“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).
There are two ways the child can go; the way he “should go” or the way he would go. When a child is conceived an eternal existence begins, and heaven and hell are the only possible final destinations. Of course, God is sovereign over a person’s salvation, but he uses means. And the Scriptures are clear that parents have a massive responsibility.
This wonderful but weighty task we call parenting causes as much anxiety as joy. Therefore, here are seven wisdom principles for raising the next generation.
1. Train Them Early
“Everything hinges on training," Charles Bridges once observed. So train them early. Think of Hannah dedicating young Samuel to God (1 Sam. 1:28). David, too, taught Solomon from a “tender” age (Prov. 4:3).
The spirits of children are most flexible when they're young. Character building in the early years is far easier than later on when bad habits are ingrained.
2. Require Obedience
Train them to obey you first. If children won’t submit to their parents, it's likely they won't submit to God. You feed them, you cuddle them, and you clothe them, but the home isn't a democracy. There's an authority structure, and God mandates that children obey their parents (Eph. 6:1).
Much of modern parenting is influenced by psychology and a high view of human goodness. But the Bible views children not as morally good or morally neutral, but as rebels whose wills must be brought into obedience to their parents and God. The very fact that Proverbs says “train them in the way they should go” indicates they won’t go that way unless trained.
Requiring obedience also reminds children they aren't the center of the home. Children don’t create a family, they expand it. They come into a home and family that already exists—husband and wife, with Christ as the center. That fact should help subdue their pride and produce humility.
3. Confront and Discipline
This means parental training will require confrontation and discipline. Both parents are the authority over the child. A Christian mother’s teaching is kindness to be received and wisdom to be heeded (Prov. 31:26). But a father, who is head of the household, must take a lead in instruction and discipline. God commands this (Eph. 6:4).
Ultimately, a father who won’t confront rebellion and discipline his children is seeking his own comfort. Discipline sometimes requires spanking, but it always involves training and correction. “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him” (Prov. 22:15).
Parents who coddle their children and don't exercise biblically mandated authority sin by omission (James 4:17), do harm to their children and others through them. This may eventually cause resentment in their children because they didn't receive loving correction.
4. Let Love Rule
Nevertheless, fathers must discipline with the right attitude—not being harsh or domineering, which will provoke children to anger (Eph. 6:4). So let love rule you as you go for their hearts and direct them to their need of a Savior. Train them in firm yet tender love.
Only parents who know the love of God toward them and his loving discipline (Heb. 12:5–11) can know why and how they should “train up a child in the way he should go.” Only those kinds of parents have the wisdom and power of the Word and Spirit of Christ to achieve the goal.
5. Train by Teaching God’s Word
Ultimately the aim of parental teaching is that children would love and obey God. But instruction should be specific. Parents should specifically train boys to be biblical men and girls to be biblical women. David says to Solomon:
Be strong, and show yourself a man, and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses. (1 Kings 2:2–3)
Note that David told Solomon to show himself a man, not a woman. David unpacks this in the context of righteous leadership involving sacrificial provision and protection for the sons of Barzillai, and bringing justice to Joab and Shimei (1 Kings 2:5–9).
Many parents don’t do this, so aspirations for marriage and parenting aren't even on the radar of young men and women. Many young men can’t lead themselves, let alone a wife. Their fathers haven't trained them. Many young women haven’t had a mother who has taught them what being a wife and mother looks like. (To be clear, God will not call everyone to marriage or bless everyone with children.)
6. Show Them How It's Done
Parents who don’t practice what they preach send confused messages to their children. A mother tells her children not to argue with one another, while nagging their father when he comes through the door after work. A father tells his children to be kind and caring, while never attending one of their soccer matches.
Remember, marriage is a picture of the gospel for your children to observe, consisting of a man’s Christlike headship and love and a woman’s churchlike submission and respect (Eph. 5:32). When children see Mom and Dad as forgiven sinners in this kind of relationship, they see a walking, talking picture of gospel love. Parents in love with Christ and each other are a powerful testimony to their kids.
The Christian family should be a place without confusion of the sexes; where a husband loves his wife and a wife respects her husband; where children are loved, taught, and disciplined and where they obey their parents; a place of love and order with Christ at the center.
7. Rest in God's Sovereignty
Is doing all this a guarantee your child will be saved—that “even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6b)? Absolutely not. Children are saved out of non-Christian homes and children reject Christ in Christian homes. Proverbs are principles, not promises. Do this, and in general it will be true. As John Piper wisely says, “We cannot bear the weight of their eternity. That is God’s business. We must roll all of that onto him.”
And finally, there is sovereign grace for parents who’ve fallen short here. God can redeem failures. So we can repent, receive grace, and return to his ways.
Parents, let’s make a start now.