The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: P-Q

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Prov, parents and children

If we thought of Solomon as a writer with nothing better than a worldly wisdom empirically acquired, we should probably not seek his advice in family matters. The ostentation of an oriental court would provide the worst possible atmosphere for such a study just as the experience of a prince would be the worst training for ordinary mortals. It is because we believe that the wisdom of Solomon was divinely bestowed that we seek his counsel.

There are not very many direct references to parents and children in the book of Proverbs but such passages as appear are very definite in character. The instruction to fathers is indeed so emphatic that everyone knows of it and the present generation is up in arms against it. Solomon advised the use of the rod; he regarded children as born outside of Eden and bringing forth folly as the ground brings forth weeds. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is a saying known to everyone. Solomon was even more definite. He declared that a man who spared the rod hated his son. It is hardly possible to think of anything more emphatic.

In interpreting "the dark sayings of the wise", however, we must not always insist on the literal even where the literal could easily be applied. No one would take this reference to hatred in a literal sense, for it is quite certain that a destructive leniency is usually the expression of a genuine but foolish love. The saying means that the effect of parental weakness is so bad that it is akin to hatred in its effects even though love is the cause of it. The saying is intelligible and forceful but not strictly literal. Why then insist on nothing but an actual rod and physical pain in the other part of the saying ? Correction may be made by word and look and in a hundred different manipulations of circumstances, some of which may be more effective than the rod, although even that may sometimes be necessary.

One of the sayings of Solomon seems exactly to express this idea. We should paraphrase it in this manner in modern speech. "Correct and chasten your son when he needs it and do not be put off by the fuss he makes, for even if you find it necessary to use the rod it will not kill him." ("If thou beatest him with the rod he shall not die.")

This has become a very unpopular doctrine in our days. The modern idea seems to be that children should be left to "express themselves" without the cramping effect of correction either by word or rod. The result is often a personal monstrosity as hideous as the creations of modern artists who with a similar disregard of the old rules try to express themselves in their art.

There are signs now that a reaction is setting in. A magistrate recently made the confession that the children's court is a complete farce. Boys can stand plenty of lecturing and be amused by it. Most of those who are brought to the children's court have already been ruined by the negligence of their parents. They will not be reformed by the belated advice of magistrates and missionaries.

The doctrine of Solomon is that foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it away. We must train the twig while it is quite young and then there will be hope of it developing aright when it is older and less tractable. If we neglect this educational work for our children we are playing the part of an enemy and the effect will be like that of an enemy's hatred and not of a parent's love. This is very wise instruction however unpopular it may be in our time.

Here again we must not insist on a too literal and complete application of the proverbial teaching. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" is a statement of general tendencies and not of an inexorable law. Human beings are neither machines nor plants. They have a power of choice; they can respond to good influences or they can be rebellious. Some very good men have had a bad early training and some very bad men were given every opportunity in the instruction of their early days. One of the surprising discoveries made by each successive generation is that children differ from the very cradle. We can remember many years ago two families beginning family life at about the same time. The advent of the first baby had very different effects in the two homes. One home remained placid and well ordered; the child was brought up according to the book of rules and apparently without protest. The parents went to meetings and carried on with all their former duties. The other home was so disorganized by the arrival of the firstborn that it might have been smitten by an earthquake. The parents never dared to take the baby to a meeting and often were not able to get there themselves. The happy and placid parents with the well-ordered child looked askance at this dislocated home. They were more censorious than sympathetic. If they pitied the unfortunate pair it is to be feared that the pity was more akin to pride than to love. "Those unfortunate people simply do not know how to bring up a child. Look at the way we do it." Then nemesis visited the complacent pair in the form of another child, and they in their turn made the discovery that babies differ. The second child knew nothing about the scientific book and did not want to know. He or she had come to make a stir in the world and apparently believed in the virtues of an early start. Thus unkind criticisms were appropriately rebuked and another of life's lessons was painfully learned.

Yet although there are these great individual differences the general principle laid down by the wise man holds true. Folly is in the heart of a child, all need correction and guidance. We cannot be certain that success will attend our efforts, but we can be quite certain that we are right in trying to correct and instruct our children. The early training is the most important part of human education.

In all these matters "wisdom is profitable to direct". Children need very different treatment if all are to have a good start in life. Herein lies the folly of those idealistic reformers who talk of all being given "an equal chance". The wisest father in the land cannot be sure of giving that equal chance even to his own children, so there is not much hope of officials being successful with the children of other people.

There are some horses that will put on their best pace at the mere sound of the whip, while on the other hand we have known an old pony to stop by the wayside and begin to eat grass while the angry driver was thrashing him. Similarly there are children who are pained and perhaps made ill by a single sharp word, while there are others who will take a wicked delight in seeing how far they can trespass without endangering their little skins. To treat them all alike is criminal folly. In all cases the rod of correction is needed but many different kinds of rod can be used. The sensitive and quickly responsive child should be treated gently, while the other type should be taught that physical pain may follow too quickly on the heels of reproof to admit of any safe experiments in rebellion. Reason should be used with all types as soon as ever it is possible. Even the boy who has been most troublesome in his earliest days may with growing intelligence prove so amenable to reason that he becomes tractable just at the age when more placid children are becoming awkward.

When children reach the age of reasonable response the duties of parents increase rather than diminish. There is the world to face with all its pitfalls. Some of the great decisions of life have to be made. There are children who have been almost ruined in their early teens or even earlier than that. There are parents who seem to think that it is well to allow the problem of good and evil to be expounded by the progeny of the serpent. They leave some of the most important mysteries of life to be explained by the worst companions the children ever meet. A moral indolence is the cause of this evil.

The establishment of parental authority and the maintenance of a proper respect will be mainly through the wise handling of the little events of life. Ordinary human experience is made up of small incidents which are of little importance in themselves but which can have great effects for good or ill in the development of character and in the establishment of right conditions for greater issues. Many parents fail in these ordinary trials through making a feeble surrender of their own laws. A wise father once gave this excellent and terse advice to a mother. "First cut out about ninety per cent of your prohibitions, and then rigidly enforce those that remain." The principal difficulty in this matter -- in fact nearly the whole of the difficulty -- is in the early stages. Children are quick to detect signs of weakness, and if parents try to prohibit nearly everything and then weakly give way if there is sufficient protest, the children soon learn how to gain their ends and they rapidly develop the diabolism that is within them. On the other hand, if they learn that "No" means "No", and that whining expostulations bring punishment instead of reward, they soon learn to make the best of the ample liberty allowed to them; they cease even to seek after forbidden things and they learn the lesson of obedience. Incidentally, we may remark that they are much happier than the whiners as well as being much pleasanter.

It should go without saying that if parents desire to have well behaved and well trained children, they must not be like petulant children themselves. If they desire a reasonable and consistent recognition of parental authority, they must be reasonable and consistent in framing their rules. If parents give way to temper and temperament, if rules depend upon the mood of the moment so that a transgression may be a crime or a joke according to the condition of the parental liver, they cannot reasonably expect that the children will feel any genuine respect for them.

If fathers hold aloof, they ought not to be surprised if they fail to gain the children's confidence. If they pretend to maintain a rigid asceticism which is far removed from their actual behaviour they need not be surprised to lose the children's respect, for it is almost certain that the breach between theory and practice will be observed by the rising generation. More than one father in the Brotherhood with puritanic zeal has confiscated the boy's books, condemning them as "rubbish", and then has been caught reading them himself with evident enjoyment. The discovery of his weakness has never been mentioned to him, but others have heard of it and probably he has observed and deplored his loss of influence without ever knowing the cause. If fathers ever read the children's books, let them do it openly: then they may be able to lead the young mind to better things, able to guide as they command respect.

We are living in days of unusual freedom in the home. Young people sometimes speak to their parents in a way that would have shocked a former generation, but we are not at all sure that the change is for the worse. Sometimes in these days a very genuine and respectful love is concealed by apparently disrespectful words. In former days sometimes disrespect and resentment were concealed by hypocritical words of deference. There can be no question as to which we should prefer of these two possibilities. Companionship between parents and children is certainly good. Children often come to have more knowledge and they may even be wiser than their parents, but if there has been a reasonable companionship there is still the respect due to age and the influence that is born of love.

There are many passages in the Book of Proverbs which might be taken in a personal sense as the instruction of a very wise father to a well-beloved son. May we not reasonably take them as from the Father in Heaven to children who may be old according to human standards but who still need much guidance ?

"My son, if thou wilt receive my words. My son, forget not my law... My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord... Hear, my son, the instruction of a father... My son, attend unto my wisdom."

As with the natural father and son, love is the ruling principle both in giving and receiving instruction. The establishment of a law for mankind was an expression of divine love. The love of God will constrain us in our response. Perhaps even on this highest plane there is an application of the saying that "a wise son maketh a glad father." It is written that in the affliction of Israel God was afflicted, and the Apostle says, "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God." On the other hand we have the statements that God was well pleased with the Lord Jesus, that He is well pleased with the sacrifices of praise and obedience. Indeed, we are told that this is the ultimate object of creation.

If we can thus apply the personal language of the Proverbs and as sons and daughters make a response ruled by that reverential fear which goes hand in hand with love, we may find a very moving influence in these appeals to "my son."

(PrPr 156-163).

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