Chris Walker, Veritas Academy faculty and Youth Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church, recently spoke with Veritas dads at our Downtown Destination Conversations event. Here is what he had to say in this timely and engaging talk.
I am grateful for the chance to discuss a topic that is so important to me as a father and as a youth pastor. I should make one preliminary comment. My wife said to me when I was asked to share this, "Why did you get asked to speak on that topic - you haven't successfully raised a son or a daughter yet!" And this is very true, so my comments will largely be based on what my father did very well and what I see in teens around me.
To begin, I want to encourage us as fathers to be training our sons (and our daughters) in wisdom. But wisdom isn't a specific set of skills or decisions we want our boys to make. Wisdom is a habit of mind and heart that enables them to live in deep dependence on God and prepares them to make wise choices in whatever settings God calls them to.
A Firm Foundation
Proverbs 1-9 is Solomon's treatise on wisdom, and in it, he outlines what I like to think of as the three legs that support the stool of wisdom. The cornerstone - the foundation - of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. To fear the Lord is to recognize and respect the Lord for who He is in all His power, glory, holiness, and justice and to respond accordingly. Proverbs 1:7 makes it clear that a heart that fears the Lord is the starting point for wisdom. Second, Proverbs 3:5-12 calls us to a thorough trust in the Lord in any circumstance. And then Proverbs 4:23-27 urges us to guard our hearts from temptations to swerve from the way of the Lord. As parents, if we aim to nurture our sons and our daughters to fear the Lord, to trust the Lord, and to guard their hearts, we will set them on the path to wisdom which can shape their lives and their choices as they grow and mature.
With that general comment as a foundation, let me mention two particular areas I believe we as fathers need to be particularly intentional with our sons. A college pastor published an article a few years ago called "the difference between a man and a manboy." He argued that the central mark of a mature man, and the central thing missing in so many teens and twenty year old guys today, is the willingness to do things he doesn't want to do but should. It is the sense of responsibility that says "I don't care what I'm feeling or liking, this is my duty, my calling, my responsibility," and so he does them.
A Call to Responsiblity
This is closely tied to our view of work. If I could identify one glaring attitude that plagues many of my junior high and high school students, it would be a complete adoption of the world's attitude toward work and all things that take effort. That attitude is: avoid it at all costs, grumble about it, and hate it...unless it comes with sufficiently high pay that I'm willing to lower myself to do it.
I see this attitude toward school and things God has called students to; I see it toward jobs and the attitude of disgust at any job that pays less than $10/hr, as if 16 years are worth way more than the going rate of low skill employment; and I see it in their attitudes toward serving others. If it gets attention, fills out a resume, seems particularly noteworthy, or pays, they'll do it; just serving others because giving up myself to love and serve others is worthwhile, not so much. This attitude is so universal, it is hard not to adopt it. But as fathers, we have to do everything we can to counter the cultural attitude. It starts with a sense of responsibility.
One of the big things we can do as fathers is to treat our sons with the expectation of responsibility. They aren't just going to be responsible in the future, they should be treated with the expectation of responsibility now. Treat them as capable of doing challenging, risky, worthwhile, difficult, work. And do so, not just by demanding the work we want them to do, but by giving them responsibility in significant areas.
I remember my dad encouraging me to take on work, take initiative, and take on responsibility from an early age. My dad let me mow our 2/3rd acre lot at age seven. At 10, I was mowing four lawns a week. At 12 I made fliers and put them out to recruit more business. When my dad went on business trips, I remember him saying to me, "Son, you're the man in the house until I get back, take care of your mom and sisters." My dad and I had breakfast out together once a month, and at 15 or 16, I remember him sharing business decisions he had to make at work and asking me my opinion of what I thought he should do. I had no idea, but I felt treated as someone with responsibility because he asked.
My dad encouraged creativity and initiative along with responsibility. Dig a turtle pond that had no chance to succeed in our backyard? Go for it. You buy what you need, make the plans, and try it. Try growing pumpkins, spray paint a baseball field and build an outfield fence - you pay for it, take responsibility for anything that comes up, and go for it.
If I was going to miss a baseball game, I was responsible to talk to the coach; if an issue came up with the coach, or I disagreed with a decision, it was my responsibility to go to them; I have had a lot of respect for the boys that have done this with me as their coach or pastor. But most often, either the parents come to me to work things out for their kids, or I never find out, or I get a text right before something happens that they can't be there. I see in myself a tendency to figure things out for my son so all will go well for him, defend him and make his way smooth, give him the most fun and advantage, but what I need to remember is that the key things that made me who I am were the challenges to take responsibility, work diligently, and serve as a man who was responsible. Our sons have a calling that they are responsible to meet with eagerness and diligence, even at a young age.
One comment on this: as we talk to our sons about responsibility, work, etc., I think it is important that we don't encourage them toward hard work and responsibility because of what they get out of it (good job, success, respect) but because of who God has made them to be and what God has called them to do. Do your schoolwork because it's God's calling for you right now, and take responsibility because God has made you and called you to lead, work, provide, protect, take responsibility. The "why" that we tell our sons behind their work may be more important than the "what," because their heart motivation is more significant than what they do.
Dependence on Christ
I want my son to be strong as a man, to take responsibility, to tackle adversity, to care for and protect his wife and children. But more importantly, my son must know that as a man, he is not sufficient in himself, nor is he the one who can guarantee success or protection in any situation. He is not a special case, or capable of tackling the world on his own. He desperately and continually needs to lean heavily on his God. And the biggest way my son will learn to lean heavily on God is to have a regular habit of devotional life and to be regularly in church. As a father, lead your family to find its life and relationships in the church; lead your family every day if possible in devotions, set an example of having time in God's word every day, and train him likewise to be in God's word every day. Never, ever sacrifice this habit, and never underestimate its importance.
This is hard. Time is short. We are tired. Don't take this as a blame game. It's hard.
But it is so worth it.
I think of my dad, leading devotions every night, nearly without fail unless we weren't home; I know he didn't feel like it sometimes. I know he was exhausted sometimes. But he did it. And I knew, because I saw him, that he was going to read his Bible on his own before he went to bed. And I knew, because I saw her, that my mom was going to be reading her Bible when I got up in the morning. And so it wasn't at all surprising that my parents required me to be reading my Bible on my own either.
In the end, every time my dad was in the word and leading us in the word, he was saying: this is our foundation, this is our food. We need this more than anything else. And when we skip this, we are saying: rest is more important, a few grade points higher on your test from 20 minutes of studying is more important, family fun outings are more important, sports or dance practice is more important than being in God's word. And when we allow other things to be primary rather than the church, we are putting something else in the place of the church as our foundation. But nothing else can be this foundation, and I see families and students replacing foundations again and again. God's people and God's word don't work as door frames or accessories to our lives; they must be the foundations. I see the immense difference in those who are doing this with their sons, and I am so thankful for my dad's leading in this. He showed me and made me realize that as a family and individually I needed God's word and prayer daily, because everything else flowed from leaning heavily on that.
There is so much more we could talk about. But I'd like to move on to a brief comment on daughters. I have four sisters, so I saw my dad do this four times. I hope I've learned since I have three of my own now!
For Our Daughters
It is probably obvious that we want to model the type of man that we want our daughters to marry. But this needs to go beyond just modeling manliness. It has to include modeling the spiritual maturity and commitment that we just talked about. After all, we want them to find a man who is leaning heavily on Christ, not one who takes on life as if he is capable of doing everything; and we want to train our daughters to lean heavily on Christ and find their identity and security in Christ, and not to expect to find their primary love and security in their husband. A huge part of this will be showing humility and weakness, asking for forgiveness, acknowledging fault, and speaking with gentleness and grace while being a rock for them.
As we nurture our daughters, we have to look for a different type of relationship with them than we have with our sons. It has to involve a certain intimacy. In a sense, we need to woo our daughters like we would woo our wives. We have to spend the time, show the interest, love, and lead our daughters in a way that won't just help them recognize a manly guy who will work hard and earn good money, but a guy who will love them and lead them well. We have to do this in a way that doesn't pamper or spoil them, but leads them and calls them to righteousness. We have to present them spotless to their Savior, as Paul says husbands are to do in Ephesians 5.
As we do this, we want to spend the time and emotional energy to develop a relationship with our daughters so that we are the man in their life, and they don't need to look elsewhere for a man who really sacrifices for them, loves them, or calls them to follow. Here's a great way to summarize this concept: I still remember that when my second sister was dating a guy in college that we were starting to be a bit skeptical of, my first sister asked her a simple question: "Do you respect him as much as you respect dad?"
Again, we're not after a formula. Prayer undergirds all of this; leaning heavily on our strong God and Savior is our foundation. But these are things that have shaped me and I hope shape my parenting.