The other day I was talking with a friend, whose last child has just “left the nest.” I, too, have recently entered the same phase of life. We both expressed some sadness about no longer having kids at home. Then my friend was quick to add, “Well, at least our kids have grown up to be successful adults.” And that really is the goal for parents, isn’t it? As parents, we are to help our children learn how to lead successful lives.
This brings us to the obvious question: How do we define success? Dictionaries generally define success as “achieving a favorable or desired outcome,” or “the attainment of wealth, prominence, power or superiority.” It can also mean different things to each of us individually. For many people, it means landing a high-profile job, earning a six-figure salary, driving a luxury vehicle, or socializing with “influential” people. Parents might view success for their kids in terms of them getting accepted into a prestigious college, making high grades, or earning varsity letters.
When my friend noted that we had raised “successful adults,” she was might have been thinking about some of those things, but that wasn’t her focus. She was primarily referring to the kind of success—which I’ll refer to as true success—that is described in the Bible.
Defining true success
In many ways, the type of success that the Bible endorses is diametrically opposed to the counterfeit success that so many in society seek. True success involves seeking what has eternal value; counterfeit success is fleeting. Still, there is some overlap. Both involve achieving a “favorable or desired outcome.” But with true success, the aim is what God wants for us—not the self-centered goals humans innately desire. It means learning to live by biblical teachings, growing in godly character and aligning our will with God’s.
Both true and counterfeit success can involve seeking some of the same things, like wisdom (Proverbs 3:13, Proverbs 4:7, Proverbs 8:11), leadership positions (1 Timothy 3:1), rewards (Luke 6:35, Luke 19:12-27; Colossians 3:23-24), and a good name (Proverbs 22:1-2, Ecclesiastes 7:1). The difference is that with true success, the reason to work for these things isn’t to exalt ourselves or to be seen as important (as is often the case with worldly success), but rather to simply do our best and reflect Godly standards, and to be able to use our physical resources, the skills and talents we’ve developed, and any authority or position we may have, to help others.
Important habits to build in your children
If you’ve got children, steering them to true success could certainly be included in the biblical charge to “train up a child in the way that he should go” (Proverbs 22:6). But how exactly can you encourage them to strive for success? Motivational speakers tell us that success is largely dependent on what kind of habits we form. While the Bible does not specifically speak of “habits,” it does elaborate on behavioral and thinking patterns that lead to true success. What follows are seven of them. These are all constructive habits to teach kids.
1. To pray and read the Bible every day
The most important habit you could teach your kids is to make time every day for prayer and Bible study. Ideally, start out when they’re young, praying with them each day before they go to school or start their days, and again before they go to bed. Lead the prayers, but ask your kids to participate by adding to what you say. Go over the model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 with them so they can see the basic outline of what to pray about. Explain that prayer builds our relationship with God, which is essential if we are to live our lives like we should. If you start out praying with your children when they’re preschoolers, hopefully by the time they’re preteens, praying will have become an established routine for them and they will do it on their own.
You should also establish a time each day—perhaps right after breakfast or sometime in the evening before they’re too sleepy—to read the Bible with your kids for at least a few minutes. With young children, you might just read Bible stories. But as your kids get older, teach them how to do studies on particular Bible topics and passages, and to meditate on what the Bible says. Discuss Joshua 1:8 with them—which says practicing and meditating on God’s laws brings “good” success.
2. To always look to God for guidance
When your kids are facing decisions or dilemmas, teach them to look to God for guidance. Urge them to pray about the situation and ask God to “open the right doors” and provide discernment and wise counseling. Show them how they can do a Bible study to find instruction about what they should do. Explain that even if the Bible doesn’t directly address particular circumstances, it does provide underlying principles that can help steer us in the right direction. Always emphasize that when we do what it says in Proverbs 3:5-6—to look to God for direction, rather than lean on their own understanding—God will “smooth out” our paths and even remove obstacles for us.
3. To prioritize what has eternal value
We live in a highly materialistic society. Television and social media ads bombard us constantly, telling us that having more, more, more is the key to happiness. Many American families have overstuffed closets filled with all kinds of toys, games, sporting equipment, and other “stuff.” Help your kids understand, that while it’s nice to be able to enjoy these things, this physical existence is temporary and accumulating a lot of possessions isn’t what’s most important. Don’t assume they know this—especially when society is broadcasting the opposite message.
Do some Bible studies and family discussions with your kids, addressing what has value beyond this life and what doesn’t. Go over verses like Matthew 6:20 and Colossians 3:2 which instruct us to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” and “set your minds on things that are above.” This is vital—so they won’t be putting too much time and energy into what only has temporary “value.”
4. To have a service mindset
An important element of true success that Jesus Christ emphasized during his time on earth was that of service toward others. He is quoted in Matthew 20:26 as saying, “Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.” 1 Peter 4:10 adds: “Use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms" (New International Version).
Teach your children to use their talents and resources not only for their own purposes, but to provide for the needs of others. Make this a regular talking point in your home. When you see an opportunity for service—for instance, an elderly shut-in who would like some company or a neighbor who needs help with yardwork—point it out to your kids. Let them experience first-hand the satisfaction that comes from putting others’ needs first.
5. To be willing to face challenges
Another important aspect of success to stress is courage. The Bible says to “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:9). Encourage your children to be willing to step out of their “comfort zones” and do what needs to be done or builds skills, even when it seems hard or scary. That might mean facing bullies at school, pushing themselves to participate in a new activity like snorkeling or skiing, introducing themselves to new people, or being willing to speak up about a wrong that is happening when no one else is.
Remind them that as long as we are attempting something good, that isn’t foolish, and especially if it’s something the Bible commands us to do, that God will be with us and strengthen us. Thus, we have no reason to fear and every reason to act boldly. Do some family discussions focusing on Joshua 1:9, Isaiah 41:10, Philippians 4:13, and Proverbs 28:1. Explain that growth happens when we do what’s necessary or challenge ourselves, even when it’s uncomfortable. Success is a result of that growth.
6. To enjoy learning
Try to instill a desire in your kids to be lifelong learners—not only in terms of the Bible, but in other worthwhile subjects that will help improve their personal skill sets and expand their thinking. Proverbs 19:27 tells us we should always keep learning: “Cease listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.”
To spark an interest in learning, limit your kids’ television viewing and encourage plenty of reading and open-ended family discussions where you’re exploring topics together. When you go on family vacations, include a visit to a museum or historical site. When they’re around people with unique backgrounds, encourage them to ask them questions and listen carefully to learn from them. A child who enjoys learning becomes an adult who is adept at problem solving and creative thinking, and is comfortable in many different situations—all of which can move them along the road to success.
7. To be diligent
A commercial artist friend used to tell me that “talent is five percent natural abilities and 95 percent diligence.” To be diligent means to exert effort and work hard to accomplish goals. It includes persevering and not quitting, even when a task is unpleasant or tedious. Diligence is necessary to realize academic and career success, as well as to attain the ultimate spiritual goal—to be in God’s Kingdom.
There are many Bible passages addressing the importance of diligence, and you should go over these with your kids. Talk about what it means to work “with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10), why diligence is precious (Proverbs 12:27), and how diligence leads to leadership positions and plenty (Proverbs 10:4, Proverbs 12:24, Proverbs 13:4, Proverbs 21:5).
You should also show your kids how to practice diligence. For instance, keep tabs on what homework has been assigned to them and make sure they stay on task. If they have term papers to do, discourage them from relying on online helps like Wikipedia and ChatGPT. Teach them that the effort they put in is even more important than the end result, which is another reason not to take shortcuts (besides the fact that they will learn more when they actually do the assignment). Commend them when they maintain a “can-do” attitude.
Always stress to your children that when they work hard or practice any the “success habits” addressed here, that sets them up to succeed—in school and throughout their adult lives. That’s not a guarantee that they’ll live in a mansion or drive an expensive sports car, but they will have the happiness, peace-of-mind and joy that comes from doing things God’s way. And that’s what true success is all about.