Help Your Children to Thrive
WHEN it comes to child rearing, many parents search high and low for answers that are, in fact, readily available to them in their own home. Countless families have a Bible, but it gathers dust on a bookshelf instead of being put to use in child rearing.
True, many today are skeptical about using the Bible as a guide in family life. They dismiss it as out-of-date, old-fashioned, or overly harsh. But an honest examination will reveal that the Bible is a practical book for families. Let us see how.
The Right Environment
The Bible tells the father to view his children as “slips of olive trees all around [his] table.” (Psalm 128:3, 4) Tender saplings would not grow up into fruit-bearing trees without careful cultivation, without being given the right nourishment, soil, and moisture. Likewise, successful child rearing requires work and care. Children need a healthy environment to grow to maturity.
The first ingredient for such an environment is love—between marriage mates and between parents and children. (Ephesians 5:33; Titus 2:4) Many family members love one another but see no need to express such love. Consider, though: Could you rightly speak of having communicated with a friend if you wrote him letters that you never even addressed, stamped, or sent? Similarly, the Bible shows that real love is far more than a feeling that warms the heart; it expresses itself through words and actions. (Compare John 14:15 and 1 John 5:3.) God set the example, putting his love for his Son into words: “This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved.”—Matthew 3:17.
How can parents show such love to their children? As a start, look for the good. It is easy to find fault with children. Their immaturity, inexperience, and selfishness will show up in countless ways, day in and day out. (Proverbs 22:15) But they will do many good things each day. Which will you focus on? God does not dwell on our faults but remembers the good that we do. (Psalm 130:3; Hebrews 6:10) We should deal with our children in the same way.
One young man remarks: “In all my life at home, I can never recall any form of commendation—whether for accomplishments at home or in school.” Parents, do not ignore this vital need in your children! All children should be commended regularly for the good things they do. That will reduce the risk of their growing up “downhearted,” convinced that nothing they do will ever be good enough.—Colossians 3:21.
Another good way to express love to your children is to follow the counsel of James 1:19: “Be swift about hearing, slow about speaking, slow about wrath.” Do you draw your children out and really listen to what they have to say? If your children know that you will lecture them before they are even finished talking or will get angry when you learn how they really feel, then they may keep their feelings to themselves. But if they know that you will really listen, they will be far more likely to open up to you.—Compare Proverbs 20:5.
What, though, if they reveal feelings that you know to be wrong? Is it time for an angry response, a lecture, or some discipline? Granted, some childish outbursts can make it hard to be “slow about speaking, slow about wrath.” But consider again God’s example with his children. Does he create an atmosphere of morbid fear, so that his children are afraid to tell him how they really feel? No! Psalm 62:8 says: “Trust in [God] at all times, O people. Before him pour out your heart. God is a refuge for us.”
So when Abraham was worried about God’s decision to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he did not hesitate to say to his heavenly Father: “It is unthinkable of you that you are acting in this manner . . . Is the Judge of all the earth not going to do what is right?” Jehovah did not rebuke Abraham; He listened to him and soothed his fears. (Genesis 18:20-33) God is remarkably patient and gentle, even when his children pour out feelings that are entirely unjustified and unreasonable.—Jonah 3:10–4:11.
Parents likewise need to create an environment in which children feel safe to reveal their innermost feelings, no matter how disturbing these may be. So if your child makes an impassioned outburst, listen. Instead of scolding, acknowledge the child’s feelings and draw out the reasons. For example, you might say: ‘You sound angry at so-and-so. Do you want to tell me what happened?’
Of course, no parent is as patient as Jehovah is. And children can certainly try their parents’ patience to the limit. If you feel angry at your children from time to time, do not worry that this makes you a bad parent. At times, you will be quite right in feeling angry. God himself rightly gets angry with his children, even some who are very dear to him. (Exodus 4:14; Deuteronomy 34:10) His Word, though, teaches us to control our anger.—Ephesians 4:26.
How? Sometimes it helps to take a break for a few moments so that your anger has a chance to cool down. (Proverbs 17:14) And remember, This is a child! Do not expect adult behavior or mature thinking. (1 Corinthians 13:11) Understanding why your child acts a certain way may soften your anger. (Proverbs 19:11) Never forget the vast difference between doing something bad and being bad. Yelling at a child for being bad may cause the child to wonder, ‘Why even try to be good?’ But lovingly correcting a child will help the child to do better next time.
Maintaining Order and Respect
Teaching children a sense of order and respect is one of the great challenges that parents face. In today’s permissive world, many wonder if it is even right to restrict their children at all. The Bible answers: “The rod and reproof are what give wisdom; but a boy let on the loose will be causing his mother shame.” (Proverbs 29:15) Some shy away from the word “rod,” thinking that it implies some kind of child abuse. But it does not. The Hebrew word for “rod” referred to a staff, such as the one a shepherd used to guide—not assault—his sheep.a So the rod stands for discipline.
In the Bible, to discipline primarily means to teach. That is why the book of Proverbs says some four times, ‘listen to discipline.’ (Proverbs 1:8; 4:1; 8:33; 19:27) Children need to learn that doing what is right brings a reward and that doing what is wrong brings bad consequences. Punishment may help to impress negative lessons, just as rewards—such as commendation—may reinforce positive ones. (Compare Deuteronomy 11:26-28.) Parents do well to imitate God’s example when it comes to punishment, for he told his people that he would chastise them “to the proper degree.” (Jeremiah 46:28) Some children need little more than a few stern words to bring them into line. Others need firmer measures. But chastisement “to the proper degree” would never include anything that might do a child real harm emotionally or physically.
Balanced discipline should include teaching children about boundaries and limits. Many of these are clearly defined in God’s Word. The Bible teaches respect for the boundaries around personal property. (Deuteronomy 19:14) It sets up physical boundaries, making it wrong to love violence or deliberately harm another. (Psalm 11:5; Matthew 7:12) It establishes sexual boundaries, condemning incest. (Leviticus 18:6-18) It even acknowledges personal and emotional boundaries, forbidding us to call someone vile names or use other forms of verbal abuse. (Matthew 5:22) Teaching children about these limits and boundaries—both by word and by example—is essential to creating a healthy family environment.
Another key to maintaining order and respect in the family lies in understanding family roles. In many families today, such roles are blurred or confused. In some, a parent will confide burdensome problems to a child, problems the child is not equipped to handle. In others, children are allowed to be little dictators, making decisions for the entire family. Such is wrong and harmful. Parents are obliged to provide for the needs of their young children—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—not vice versa. (2 Corinthians 12:14; 1 Timothy 5:8) Consider the example of Jacob, who adjusted the pace of his whole family and entourage so as not to be too hard on the little ones. He understood their limitations and acted accordingly.—Genesis 33:13, 14.
Tending to Spiritual Needs
Nothing is more vital to a healthy family environment than spirituality. (Matthew 5:3) Children have a great capacity for spirituality. They are full of questions: Why do we exist? Who made the earth and its animals, trees, oceans? Why do people die? What happens afterward? Why do bad things happen to good people? The list seems endless. Often, it is the parents who prefer not to think of such things.b
The Bible urges parents to spend time giving their children spiritual training. It speaks of such training in warm terms as an ongoing dialogue between parents and children. Parents may teach their children about God and his Word when they walk together, sit in the house together, at bedtime—whenever possible.—Deuteronomy 6:6, 7; Ephesians 6:4.
The Bible does more than recommend such a spiritual program. It also provides the materials you will need. After all, how would you answer the children’s questions mentioned above? The Bible contains the answers. They are clear, they are fascinating, and they give a great deal of hope in this hopeless world. Better yet, a grasp of the Bible’s wisdom can give your children the sturdiest anchor, the surest guidance in today’s confusing times. Give them that, and they really will thrive—now and into the future.
b The book The Secret of Family Happiness is designed for family study and contains much practical guidance from the Bible on marriage and child rearing. It is published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
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Look for some way to give your child specific commendation regularly
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How to Help Children Thrive
• Provide a secure environment in which they feel loved and wanted
• Commend them regularly. Be specific
• Be a good listener
• Take a break when anger flares
• Set clear, consistent boundaries and limits
• Adapt discipline to the needs of each child
• Do not expect more from your child than is reasonable
• Care for spiritual needs through regular study of God’s Word
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Ahead of Its Time
BIBLE precepts helped the people of ancient Israel to enjoy a standard of family life that was far superior to that of the surrounding nations. Historian Alfred Edersheim comments: “Beyond the boundaries of Israel, it would be scarcely possible to speak with any propriety of family life, or even of the family, as we understand these terms.” For example, among ancient Romans the law gave the father absolute power in the family. He could sell his children into slavery, make them work as laborers, or even execute them—with impunity.
Some Romans thought that the Jews were strange for treating their children gently. In fact, the first-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote a hateful passage against the Jews, saying that their customs were “at once perverse and disgusting.” However, he did acknowledge: “It is a crime among them to kill any newly-born infant.”
The Bible provided a lofty standard. It taught the Jews that children were precious—actually to be viewed as an inheritance from God himself—and were to be treated accordingly. (Psalm 127:3) Evidently many lived by such counsel. Even their language was revealing in this connection. Edersheim notes that besides the words for son and daughter, ancient Hebrew had nine words for children, each applying to a different stage of life. For example, there was a word for a child who was still breast-feeding and another for one who had been weaned. For slightly older children, there was a word implying that these were becoming firm and strong. And for older youths, there was a word that literally meant ‘to shake oneself free.’ Edersheim comments: “Assuredly, those who so keenly watched child-life as to give a pictorial designation to each advancing stage of its existence, must have been fondly attached to their children.”