March 2020 Credo
In arguably one of their most iconic songs, the folk rock group of the 1970s, Crosby, Stills and Nash, offers this perennially sound advice: “Teach your children well, / Their father’s hell did slowly go by.”
From an infinitely more authoritative source, we find these words: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov 6:22).
While many parents and educationists recognise the importance of properly nurturing a child, how best this should be done remains a contentious and conflicted debate. Theories on what constitutes positive parenting abound, shaped in one way or another by modern psychology and the dictates of culture.
In this article, I turn very briefly to the works of two Christians who have written insightfully and (some would add) provocatively on this subject: Anabaptist Menno Simons (1496–1561), whose followers came to be known as the Mennonites; and John Wesley (1703–91). Though these writers lived more than one century apart from each other, there are remarkable convergences on their understanding of what it means to nurture children.
The first important point of agreement between these two writers is that the chief end of the nurture of children is their salvation and spiritual maturity. In his sermon, “On the Education of Children”, Wesley asserts: “Ye that are truly kind parents, in the morning, in the evening, and in all the day beside, press upon all your children, ‘to walk in love, as Christ also loved us, and gave himself for us’…”
In a similar vein, Simons unequivocally underscores this in “The Nurture of Children”: “It behoves true Christians to teach, to admonish, to reprove, and to chasten their children: to set them an example in all righteousness, to rear them in the fear of the Lord, and to care for their poor souls lest through their negligence they depart from the true path, die in their sins, and so perish at last in unbelief.”
Both Wesley and Simons put the responsibility of the nurturing of children squarely on the shoulders of parents. They also put much emphasis on discipline, a concept that has somewhat fallen out of favour in modern approaches to parenting. To modern sensibilities, the counsel of both writers might seem simply too harsh and forbidding.
For instance, in stressing the importance of obedience, Simons insists that parents should give a child “no liberty in his youth, and wink not at his follies”, but instead should “bow down his neck while he is young, lest he wax stubborn and be disobedient to thee”. Simons fears that some parents have so much “natural affection” for their children that they fail to carry out their God-given responsibility to train them in godliness.
Wesley, more than a century later, writes of the need to “break the will” of the child early in their lives: “At least, do it now; better late than never. It should have been done before they were two years old: It may be done at eight or ten, though with far more difficulty”.
Wesley’s emphasis on discipline is seen in the strict regime that the students at Kingswood School (aged between six and nine) were subjected: they would rise at four in the morning and retire at eight at night. Their day began with two hours of private and public devotion and ended with an hour of private devotion and an hour of public prayer. They were allowed no time for play and were always supervised by their teachers.
Such counsel and practices would surely provoke the ire of many a modern specialist in child development!
Yet, this approach has a very long history in the Christian tradition, and can be traced to the writings of the early Church Fathers, whose approaches were based on Scripture (Prov 13:24; 23:13–15).
In whatever way we may wish to adapt Simons’ and Wesley’s counsel to our time, the principles that undergird it cannot be abandoned without consequence. The goal of nurturing a child is his spiritual growth and maturity and the means to achieve it are patient instruction and discipline.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.