The Nature of a Child
I have a friend who is now a surgeon in the South. After finishing medical school and residency he was assigned to an Air Force base in California in the Mojave Desert. There he took up a pastime I very much enjoy--riding a motorcycle. On one particular occasion he was riding alone in the desert and had an accident. As a result his leg was broken, along with some of the controls on his bike. He was unable, due to the combination of circumstances to use the brakes on the cycle, yet he had to ride back to the base for medical assistance. Since there were no stop signs in the desert, there was not much of a problem. Once on the base, however, my friend (who was not in uniform) encountered an M.P., who stopped him for running a stop sign. The sergeant, having pulled this “law-breaker” over, promptly began a lecture. My injured friend was not impressed, and was eager to get on to the hospital. He interrupted the officer politely, yet firmly, with words to this effect: “Now hold on there sergeant. Before you go on I think there are three things you ought to know. First, I am a major. Second, I am a doctor. And, third, I have a broken leg.” With this the sergeant responded promptly, “Yes, sir, major, let me help you to the hospital.”
Many of us have plunged into the parenting process with little or no preparation for it. Like the sergeant, our zeal has consequently been somewhat removed from knowledge. I would like to suggest that there are three things each of us as parents need to know in order to train up our children as we ought. There are certainly other truths we need to know as well, and you may choose to differ with me in certain particulars, but I believe the Book of Proverbs assumes these three truths when it teaches us how to go about the parenting of our children. Let us consider these three truths carefully.
Beginning in the Book of Genesis and throughout the entire Bible it is taught that man is born a sinner. No child is born morally neutral. Every person enters the world as a child of Adam, with a sin nature that needs little time and no encouragement to manifest itself.
And the Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done (Gen. 8:21, emphasis mine).
Surely I have been a sinner from birth, Sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Ps. 51:5, NIV).
Even from birth the wicked go astray; From the womb they are wayward and speak lies (Ps. 58:3, NIV).
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned (Rom. 5:12).
While Proverbs does not seek to prove the sinful state of children from birth, it certainly assumes this to be the case. A child who is allowed to go his own way will invariably choose folly over wisdom and bring shame to his parents.
The rod and reproof give wisdom, But a child who gets his own way [Lit., left to himself] brings shame to his mother (29:15).
Child training must therefore begin with the premise that a child who is left to himself will only become more proficient at sinning. The parenting process involves dealing with sin in the life of the child, endeavoring to turn the child from his natural course to the fear of the Lord and the way of wisdom.
In Proverbs, the appeal which is made to the child is one which assumes this sinful bent. The child is not only warned of certain evils which have not yet become a temptation, such as the adulterous woman (chapters 5-7), but is urged to turn from his evil way to the way of wisdom. The child is never assumed to be on the way of wisdom apart from a conscious decision to depart from evil and to choose the fear of the Lord.46
Put away from you a deceitful mouth, And put devious lips far from you. . . . Do not turn to the right nor to the left; Turn your foot from evil (4:24,27).
When wisdom cries out to the simple to turn from their ways, she indicates that there is more than a mere predisposition toward sin; there is a preference for it.
Wisdom shouts in the street, She lifts her voice in the square; At the head of the noisy streets she cries out; At the entrance of the gates in the city, she utters her sayings: “How long, 0 naive ones, will you love simplicity? And scoffers delight themselves in scoffing, And fools hate knowledge? Turn to my reproof, Behold, I will pour out my spirit on you; I will make my words known to you” (1:20-23).
Wisdom then goes on to say that those who experience the destruction which is at the end of the way of the wicked do so because of their own choice. They will get exactly what they deserve (1:31-32).
The problem with a child is not his environment, but within his own heart. It, like the hearts of all men (20:9), is evil. What a child needs is not merely correction, but conversion. A child must come to the point where he recognizes the sinfulness of his own heart, ceases to trust in himself, and submits himself to the fear of the Lord.
Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life (4:23).
And you say, “How I have hated instruction And my heart spurned reproof! And I have not listened to the voice of my teachers, Nor inclined my ear to my instructors” (5:12-13)
Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child (22:15).
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight (3:5-6).
Children sometimes think they can get away with sin if no one sees them. Proverbs quickly dispels any hope of getting away with evil, for even when parents do not observe their sin, God does. He even searches their hearts.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place, Watching the evil and the good (15:3).
Death and Destruction lie open before the Lord-How much more the hearts of men! (15:11, NIV).
The lamp of the Lord searches the spirit of a man; It searches out his inmost being (20:27, NIV).
I never cease to be amazed at the excuses parents are inclined to make for their children when the real problem is just plain old-fashioned sin. Our children need to learn at an early age that sin has painful consequences and that God has provided a solution for the sinner--salvation in Jesus Christ. We cannot solve the problem of sin by education, for education alone only produces a more sophisticated sinner, a lesson I quickly learned by my teaching experience in a state prison. The number one problem of the child is the same problem common to all mankind--sin. The solution is to confess it and trust in the work of Christ for salvation. Let every one of us as parents be willing to deal with our children as sinners.
For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (2:6).
So that your trust may be in the Lord, I have taught you today, even you (22:19).
A recent newspaper contained a letter to Ann Landers in which a young man was seeking her counsel on an important matter. He wrote:
I am a 17-year-old male with a big problem. I quit high school last year and moved out of the house. I stayed away four months and decided to move back. I hold down a job and make good money. I have an offer to move into an apartment with a friend. I am really tempted, because I am not happy living with my parents--too much arguing. The problem: The friend is female. She’s like a sister. I swear there is nothing between us.47
I was relieved to read Ann’s advice not to live with this “friend,” but to seek living accommodations with a family or, better yet, to learn to live with his parents. Now at first reading I must admit that I did not really take this young man seriously. Surely he could not think that he could live with this girl in a sisterly way, could he? On further thought, I am convinced that he sincerely believed he could. This young man’s letter illustrates a truth which every parent must learn--that our children are not only sinful, they are also simple, naive, just like this young man.
Some of the characteristics of a child should not be thought of so much in terms of sinfulness as simpleness. While these two can sometimes be related (e.g., 1:22), they should not necessarily be equated. A child is naive largely due to inexperience, a condition which renders him vulnerable to the solicitations of evil men and women. Let us pause to consider some of the characteristics of children which might fall under the category of simpleness.
Simplicity in Proverbs is a naivet resulting primarily from a child’s lack of experience. The child who was fortunate enough to have been born into a godly Jewish home in ancient times thankfully knew little or nothing about the wickedness of evil men or the wiles of seductive women. Unfortunately for Americans, children who have grown up in front of the TV know of these matters from their infancy. Godly parents in Old Testament times knew that sooner or later their child would have to leave the protection of their home and sought to prepare him for that time. The child was given the earmarks of such undesirable companions. They described the kinds of people who would tempt the youth to do evil.
The woman of folly is boisterous, She is naive, and knows nothing. And she sits at the doorway of her house, On a seat by the high places of the city, Calling to those who pass by, Who are making their paths straight (9:13-15).
If they say, “Come with us, Let us lie in wait for blood, Let us ambush the innocent without cause; Let us swallow them alive like Sheol, Even whole, as those who go down to the pit; We shall find all kinds of precious wealth, We shall fill our houses with spoil” (1:11-13).
A worthless person, a wicked man, Is the one who walks with a false mouth, Who winks with his eyes, who signals with his feet, Who points with his fingers; Who with perversity in his heart devises evil continually, Who spreads strife (6:12-14).
I passed by the field of the sluggard, And by the vineyard of the man lacking sense; And behold, it was completely overgrown with thistles, Its surface was covered with nettles, And its stone wall was broken down (24:30-31).
Proverbs provides the inexperienced child with a description of the character of those who are undesirable, and who will only lead the youth into a course which ends in destruction and death.
In their naivet, children tend to look at the world through rose colored glasses. Because of the protection of their parents and their lack of experience with those who are wicked, they are inclined to think the best of everyone and to be open to those who would take advantage of them.
In many of our homes our children’s idealism is often equated with “imagination” and “creativity.” Consequently we feed this imagination by supplying our children with fairy tales, nearly all of which end “happily ever after.” Life is not like that, however, and so Proverbs deals with this unrealistic idealism by giving the child large doses of reality. The child is taught to see life as it is, rather than as he might wish it were. In the real world, which Proverbs seeks to prepare the child to face, a bribe often produces results (17:8), the poor are generally forsaken and oppressed (13:23; 14:20), and the rich are never without “friends” (19:4).
The simplicity of children is further seen in their failure to look beyond the present. A candy bar today is much more important than a college education in years to come. Those who are wise look to the future to determine the best course in the present (27:12). Much of Proverbs has to do with the pleasant or painful consequences of our actions. While the lips of an adulteress have their momentary appeal, the child is warned that her house leads to death (5:3-5).The man who commits adultery will eventually have to face the offended husband, a painful and unpleasant experience (6:32-34).
Since children are, by nature, inclined to think only in terms of the present, we as parents must learn a lesson from the Book of Proverbs and seek to point out to our children, in real-life experiences, the consequences of their decisions and actions.
Another symptom of the simplicity of children is their shallowness of thought. They are impressed, for example, with the fact that Johnny, next door, has a swimming pool, a color TV of his own, and never has to work because he is given a generous allowance by his parents. What our child is inclined to overlook is that Johnny’s father may never be home, that his parents often quarrel, and that Johnny is learning to be lazy and selfish. Proverbs frequently takes us beyond the surface in order to expose the truth which is not readily apparent.
One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; Another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth (13:7, NIV).
The house of the righteous contains great treasure, But the income of the wicked brings them trouble (15:6, NIV).
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, Than great great treasure and turmoil with it. Better is a dish of vegetables where love is, Than a fattened ox and hatred with it (15:16-17).
The first to present his case seems right, Till another comes forward and questions him (18:17, NIV).
We have attempted to distinguish between what is sinful and what is merely simple, between willfulness and weakness. In the preceding section I have restricted the characteristic of simplicity to the child’s thinking or perception. I now wish to broaden the scope to include other tendencies of a child which may best be summarized by the term “childish.”
1. TO BE CHILDISH IS TO BE IMPULSIVE. If those of us whoa re older are plagued with indecision, the child is the opposite. Decision making is no problem for the young. But, you see, that is the problem. A child is quick to act--too quick. This impulsiveness frequently leads to trouble. The simple young man, for example, makes an impulsive decision to give in to the wiles of the adulterous woman.
Suddenly he follows her, As an ox goes to the slaughter, Or as one in fetters to the discipline of a fool, Until an arrow pierces through his liver; As a bird hastens to the snare, So he does not know that it will cost him his life (7:22-23 ).
Proverbs teaches us to deal with impulsiveness by instructing the child about the danger of actions taken without sufficient thought.
A wise man is cautious and turns away from evil, But a fool is arrogant and careless (14:16) .
Also it is not good for a person to be without knowledge, And he who makes haste with his feet errs (19:2).
It is a snare for a man to say rashly, “It is holy!” And after the vows to make inquiry (20:25) .
2. TO BE CHILDISH IS TO BE INSENSITIVE TO DANGER.
A prudent man sees evil and hides himself, The naive proceed and pay the penalty (27:12) .
When I was attending seminary we lived right next to the seminary parking lot, with busy streets nearby. Some of the children in the yard would open the gate and run out into the parking lot or the street. Naturally, they had little awareness of the danger involved. Until they were old enough to appreciate this danger, a good spanking was necessary to underscore the painful consequences of running into the street.
Proverbs abounds with warnings about danger which a child would be inclined to overlook. Evil companions, the adulterous woman, becoming surety, and an uncontrolled temper are all described in terms of the dangers involved. While Proverbs carefully avoids a description of the sin, it describes in detail the consequences of the sin.
For her house sinks down to death, And her tracks lead to the dead; None who go to her return again, Nor do they reach the paths of life ( 2:18-19).
Lest strangers be filled with your strength, And your hard-earned goods go to the house of an alien; And you groan at your latter end, When your flesh and your body are consumed (5:10-11).
“A little sleep, a little slumber, A little folding of the hands to rest”-- And your poverty will come in like a vagabond, And your need like an armed man (6:10-11).
The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; He who would destroy himself does it. Wounds and disgrace he will find, And his reproach will not be blotted out (6:32-33).
3. TO BE CHILDISH IS TO BE SUSCEPTIBLE TO THE INFLUENCE AND LEADERSHIP OF OTHERS. Children are prone to follow almost anyone. In spite of parental warnings, children are often approached by strangers and led away. Part of this may be a confusion pertaining to the authority of adults over children. Obedient children may be hesitant to disobey an adult, even when that person is a stranger and his instruction is detrimental or dangerous. Proverbs assumes this gullibility.
The naive believes everything, But a prudent man considers his steps (14:15).
Wisdom necessitates warning the child of the dangers of associating with those who are evil, whether young or old.
He who walks with wise men will be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm (13:20).
Do not associate with a man given to anger; Or go with a hot-tempered man, Lest you learn his ways, And find a snare for yourself (22:24-25).
Do not be envious of evil men, Nor desire to be with them; For their minds devise violence, And their lips talk of trouble (24:1-2).
4. TO BE CHILDISH IS TO UNDISCIPLINED. By this I mean that a child has very little inclination to deny himself any pleasure. If you left it to the child, he would eat the entire container of ice cream rather than only one bowl of it. The child avoids pain and pursues pleasure. As a result, it is necessary for the parent to place restrictions on the child which he would not place on himself. Bedtime is established at a certain hour, knowing the child, if given the option, would watch TV all night long.
While parents must enforce external restraints on the child, they recognize that they cannot always do so. Eventually the child must be able to see the value of self-control and must deny himself momentary pleasures for the long-term benefits of self-denial. Consequently, a wise parent will teach a child about the benefits of self-control, and will allow him to make more decisions as he grows up, praising the good decisions and pointing out the painful consequences of the bad ones.
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city (16:32).
He who loves pleasure will become a poor man; He who loves wine and oil will not become rich (21:17).
There is precious treasure and oil in the dwelling of the wise, But a foolish man swallows it up (21:20).
Have you found honey? Eat only what you need, Lest you have it in excess and vomit it Let your foot rarely be in your neighbor’s house, Lest he become weary of you and hate you (25:16-17).
Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit (25:28).
5. TO BE CHILDISH IS TO FAIL TO APPRECIATE THE BENEFITS OF PARENTAL DISCIPLINE. A child who delights to be punished by his parents is in need of help. We tend to think in terms of the child who has a knapsack tied to the end of a stick, leaving home after being disciplined. No one should desire pain or punishment. But when punishment is required, it should be accepted as that which is motivated by love and directed to a good end. The passages which teach the need for discipline are not just for the benefit of the parent, but for the child as well. Let the child learn that discipline is of God and is for his good.
My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord, Or loathe His reproof, For whom the Lord loves He reproves, Even as a father, the son in whom he delights (3:11-12).
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently (13:24).
A fool rejects his father’s discipline, But he who regards reproof is prudent (15:5).
Stern discipline is for him who forsakes the way; He who hates reproof will die (15:10).
6. TO BE CHILDISH IS TO FAIL TO DISCERN VALUE. Suppose I were to offer a child ten shiny new pennies or two dimes, which would he choose? Naturally, he would take the ten pennies. The reason is because the child does not yet appreciate value. He concludes that having more pennies is better than having fewer dimes. A few trips to the store will greatly enhance his education.
Proverbs recognizes the weaknesses of children in rightly appraising the true value of many of life’s greatest treasures. Consequently, it frequently speaks of the value of wisdom, of righteousness, and of peace.
How much better it is to get wisdom than gold! And to get understanding is to be chosen above silver (16:16).
Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, But righteousness delivers from death (11:4).
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, Than great treasure and turmoil with it Better is a dish of vegetables where love is, Than a fattened ox and hatred with it (15:16-17).
From our study of the nature of the child in the Book of Proverbs there are several principles which we should consider and seek to apply. Let me enumerate these principles and suggest some of their implications.
1. PROVERBS OFFERS PARENTS HOPE FOR THE OUTCOME OF THE CHILD-RAISING PROCESS. In our last lesson I attempted to demonstrate that parents cannot determine the destiny of their children, no matter how faithfully they carry out their task as parents. While it is true that parents do not have the last word in the lives of their children, Proverbs reminds us that they do have the first word. While there are no guarantees given that a godly home will always produce godly sons and daughters, there is the assurance that God’s method of producing a godly generation is through godly parents who train up their children according to the Scriptures.
I believe we find a parallel in the process of reaching the lost for Christ. While we have no assurance that those to whom we witness will come to faith in Christ, we are certain that God’s method of reaching the lost is through Christians who share their faith.
How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:14).
We should be faithful in bearing witness to our faith in Christ because we are commanded to evangelize. We should be diligent in the training of our children because God has commanded us to do so. In both cases, we must ultimately leave the results to God, recognizing that in each we are not required to be successful, only faithful. But in both instances we should also labor in hope, knowing that God answers prayer and is both willing and able to save and to bring about His purposes.
2. WHILE CHILDREN ARE FOOLISH, THEY ARE NOT FOOLS. I am greatly encouraged as a parent by the observation that never in Proverbs is a child called a fool. We read of the shame of a father who begets a fool for a son (17:21) and of a fool who rejects his father’s discipline (15:5), but in both these instances I believe the son has grown up to be a fool, and while he is still a son, he is not a child.
This is why there is no contradiction between those passages which instruct parents to teach and discipline their foolish children, but also discourage any instruction or correction of a fool. In 23:9 we read, “Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words,” and yet in 22:6 parents are instructed to “train up” their children. In 27:22 we find, “Though you pound a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him,” but a parent is commanded, “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently” (13:24). A child is foolish by nature, but he only grows up to be a fool by virtue of time and conscious decisions. Let us be careful to deal with our children in the light of their foolishness and in order to encourage them not to grow up to be fools.
3. CHILDREN CAN HARDLY BE EITHER GODLY OR WISE. I am certain that this statement may cause some parents to raise their eyebrows, but it is, in many respects, the heart of this message. Just as Proverbs distinguishes between being a fool and being foolish, so it distinguishes between being a child and being godly. A child must choose to accept or reject the fear of the Lord. A child may choose to be on the path of wisdom; but no child can be wise in the sense of being mature and skillful in living, any more than a beginning piano student can be an accomplished musician. We can commend them for their decision to learn and for their diligence at their task, but we cannot command them to be accomplished or expect it to come to pass, other than over a period of time.
Think about this for a moment. Is it reasonable for a parent to expect a baby that is six months old and twenty pounds in weight to lift weights or to play professional football? Why then do we expect our children to be anything other than children? They can and should learn to be obedient to their parents, but they cannot manifest those marks of maturity which only come with time.
The possibility for error here is immense. There is tremendous status involved in having a child who is advanced beyond his or her age. We want to teach our babies to read, to teach advanced subjects in elementary school, to have our children go to school at an earlier age and to be functioning above their age and grade level expectations. That, to the parent, is status. I would like to suggest that while this tendency is dangerous in the educational realm, it is even more so in the spiritual realm. We dare not expect attitudes and conduct from our children that match or exceed our own. We must cease and desist from forcing our children to live according to the expectations others have for them or us. Children can grow up to be mature, godly, and wise. And they will do so as we give them the freedom to grow--not by imposing our restrictions, regulations, and rules.
In the Book of Galatians, the apostle Paul is dealing with the problem of legalism. Some Christians insisted that other believers live in accordance with the regulations of the Old Testament law as understood and practiced by the Jews of that day. Paul showed them the folly of this system by reminding them of the way children were raised in the Jewish home. The child was kept under strict supervision and regulation until he reached the age (I believe it was 12) of receiving the full rights of sonship. When that day arrived the child was regarded as a man and was given the full rights of adulthood (3:23-24; 4:1-7). Paul’s point was to show that Israel’s time under the Old Testament law was a time of immaturity; but after the cross of Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit, men and women were now able to mature and grow in freedom, not under strict regulations and rules.
I do not wish to pursue Paul’s point in detail, but rather to draw your attention to his illustration and its application. Children, he said, were put under stricter rules and regulations, because they were children. But once they reached the point where they could (and should) become adults they were given freedom, freedom to choose, to fail, and to grow. We too as parents, must recognize that when our children are younger they need much more supervision. We must make most of their decisions and protect them from themselves. But as they grow they must be given the freedom essential to maturity. The purpose of Proverbs, to a very large extent, is to prepare the child for the freedom ahead. And when our children reach this point, we must let them go, let them make decisions, let them fail, and let them grow in wisdom and maturity.
4. IN PROVERBS IT IS NOT A SIN TO BE CHILDISH, ONLY TO STAY CHILDISH. The foolishness of a child must be consciously dealt with by the parent and laid aside by the child. To remain foolish is to become a fool. While we must learn to accept our children for what they are, we must not allow them to stay that way. The solution to childishness is maturity.
I find a remarkable parallel to this truth in the New Testament. Paul wrote:
When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things (1 Cor. 13:11).
It was not wrong for Paul to be childish as a child. But maturity puts aside childish things. Have you noticed that the characteristics of children are the same problems with which we struggle as adults. If our children lack self-discipline, so do we (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-10:13). If our children think only of the present and ignore the future, we often tend to do the same. That is why the Book of Hebrews was written. Those who are found in the “Hall of Faith” of chapter 11 are those who lived in the present in the light of the certainty of God’s promises--by faith. You and I, my friend, do not have the excuse which our children do. Why are we so often childish, foolish, and sinful? We need to grow up, to put away those things which are childish, and to mature.
This was the plight of the Christians in Corinth. It was not wrong for those who were newly saved to be immature (1 Cor. 3:1), but it was sinful for them to have stayed that way (1 Cor. 3:2-3). Those of us who have been saved for some time do not have the excuse our immature brothers and sisters have. Let us be careful not to expect them to act like us, and let us beware lest we act like them.
5. NOT ALL CHILDISH TRAITS ARE EVIL. I have focused on those traits of children which are either sinful or undesirable in adults. But this should not be taken too far. Children have been given to their parents (I believe) not only to be taught by them, but to teach them. Our Lord taught that we must become like little children to enter into the kingdom. We must have child-like faith.
“Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it at all” (Luke 18:17).
Many men and women are just too smart, too sophisticated to get to heaven. They are trusting in their abilities, their intelligence, their works. When a child trusts an adult, it is with no sense of his own power or sufficiency. It is a trust of utter dependence. That, my friend, is the kind of faith which God requires of you if you are to be saved. If you would enter into God’s heaven you must, in humble, child-like faith, acknowledge your sin, your inability to earn God’s approval or blessing, and trust only in what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for you on the cross of Calvary. There He died for your sins, bearing your punishment. There He offers to you the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life. Will you trust Him?
Let us, then, teach our children, as children. Let us seek to leave behind our own childish ways and grow up to maturity in Christ. And let us learn to depend on God alone, and not on ourselves.
46 There are instances in Proverbs where the vantage point is that of a child at a fork in the path, so to speak (cf. 1:10-33; 4:14-15). While the child is viewed as neither on the way of wisdom or the way of folly, nevertheless the parent’s urgent appeal is based on the fact that the heart of the child inclines him to choose the way of evil, not the way of wisdom. Also, in these cases, it seems to me that the child is viewed as on neither path because he has not yet encountered a particular evil, about which he must soon make a decision. It is not the innocence of the child which necessitates this perspective, then, but his inexperience.