Read Proverbs 23:12-19 to start.
When I was a kid, I frequently had the opportunity to spend time at my friends’ houses. That’s pretty normal for most children I would think, unless they don’t have any friends. The reason I bring this up is because I remember at one house in particular, and I won’t tell you whose house because many of you would know him, or at least know the family, but at this one house there was a sign posted on the fridge. It was there as a joke, no doubt, written as it was in old-fashioned script letters, and I’ve seen the same thing printed on T-shirts more recently. Posted on their refrigerator was the motto Beatings will continue until morale improves.
Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be funny, because the joke is that beatings are not a good way to improve morale, not an ideal or recommended method of bringing about happiness and uplifted spirits. Quite the opposite, I would think. I remember when I was a child, I was spanked from time to time. Not often. I don’t think that I was a difficult or challenging child, at least not on the behaviour side of things. You’d have to ask my mother to confirm that. I was not spanked a lot, at least, not that I remember. At the time, I did not look forward to it, nor did I enjoy it, quite the opposite in fact. But I obviously survived. Looking back, there is no doubt that every single spanking I received was deserved. I don’t recall ever thinking that I was the innocent party being unfairly and unreasonably punished for something of which I was not guilty. Maybe at the time I would have argued that, but it was probably not true.
This is not a sermon on the merits of spanking children, although I will say that there are some children I know who would benefit greatly from a couple of applications of such correction. There are some adults I know who would also fit into that category, or rather, adults that would have benefited from that had their parents done so when they were still children, but the time is now long past. Not for a moment would I say you should beat your children, not in the savage and uncontrolled rage-induced manner that you might think of when you hear the word beat. That’s not what we are talking about here, I don’t believe.
Thrashing a child out of anger is not correction, it is abuse. But a quick swat on the bottom when a child will not listen, or will not obey, that is reasonable. And a paddling when a child has been wilfully or repeatedly disobedient, defiant, or rebellious, that is quite likely necessary from time to time. Not that every infraction calls for a spanking, of course. There are many other ways to discipline children, from time-outs to scolding to loss of privileges, to name a few. The verses we read specifically talk about physical punishment, but the idea I believe includes all forms or correction. A spanking is simply the most obvious and may be, probably should be, a last resort.
It’s not about being mean or harsh, it’s about correction. And correction is not generally pleasant, not on any level. It is not pleasant for the person who receives correction, because the very nature of correction, the very idea of it, the very name of it, implies that something is wrong, and needs to be corrected. No one likes to be wrong, and no one enjoys having their shortcomings pointed out and addressed, not on any level. We don’t enjoy that, not as children, not as adults. We tend to resist it, even though it is for our own good. It is unpleasant, the process is unpleasant.
No one enjoys being on the receiving end of a spanking, or a grounding, or even a time-out, and frankly, that’s a large part of why these are effective, because they are unpleasant. The idea is that poor behaviour leads to trouble, and so that sort of behaviour is to be avoided in order to avoid the trouble. That only makes sense.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to correct bad behaviour if it is ignored, or rewarded. That establishes the mindset that bad behaviour brings good results and desirable outcomes. If I as a parent told one of my children “Don’t hit your brother,” and then did nothing when they did hit the unfortunate brother, what do you suppose is going to happen? No matter how many times I say ‘Don’t hit your brother,” if there is no consequence, no punishment, then why would they not hit him whenever it was convenient to do so? Discipline has to include a deterrent factor, or it will accomplish little or nothing.
Likewise, it is not, or it should not, be pleasant for the person who has to apply correction. If it is enjoyable, if you enjoy punishing children, then that is another problem altogether, a problem of cruelty or sadism. That’s another subject for another day. As unpleasant as it can be receiving correction, it’s not much fun dishing it out either. Kids, I want you to listen carefully here. Your parents don’t enjoy spanking you, they don’t enjoy sending you to your room, or taking away your privileges, or for that matter, even scolding you. We don’t enjoy that. It’s a lot easier to not correct you, to just let stuff go. It’s work for us to correct you, to discipline you. It’s not something we do for fun or because we are cruel or mean. We do not correct you because we like doing so. We correct you, we correct our children because it is necessary. It is a vital part of preparing you for the future.
I’m speaking most importantly to parents today, but also, children, keep listening. This applies to you just as it does to your parents. And to your grandparents, for that matter, or your Sunday School teacher, or your Awana leader, or to any adult in a position of authority over you. And even if none of those applies to you, if you have no children whatsoever in your life, well, I’m pretty sure we all were children at one time. It might be a very long time ago, or maybe not so long ago, but we all started out as children. We all had someone who disciplined us, who corrected us. At least, I really hope we all did. Every child should, every child needs to be instructed, need to be corrected. Failure to instruct a child, failure to correct a child, that is a tragic failure that leads to no good result.
Parents, I’m not here to tell you how to discipline, or how to teach, or how to correct your children. That is not my responsibility, and, frankly, it would be meddlesome and highly irritating if I did so. That’s how I would feel if someone else told me how to deal with my own children. Every child is different, and responds differently to various situations. There is no one best answer. What works for one family, what works even for one child in a family may not work at all for another. Exactly how you should instruct your children is not what I’m trying to teach today.
I’m not talking about giving direction to other children, either. For example, how many of us here have had to tell children who were not ours to stop running, or to stop yelling, or to sit still, or to watch where they were going, or what have you? How many of us have had to do that today? That list basically covers what I would expect to be said to just one of my kids today. That’s well and good. We all need to keep an eye on one another’s children, to give them a nudge or a word of redirection when it is necessary, because it is going to be necessary from time to time, no doubt. The primary responsibility for instructing any child, though, is going to be with the parents. And it is necessary.
Correction in general is necessary, because none of us are perfect. None of us expects to be perfect, not in everything, maybe not in anything, because we know that it is not realistic. Maybe we want to be perfect, but deep down we all should know that we are not. And kids, if you haven’t learned that yet, I have some bad news for you: you are not perfect. I’m not perfect, I think my wife and my kids and my coworkers and my friends can confirm that. Even when I try my hardest, I’m not perfect. I’ve been working on it for four decades now, and I’m still not perfect. And neither are you, nor will you be. Not in this life. Even our very best is not perfect.
In school, if you score 90 percent on a test, that is considered to be a very good result, and most people would be very happy with it, but it’s not perfect. When I got a ninety in school, and I was a good student, so scoring ninety or above on a test was something I did often enough, ninety was a fairly satisfying result. But ninety percent right is still ten percent wrong. There is still plenty of room for improvement. There’s still much to correct. I had friends and classmates in school who were happy to score a 70 or a 60 on a test, just so long as it was a passing grade. A passing grade, that’s good enough. But it’s not perfect.
That is what I’m telling you today. How you discipline, how you instruct your children, that is up to you, and I’m not going to give you some point-by-point list or some tried-and-true method. My key thought today is not about how you correct your children, but that you do correct your children. You are not perfect, they are not perfect, but they can be corrected and instructed and they can improve. The method is not nearly as vital as the simple fact that it is done.
One way or another, we all instruct our children. Whether we intend to or not, we all do. If you are a strict parent with a hundred rules, or if you are an anything-goes type of parent, either end of that spectrum is still a form of instruction, as is everything in between.
Not caring, not disciplining, that is still a form of instruction, terrible as it may be. Complete lack of discipline teaches children that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if they do a good job, if they care for others or not, it doesn’t matter if they obey or if they respect authority or generally behave in a civilized manner. Undisciplined children, then, will not be very likely to do a good job on any task, if they have learned that it doesn’t matter. There is nothing to be gained from doing an excellent job, and nothing to be lost from doing lousy one? Why would they put out any effort to do better? If you don’t correct your children, if you do not discipline them, well, you shouldn’t expect very good results.
That applies just as much for adults as for children. If I showed up for work an hour late every day for a week and did a poor job, and my boss did not say anything about it, well, then why would I make any effort to be on time and do work harder the next week? That’s a form of instruction, even if it’s not intentional. It sets up a pattern.
In the verses we read to start, we are admonished to not withhold correction. We might feel that we are sparing our children if we let them get away with misbehaviour, if we do not punish them when they do wrong, but the opposite is actually true. We might spare them from some temporary discomfort at the moment, but at what long-term cost? It says in verse 14 that correcting a child will deliver his soul from hell. That’s quite the statement, and quite the obligation for parents. If anything, that should be the single most important objective as a parent, to ensure that our children do not end up in hell, that they do not travel down the road to perdition.
We’ll talk more about travelling down roads in a moment, but for now, how many young people have you met that do not seem to have ever experienced any sort of correction? How many seem to run wild and free, unrestrained in any manner, and allowed to act as they wish and to misbehave in whatever manner they so choose? Yes, there are some children who are more spirited and lively than others, I say this from first hand experience, but there is a difference between an energetic and active child and one who is riotous and unhinged. I’m not talking about the occasional bad day when a child is particularly ill-behaved, but a general pattern of uncorrected misbehaviour. Mistakes, left uncorrected, lead to more of the same mistakes, and quite frequently to larger ones. Like I said a moment ago, it sets up a pattern.
As parents, my wife and I correct and discipline our children so that they will do better, so that they will have better results in everything they do and hope to become. Yes, it requires time, and it requires effort, and frankly, and it requires persistence, but it is worth it. At least, it should be worth it. The outcome of instructing our children should be that they will be better equipped to function, both now and in the future as adults.
If we look at the verses we read to start, at the last verse in particular, it says 19 Hear thou, my son, and be wise, and guide thine heart in the way. That’s the sort of pattern we are talking about; following a path, keeping to a particular direction.
As a family, we enjoy going on trail walks, in the woods especially. We’re getting back into the time of year when that is something we can do, it’s hard to do in the winter, and as the snow melts and the ground dries up, I’m sure we’ll be back in the woods soon enough. We walk on trails. We don’t go bombing through the trees in whatever direction we want. That’s how you get lost, and it’s a lot of work once the underbrush has a chance to grow a little. We follow trails. That’s where people have gone before, where we ourselves have gone in the past, perhaps, if we walked those same trails last year, or the year before. A marked path, a beaten trail, that is an easier and a better way to go, and generally a safer way to go.
If you flip back a page in your Bible, and look at Proverbs chapter 22, find verse six, which says 6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. That’s what this is all about. It’s about establishing direction, it’s about developing a pattern, and it’s about doing it now. The time to start laying out a trail is not some time in the future, it’s today. This is not talking about a path in the woods, it’s about providing direction to children while they are young.
It’s easy to say that you’ll get around to disciplining your children at some point, but that is going to be more work, and it may be too late. The results may not be what you want. To use another seasonal metaphor, it’s easy to say that you’ll get around to mowing the lawn at some point, we’re not quite at that season yet, although it will be here soon enough. If you don’t cut the grass for weeks and weeks at a time, then it’s going to be a lot more work to get the mower through it. It’s going to take a lot longer, it’s probably not going to look very good, and it’s going to leave a lot of mess behind. Far better to deal with it before the grass gets too long. It’s the same with children, with correcting them. It is far better to deal with things now, to establish good patterns now, instead of allowing poor patterns, bad habits, and those sorts of problems to become established.
We all follow patterns, whether they are good or bad. It’s normal and it’s comforting and we need the stability. We live in a world that is filled with patterns and is designed to operate according to certain methods and with specific rules that are generally consistent. Gravity applies every single day. The sun comes up in the morning and goes down in the evening. If you put a slice of bread in the toaster and push down the lever, three minutes later you will have toast. These are established norms, they are expected and we are used to them. If gravity only worked on even numbered days, or if the sun came and went on a random basis, we would have a very hard time living like that. We need patterns, and we establish our own through life.
I mentioned toast a moment ago, because that fits a pattern in my household. My wife has toast for breakfast most mornings, I have cereal. I never have toast for breakfast. I might have it for another meal, but not for breakfast. That’s not my way. Except yesterday, I had toast. We had some pumpernickel bread, which I quite enjoy, and I decided I wanted toast. Laura looked at me like I had been replaced by a robot when I said that I was going to have toast. Because it was against my pattern.
Incidentally, I enjoyed the toast, it was good. But I had cereal for breakfast this morning, and I’ll almost certainly have it for breakfast tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Because that’s the way I go. Breakfast preferences are not all that crucial in the grand scheme of things, even if breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, or so they tell us. There are a lot of other patterns that matter far more.
Train up a child in the way he should go, the verse in Proverbs 22 says. What is the way a child should go? I won’t have you turn there, but it says in Ecclesiastes 12 verse 1 Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth. That’s a major part of how a child should go. If you want a child to be someone who knows God, who loves God, who follows God’s ways and who respects and cares for the people around him or her, then that is how you should train that child. The Lord Jesus Christ said that the most important commandments were to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbour as yourself. All the other commandments given in scripture stem from those. If you love your neighbour, you won’t steal from him, you won’t lie to him, and you certainly won’t assault him or kill him. If you love your God, you won’t take His name in vain, you won’t put other gods or various idols, in front of Him, and you won’t disregard what He has said. That is the pattern we should teach our children, should demonstrate to them. If that is how a child is trained, then that is the pattern that will be established.
On the other hand, if you don’t train a child in that way, if you don’t point a child toward the creator, toward the God of the universe, then that child will probably go in some other direction. What that direction will be, who can tell? It may not be a specifically terrible direction, although it could be. It may be an innocuous and not immediately troublesome path that a child goes down, but if a child is not directed toward God, then the odds are far lower that at some point in the future that the child’s path will turn there. It is not impossible, of course. God’s saving grace is available to all, and Christ came and preached peace to those who were afar off as well as to those who were nigh, it tell us in Ephesians chapter 2. There is nowhere you can run and be beyond the reach of the Almighty. But there is much trouble, much pain, much needless suffering and heartache to be found when we walk away from our maker, instead of walking toward Him.
It’s far better to start on the right path, to stay on the right path, rather than the alternative. We live in a world that encourages people to go their own way, to make their own path, and to not follow established patterns. You can turn on the radio and hear songs saying this very thing, from “Go Your Own Way” to “I Did it My Way.” Our society exalts the rugged individualist, the free-thinking maverick. The world, in short, will not direct anyone to follow God’s way. It will not encourage you to walk the path that Christ trod. Why would it? The world says that God does not exist. The world crucified Jesus of Nazareth.
If the world is going to do its best to steer our children away from God, then it is imperative that we as parents provide instruction to prepare for that. It is vital that we lay down the pattern which we would like to see our children follow, that we point them in the direction they should go. This is not going to be easy, and it is not going to be fun and games for all involved. It will involve correction, because children are going to make mistakes, as do we all, and a key part of putting them on the right path is keeping them off of wrong ones.
If your Bible is still turned to Proverbs 22, you can flip back a couple more pages to chapter 19. In verse 18 it says 18 Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying. Teach your children now. Discipline them now, while they are young, while there is still time. Don’t wait until some vague, unspecified time in the future. That may be too late. The time for training and instruction is now. Do not be dissuaded because your children are upset. I know my own children do not enjoy being disciplined, they don’t like being put on a timeout, and they certainly don’t like being spanked, but you know what? They also are upset at their own failures, their own shortcomings. They might be more displeased at their actual failures than they are with their punishment. At least sometimes they are. That’s encouraging to me, it says that they have learned some things, a lot of things, in fact. It says they know that good choices and good results are to be sought after, and that bad choices bring poor outcomes. Do they still make bad choices? Sometimes they do. Sometimes we all do. But there is the hope that they are on the right path.
The verse says to chasten while there is hope. It doesn’t say how long that will be, and frankly, there can always be hope, even a small sliver of it, but like ice cream, long weekends, or bacon, more is better. There is hope now, there may be less tomorrow. More is more, less is less. More is better. There is hope now, there is opportunity now. A child needs correction when errors are made, not hours or days or even years after the fact. Do not delay.
I close with this thought. We’ve talked a lot about correction and discipline, which is a vital aspect in the instruction of a child. That’s not the only aspect, of course. We as parents should be modelling the behaviour and the priorities that we would see in our children. They learn so much from watching what we do, from listening to what we say. Our actions, our way of life, our pattern, establishes the baseline for their pattern. It is so important that we live in the way we want our children to live, or all our words, all our instruction, all our discipline will accomplish little. Kids can see hypocrisy every bit as much as adults do, and maybe moreso. If what we say does not match how we live, then all our correction will be in vain.