The difficulty of training children is well-nigh proverbial. To this task perhaps more than to any other the telling Dutch proverb is often applied: “The best skippers are those looking on from shore.” And we have perhaps heard the moral story of the man who went to his neighbor, the father of twelve, with a complaint that he could not manage his child and would like some advice.

“Oh, but you are at the wrong address,” said the well-blessed parent. “I recommend to you the neighbor across the street.”

“But”, said the searcher for advice, “that man has no children at all.”

“Just so”, said the well-seasoned father, “that is why he can tell you all about it.”

Because of this well-known difficulty of outlining a training plan and of this proverbial difficulty of the task of training children, and the still greater task of bringing the principles into practice, J beg from the charitable reader, who perhaps has many years in the school of experience, not to turn the Dutch proverb on me. And should anyone wish to challenge statements or basic principles here expressed, I welcome correction.

The reformed man is a man of principle. And though this is often taken to mean that the reformed man sticks to his convictions, yet it really means that he is a man who has principles, seeks and formulates principles, lives by these principles, and tries to motivate all his actions by them.

This also is true respecting the task of training children. He wants to know this task and perform it in the biblical, reformed way. And one of the first principles of all things is that the creature is made for the glory of his God. And the second as co-related is that everything is brought to that destiny by the laws and ordinances which God has determined for it.

Especially in this question of the training of our children we as Protestant Reformed are interested in this phase, because it is so utterly impossible in the light of the dualistic standard of ethical values and the unintegrated conception of the purpose of things which is fostered by the doctrine of common grace.

To be sure, that theory speaks also of Soli Deo Gloria and by the convential orthodoxy and the reformed heritage still often enunciates the true principle, but in a more popular or unguarded discourse or in practical life the dualism appears. The reader can easily recall mottoes or Declarations of Purpose by parent-teacher groups such as: For the Glory of God; For the Formation of good citizenship; and for the uplift of the Community. And of course, for this three-fold unintegrated goal there is a three-fold standard. The church judges over the first, the political party or Patriotic Day Committee over the second, and the community over the third.

Over against this the reformed man has one single purpose: the glory of God; and one guiding standard: the law of God, the law of love; the good and acceptable perfect will of God. The all-embracing, all-pervading power of this principle is the warp and woof of Scripture.

Now I expect there will be no question in any mind as to the validity of this principle in the abstract, but thinking further we will hear the question whether we can work with this principle and apply it concretely to our little children. With regard to this question there are about three possible positions.

First is the view of many educators of the last decades that children should be left as much as possible to follow their own ways under the guidance of a spontane social control. We may dismiss this theory immediately as contrary to Scripture.

A second view is that children must learn obedience simply in the abstract. They must learn that “yes” means yes, and “no” means no.

And a third view is that he must learn as moral rational creature to live in the law that is given for his moral constitution.

The choice now between, the two latter will be greatly influenced by a definite answer to the question whether the child is actually a moral being or whether he is to a great extent only potentially so. Or to express it from another side, the question is then whether he can understand spiritual motives or whether he is simply bad by some kind of unmoral bent of nature.

And it is here that I am afraid we have not always especially in our daily life followed the principles laid down before us by Scripture. Is there not a danger that we look at our children from the Scriptural viewpoint of total depravity and then forget that this depravity is moral. We treat them as (the word is sometimes used) little devils, and forget that we are using a different standard for judging other people than for judging our children. And so the training of our children is often hard and harsh, instead of spiritually firm and loving.

Yet in this viewpoint the following things are usually forgotten.

Firstly, that although all that is not of faith is sin and therefore the acts also of the sinful child are sin, we are not able to condemn the outward acts as they appear before our eyes as sin. Many of the acts of little children, however annoying and embarrassing, cannot by any law be classed as sin. Any young creature loves to rend and worry certain objects. A puppy loves to tear an old shirt or a shoe. When a child does this we become angry and call it a destructive little imp. A kitten loves to tangle a ball of yarn. When a child does the same we ascribe it to an infernal influence. And so further do children love dirt as a sinful trait or are they unconscious of the difference between cleanliness and dirt.

Secondly, that morality exists by a relation to law, and that therefore it must be considered that the sins of children are by that principle always relatively less sinful than our own sins.

Thirdly, that the parent is also totally depraved and is by nature spiritually trusted to judge and set a standard of right and wrong than the child whom he is seeking to train.

In the light of these things I am convinced that in the midst of this complicated task we must take the perfect law of God as a standard for the training and conduct of our children.

This is the express teaching of Scripture:

Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go; when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Now Solomon might here be pointing out a natural law as he does so often, but in the light of the context this is improbable. Thus the “way” is the way of the fear of God.

Eph. 6:1: “Children obey your parents in the Lord.”

Eph. 6:4: “Fathers provoke not your children to wrath but bring them up in the discipline and admonition of the Lord.”

The more I follow this scriptural principle the more I may be comforted with the conviction that to that training in the will of God the Holy Spirit bears testimony in the heart of the child. For surely he does not bear that testimony to any arbitrary imposition of the parent upon the child. The fact of physical predominance can hardly persuade the child as rational creature that my command is good and ought to be obeyed. But when I try to lead my child in the way of the law of love I may trust that from all sides I will be sustained by the Holy Spirit.

Firstly, the fact is that all scripture will fit in and sustain that one single command.

Secondly, the spirit testifies to the intrinsic good of such an act by all the relations of life within and outside of the family.

And thirdly, there is a still more immediate testimony of the Spirit directly to the heart and conscience, and makes it discern good and evil and makes it approve my command.

Now this does not lose sight of the fact that some things must of necessity be mechanical. This is not because the child has to be blindly obedient. God does not treat His creatures as blindly obedient. God treats His creatures as co-workers. He reveals His will and purpose to them, and gives testimony that that will is good.

In this sense also we should try to explain to our children the moral value of the command. Even the assurance “You don’t understand this now, but for the time being just trust your father and mother” is of course a very good reasonable explanation. Also further the understanding that God has placed the parent in a position of authority even though by lack of natural gifts they are not always fully able to judge and command clearly in every detail, is a good explanation. Thirdly, that blind obedience is in itself not virtuous is evident from the words of Peter spoken as a general principle; “We must obey God rather than man.” And also from the fact that the child slowly becomes more and more free in the measure that its judgment ripens.

Taking this basis then as a principle we may begin with what we call an exercise of mechanical authority. Here also the motive must be that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. A certain writer reflecting on the authority and training of a child even in the case of a mother who nurses her newborn infant holds that she thus teaches it regularly of habits which are necessary for family life and thus laid the ground in its sensitive psychical life and its habits for later obedience. Perhaps the reason of this author will be found just a little far-fetched and yet it may surely be granted that it points to the true principle.

And so we may more and more mold the child’s habits and attitude, always holding in view the ultimate goal, a loving service of the ever-blessed God.

Then I am sure we will be surprised how soon the little child can really understand the appeal to that highest motive, for why not, if that is the greatest law. Why do we set a certain age for the beginning of receptivity? Must we not rather assume that as the law for the moral creature it is also most applicable to all his spiritual psychical life?

A child will listen to a Bible story with intense interest and with the ready recognition of the virtue of the Triune God Who reveals Himself therein. Regardless now whether that child be considered as a spiritually living child it nevertheless spontaneously ascribes virtue to God and His ways. However, that same child may a monument later be involved in a murderous quarrel about a forgotten toy. How much more true this principle of spiritual response must be considered in a truly spiritual heart and mind, and must we not ascribe the slowness of response to a lack of spiritual life and affinity? That is why many people go through life as if God and His holy law are something that has no meaning for them. We cannot therefore conclude to the impossibility from the general lack of clearly defined moral response.

To so train the child the parent will first of all himself have to see this law of God not as an abstract statement or doctrine but as an all-embracing principle according to which he thinks and speaks and acts and lives.

For instance, the law of God is not a dead statement but is an expression of the living will of God, whereby He keeps every creature in its place and makes it serve His kingdom. A breach in that law is an attack on the plan and purpose of God. The commission of a murder is the violation of the law of God whereby He has given to every living person a task and office in His creation. Therefore, even hatred is murder according to the words of Christ. Adultery is disrupting of many ties and a violation of many rights, namely of husband and wife, of the rights of children, of the rights and honors of brethren and sisters. Therefore, it is a breach in the creature that is constituted to live in the law of God. Idol worship is not merely the kneeling down before a mute stock but it is the corruption of the pure knowledge of the ever blessed God, Who must be purely known to be glorified.

So we will assume that the child is evil and prone to evil in relation to this blessed law of God, and toward that we will take a two-fold attitude. We will strive to instruct him positively, and negatively we will chastise him for transgressions of that law.

Thus we see the seriousness of the task, for in the light of this task the training of most children is neglected. Perhaps there is nothing that requires a more careful formation and that is more sensitive to treatment and stimulus and suggestion than the soul of a child. I cannot think of an object that is near enough to serve as an illustration. A machine obeys certain laws of physics and quite well takes care of itself. We simply step into our cars and they function. A plant may require some training, but to a great extent it follows the laws of its normal growth. Even the most sensitive animal such as a fine bred collie dog which has such great dependence on the moods and instruction of its master has after all only an animal mind and is not expected to be a trained and responsive creature.

How high above these is not the child which is made in the image of God, and created for the initiation into the highest fellowship and reaction of pure intelligent love.

And to begin with, that creature is conceived and born in sin, alien and inimical to that very life of God in all its intricate phases and planes of its existence. How then must we not confess the immensity of that task, and our utter unworthiness for such a task. How careless, how superficial, mechanical, carnal, is not also the fulfillment of this task. Therefore, training first of all requires a deep spiritual sense of our unworthiness. Secondly, a firm resolve by the grace of God to train those children for God’s kingdom and for no one else; to distinguish definitely between virtue and culture, between sin and awkwardness or impropriety, and to so set first things first that many unnecessary valueless burdens and distractions fall away. And thirdly, a firm determination to give time and thought and planning for this time to listen to their many questions. Time to help solve their conflicts and perplexities, time to punish them in love when it is necessary, time not to punish them as a short-cut and time-saved in the midst of our earthly and vain preoccupations.

In the measure then that we as parents also live in that law of love, so that they see us striving in that direction, and speaking in that vein, will they be able to fulfill that admonition of the apostle: “Be ye followers of me and mark them that walk as ye have us for an example.”

Then our life will corroborate our word of protestation that punishment hurts us more than it does them, because we deny our own reluctance to punish in order to punish in the name of Him who has delegated us with authority to maintain His perfect law in the sphere of our family life.