Biblical Duties of Covenant Parents 

Revision and Enlargement of article originally published in PCC Bulletin, vol. 6, no. 30, dated 23 Jan 2005. 

“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.

Covenant. The apostle Peter says: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39a). Children of believers are as such in the covenant by birth. As olive shoots growing on the Olive Tree, they are as much members of the covenant as the branches that are grafted in. Therefore, they must be baptised and brought up as Christian rather than heathen children. They are to be regarded as lambs (baby sheep) not as kids (baby goats). So never relate to your children in a way that suggest they belong to the devil. Rather, remind them that they bear the sign and seal of Christ and exhort them to repentance and faith. Remind them of their covenant obligations; and teach them that they must seek to be not only in the covenant but also of the covenant. Those who are of the covenant walk in the way of Christ cheerfully and gratefully. With this in mind, remember to pray for them, pleading the Lord’s covenant mercies for your children.

Discipline. Discipline involves correction and chastisement. 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. 

But when chastisement is necessary, remember that judicious use of the rod is not unchristian. It is foolish merely to rebuke a child for rebelliousness 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 not to nit pick every of their faults; and always seek to be consistent. Nit picking and inconsistency such as requiring something one day and something else contrary the next day will exasperate your children and create even more discipline issues. Also 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 that you are chastising him out of love for him. Explain clearly why he has to be chastised, and then make sure the child knows he needs to repent of his sin, and also to seek your forgiveness (not simply saying sorry). After an exercise of discipline, always seek to restore the relationship with a hug and prayer whenever possible.

Remember also that there is a place for warning and threats as the LORD also warned and threatened His people to turn back from their sin lest He visit them with His chastisement (see Rev 2:5, 16; 3:3). However, never make empty threats that you do not intend to fulfil. At best that would be lying. At worst that would teach your children to shut off as you brew your frustrations. Also 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 chastisement!

But remember to be very sparing in the use of threats. If you find your children threatening one another: “If you don’t do this for me, I will not play with you anymore,” then take it as an indication that you are probably overusing threats. And never allow your children to threaten their siblings or anyone else in any way.

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 teach your children 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 comparatively 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. And do not forget to remind that while friends can come and go, “there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Prov 18:24), even the Lord Jesus Christ!

God. Remember that your 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, let the matter pass. It is better to be fooled some times than to embitter your child with the feeling that you do not trust him. Remember that your child will remember the times when you wrongly accuse him of lying more than the times when you correctly ferret a lie and discipline him for it.

Irritation. Because you and your children are uniquely made by the Lord, and because you are much more mature than 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 fault or for things that irritate 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 exasperate their heart 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 Christ. Acquaint your children with the Name and Person of the Lord Jesus Christ early. Teach them that He is the head of the church and of your family. Never allow them to address Him merely as ‘Jesus’ but as the ‘Lord Jesus.’ Make sure they know that He is both God and Man in one person. And when teaching about the work of the Lord Jesus, make sure they know specifically that it was the Lord Jesus and not simply God who did what He did. For example, a child who says that God suffered and died should be gently corrected that it is the Lord Jesus who suffered and died. Help them to see that they can fellowship with God because of the Lord Jesus and therefore they must live for Him and seek to please Him in all that they do, think or say. Remember not to inculcate this truth only during family worship, but in your day to day life. Make sure your children know that you are a servant of the Lord by conducting yourself and making every decision with Christ as a major consideration. And seek to relate every thing that you do to Christ. For example, when the child is ill, speak of Christ as being the chief physician. When disciplining a child, explain that sin is hateful to God, and that Christ had to die for our sin, and therefore we must hate sin. When talking to your child about friendship, remember not to forget to mention how Christ is the only friend who can always be depended upon. Let the name of Christ be ever on your lips so that your children know that you are not ashamed of Christ and are seeking to live a Christ-centred life. And thus teach them, moreover, not to be ashamed of Christ, and to desire to come to His Table through public confession of faith in Him in due time.

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 half of the learning. Therefore you must encourage your children to ask questions by attempting to answer every question no matter how mundane and silly they 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. Your love for your children should be unconditional as your Heavenly Father’s love for you is unconditional. Your Heavenly Father may be grieved by your sins, but His love is never dampened. Seek to imitate your heavenly Father, and seek to make sure that your children do not get the sense that your love is conditioned upon their fulfilling your expectations. But remember that love rejoices 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. Doing so will be 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. The path of life is the way of love and obedience. The Lord Jesus says: “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (Jn 14:15). So remember that your primary purpose for loving your children should not be so that they love you in return, but rather that they grow to love the Lord and to be holy as He is holy. Also, remember that to love is to lay down our lives as Christ laid His life down for us. Thus be an example of love by laying down your life both for your children and for others.

Memory. Memory is a gift of God. But remember that memory can also be a source of grief, especially, traumatic childhood memories of not being accepted or being treated harshly by one’s parents. Therefore seek the Lord’s grace as much as possible to give your children a happy and positive childhood.

From the perspective that memory can bring emotional pain, understand that forgetting is also a blessing of God that can be prayed for. But remember also that there is such a thing as the sin of forgetfulness (see e.g. Prov 3:1). Be temperate when dealing with your children who claim forgetfulness when failing their duties. But do not allow selective forgetfulness to be used as a convenient excuse for sin.

Remember also that children have tremendous capacity for rote memory when they are very young. 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 may rest on the surface of their heart at the moment, but as the Sun of Righteousness warms and melts their hearts, the truth that they have hid in their hearts 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 Christ, His church and the means of grace. Teach them that though they are in the world, they do not belong to the world; and likewise, though they are in the covenant, they are not of the covenant unless they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, repent of their sin and walk in His ways.

Obedience. Fundamental to the training of your children is to nurture 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 and with 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 childrento 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 with their own words. 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 avoid approaching 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 children and then leave your children 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 clothing items or 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 complaint” 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 “Assembly 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 admonishment or 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 teach 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. Moreover, when they are older, teach them to be disciplined in their use of time and cognisant of the passage of time so that, for example, they do not spend an hour in the bathroom.

Understand. Seek to understand the uniqueness of every of your children according to their age, temperament and mental capacity. Understand, for example, that you cannot discipline a teenage child in the way that you may discipline a pre-teen. To do so will evoke bitterness and rebellion to worsen the situation. As your child grows more responsible (able to take initiative, or to perform duties with little supervision), seek to give more freedom. But to understand your children at any age, 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 modify the principles of obedience according to the character of each child, but seek to help each one of them overcome their particular weaknesses and temptations. Avoid comparing them with one another. Avoid any appearance of favouritism. Therefore remember to express your approval to a child whenever he does well, in a way that does not put down the rest or stir up envy or any perception of favouritism.

Apart from understanding your children’s character, seek also to understand yourself vis-à-vis your relationship with your children. Learn to listen to your children. It can be very humbling for parents to have to listen to their children, but remember that the process of bringing up children should be sanctifying not only for the children, but for their parents. As a parent you will be naturally tempted to reject anything your children have to say about you. But remember that whether or not your children’s perception of you is correct or wrong, if it is a negative perception, it has to be dealt with as if it is reality. Do not try to correct your child’s perception of you by telling him to correct his perception. Rather, seek the Lord’s grace to make any necessary changes in the way that you relate to your child so that you can continue to be a positive influence to nurture your child in Christ. This does not mean, for example, that you should let your child do whatever he wants because your child tells you he prefers his friend’s parents’ laissez-faire approach; but remember that heartfelt repentance is often necessary for parents as they are brought to realise their failures by seeing themselves reflected in their children’s behaviour or by hearing the children’s assessment of them.

Virtues. Remember not only to teach behaviour but Christian virtues. Virtues must be taught early. Teach your children virtues by using and reiterating the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Fruit of the Spirit, and studying 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.

But remember that virtues cannot be taught simply by memory or explanation. Virtues must be cultivated by constant reminders and godly examples.

Worship. One of the most important things that you can give to your children is the worship of the LORD. It was particularly when giving the 2nd Commandment, which teaches us to worship Him in the way appointed by Him no more no less, that the LORD speaks of visiting the iniquities of the fathers unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Him and showing mercies unto a thousand generation of them that love Him. Teach your children, therefore, to worship the Lord in his fear and love. Teach them to worship Him privately, and in the family and in church corporately. Yes, always include your children in your family and public worship for it is only in this way that your “children, which have not known any thing, may hear, and learn to fear the LORD your God…” (Dt 31:10-13). As early as possible, make them realise that worship must never be entered into flippantly, but with sobriety and a fear of the LORD though we do not see Him. Therefore inculcate reverent postures and teach your children to sit still (or stand still as the case may be) during worship. Begin that training at home in family worship everyday. Unless you do so you will not be able to get your children to be still to worship the Lord in public, nor will your children develop a genuine fear and love for the Lord. Resolve therefore with Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Jos 24:15).

Xpectation. All parents have high expectations for their children. But remember to cultivate biblical rather than worldly expectations. Worldly expectations in general have to do with academic excellence and competitive edge. Biblical expectations have to do with Christian character and usefulness in the Lord’s kingdom. But remember to temper even biblical expectations with prayer and humility in the assurance that the Lord who loves you and your children is sovereignly in control of all things ultimately. Resist every temptation to compare your child with others; and avoid denigrating him by expressing strong disapproval or embarrassment because he has not met your expectations. In other words, do not force your children to fulfil your expectations; and do not loose hope if they do not develop according to your expectations. Hope in the Lord. Pray for them as covenant children bearing the Lord’s seal of ownership.

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 probably because you have been yelling at them (or worse, at your spouse)!

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).

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.

· Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity: A Biblical Guide for Parenting Teens (P&R, 1997), 253 pages.