All Christian parents want their children to grow up to really love the Supreme God and His way of life. We know the tremendous benefits that God's law will bring to our children, both now and in the future—a stable and fulfilling life now, and eventual eternal life in God's family at Jesus Christ's return. All parents want this for their children, but they may wonder: how can parents succeed in "passing the baton" and in teaching their children to want this for themselves?
Christian parents have a very high and a very challenging "dual calling." Our Heavenly Father is training parents (who are His children) in His image. In turn, Christians' primary duty as parents is to train and shape their children's hearts and minds in God's image.
Passing the baton to the next generation, however, remains a very difficult task in Satan's world. The pervasive influence of mankind's perverse society, coupled with Satan's broadcasting as "the prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2), provides a very formidable foe in our attempt to mold our children's hearts and minds in God's image!
Scripture shows us that even the best possible parent will not automatically achieve a perfect outcome. Adam was truly a "son of God" (Luke 3:38), yet God did not force even Adam and Eve to make the right decisions! God taught Adam and Eve His way of life, yet the perfect Parent allowed his children to accept or reject His example and teaching.
The same applies to human parents. Parents cannot force their children to seek God as their Father. But parents can certainly help lay the foundation for their children to have a better life now, and eventually to surrender to the true God. Happily, we know that God will open the minds of all human beings, either in this lifetime or in a future resurrection, and that most whose minds are opened will choose to receive the tremendous blessings and benefits of obeying the true God.
How, then, can parents begin to transfer to their children the desire to seek God fully? Every salesman knows that to sell his product, he must first create a desire. Parents must somehow help their children desire God's way of life. Children must be brought to understand that God's way of life will benefit them—that it brings very real blessings and rewards for them personally. People are always motivated by what they want—not by what they should want.
The world tries to convince children of a huge Satanic lie— that God's way of life is a terrible sacrifice, and a "real drag." When children understand that God's way of life brings blessings and benefits—for themselves, and for their loved ones—they will begin to see through the world's Satanic propaganda, and will grow in their desire to live God's way.
God motivates parents in a similar way. He provides the sure knowledge of tremendous benefit for those who choose to follow Him. Scripture explains that "he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). One who does not believe that there is substantial reward—benefit—in seeking God will never be motivated to follow Him. This applies to parents, and it certainly applies to children.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is full of the knowledge of blessings for obedience. "And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, because you obey the voice of the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 28:2). Every day, the benefits of God's way can fill our lives: "Blessed be the Lord, Who daily loads us with benefits" (Psalm 68:19).
Ultimately, parents have just two ways to convince children that God's way of life will benefit them greatly: teaching diligently, and demonstrating by positive example. Neither teaching nor example alone will accomplish the task, without the other. Some parents have been outstanding examples, but have not taken the time to teach godly principles on their children's level, using vivid examples that children can grasp and clearly understand. As a result, their children may love and respect their parents, but be unable to understand or apply God's principles in their own lives. By contrast, other parents have diligently taught their children God's principles, but have been poor examples of the principles they taught. Their children will often rebel against the hypocrisy they perceive in their parents, and will turn against religion—and even against authority in general. The "do as I say, not as I do" approach rarely convinces anyone.
Notice God's instruction to parents: "Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children…" (Deuteronomy 11:18–19). The principles of God are to become bound up in our mind (what we think) and in our hand (what we do as an example)— and we must teach them effectively to our children.
Children must recognize, by their parents' instruction and example, that God's way of life is loaded with blessings and benefits for them personally. Long before it is asked, parents must help their children answer the question: "Why should I follow God? What's in it for me?" Unless parents can answer this question with honesty and sincerity, they will never reach their children effectively. King David understood this question perfectly, and said: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits" (Psalm 103:2).
Of course, parents do not want to create self-centered children who think only of their own benefits. The idea is to help children understand that all of God's laws are for their own good. As children grow, they can then understand, by extension, that God's laws are good for their family and friends—and indeed that every human being will benefit from God's laws and His way of life.
Scripture makes it clear that children can be taught God's way of life most effectively in the home, informally and constantly: "And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up" (Deuteronomy 6:6–7).
Years ago, while attending Ambassador College, I attempted to support our family by practicing dentistry on Sundays. Every Sunday evening, we would ship a box of lab work from my dental practice to my dental lab in northern California. We shipped the box by Greyhound bus. At the end of the workday, all four of our children would ride with my wife and me to the Greyhound bus station in one of the rougher sections of Los Angeles.
The children would watch as we drove past people stumbling in alcoholic stupors. We saw others rummaging through garbage cans looking for something to eat. We saw people curled up, asleep, in the doorways of buildings. We saw crossdressers, prostitutes and many other sad examples of human society.
At first, my wife and I wondered whether it was appropriate for our children to see these sights. My wife, however, began talking about what we were seeing—describing what might have brought the people we were seeing into such a sad state of life. With her descriptions, she was helping the children understand the emptiness of human life apart from God. This seemed to leave a very vivid impression on our children's minds, and each weekly trek became an interesting testimony to the penalties of breaking God's laws. We had turned a horrifying portrait of depraved humanity into a lesson on the blessings and benefits of "choosing life." Years later, our children still remember those Sunday nights, which often prompted long discussions of the many blessings that we could enjoy and appreciate as a family as long as we followed God. This was an excellent opportunity to point out the advantages of God's way of life, such as the promise that we will have our needs met and we will never starve: "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'…. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:31–33).
Parents should constantly point out to their children the benefits of God's way of life—sitting on the couch watching television, driving down the street, reading the paper and at every opportunity when God's way of life can be contrasted with the suffering that this world's lifestyle brings. There is no shortage of examples in this sick world; the question is: will parents put in the effort? Granted, it takes considerable time and a consistent focus on this meaningful goal, but it has huge payoffs. Relying on Sabbath services, by themselves, will not accomplish the task. Parents must reinforce Sabbath lessons, whenever possible, with both a mother's nurturing love and gentle teaching, and a father's consistent support and guidance.
Parents will find it helpful to frame God's laws in terms of "cause and effect." Children can easily grasp the "cause and effect" concept when discussing physical laws, such as gravity. If they jump out of a tall tree, gravity will yank them to the ground, resulting in a broken leg or a very painful sprain. The effect (the painful injury) was caused by violating the law of gravity (jumping out of the tree). God's spiritual laws operate the same way. If we violate God's laws, we automatically injure ourselves (or others) in some way. If we obey God's laws, there is an automatic benefit or blessing.
My wife consistently emphasized the choices in our children's lives by maintaining clear rules of the household. When our children disobeyed those rules, we could remind them that they chose to disobey, so they had chosen to receive some form of punishment. This applied in the physical realm as well as the spiritual, as when my wife reminded our children to be very careful with knives, using them only when we gave permission. Our young sons tended to be intrigued with knives' shiny sharp blades, and sometimes attempted to cut into something on their own. When they did, they usually ended up with cuts on their hands. After one such mishap, I overheard one of our children telling my wife what his brother had done, saying: "Mommy, he wasn't supposed to do it, and he punished himself!" At least the concept was making sense!
Helping children understand the causes and effects of all of God's laws is crucial to helping them really want the benefit of God's way, instead of the harm they will do to themselves when they disobey God's laws. Notice God's instruction to us: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing [benefits] and cursing [penalties]; therefore choose [God's way of] life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days" (Deuteronomy 30:19–20).
Every family sets rules for its children. Most parents would never allow their children to run into the street after a bouncing ball; the chance of being hit by a passing car is too great. Clearly, this rule is for a child's benefit and is easy to explain. In the same way, parents can explain to their children that God also has certain family rules—His laws—that are for our protection. Even by appealing only to a child's self-interest, parents can explain that God's law against stealing, for example, will protect them from possible jail time—or even from being shot at by the one from whom they are stealing!
Parents' goal in child rearing is to explain, in language that their children can understand, how all of God's principles are for their own good—and in fact that they are the "blueprint of human happiness." Teaching God's principles on the basis of obedience—"just because God said so"—is a start, but a child's motivation and understanding must go far deeper. The more that parents can frame God's laws by the concept of cause and effect—benefits for obedience and penalties for disobedience— the more likely that children will internalize them. After all, who wants to harm themselves? We all want the benefit of a good life, full of happiness and joy instead of misery and emptiness. Truly godly parenting is ultimately deficient if it does not help children understand and truly grasp how God's way of life brings them very real benefits.
When children reach their teenage years, parents have the same goal—teaching the benefits of God's way—but must help their children understand more complex reasoning than in their earlier years. While this takes significant parental effort, it is well worth the effort. Many teenage boys can readily understand that physically assaulting a woman is wrong, but how would you explain to your teenage son that lusting after near-naked images of women is also wrong—that it will harm him and that, conversely, avoiding such lust will greatly benefit him? How could you convince a teenager who does not really grasp Jesus' instruction: "But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28)? How would you combat a teenager's assertion: "What's the difference? Who is it going to harm? After all, I am not married, and I am only looking."
Teenagers need to be taught that years of lusting will result in great harm to one's future marriage and happiness! Those who have become deeply involved in "visual immorality" (magazines, movies, internet, "adult entertainment clubs," etc.) literally experience a chemical response in the brain that mimics the chemical response generated by real live human contact! The brain can store images of airbrushed or surgically enhanced bodies that one has seen, and then compare a future mate to those false ideals. So we see that consistent lust, inflamed by visual immorality, will reduce appreciation for one's own mate, and will diminish the potential for happiness in marriage. The old adage, "the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence," becomes especially true when one lives in a fantasy world of visual immorality. Children need to be taught that God's law regarding sexuality is a blessing that will enhance their lives, and marriages, in the years ahead of them.
Family testimonies, or family stories of God's dramatic interventions, healings and other blessings, can help children appreciate the reality of God, and of His loving nature as a living and vital being who is personally interested in our lives. Our family tells and re-tells many such stories of how we have experienced, through dramatic healings and protections from accidents, many wonderful examples of God's love, power, mercy and concern for us. We have never claimed to deserve God's intervention, but those interventions have been a frequent reminder to our children of just how loving and merciful our God truly is.
For example, years ago, on one cold and rainy Sabbath in the Arkansas Ozarks, we were driving the 40 miles to church. All of a sudden, our car's windshield wipers quit clearing the windshield. We quickly realized that we were being hit by freezing rain. My wife immediately suggested: "We all need to pray that God will protect us." She and our four children closed their eyes and prayed silently for God's protection; I tried as best I could to pray silently while driving. About five miles further along, on the shady north side of the mountain, we suddenly hit "black ice" and began to slide down the road sideways—out of control! Just then, another car coming the opposite way also hit the ice and lost control. We were hurtling toward each other at about 40 miles per hour—a combined speed of about 80 miles per hour if we were to hit each other! It was a sure collision. The thought flashed through my mind: "This is it!" Just at the last possible moment, we felt a tremendous unseen force push us sideways off the road. We came to a soft landing in the mud, hitting nothing. Ten feet further on the left was a large cement culvert, and to the right of the road was a 40-foot embankment leading down to a river. Our hearts were pounding as we realized we were unhurt. We sat there, stunned, extremely thankful for God's intervention.
Over the years, my wife and I have talked with our children about many such dramatic interventions— including many healings. These stories have become our personal family "testimonies" of God's intervention— stories that have reinforced our appreciation of the love, the reality and the power of our God. All parents should regularly share personal testimonies from their own lives, to help bind their children to the real God.
Parents' testimonies may include the dramatic stories of how God intervened in their lives to open their minds to His truth. My wife has often told our children of how great a miracle it was that God opened her mind. Her personal testimony extends from when she at first believed that God's Church was totally deceived, to the time she accepted the challenge to prove the Truth, no matter where it led, to the day when she and I first sat in God's Church, awestruck that God Himself was actually calling and choosing us. My wife has often reminded our children of her testimony as a miracle of God: as "the blinds being opened to her mind, enabling her to finally see."
Parents have an obligation before the Great God to do the best they can to train and shape their children's minds in His image. Parents must consistently use every tool that is available, knowing that their children will be affected not only by teaching but by personal family stories of God's love and mercy. As children see the example of their parents' lives, they can see for themselves that God's way of life will also benefit them tremendously, and that His laws are for their own good.