Parenting from Surviving to Thriving
Building Strong Families in a Changing World
By CHARLES R. SWINDOLL Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2008
Charles R. Swindoll
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Best-Kept Secret of Wise Parenting
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A good place to start is for me to give you a little background information.
My mom and dad married on October 5, 1930. The following August 5, 1931, my brother Orville was born. (If you do the math, it adds up right, so I'm not revealing any scandal here.) Then on September 8, 1932, they welcomed my sister and named her Lucille after my mother. Most everyone today knows her as Luci. A couple of years later, on October 18, 1934, I came along. I was, in my mother's words, "a mistake." My parents didn't resent my arrival, but bringing me into the world was certainly not something they had planned, and I was never quite able to forget that. Orville was clearly my mother's favored child, Luci was undoubtedly my father's favorite, which left me wondering where I fit in.
Both Orville and Luci had a lot of impressive qualities, so they deserved all of the attention and praise they received. My brother is brilliant. I don't know whether he ever took an IQ test, but he would no doubt score in the "approaching genius" category. He was also greatly gifted as a musician. I'm convinced he could have been a concert pianist if had chosen that as a career. But the heart of this talented genius lay elsewhere. He attended Rice Institute, now called Rice University, and ultimately wound up serving the Lord full time as a missionary in Buenos Aires for more than thirty years.
Luci is among the most gifted people I have ever known. As most of you would agree, she is absolutely contagious in her enthusiasm and has a voracious appetite for living. She sang for many years with the Dallas Civic Opera and brings an amazing artistic flair to everything she does-the rooms of her lovely home, right down to the pages of her personal journals, would be worth photographing. Being a fine author, she has written several excellent volumes. Many of you know of her books and her ministry with Women of Faith.
So with a brother and sister like that, you can imagine how comparisons might be potentially damaging to a younger sibling. Take school for example. Orville's report cards were downright boring! Absolutely predictable. All one letter-A. Mine? Now mine had variety. I was all over the board, spanning the full gamut of scores. But my parents didn't seem to appreciate this broad variety in my education. I know because they frequently compared me to my brother as they routinely suggested that I should "work hard to be more like him." I instinctively knew that I was a unique individual with different interests and gifts, but I seldom felt that those differences were acknowledged or appreciated. Comparisons can be stinging. They were regular reminders that I was not like him, which caused me to resent and feel inadequate around my brother. To this day, Orville and I aren't close. But I have to admit, much of that is my problem. I'm not sure I would know how to be.
Please don't think that I had an unhappy childhood or was reared in a terrible family. I was reasonably happy in my home, sometimes deliriously happy and carefree. We were a loving family who often laughed and sang together. I can still remember standing between my brother and sister on the marble drugstore counter at the local pharmacy in El Campo, Texas, during World War II, singing at the top of our lungs, "Heil (phttt!), heil (phttt!) right in the Fuhrer's face!" (They just don't write 'em like they used to!) We each received a double-dip ice-cream cone for our performances.
Our house was always filled with music, especially during the Christmas season. My brother accompanied on piano with my dad on the harmonica while my sister and I sang. My mother had been a soprano soloist before starting a family and had a very accomplished singing voice. This winsome, musical family of mine sparked my interest in the arts, not only classical music, but great literature, especially poetry, and the theater. To this day I am fascinated by all the performing arts.
So, on the whole, I had a healthy, happy childhood. Nevertheless, every home has its challenges, and this happened to be mine: I never felt wanted or respected by either of my parents ... not deeply. I can't remember many times when I was affirmed by them. And I honestly don't think that they ever really knew who I was, which left them ill equipped to help me know myself.
That, by the way, is a primary responsibility of parenting. Put succinctly, a parent's job is to know his or her child and then help that child discover who that unique, precious person is before God and in the world around him or her. When that objective is accomplished and the time comes to release that life to live independently, the child can leave with a strong sense of identity, which will provide both security and direction for the rest of life.
The best-kept secret of wise parenting, therefore, is this:
The job of a parent is to help his or her children come to know themselves, grow to like themselves, and find satisfaction in being themselves.
My parents taught me obedience, discipline, compassion, generosity, responsibility, and most important of all, how to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Godliness was the single most important standard in our home. But for all the good training I received from my mom and dad, I started life somewhat on my own without a clue as to who I was. They didn't know me, so how could they have shown me?
Learning to Adapt
Many years later, Cynthia and I were living in Dallas while I attended Dallas Theological Seminary. I was in my third year of that four-year degree program, taking twenty-one hours and auditing two other courses, including one I called Rabid Greek Reading with Dr. Stan Toussaint. (The course syllabus called it Rapid Greek Reading, but I knew better.) Another in that scholarly mix of classes was one taught by my wonderful mentor, Dr. Howard Hendricks called The Christian Home. That course of study changed everything for me.
I was especially motivated to learn because in September of that year we had brought home from the hospital our firstborn, a little boy we named Curt. I earnestly prayed for help from the Lord because I felt completely unprepared to be a father. I desperately wanted to avoid the mistakes my parents had made with me. This class was a major part of God's answer. And because I wasn't sure where to start with my study in Scripture, I turned to Proverbs, thinking that if any book in the Bible could provide wisdom it would be that one. About that same time, I became serious about studying the Hebrew text and benefited from the superb skills of Dr. Bruce Waltke, whom I deeply admire for his profound knowledge of the Semitic languages.
My study took me several years. I learned childrearing principles from Scripture, applied them, failed, analyzed my mistakes, adjusted, and tried again. Then, during the time I served as the pastor of a church in Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, I would visit Dr. Waltke to have him critique my understanding of the Hebrew verses I was studying. I began to develop parenting principles from some key verses in the Old Testament that I found insightful. I wanted to be certain my interpretation was accurate, especially since it was so different from how I had heard them explained before.
Our job as students of the Bible is not to dream up new interpretations and innovative theology, but to discover the original meanings and uncover theology that has been twisted and obscured over time. I became convinced that the "standard" interpretations of some important passages on childrearing were tragically flawed and were being taught to others. So I was careful to have a respected theologian and Hebrew scholar help to keep me honest.
If you'll allow me to fast-forward from my childhood and young adulthood to today, I'd like to reveal what I discovered and what my wife and I put into practice with our own children.
Proverbs 22:6 ... The Right Way
Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it.
This verse in most biblical childrearing manuals has a standard interpretation that goes something like this:
"Rear your children as moral, upright, God-fearing, churchgoing kids. Be sure they carry a Bible to church, attend lots of Sunday school classes, and each summer attend Christian camps. Enforce your rules and regulations with consistency and discipline. Make sure they learn the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and several key verses of Scripture. Teach them to pray, and be sure they come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. After all, they're eventually going to sow their wild oats as they are certain to rebel. They'll live in that rebellious lifestyle for a while, then, once their oats are sown and they tire of their fling with the wild side of life-when they're old and decrepit-they'll come back to the Lord ... but only if you raised them right!"
I don't know about you, but I don't find that very comforting. Frankly, that is not much of a promise. Yet for some reason it has become "the Christian method of childrearing." Why anyone would take comfort in that is beyond me. It doesn't sound like something God would hold out to us, saying, "This is wise counsel. Do this and everything will turn out well!"
Not only is that popular interpretation of Proverbs 22:6 not very comforting, but it isn't true! You and I know people who were reared like that, who ran wild and never came back. They grew up with Christian parents in a moral, consistent, strict home only to run wild when they graduated and then died in their rebellion. And they never did stop departing from "the way he should go."
If we dig beneath the surface and go back to the Hebrew language to discover what the human writer, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, intended to say, we'll find something very different than what we've been taught. What we have in this verse is a very refreshing, common-sense approach to childrearing that offers hope, yes, but more importantly, practical guidance. Realistic direction is what I have come to expect from Scripture, and I'm never disappointed.
Hebrew is a language of artists and poets. Almost every word has a metaphorical connection to something in the experience of these people. Hebrew poetry, especially, uses allusion and word pictures that convey meaning by analogy, so that a rich tableau of cultural associations stands behind even the simplest sentences. English has some of these, but not nearly as many, or to the degree, as Hebrew.
Proverbs 22:6 drips with poetic allusion and metaphor. And it is typical of Hebrew poetry in that it is very concise-only eight words. Because each word packs so much cultural meaning, drawing so heavily on word pictures, we'll carefully observe each one.
"Train up" comes from the Hebrew verb hanakh, which means "to dedicate, or consecrate." It's used only four times in the Old Testament-three in reference to dedicating a building, and here of a child. Interestingly, the noun form of this verb means "mouth." In similar Semitic languages, such as Aramaic and Arabic, the term means "palate, roof of mouth, jaws, lower part of mouth, lower jaw of horse, mouth, etc." Knowing how this word fit the ancient, Near Eastern culture will help us understand the term as it is being used here.
The Arabic verb, a very close cousin to this Hebrew word, is a term used to describe the custom of a midwife, who dipped her index finger into a pool of crushed dates or grapes in order to massage the palate of a newborn's mouth. This trained-or rather, encouraged-the baby's sucking instinct so that nursing came more easily. And in keeping with the "mouth" idea, the term in Arabic also means "make experienced, submissive, etc. (as one does a horse by a rope in its mouth)."
So in the term hanakh we have the mingled ideas of "dedicate," "train," "mouth," "make experienced," and from the horse's bridle allusion, a sense of subduing for the purpose of teaching and guiding. These multiple allusions to culture have been the subject of controversy for expositors, some of whom want to narrow the meaning to a single definition. This might be a reasonable approach if this weren't poetry. As one Hebrew scholar put it,
Poetic segmentation, or regulation, characteristically depends upon brevity of expression. To that end, poetry employs abundant imagery and figures of speech. Such terseness sometimes heightens ambiguity, or rather, increases the possibility of multiple meanings.
Put simply, poetry has the power to convey several, very complex ideas all at once so that the meaning is multilayered and profound. Hold on to these ideas as we fit the term hanakh into the rest of the line.
The Hebrew word translated "child" is intriguing. The translation leads us to believe that the verse has a little boy or girl in mind. But the Hebrew term na'ar is much broader. It is used to refer to young people in all stages of growth. In 1 Samuel 4:21, na'ar is a newborn. In Exodus 2:6, Moses is a three-month-old na'ar; and in 1 Samuel 1:22, Samuel, the na'ar, has yet to be weaned. First Samuel 3:1 uses the term to describe Samuel as a young lad serving Eli in the temple. Na'ar in Genesis 21:12 pictures Ishmael as a preteen, while in Genesis 37:2, Joseph is a seventeen-year-old na'ar. The young men who served as David's messengers in 1 Samuel 25:5 are called na'ar, as was a young man of marriageable age in Genesis 34:19.
While na'ar can be a little child, it can also be a young man or woman of any age still living under a parent's roof or in the care of an authority figure. Keep that in mind as we continue unraveling the verse.
"the way he should go"
The clear meaning of the verse turns on the phrase "in the way he should go." Parents commonly think there is but one way a child should go: their way. They may think the way they were reared was and still is the right way, or they may think some method they find in a psychologist's manual or a book by a famous theologian or pastor is "the way." They read the phrase "the way he should go," and they assume that is "the way." Wrong.
The literal Hebrew is "in accordance with his way," or even more literally, "upon the mouth of his way." (There's "mouth" again, forming a wordplay with hanakh.) Some scholars say that the book of Proverbs presents only two "ways" a person can go: the way of the righteous wise or the way of the sinful fool. In a broad sense, that's right. But the brilliant and very complex use of words in this poetic Hebrew expression suggests that this advice goes far beyond the obvious.
The key word in this phrase is derek, which means "way" or "road." It can even mean "characteristic manner," as in Proverbs 30:18-19:
There are three things which are too wonderful for me, Four which I do not understand: The way of an eagle in the sky, The way of a serpent on a rock, The way of a ship in the middle of the sea, And the way of a man with a maid. (emphasis added)
In keeping with the poetic spirit of this proverb, both meanings are likely with an emphasis on the characteristic manner of the child.
We receive our children from the hand of God, not as soft, pliable lumps of clay, ready to be molded into what we think they should become. Each child comes with a set of abilities, intellectual capacity, and a way of perceiving and thinking, all of which were endowed by God. We can surely influence and even mold them to a certain extent, but our efforts have limits. On the one hand, if parents ignore or discourage a talent, it may never emerge. On the other hand, if parents cultivate a talent, it will likely become a part of the child. (Please pause and read this paragraph again, only more slowly.)
Excerpted from Parenting from Surviving to Thriving by CHARLES R. SWINDOLL Copyright © 2008 by Charles R. Swindoll. Excerpted by permission.
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