Bringing Up a Moral Child

Many parents, including single parents, are raising well-adjusted, moral children who successfully enter adulthood. Why are these families successful when so many others are not?

image What do they do that others don't? More importantly, how can you successfully help your children in this often-perilous journey to adulthood?

We saw in the previous chapter that the two societal trends of increasing divorce and placing children in daycare so parents can work have made it more difficult for parents to rear moral children. Both trends have had a significant impact on children.

Marriages today seem to be much more fragile than in previous generations. Fewer people are getting married, and when they do, they are older than previous generations were at their first marriage. Couples are also having fewer children and are divorcing more.

The breadwinner-and-homemaker couple with several children of previous generations has been replaced by today's postmodern family—often characterized by single parents, blended families, unmarried or remarried parents and two-career households.

With the deconstruction of stable family units of previous generations, more single parents have been economically pressured into placing their children in daycare so they can have more freedom to earn a living. The result is that children are not receiving the training they so desperately need from their parents—the adults who can have the most profound influence on them. Devoid of moral instruction, many children create problems for their parents, teachers, themselves and society at large.

In spite of these negative trends, many parents, including single parents, are raising well-adjusted, moral children who successfully enter adulthood. Why are these families successful when so many others are not? What do they do that others don't? More importantly, how can you successfully help your children in this often-perilous journey to adulthood?

A good foundation

A somewhat humorous definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while hoping for a different result. Applying this principle to families today, many couples continue to divorce and/or place their children in daycare facilities while hoping that they and their children won't suffer the penalties that so often accompany these actions.

Two of the simple and yet most effective things we can do to successfully rear responsible, moral children are to stay married to the person with whom we had the children and to take care of our own children rather than letting others watch them while we go to work.

While doing these two things lays the best foundation for child rearing, many families will not have these advantages. It is estimated that of the 20 million children under the age of 5 in America today, only half have mothers who are at home full time.

Why is it that having both biological parents is so important for children? God reveals that He intended for husbands and wives to remain married to each other for life, and many studies confirm that children of such unions are far better off than those growing up in homes with a single parent.

It has been discovered, for example, that fathers, by their own actions, teach their sons how to be a man and how to treat women. Fathers are also most influential for daughters in helping them have self-confidence and avoid premarital sex. Mothers are generally best at teaching children to get along and respect the feelings of others.

In contrast to children growing up with both of their biological parents, "children from divorced homes are 70 percent more likely than those living with biological parents to be expelled or suspended from school. Those living with never-married mothers are twice as likely to be expelled or suspended.

"Also, children who do not live with both biological parents are 45 to 95 percent more likely to require parent/teacher meetings to deal with performance or behavior problems than those who live with married parents" (Deborah Dawson, "Family Structure and Children's Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Health Interview Survey on Child Health," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 1991, pp. 573-584). They are also more likely to have poorer health, smoke and experience accidents and injuries.

If you have children, are single and work outside your home, don't become discouraged. You, too, can raise happy, healthy, moral children; you'll just have to work a little harder and smarter (something we'll deal with later in this chapter). And if you are a dual-career family, consider having one spouse quit his or her job to stay home, or arrange your schedules so one of you is always at home with your young children. 

The perils of peer pressure

Most everyone today understands the powerful influence of peer pressure. What other people think and do subtly coerces us to do the same. And as teens and young adults are especially susceptible to peer pressure, there are several important aspects about influence that wise parents need to understand.

First, parents can take great comfort from the fact that "peers do not begin to have a significant effect on a child until the age of seven or eight, by which time most basic traits, such as sociability, introversion, perseverance, and responsiveness to authority, have already been well established" (Evans, p. 53). The message here is that wise parents realize a critical window of opportunity exists for training their children before peer pressure begins to affect them.

image When children are taught proper moral values at an early age, they are likely to maintain those character traits for the remainder of their lives. While young people can be more easily influenced regarding things such as dress, language and music after age 8, their underlying character traits, established in their early years, will most likely remain. Wise parents will teach their children God's laws, including those that explain how to get along with others and to respect authority, during this critical time period.

Another important principle for parents to understand is that they —not the schools or their children's peers—can have the greatest influence on their offspring if they so choose. Sadly, the trend among many parents today is to focus on their own needs while overlooking the needs of their children. Yet training and preparing the next generation is arguably the most important work parents can do.

Being a parent means being a loving authority figure in children's lives all the way through their maturing process until they are ready to live on their own. Sadly, some parents foolishly try to become their young children's buddy or friend, foregoing discipline and instruction. This doesn't work well for either parents or children. There is a friendship stage of life between parents and children, but it comes much later—after children have been trained and are fully grown.

Continuing to provide guidance for children through their teenage years is also an important factor in helping them resist negative peer pressure. According to Evans, "the most significant thing that parents can do about peer pressure—it is truly significant—is to be authoritative throughout childhood, to provide sufficient levels of nurture, structure, and latitude . . .

"Authoritative parents who are both responsive and demanding raise children who tend to be less susceptible to dangerous peer influence (drugs and alcohol, for example) and to perform better in school than the children of parents who are permissive or authoritarian [overly strict]" (pp. 54-55).

God's command to teach

From the beginning God instructed parents to teach their children religious values. Speaking to the ancient Israelites, God said: "And these words which I command you today [the Ten Commandments in the preceding chapter and the great commandment of the preceding verse to love God with all one's heart, soul and strength] shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy:6:6-7).

God's instruction begins with the expectation that parents will accept and fully live by His laws themselves, the meaning of "these words . . . shall be in your heart." They would first and foremost teach them by example —the most powerful teaching method of all. But that's not all. God not only told parents to teach their children His ways, but He instructed them to do it diligently. He said to do it throughout the day when they were sitting, walking, going to bed or getting up in the morning.

This does not mean just formal, classroom-style teaching, although such teaching is appropriate. It also entails practical, down-to-earth learning and application of God's way of life while the family went about its daily activities.

This kind of teaching requires much more than a once-a-week session at church services. It must be a regular practice, all week long, so that it becomes a way of life. 

Abraham, called the friend of God in James:2:23, was given high praise by God for teaching his children and household God's way of life. In Genesis:18:19 God says of Abraham, "For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him."

Abraham was conscientious in obeying God, and his descendants—Isaac, Jacob and Joseph—also diligently followed God's ways.

King Solomon understood that when we reach maturity, we reflect the training we have received as children (Proverbs:22:6, see also "Proverbs and Proper Training" on page 63). This also includes religious training. History clearly shows that when Israel neglected teaching and obeying God's laws as they were told to do in Deuteronomy 6, they suffered tragic results.

In Ephesians:6:4 the apostle Paul wrote, "And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." This statement is simply a continuation of the same principle God gave the Israelite families in the Old Testament.

Today we need to likewise teach our children God's laws. These laws, when applied, provide a moral compass to guide their conduct for the rest of their lives.

Consider the Ten Commandments that God revealed from Mt. Sinai. These instructions teach us how to love God and respectfully interact with and show love to others. They contain injunctions against murder, adultery, stealing, lying and materialism while supporting marriage and special respect for parents. People who live in accordance with these commands are moral people—the kind of people we can trust and enjoy being with.

When children are properly taught God's moral values, they become moral people. When they go to school, they understand that moral people live by a code of conduct that requires them to act honorably and show respect to others.

They know how to share their toys and follow directions. They do not have to be the center of attention. These children are delightful to teach and are generally very successful in school and in their lives that follow. (If you'd like to know more about God's laws, request or download our free booklet The Ten Commandments .)

How to teach

Biblical passages on parenting show that God wants us to use love, patience, dignity and respect in working with our children—just as He does with us. Love is the foundational principle for all Christian relationships (Matthew:22:37-40; John:13:34-35). Paul said obeying the Ten Commandments expresses love toward God and love toward our neighbor (Romans:13:9-10).

Just as God gives us laws because He loves us, we must give our children "laws"—rules—if we love them (Hebrews:12:7). Loving our children does include discipline. Establishing fair rules and consequences for breaking those rules has been described as setting up boundaries. The purpose for boundaries is that our children learn appropriate behavior and feel secure.

Proverbs:29:17 says, "Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul" (NIV). Verse 15 adds that "a child left to himself brings shame to his mother."

Our attitude toward our children is perhaps the single most important consideration in proper child rearing. Our words and actions show our children whether we love them. Are you willing to sacrifice for them? Without a child's assurance of our love, it is unlikely that our child-rearing efforts will produce the favorable results we want to see—moral, mature, responsible and caring young men and women.

Dealing with frustration

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All parents at times become frustrated with their children's behavior. When this happens, it's easy for a father or mother to convey the impression that he or she doesn't love the child. Some parents, by means of angry, frustrated reactions and comments, make their children feel they are worthless or that their parents despise them.

This, of course, is a serious mistake. They may be upset about only one negative trait or action but make the child feel as if he or she is an altogether bad person. It is essential that parents control their anger when correcting a child and that they make clear the specific behavior, action or attitude for which the child is being punished.

To raise a moral child parents should clearly explain the biblical principle involved. There is a huge difference between parents telling children to do something "because I say so" versus "because God says so." Explaining to children that we do this because God tells us to do so teaches a child moral values and respect for authority.

The apostle Paul offers this instruction to parents: "Fathers, do not irritate and provoke your children to anger—do not exasperate them to resentment—but rear them [tenderly] in the training and discipline and the counsel and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians:6:4, Amplified Bible).

In other words, parents should be sure their children know, even when they are being corrected, that they are loved. This is not to say that parents should never display anger, but it must be obviously directed toward the child's misbehavior. It should always be controlled and brief. God Himself becomes angry at times, but He doesn't lose His temper—and He always has a righteous purpose for His indignation and resulting actions.

When children know that they are deeply cared for and that correction comes because of their parents' love for them, such correction will not provoke the children to anger and rebellion. On the other hand, statements that a child perceives as painting him and his character and attitude as worthless may make him feel rejected and can eventually lead to rebellious behavior and dangerous activities.

If a parent tells a child he or she is no good, the child may believe it and live up to that appraisal. To show active rather than passive love for our kids, we must extend sincere compliments and praise when they're due. This reassures our children they are loved and appreciated.

Also, positive reinforcement of good behavior—done through praise and compliments for a specific action—is a very valuable and influential method of teaching. Sadly, too many parents ignore opportunities to reinforce good behavior and only talk to their children when they have misbehaved.

Authority not to be abused

Because human beings have a tendency to abuse authority, some have mistakenly concluded that all authority is bad. This is not true. God intended for authority to be used for good (Romans:13:1-4).

Jesus commanded His disciples not to "lord it over" others in the Church (Matthew:20:25-28). In similar fashion, Colossians:3:21 says, "Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged."

Ephesians:6:4 also tells parents not to use forms of authority that intimidate, bully or make children angry. God expressly forbids physical and emotional abuse of children. To those who foolishly reject God's direction on this issue, Proverbs:11:29 declares, "He who troubles his own house will inherit the wind . . ."

An inclusive, relational approach

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Jesus Christ's attitude toward children is instructive to parents. Several passages in the New Testament record Jesus rebuking His disciples for trying to keep little children away from Him (Matthew:19:13-14; Mark:10:14; Luke:18:16). Jesus had a positive attitude toward children and showed them personal attention by picking them up in His arms, praying for them and using them as teaching examples for adults. Christ was not too important or too busy to give them some of His time. We, too, must be willing to do the same. 

In Deuteronomy:6:20-25, which tells the families of ancient Israel how to teach their children, the instruction for parents to use the pronouns we, us and our is significant. For instance, in verse 25 they are told to say: "Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the LORD our God, as He has commanded us." These pronouns indicate that parents should use an inclusive, relational approach in teaching their children God's ways. Obeying God is supposed to be a shared family experience.

In one of the most passionate pleas to influence behavior, God, as our Heavenly Father, straightforwardly instructed ancient Israel in His laws and the consequences for obeying or disobeying them. God concludes His plea, recorded in Deuteronomy 28 to 30, with this: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy:30:19).

Did you notice? God emphatically said, "choose life" for your own good. We, too, must be loving and passionate about our desire for our children to adopt God's standards as their own. We must work to help them do so and strive to influence them to make that free moral choice.

The importance of personal example

Our own example is paramount in properly influencing our children. Children are quick to notice discrepancies between what adults ask them not to do and what they do themselves. In some cases those differences are logically defensible. For instance, children should not drive cars if they are not of the legal age and do not have the skills necessary for safely operating a vehicle. It is a different story, however, when children see a double standard on moral issues.

Paul pointed out this principle to Jews who were trying to influence gentiles (non-Jews) yet were hypocritical: "You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that a man should not steal, do you steal? You who say, 'Do not commit adultery,' do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who make your boast in the law, do you dishonor God through breaking the law? For 'the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' as it is written" (Romans:2:21-24).

Parents cannot expect a "do as I say and not as I do" approach to bring success. Nothing is more ineffective than for a parent who uses foul language to try to correct his child for using the same. How can a parent teach responsibility if his own actions are irresponsible, if they bring needless hardship on the family?

Regardless of what parents say, most young people will adopt their parents' standards and lifestyles by the time they reach 25 to 35 years of age. In this case, actions do speak louder than words!

Quality time

The concept of quality time has become a popular notion for busy parents who have little time to spend with their children. They salve their consciences by telling themselves they will make up the missed time with their children by spending some quality time with them on a future occasion. Regrettably, such action doesn't always work as well as parents hope. To children, all time with their parents is valuable and one can't always expect every occasion spent together to be of similar or equal value. 

There is no substitute for time spent with our children. Our time is our life, and giving some of it to our children reassures them that they are loved. A parent who provides his children with plenty of material possessions but little personal time is missing a vital point. Children do not equate the parent's time on the job working to provide for the family with love for them. They think it means Dad doesn't like to spend time with them. Our time is the most valuable gift we can give to our children.

Sociologist Mark Warr of the University of Texas explained that recent studies "raise serious questions about the emphasis on quality time so prevalent today. Although quality time is surely desirable, the quantity of time spent with the family is not irrelevant. Contemporary arguments notwithstanding, small amounts of quality time may not be sufficient to offset the criminogenic aspects of peer culture to which adolescents are commonly exposed" ( Family in America, February 1994).

While spending quality time with children is a noble goal, many parents don't really understand what makes this type of time different. Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo in their Let the Children Come Along the Virtuous Way parenting program define quality time as "an activity that promotes communicating and sharing" (Leader's Guide, p. 79).

According to this definition, many activities such as going to a movie or playing games are not really quality time. In fact, the Ezzos "challenge the contemporary notion of quality time and quantity time with the view that time is not the best measurement, but the caliber of relationship is. This can be gauged by how often children turn to Dad for advice and counseling" (Leader's Guide, p. 91).

image Real quality time is time when children open up to their parents, revealing what they are thinking and asking for their advice. These special times can't just be ordered up on demand. They often occur as unscheduled events and can come at inopportune times. But wise parents will do all they can to listen and respond to their children with the utmost love and respect when these special times do occur.

Of course, regular time spent with parents can also be valuable. Ideally, children should spend enough time with their parents to see them working around the home as well as enjoying special occasions. By working with their parents, youth learn how to work. By doing a good deed for someone with their parents, they learn how to give to others. When kids see Dad give Mom a kiss and observe both parents treating each other with respect, they learn how a loving marriage works.

While some adults may not rate these things as quality time, the reality is that they are essential for the healthy development of socially mature children.

The role of discipline

An important part of teaching is discipline, which involves guidance, training, molding one's character and punishment. Punishment by paddling or spanking is a controversial subject in many societies. Some parents believe in it; others are adamantly against it.

The educational system is a major factor in this ongoing debate. Corporal punishment has virtually disappeared from many public schools. In some countries, governments have outlawed it completely.

The Bible speaks on this issue (Proverbs:13:24; 22:15; 23:13-14), but it does not sanction abuse, as some would argue. Nor should the passages cited here be understood to imply that this is the only effective means of discipline.

An important point to remember is that there are other ways to administer punishment. Verbal correction, removal of privileges, restricting freedoms and adding extra chores are a few. Sometimes such methods work well, and some may be more effective with one child than another. Some children are more sensitive and respond to scolding. Others require bolder steps to teach the lesson. The result is the important thing. A godly principle is to use only as much punishment as is required to achieve the needed result.

God's discipline

Consider that God chastises Christians out of love for them. Notice Hebrews:12:5-11: "And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children —'My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.'

image "Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?

"For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (NRSV).

The preceding passage from Hebrews quotes Proverbs:3:11-12, comparing God's correction of us as His children to human parents disciplining their children out of love and concern for them.

These verses teach us several vital principles regarding discipline. From them we learn:

(1) God disciplines in love.

(2) Discipline is not rejection but part of our maturing and growth.

(3) Discipline produces respect.

(4) Discipline produces good fruit and righteousness.

The Greek word for "discipline" in the passage in Hebrews includes the concepts of education and training, corrective guidance and corrective punishment. Proper child rearing involves all of these elements of training and focuses on the long-term benefits to the child.

Another biblical principle that parents should consider when evaluating methods of discipline is expressed by the apostle Paul: "Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves" (Romans:13:1-2). That being so, parents should understand that some disciplinary practices recommended in the Scriptures may be restricted by local, state or national laws.

What about hurting their feelings?

Some parents are opposed to corrective discipline because it hurts their children's feelings. Yet this is what discipline is supposed to do. Hebrews:12:11 explains that there is a "painful" aspect to discipline.

Family psychologist John Rosemond affirms this principle, saying, ". . . Discipline does not have to hurt a child physically in order to 'leave its mark,' but it must always hurt the child's feelings, otherwise it is worthless." Continuing, he adds, "Without that pain, a conscience will never form" (ParentingbyTheBook.com/essay_4.htm).

Blessing of responsibility

The Bible tells us that children are wonderful gifts, truly blessings from God (Psalm:127:3). Yet they need guidance and instruction. They each need the special one-on-one care and teaching that only parents can give.

Bringing up children from helpless babes to responsible, moral adults is perhaps the greatest responsibility we can have in this life, and it can bring great rewards. The blessing for doing so is twofold. First, children derive all the benefits from living in a godly home and being taught God's ways. Second, we parents become spiritually mature as we struggle with ourselves and the challenges of raising godly children in an ungodly world.

Being a wise and loving parent is a challenging responsibility that helps us prepare for being part of God's eternal family. May we and our children fulfill the wonderful destiny God has in store for each of us!

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