Duties of Parents to their Covenant Children

"Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6)

Authority. You are a representative of God, under His authority to train up your children. As such, you have a divine mandate to ensure that your children honour you and submit to you. Therefore, for the Lord’s sake, never allow your children to speak to you flippantly or to choose whether or not to obey you. But seek to encourage your children to keep the 5th Commandment by winning their respect through training them with a prayerful diligence tempered with love and grace, knowing that they are on loan to you from the Lord.

Behaviour. Do not assume that your children know how to behave automatically. If your children embarrass you in public by their behaviour, such as being rude towards your friends and elders (like refusing to greet them), or being rowdy and noisy in church, or lacking table manners (such as eating noisily or complaining about the food), or failing to share their toys with other children, etc, it is because you have not trained them to behave. Remember that you must train the heart, but you must also train the behaviour.

Correction. You must correct your children when their behaviour violates the word of God, or contradicts your instructions. "For whom the LORD loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth" (Prov 3:12). But remember to distinguish between the need for correction and the need for instruction. Correction may involve rebuke and chastisement in which the child is made to know that he has done wrong, but in instruction the child is made to understand that there is a better way. A child who is dressed inappropriately or untidily on the Sabbath is more in need of instruction than correction since he would not have so dressed in rebellion or disobedience. Indeed, a child who picked up an undesirable word from his peers should be instructed rather than corrected since there is no way for him to know that it is wrong to use the word.

Discipline. Discipline or chastisement is a part of correction. Judicious use of the rod in discipline is not unchristian. It is foolish merely to rebuke a child for rebellious or repeated disobedience. "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him" (Prov 22:15). "Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell" (Prov 23:13-14). But remember: Never use the rod in irritation and anger. Always use the rod for correction, and not for venting of frustration or even for instruction! Never spank a child for eating slowly, for spilling his food or for not reciting his catechism correctly. Only spank to correct disobedience or a rebellious attitude, and do so only when you have calmed down. And remember always explain to your child why you are spanking him and how many strokes of the cane he should expect. Make sure the child seeks your forgiveness (not simply saying sorry), and then restore the relationship with a hug and prayer whenever possible.

Example. Train your children by your godly example. Remember that all your instructions, advice and commands will mean very little to your children if they are not backed up by your own life. Thus it is useless to keep the Sabbath holy when on the Sabbath you are engaged in worldly activities. Someone has well said: "To give children good instruction, and a bad example, is but beckoning to them with the head to show them the way to heaven, while we take them by the hand and lead them in the way to hell."

Friends. Do not assume that your children know what kind of friends they should make. Though it should be quite safe in the covenant community, you must protect your children from bad company especially in school or in the neighbourhood. You must teach them about friendship! Do not be afraid to counsel them if you find them being influenced negatively by their peers or seniors. Your children are your responsibility! But remember to inculcate charity and courtesy even towards those you do not wish for them to spend a lot of time with.

God. Remember that you child is made in the image of God, therefore do not allow yourself to be tempted to think that your children cannot know God until they are older. Train them to fear and love the Lord early. Help them to see that Christ is the head of the home, and that they are being trained to be obedient lambs of Christ rather than merely to be daddy’s and mummy’s boys or girls. So remind them often that the Lord is watching over them in all that they do, and therefore they must be obedient children whether or not you are watching.

Honesty. Train your children to always speak the truth, remembering that the devil is the father of lies. Because of their corrupt nature, your children will not need to be taught to tell lies. But early impress upon them the importance of always speaking the whole truth, both by positive reinforcement, and discipline when it can be determined undoubtedly that a lie was told. Never discipline a child for lying if you are not sure whether he is lying or simply confused. When in doubt, admonish, but exact no discipline.

Irritation. Because you and your children are uniquely made by the Lord, and because you are much more mature then them, there will be many occasions for you to be irritated by their behaviour. But resist the temptation to rebuke them, much less, chastise them for every little incident or thing that irritates you. Remember that you are to seek to mould them to be like the Lord in every way, not to be like you in every way. Therefore seek to correct and discipline only for moral and ethical infractions. And remember: If you are bitter irate, irritable or unnecessarily harsh towards your children, you will embitter their hearts and cause them to be estranged from you (Col 3:21). Indeed, you will find them having no motivation to do anything right—since you are never pleased with anything they do!

Jesus. Acquaint your children with the Name and Person of the Lord Jesus early. Never allow them to address him merely as ‘Jesus’ but as the ‘Lord Jesus.’ But help them to see that He came to save them from their sins, and that as covenant children, they must live for Him and seek to please Him in all that they do, think or say.

Knowledge. The impartation of knowledge is an important part of shepherding your lambs. But remember that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (Prov 1:7, 9:10). Therefore do not separate the training of their mind from the training of their heart. As such always teach with patience, charity and gentleness, never with cold formality, impatience and irritation. The major mode of imparting knowledge to your children will be verbal. Formally, you must catechise them in the doctrine of the Word, you must teach them their academic subjects, and exhort them from the Bible. Informally, you must talk with them. Asking the right questions is the half of learning. Therefore you must encourage your children to ask questions by attempting to answer every question no matter how mundane and silly it may be. Never laugh at any question or criticise it as being silly. Do not be afraid to say you do not know the answer to any question, but always look it up and give an answer.

Love. Love must cover everything that you do for your children. But remember that love rejoice in the truth (1 Cor 13:6). Therefore you do not love your children if you honour them more than the LORD (1 Sam 2:26) by allowing them to rule over you. If you do so, you are tempting God to take them away from you. If you love them, you will shepherd them and guide them away from the path of death unto the path of life.

Memory. Children have tremendous capacity for rote memory when they are very young (maybe up till 8). Therefore help your children by getting them to memorise the Word of God and the Catechism early, even before they begin to understand what they are regurgitating. The Word of God may rest on the surface of their heart at the moment, but as the Sun of Righteousness warms and melts their heart, the truth that they have hid in their heart will be used of the Spirit to guide them in their Christian walk.

New Birth. Though you gave birth to your children, only God can give them the new birth. As a believer, you must treat your children as Christian and you can have strong assurance that God will, according to His covenant mercies, regenerate them if he has not already done so. Only be diligent to bring them up in the fear and nurture of the LORD, making sure that from young, they love the means of grace.

Obedience. Fundamental to the training of your children is to train them to be obedient. This must occupy most of your time and effort in at least the first five or six years of their life. The apostle Paul says: "Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord" (Col 3:20). Therefore, remember that if your children disobey you in anything lawful, they sin against God. So, if you would lead them in the way of the Lord you must train them to obey you. Obedience must be without delay, without challenge and without excuse whether or not you explain why you are requiring what you require. In fact, you are not obliged to explain every of your directives or demands. Disobedience for whatever reason should incur chastisement, and a call to seek forgiveness from the Lord and from you.

Prayer. Prayer is an indispensable element in your training of your children. Remember to pray for grace and help to bring up your children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Remember also to pray for them daily that the Lord will forgive their sins (Job 1:5), preserve them from evil and sanctify them by the means. Do this individually and as a couple in private; as well as during family worship. And do not neglect to teach your children to pray and to cultivate a habit of prayer in them. Teach the very young to pray using forms of prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer, but teach those who are, say, five and above to pray extemporaneously. Teach them to pray with a holy reverence in attitude and posture unto the Lord. Therefore teach them to pray standing in public and kneeling down in private, with their hands clasped and eyes closed that they may not be distracted in the holy exercise.

Quarrels. Even adults quarrel, how much more children in whose hearts foolishness is bound up (Prov 22:15). Therefore learn how to deal with childish squabbles. The first rule of thumb is: Do not intervene when your child quarrels with other children in the church. You ought to side with your child for a righteous cause the way that Joash sided with Gideon (Jdg 6:29-31), but do not approach the parents of the other children to talk about their children when there is a quarrel between their children and yours. Counsel your child to seek reconciliation, or forgiveness in the pattern of Matthew 18:15-17, remembering that however innocent your child may seem, he will likely paint an angelic picture of himself and a devilish picture of his adversary. For this reason, inter-parental involvement will almost always make things worst and may even result in shameful family feud in the covenant community! Counsel your child and then leave your child to resolve the problem and you will find that in many instances, they would be friends again in no time. But the second rule of thumb is that when your children quarrel among themselves, rather than spanking both parties (which may be required if they resorted to physical violence against one another), admonish them with the 6th Commandment, and then make both sit down together somewhere under your watchful supervision. Do not let them go until they have sought one another’s forgiveness and prayed together.

Rules. For the orderly function of the home, it is good to set rules in addition to the Ten Commandments. You may have rules of the Room, such as "No toys to be left on the floor when they are not in use." You may have rules of the Table such as "Whatever goes on your plate must be consumed completely without any murmurings"; and "Do not leave the table without thanking whoever prepared the meal, and asking permission to leave from whoever is at the head of the table." You may have rules for Family Worship such as: "Assemble immediately when the bell is sounded" and "No toys to be held throughout worship." Do not set too many rules, but when you set rules, make sure that you enforce them with appropriate discipline.

Sabbath. The Sabbath is a time appointed by our Lord for rest and spiritual worship. It is your duty as parents to ensure that your children keep the Sabbath holy (Ex 20:10). Therefore ensure that your children sleep early on Saturdays. Then when the Sabbath comes around, remind them that it is the Sabbath. Remind them that the Sabbath is a holy day of the Lord which is reserved for worship, and not for play and recreation. Remind them of how they are to behave when they go to church, such as not running around. And remember not to leave them to fend for themselves on the Sabbath. As much as possible when resting at home, lead them in the singing of psalms, reading of the Bible and good Christian books, or learning of the catechism. Help them to delight in the Sabbath rather than hate it.

Time. "Time is short" (1 Cor 7:29). The time that you will have with your children is very limited, therefore maximise what time you have with them. At the same time, train your children to redeem the time. You must allow your children time to play, but train them to play only when it is time to play, and to be diligent to do whatever they are assigned to do without getting distracted at all other times.

Understand. Seek to understand the uniqueness of each and every child. To do so you must communicate with your children. Remember not to fall into the trap of speaking to your children in bold print (as in terse commands, comments and inquisitions)! Converse with them and seek to understand them. Do not relax the principles of obedience depending on the character of each child, but seek to help each one of them overcome his particular weaknesses and temptations. Avoid comparing him with another child . Avoid any appearance of favouritism. Therefore remember to praise your child whenever he does well, in a way that does not put down the rest or stir up envy or any perception of favouritism.

Virtues. Remember not only teach behaviour but Christian virtues. Virtues must be taught early. Teach your children virtues using and reiterating the Ten Commandments, the book of proverbs and such passages as Romans 12. Have your children memorise much of these biblical instructions. Remember also to teach obedience, honesty, charity, courtesy, loyalty, mercy, attentiveness, humility, meekness, selflessness, patience, contentment, thriftiness, gratitude, orderliness, self-control and discernment. And remember to reinforce what they learn by prompting them to put the virtues learned into practice. For example, guide them to be helpful by getting them to lend a hand to the elderly or to mothers whose hands are full taking care of little babies. Likewise guide them to be grateful by getting them to thank their mummy for cooking and their teachers and preachers for bringing God’s Word to them.

Warnings. There is a place for warnings and threats as the LORD also warned and threatened his people to turn back from their sin lest He visits them with His chastisement (see Rev 2:5, 16; 3:3). However, remember that children are trained by everything that you do. If you make it a habit to threaten rather than discipline for disobedience, you will be training your children to wait for the threat before obeying. So never issue an instruction and then if the child disobeys, ask him: "Do you want to be spanked?" Give your instructions clearly; and make sure that your children are trained to know that when you have spoken for the first time, it is also the last time and disobedience incurs punishment!

Xasperate. Do not exasperate your children. To exasperate is to provoke to wrath, as the apostle Paul says: "Provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph 6:4; cf. Col 3:21). How do you exasperate your children? You do so by nit picking every of their fault. You do so also by being inconsistent in your training—such as requiring something one day and something else contrary the next day, or requiring something of one child, but something else of another (i.e. having double standards). To prevent exasperating your children, therefore, set your rules, but make it known to your children. Do not punish any infraction of rules not already published to your children.

Yelling. There is no place for yelling in Christian upbringing. The temptation to yell at your children will be great because of sin, but you must daily seek the Lord’s grace to resist the temptation. The Christian home must be peaceable. If you have to yell at your child, it means he needs a spanking. Go ahead and spank after prayerfully calming yourself down, but do not yell. If you find your children yelling at each other it is because you are yelling at them (or worst at each other)!

Zeal. Be very zealous in training your children. It is a mandate given by your heavenly Father. Their salvation and usefulness in the Kingdom of Christ is in many ways bound to your faithfulness to the great and challenging task that has been assigned to you. Therefore let it be said of you what God said of Abraham: "For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the LORD, to do justice and judgment; that the LORD may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him" (Gen 18:19).

—J.J. Lim

Recommended Reading:

Jacobus Koelman, The Duties of Parents (Baker Academic, translated 2003), 173 pages.

Tedd Trip, Shepherding a Child’s Heart (Shepherd Press, 1995), 215 pages).

J. Richard Fugate, What the Bible Says About Child Training (Alpha Omega Publication, 1980), 288 pages).

J.C. Ryle, The Duties of Parents (Reprinted in 3 parts in PCC Bulletin, vol. 4, no. 42-44 dated 20, 27 Apr and 5 May 2003)

Thomas Vincent, The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Assembly Explained and Proved from Scripture [BOT, 1980, r. 1674]), 282 pages.