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Walking the Beaten Path

Did you ever crawl through a thick hedge? It wasn’t any fun, was it? I can remember doing some undercover exploring with a couple of mischievous buddies when I was a kid, and getting so scratched up on a hedge that I hurt for days afterward. Somebody planted that hedge to keep me out, but I didn’t have enough sense to heed the limits.

Kids are like that. They may be aware of the rules, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will obey them. They must be trained to live within the limits. As a teenager I worked on the coeducational staff at a summer Bible conference. The fellows and girls on staff would invariably pair off as the summer progressed. One simple rule seemed to keep us out of trouble: “Stay on the beaten path.” That’s what we want for our children--a disciplined walk between the hedges on the path God has for them.

Self-discipline will be essential to our children’s emotional stability and personal happiness as they step out to make a life of their own, for an undisciplined person is a slave of his own passions and a victim of every circumstance. A person is only truly free when he is disciplined, much like a train is only truly free when it is on the track. But self-discipline does not come naturally. It must be learned. It is up to us as parents not only to set the course we want our children to walk, but to train them to walk it. And we have assurance from God that if we do the job properly, our children will continue to walk that course when they are grown (Prov. 22:6). That does not necessarily mean they will always agree with us in every detail. But it does imply that their lives will ultimately honor the Lord and so bring joy to our hearts.

But how can I help my children walk the straight and narrow path? That is the critical question every faithful parent asks. The answer should be getting quite familiar by now. We do it the same way God does. And he does it in this case by providing adequate motivation. God has planned things in such a way that it is pleasant for us to walk in harmony with his revealed principles, but most unpleasant when we go our own way.

In the Old Testament economy, for example, there was an elaborate system of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience (cf. Deut. 28). But even in this age of unparalleled grace, with our freedom in the Spirit and our position of adult sonship, there are some interesting built-in motivations. One is the principle of sowing and reaping (Gal. 6:7). God allows us to experience the consequence of our own behavior, pleasant or unpleasant. And it doesn’t take an intelligent person long to find out which kind of behavior yields the greatest joy and peace.

In addition to the law of sowing and reaping, God offers us some great promises of blessing for obedience. “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does” (James 1:25, NIV). God promises to prosper us when we obey his Word.

Then there is the further motivation of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ for good works performed by the power of the Spirit and for the glory of the Lord (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:10). God desires a mature relationship with his children. He wants us to obey him because we love him, not to earn a reward. But in order to help us grow toward that perfect relationship of love, he wisely recognizes the value and importance of motivation.

Now let us apply this to our role as parents. Our children learn very early in life that certain things bring pleasure and other things produce pain. God made them with a tendency to continue the behavior that brings satisfaction and to discontinue the behavior that brings distress. This basic principle can provide the magic formula we need for developing in them the behavior patterns we believe God wants them to learn. For example, from their earliest days children find praise and appreciation most gratifying. They need it regularly. If they find that some kinds of behavior bring them unusually large doses of it, they will be inclined to repeat that performance. When Johnny gets rave notices in the family circle for making his bed neatly, for picking up his toys, brushing his teeth without being told, or doing whatever it is we believe he should do, he’ll probably want to do it again. And we will continue to give him that extra commendation until the behavior pattern becomes a normal part of his way of living.

In like manner, if Johnny gets laughs and applause for showing off in front of your friends, you can look forward to that production again. He is doing what satisfies his need for acceptance and attention. Thus you are motivating misbehavior. But if, on the other hand, he finds that his misbehavior brings him denial of privileges or minor pain, or simply doesn’t get him what he wants, he will have a tendency to drop it.

There are a number of ways to apply this biblical principle. For instance, money is a great motivator for teaching children to stay on the right path. I find nothing unbiblical about setting a scale of monetary rewards for fulfilling desired responsibilities. Some parents make a list of the desirable activities on a chart with seven blank squares beside each item, one for each day of the week. Every activity that is successfully accomplished each day is marked in some way, and a monetary reward granted at the end of the week for every mark. A penny a mark is sufficient for very small children, and not only provides an incentive for developing proper behavior, but also provides a base with which to begin teaching the responsible handling of money. The reward need not be money. Just stars on a chart may be sufficient for younger children. Or you may allow older children to earn some item they want very much, like a new purse or a new baseball glove.

Some parents fine their children for unacceptable behavior. My wife and I give our children an allowance and they supplement it with odd jobs. Their money is important to them and they usually spend it wisely. We decided to use it to help them learn some lessons we thought were necessary. When we began to find their belongings lying around the house and noticed their room lights on when not in use, we implemented a fine system--two cents for every personal item found cluttering up the house, and two cents for every light left burning when not in use. The money was dropped in a common bank to be used for some worthy cause. It even turned out to be fun when Dad got the first fine for leaving the light on in his study. But it was amazing to see how quickly the problems were solved when a few of their shekels were at stake.

Parents who fail to understand this basic principle of motivation find it working against them. In other words, children may use it to train their parents, and they often begin in infancy. Baby quickly learns that crying brings pleasurable results. He gets picked up, loved and cooed, changed and fed. While a baby’s cry is the only way he can communicate his needs to us, we can keep him from becoming excessively fussy by refusing to cater to his every call, and by showering love and affection on him when he’s not fussing.

My wife and I discovered that our little guys were pretty smart. They knew exactly how to train us. They could agitate our eardrums to such a degree we would do almost anything for relief. Then they had us where they wanted us. We finally learned to distinguish the genuine needs from mere fussiness, and refused to reward the latter. There were times when it was difficult to determine whether needs or wants prompted their crying. But we became convinced that God wanted us to try to distinguish them. He doesn’t cater to every one of our selfish whims, and it is a mistake for us to cater to theirs.

Unfortunately for some parents, “Ve get too soon oldt undt too late schmart,” as the Pennsylvania Dutch say. Their children begin to manipulate them in the cradle and continue through childhood and teen years. I couldn’t begin to count the mothers I’ve known who have refused to put their children in the church nursery because they cried when they left them. So they became the victims of their children’s training program. They either let the children keep them home (to their own spiritual detriment), or they brought them to the adult service (sometimes to the spiritual detriment of everyone else). When a child realizes that his mother always comes back for him and that crying won’t bring her back any sooner, he’ll begin to settle down and enjoy himself. It may take a few unhappy experiences to learn it, but the results will be worth the temporary unpleasantness.

Temper tantrums are another classic example of children managing their parents. Tantrums are designed by the child to accomplish something he thinks he needs. It may be to get our attention. It may be to get something else we have denied him.

It may simply be to get the satisfaction of manipulating and controlling us, since we try to control him so much of the time. And we might as well admit it--when we lose our tempers and angrily threaten him, we are not controlling him; he is controlling us. He may feel like he needs to get even with us for something we have done. Fracturing our nerves and driving us to distraction may seem to him like beautiful revenge for his damaged ego. But if he realizes that he is not accomplishing any of his goals, he will soon conclude that there is no point in beating his head on the floor in vain. So calmly walk away. Go shut yourself in another room and read a book. The act will stop when the responsive audience is gone.

Children have an uncanny ability to take their parents to the brink. They know just how far they can go, and they use that talent quite skillfully to get their own way or to do their own thing. A mother related to me that one day while she was working on something she could not easily leave, Jody and Janie, her two preschoolers, were cutting out paper dolls nearby. Janie, the younger of the two, persisted in snipping at the carpet with the scissors. “Janie, don’t do that,” her mother commanded. But Janie, safely out of reach, kept right on. “Janie, stop that this instant,” she barked in an agitated voice. And Janie continued to ignore her. Finally her mother screamed in anger, “If you don’t stop that this instant, I’m going to come over there and spank you good.” Whereupon wise old Jody, a whole year more experienced than her younger sister, said, “You better not do that again. She means it this time.”

You see, little Jody and Janie had trained their mother well. They didn’t have to obey until she lost her temper. That gave them a little grace period to continue doing what they wanted to do without any danger of unpleasant consequences. But it gave mother a headache and put her in a terrible mood for her husband when he got home from work. Much too often an episode like that ends with mother stamping over in a rage and whaling the tar out of the child, much more harshly than she should. And the child begins to lose respect for her mother. First, because she’s been able to manipulate and control her; we don’t respect people we can manipulate. Second, because she isn’t sure when mother means what she says and when she doesn’t; her word is not really trustworthy. And third, because mother has acted in a most unloving manner.

Joe Cool Teenager is the absolute master at training his parents. Even when you know you’ve made the proper decision, he has a way of wearing you down with his “Fifty Famous Sayings for Getting What You Want From Your Parents.” You’ve heard some of them: “Jimmy’s parents are letting him go.” “All the guys will be there.” “You never let me do anything I want to do.” “You did it when you were my age.” “And you say you love me.”

This may be followed by some door slamming and pouting. Or he may turn on the charm and become the model son. He knows what will most effectively break you down. But every time he succeeds, he loses a little more respect for you and the gap between you grows a little wider. We have already learned that we must have sound biblical reasons for our standards and that we should avoid saying “no” as much as possible. But when we know we are right before God, we need to train our children instead of letting them train us.

I have the feeling that many parents really don’t expect their children to obey them the first time they speak. They expect to nag, fuss, whine, and badger to get them to do what they should. Parents who expect disobedience are seldom disappointed. Mother says to a neighbor in front of Suzie, “I just can’t get Suzie to share her toys.” Do you think Suzie will ever share? Not on your life. Suzie has mother well under control, helpless to do anything about her selfishness.

“I can’t make him come to church, can I?” another parent asks pathetically. Why not? Is the standard right? If it is, then we need to insist that he observe it, and that he act properly when he’s there. We don’t need to be afraid of our children. God has given us authority over them and he expects us to use it, lovingly but decisively. We will answer to him if we refuse. The spoken command of a mother or father is to be carried out. God planned it that way to teach children submission to authority.

And he has given us the formula to motivate them. Once more--we are to make it enjoyable for them to obey and unenjoyable to disobey. We will explore the consequences of disobedience in the next chapter. For the present, however, just grasp the first half of the formula and learn it well. Children respond to us best when it is to their advantage. They obey us more willingly and enthusiastically when obedience is fun for them. So make it fun! Call them once in awhile when your only purpose is to give them a treat. Surprise them with a little gift for their exceptional behavior or their good grades at school.

It’s not that we owe our children rewards, nor are we trying to bribe them. God’s good gifts and his rewards to us are all of his grace. He doesn’t owe us anything, and he certainly isn’t bribing us to obey him. But the promise is still there in his Word--live in submission to him and enjoy the fullness of his blessing. And there is no end to the wonderful ways he blesses our lives when we walk in the center of his will. Let us follow his example then, and make it genuinely pleasurable for our children to obey us. There is no limit to the creative ways we can show our appreciation to them for their cooperation.

One word of warning--do not inadvertently reward unacceptable behavior. For instance, little Bobby is screaming at the top of his lungs in a restaurant, embarrassing his parents to tears. Everybody in the room is scowling at them and they wish they could drop through the floor. “Please stop crying, Bobby,” mother pleads. “If you stop crying I’ll give you this sucker.” And presto! Bobby has discovered a brilliant new way to get a sucker. His screaming has paid off. It would have been better if Bobby’s parents had planned ahead by telling him what was expected of him in the restaurant and what good things would happen as a result of his cooperation. Having forgotten to do that, however, it might have been better for them to have calmly removed Bobby from the room for a little talk, and if necessary, the kind of one-on-one contact we’re going to talk about in the next chapter.

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