanded her children, and insisted on their obeying God, till obedience to His will developed into a blessed habit. It became early easier to be holy than to be sinful, to do good than to do evil, to sacrifice than to enjoy. The children could not fail to imbibe the lessons learnt from the lips and lives of their parents. There was an atmosphere of holy chivalry, which spurred them on to generous and noble deeds.1 [Note: F. Booth-Tucker, The Life of Catherine Booth, ii. 104.]
That childhood is the proper period for education is one of the most obvious of all general truths. It is crystallized in the well-known Scottish proverb—
Learn young, learn fair;
Learn auld, learn sair.
One might almost say that everything is settled by the time a boy or girl reaches fifteen or sixteen. Most of the trials and temptations, and most of the opportunities for development, still lie ahead, but the way in which the boy or girl will meet those temptations, and rise or fail to rise to those opportunities, is to a large extent decided.
1. The child ought to be trained for its own sake. And there are four things which have to be considered in this connexion.
(1) The child has a body. It will depend much upon our knowledge of its physical nature, and our action in regard to it, whether the child will have a healthy life or an unhealthy one. The foundation of many weaknesses and diseases, which the storm and stress of after life bring out, may be laid in childhood.
The body should be trained for its own sake, and for its influence higher up. It should be properly fed and cared for, and taught to obey the laws of the body, that so health may come and stay. It should be developed symmetrically, and trained to hard work. A healthful, supple body is the foundation of strong character and of skill. That is where life starts. This is beginning lowest, but not beginning low. At the lowest it is high. The body has immense influence upon mind and character, occupation and career.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Home Ideals, 237.]
(2) The child has a heart. We appeal to the affections. For the training of these the early years of the life are important. What the child will be in its affectional relations depends largely upon these first years. The child’s first school-room is its mother’s heart, and the child whose mother has a shrivelled and lifeless affectional nature is well-nigh sure to be spoiled.
Passion and emotion were regarded by James Mill as forms of madness, and the “intense” was a by-word of scorn. He advocated the restriction of the private affections and the expansion of altruistic zeal to the utmost. He accepted the dicta of his Utilitarian cult, that men are born alike, and that every child’s mind is a tabula rasa on which experience registers its impressions. In harmony with this conception, education was, of course, the formative factor in determining life and shaping character. It should begin with the dawn of consciousness and be prosecuted without stint. How absolutely James Mill endorsed these views is evident from the methods he adopted in training his eldest son. There have been few more pathetic juvenile histories than that of John Stuart Mill. The story is a strange one; and were it not so well substantiated, doubts as to its accuracy would be legitimate. It has been received with feelings of amazement, mingled with those of sympathy and indignation. Despite the fact that his temperament was highly emotional and even religiously inclined, he was early compelled to face life from the purely intellectual standpoint. Before he was sufficiently mature to register a protest, his father forced him outside the pale of all sentiment, and charged him with the insolence of a philosophical system which had no limitations. Such hard and metallic treatment robbed the son of any opportunity to develop and understand the romantic side of his nature. Many of the sorrows that beset his career can be traced to this well-nigh unpardonable error.1 [Note: S. P. Cadman, Charles Darwin and Other English Thinkers, 94.]
(3) The child has a mind. Observation, perception, the first glimmerings of reason, imagination—the lack of training in regard to any one of these things will make a gap in the life, and it may have serious results. We must train the whole mind, not the intellect only.
You will all recollect that some time ago there was a scandal and a great outcry about certain cutlasses and bayonets which had been supplied to our troops and sailors. These warlike implements were polished as bright as rubbing could make them; they were very well sharpened; they looked lovely. But when they were applied to the test of the work of war they broke and they bent and proved more likely to hurt the hand of him that used them than to do any harm to the enemy. Let me apply that analogy to the effect of education, which is a sharpening and polishing of the mind. You may develop the intellectual side of people as far as you like, and you may confer upon them all the skill that training and instruction can give; but, if there is not underneath all that outside form and superficial polish, the firm fibre of healthy manhood and earnest desire to do well, your labour is absolutely in vain.2 [Note: T. H. Huxley, Collected Essays, iii. 445.]
(4) The child has a soul. The soul is also the creature of habit. The soul learns its habits even as the body and the mind acquire theirs, by use and practice. The habit of living without God is one which may be learned by the child. It is one of the easiest of all habits to acquire. Unlike some other habits, it demands no exertion and no self-denial. But there is another, an opposite, habit of the soul, that of living to God, with God, and in God. That too is a habit, not formed so soon or so easily as the other, yet like it formed by a succession of acts, each easier than the last, and each making the next easier still.
He that has made a leap to-day can more easily make the same leap to-morrow; and he will make a longer or higher leap soon, perhaps the day after. His muscles are stretched, and are also strengthened. This we call practice. From it comes a certain state of the body. So from practice in good or evil comes a certain state of the mind. This is called habit: and it tends to the doing again with more ease what we have already done with less. The thought of that mighty engine! never slumbering, ever working: self-feeding, self-acting: powerful and awful servant of God who ordained it: powerful and restless, too, alike for the destruction and for the salvation of souls. What we do without habit we do because it pleases at the time. But what we do by habit we do even though it pleases little or not at all at the time. Place habit, then, on the side of religion. You cannot depend upon your tastes and feelings towards Divine things to be uniform: lay hold upon an instrument which will carry you over their inequalities, and keep you in the honest practice of your spiritual exercises, when but for this they would have been intermitted.1 [Note: Letters on Church and Religion of William Ewart Gladstone, ii. 419.]
2. The child ought to be trained for national reasons. The true riches of a country lie in its manhood, and the child is manhood in the germ. The promise of the future is in our children. We hear that to keep up an army and navy, to prosecute wars here and there, is necessary to open and keep open markets, and push trade. We are told that trade follows the flag, and that the Union Jack is a commercial asset. There is a more valuable commercial asset that we are in danger of ignoring—the child.
There is a story told of a procession in an ancient city. The old veterans, whose days were drawing to a close, but who had spent years in the service of their nation, walked first. They were led by a man bearing aloft the motto, “We have been brave.” They were followed by those in active service, the manhood of the people, who bore the motto, “We are brave.” The rear was brought up by the youths and lads, who bore aloft this inscription, “We will be brave.”2 [Note: J. W. Clayton, The Genius of God, 55.]
The Education of the Child
For the word here, chanok, translated “train up,” there are two root meanings, the one “to make narrow,” the other “to put into the mouth for taste and nutrition.” Instruction comprehends both conceptions: (1) making narrow, i.e., restraint of all wayward courses, repression of selfish desires and unruly passions; (2) the imparting of Bound intellectual nourishment with a view to the growth and vigour of man’s higher life.
1. Let us consider first of all the idea of restraint—the negative side of this question of education. We know that weak and sentimental nature which shrinks from inflicting pain under any circumstances. Seizing on the ill-understood doctrine that love is the sovereign power in life and in education, it pleads in the name of love that the offender may be spared, that he may escape the due penalty of his fault. That is not a love like God’s love.
Our Heavenly Father chastens His children; by most gracious punishments He brings home to them the sense of sin, and leads them to repentance and amendment. And earthly parents, in proportion as they are led by the Spirit and filled with love, will correct their children, not for their own pleasure, but for their children’s good. The truth which underlies these apparently harsh injunctions is this: Love inflicts punishments, nor are any punishments so severe as those which love inflicts; and only the punishments which love inflicts are able to reform and to save the character of the delinquent.
One of the child’s main objects in life seems to be imposing its own will on those about it, and this will which the child is always contending for is the merest caprice, and formed no grownup person can say why. Without experience one could hardly believe what a constant warfare the child wages in getting its own way. That the way of the grown-up person may conceivably be better never comes into the child’s head. The child feels the grown person to be stronger, and it learns to submit without the least show of resistance, just as we submit to the weather. But the judicious, loving elder does not like to be always opposing, and is afraid of crushing the child’s free action, so we naturally let the child have its way wherever we can. Then we come to a point where the child’s will would cause great inconvenience, perhaps risks that cannot be faced. Then comes the tug. If the child is not coaxed to attend to something else, it sets up a howl and makes itself almost intolerable. Our children have never gained anything in this way, and they mostly understand when they have pushed their own will as far as they will be allowed, but at times they turn “naughty,” and the childish “I shan’t!” has to be met by force majeure.1 [Note: Life and Remains of the Rev. R. H. Quick, 300.]
2. But education has also a positive side. Wise penalties and “reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself causeth shame to his mother.” The child must not be left to himself. The parent must bring home to his child’s heart those truths of experience which the child cannot at present know. He must train the child with a view to the growth and vigour of man’s higher life. How is he to set about this task?
(1) By wise observation.—Children are born to go different ways. The master in a menagerie trains each animal according to its nature. He does not try to make a falcon swim, or a fish fly, or an otter climb. But the distinctions between children are no less radical, and are far more subtle and difficult to discern. Parents should remember that because they have succeeded with one child they are in danger of failing with another. They think they have only to cast each child into the same candle mould which shaped their first so well. If men would observe their children, upon whose welfare their most precious hopes depend, with half the judicious care they have bestowed upon beasts and birds and fishes and insects, great would be their reward.
The motherly love of the penguin which smothers its offspring was not hers. She saw that mistaken concern illustrated in many a household which was a model of motherly care in the eyes of a blind world. The result of leading-strings and culture under glass was a feeble manhood and a silly womanhood, was failure of the most dire and dreadful kind. Her little folks were treasures given to her to guard and protect, not to mould into her own image. They had personalities of their own, and inheritances of their own. They were individuals not appendages, and it was her duty, she thought, to enrich them by teaching them how to use their own talents and faculties. Hers was to provide an atmosphere for them to breathe, a purity for them to feel, a liberty for them to employ. She seemed to say: “I am at hand to hold and to help you if necessary, but I want you to develop your own little selves so that when you are men and women you will be persons of a free will and not creatures of circumstance.” She believed in discipline, but not the discipline of force, not the bowing to an outside order which imposed itself by punishment, but the discipline of spiritual desire, of reasoned conduct, of moral control of emotion and appetite. The words she used in a sentence in the letter she wrote telling her children that their grandmother had died were very significant, “We must try to comfort each other.”1 [Note: J. Ramsay MacDonald, Margaret Ethel MacDonald, 130.]
(2) By good instruction.—A character which is not built up on the basis of truth, and in which there are not deep and strong convictions of truth, will seldom stand the test of this world, and most assuredly will not stand the test of the next. Truth is as much the natural staff of life for the soul as bread is for the body. It cannot be strong and healthy without it. Ignorance is the starvation of the soul; error is its poison; truth is its food and healing medicine.
You are bound to initiate your children, not merely to the joys and desires of life, but to life itself; to its duties, and to its moral Law of Government. Few mothers, few fathers, in this irreligious age—and even especially in the wealthier classes—understand the true gravity of their educational mission. Few mothers, few fathers, remember that the numerous victims, the incessant struggles, and the lifelong martyrdom of our day, are in a great measure the fruit of the egotism instilled thirty years back by the weak mothers and heedless fathers who allowed their children to accustom themselves to regard life, not as a mission and a duty, but as a search after happiness, and a study of their own well-being.2 [Note: Life and Writings of Joseph Mazzini, iv. 287.]
(a) God.—It cannot be inculcated with too much force and frequency that the very highest truths are those which should be imparted at the earliest possible period in a child’s history. It is important that as soon as the laws of a child’s mind can admit the thought, it should be taught concerning Him who made it and all things, and who rules in heaven and on earth.
A child takes in nothing more easily than the thought of One who made the flowers of the earth and the stars of the sky; and as it early comes to know what is meant by love to its parents, it may easily be taught to know what is meant by love to God.1 [Note: E. Mellor, The Hem of Christ’s Garment, 63.]
(b) Christ.—If we are in the wrong way, the more vigorously we prosecute the journey the sooner will disaster come. If we do not train children in truth and righteousness, it would be better that we should not train them at all. Christ is the truth, and the Scriptures the standard by which truth may be known. This is not only religiously the best solution of the question, but philosophically the only solution that can be given.
I have no right to pray for my children unless I am, by my lips and by my life, labouring ceaselessly to lead them to the Saviour’s feet. “Wherefore criest thou unto me? Speak ye to the children!” I never read that text without thinking of Susanna Wesley. Was there ever a mother like that mother of the Wesleys? One night she had been praying for her great family. “At last,” she says, “it came into my mind that I might do more than I do. I resolved to begin. I will take such proportion of time as I can best spare every night to discourse with each child by itself.” How Susanna Wesley kept that good resolution, and with what tremendous and earth-shaking results, the whole world very well knows.2 [Note: F. W. Boreham, Mountains in the Mist, 251.]
(c) The Bible.—If we do not adopt the Bible as our standard in training the young, moral training is impossible. If in moral principles every man is his own lawgiver, there is no law at all, and no authority. You may train a fruit-tree by nailing its branches to a wall, or by tying them to an espalier railing; but the tree whose branches have nothing to lean on but air is not trained at all. It is not a dispute between the Scriptures and some other rival standard, for no such standard exists or is proposed. It is a question between the Bible as a standard, and no standard at all.
With all my heart I believe that the best basis for education, with which no other documents, catechetical or otherwise, can be compared, is the Holy Scriptures. I should deplore, with more sorrow than I can express, if the time should ever come when these sacred Scriptures—the most simple, as they are the highest literature in the world, the most fitted to instil goodness into the mind of the child, as they are the most fitted to inspire all nobleness and piety and charity in the heart of man,—I should deplore if the time ever came when the reading and teaching of these Scriptures should form no longer a part of our common educational system. I believe absolutely in the power of the teacher to read and explain the Holy Scriptures without any sectarian admixture. I believe that all that has been said on this point is simply theory, and that practically there is no difficulty. Sectarianism! why the whole spirit of the Bible is opposed to sectarianism. Its living study, its simple reading, are the best correction of sectarianism; and our Churches, one and all, are only sectarian in so far as they have departed from the Bible and thrown it aside.1 [Note: Principal Tulloch, in Memoir, by Mrs. Oliphant, 266.]
(3) By a good example.—Good instruction is sunlight, but it will not of itself develop and mature a godly life. Children are far less influenced by precept than by example, and it is often the saddest feature in home training that there is so glaring a disparity between the instructions of parents and their own visible and unmistakable life. Our lives are the forces which are in most constant operation upon the minds and hearts of our children. Our character is a stream, a river flowing down upon our children hour by hour. What we do here and there to carry an opposing influence is, at best, only a ripple that we make on the surface of the stream; it reveals the sweep of the current, nothing more. If we expect our children to go with the ripple instead of the stream we shall be disappointed.
Example is one of the most important of instructors, though it teaches without a tongue. Precept may point the way, but it is silent, continuous example, conveyed to us by habits and living with us, that carries us along. Good advice has its weight, but without the accompaniment of a good example it is of comparatively small influence: and it will be found that the common saying of “Do as I say, not as I do,” is usually reversed in the actual experience of life. All persons are more apt to learn through the eye rather than the ear, and whatever is seen in fact makes a deeper impression than anything that is read or heard. This is especially the case in early life, when the eye is the chief inlet of knowledge. Whatever children see they unconsciously imitate, and they insensibly become like to those who are about them. Hence the importance of domestic training. For, however efficient our schools, the examples set in our homes must always be of greater influence in forming the characters of our future men and women; and from that source, be it pure or tainted, issue the habits and principles which govern public as well as private life. From this central spot the human sympathies radiate to an ever-widening circle until the world is embraced: for though true philanthropy, like charity, begins at home, assuredly it does not end there.1 [Note: S. Smiles, Self-Help.]
3. This training is indeed a work of watchful anxiety, attended with painful, and often long-protracted, exercise of faith and patience. Who can hold on to it, but for the Divine support of the parental promise—“When he is old he shall not depart from it”? The man will be as the child is trained. Education is utterly distinct from grace. But when conducted in the spirit, and on the principles, of the Word of God, it is a means of imparting it. Sometimes the fruit is immediate, uniform, and permanent. But in many cases “the bread cast upon the waters of the covenant is found,” not till “after many days,” perhaps not till the godly parent has been laid in the grave. Yet the fruit, though late, will be not the less sure.
In the year 1746, on a small island lying off the western coast of Africa, there might be seen a young man of English birth living in a condition of the most abject misery. He was the servant, it might almost be said the slave, of a trafficker in human flesh, who was himself, through his vile lusts, under the bondage of a ferocious negress, by whom his establishment was ruled. Against the English youth her heart was specially set. She starved him; she caused him to be unjustly beaten; she instigated his master against him by false accusations; she refused him when burning with fever even a draught of cold water. Such was the barbarity to which she subjected him that, but for a naturally strong constitution, and the secret assistance of some of the poor slaves of the household, he must have perished. What had brought this youth, who was the son of respectable parents and who had received a good education in his native country, to this deplorable condition? It was chiefly his own wickedness, recklessness, and folly. He had been a wild, ungovernable youth, and had plunged himself into such an abyss of evil that his friends felt it was hopeless to strive to save him, and so they left him to sink. Who that saw that youth in his misery and his wickedness could have believed it possible that ere many years had passed he should be one of the most influential clergymen in the British Metropolis, a man of devout piety and zeal for God, a man loved, respected, looked up to by the whole religious world of his day, a man who should leave the stamp of his goodness on the nation at large? And yet all that and more came to pass. The youth was John Newton, the friend of Cowper, the author along with him of the Olney Hymns, and the most venerable name among the Evangelical clergy of the Church of England. And to what did John Newton owe his rescue from the terrible pit into which he had fallen? His mother had died when he was only six years of age, and had been spared the misery of witnessing his career of vice, folly, degradation. But she was a godly woman, and during these six years she had stored his mind with Divine truth, and her earnest prayers for him had gone up for a memorial before God. These early lessons, he himself records, he never could get rid of, even during the wildest part of his career. Do what he would there they were, stamped indelibly on his soul, and ever and anon they would thrust themselves upon his notice. And when at length his heart was softened, and his spirit bowed to seek the Lord, the words spoken by that gentle mother in the nursery, long years before, came sounding in his ears again, as words of power, and life, and purity.1 [Note: W. Lindsay Alexander, Christian Thought and Work, 268.]
Clayton (J. W.), The Genius of God, 50.
Horton (R. F.), The Book of Proverbs (Expositor’s Bible), 303.
Mackey (H. O.), Miniature Sermons, 62.
Mellor (E.), The Hem of Christ’s Garment, 52.
Miller (J.), Sermons, i. 137.
Murray (A.), The Children for Christ, 170.
Norton (J. N.), Old Paths, 479.
Rutherford (J. S.), The Seriousness of Life, 167.
Ryle (J. C.), The Upper Room, 282.
Vaughan (C. J.), Memorials of Harrow Sundays, 215.
Wright (W. B.), The World to Come, 124.
Christian World Pulpit, xxxiv. 341 (H. Jones).