Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, as he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” To that end, our Rediscovering Forgotten Classics series surveys some forgotten Christian classics that remain relevant and serve the church today.
Even car commercials these days like to tell us we live in “unprecedented times.” Maybe the pandemic made this popular, but the uniqueness of our current situation has almost become a mantra.
Perhaps nowhere does this mantra raise its head more than around the topic of parenting. After all, there’s a lot that feels unprecedented, even apart from COVID-19. No other generation has been raised from birth in the context of smartphones, as my daughters are being raised. No other generation of parents has had the option of considering “Zoom schooling” as a substitute, however temporary, for in-person education. Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok feel awfully new and unprecedented.
Yet the reality is that while the external particularities change from era to era and culture to culture, we’re all of Adam’s helpless race. Children are still children, and parents still struggle with childrearing. That’s just one reason I found Duties of Parents by J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) so encouraging and useful. He even observes the trendiness of “new” parenting ideas:
We are told of new systems, and new books for the young, of every description. And still for all this, the vast majority of children are manifestly not trained in the way they should go, for when they grow up to man’s estate, they do not walk with God.
Ryle’s brief charge is as applicable in our day as in his. I detected three admonitions in particular to be pertinent in my own parenting as well as in the work of pastoring parents.
Duties of Parents
J. C. Ryle
This small booklet is a beginner’s manual for what Christians ought to intend in the act of child-rearing. In an age when we are losing our children to the world at a worrisome pace, Ryle give us the tools and the focus to “train them up in the way they should go.” (Prov. 22:6)
1. Your child’s eternal future is the prime consideration in parenting.
Here’s the core difference between Christian parenting and worldly parenting. As Christians, we must believe the eternal destiny of each child entrusted to our care is the most pressing matter in his or her life.
It’s so easy, though, to feel overwhelmed with the many other important responsibilities we have for our kids: How will they eat? What will they wear? What educational approach is best? Will they make the right friends? Do they understand the birds and the bees? How will they earn a living? How will they make their way if they move away or I die?
The eternal destiny of each child entrusted to our care is the most pressing matter in his or her life.
The answers to those questions change. The particulars may shift according to new schooling options or banking systems or teenage friendship dynamics. So it becomes easy to give increasing time and attention to what feels most uncertain: how to teach all these life lessons. Meanwhile, the way they can be reconciled to God has had the exact same answer for millennia—repent and trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. The simplicity of the gospel message and the eternal hope available to our children can cause us to neglect to emphasize it, because in our parenting we functionally treat the gospel as less urgent than all these other important matters.
To that Ryle says, “In every step you take about them [your children], in every plan, and scheme, and arrangement that concerns them, do not leave out that mighty question, ‘How will this affect their souls?’”
The smaller decisions will influence the condition of their souls for good or ill. I’ve seen parents teach their children that while religion is important, their final exam scores are more important—not because I’ve heard the parents say that, but because they’ve excused their children from all responsibilities, including church attendance, during exam season. Likewise, I’ve seen parents teach their children that church isn’t that important for the Christian life—not because they’ve said it, but because they’ve failed to order the life of their family around the life of their church.
2. Teach your children the habit of belief.
Many parents my age try to explain as much as possible to their children. Maybe it’s a reaction against the previous generation of parents, but in a desire to treat their children with dignity and respect, they (and I) concede to the mentality that we must explain the “why” of everything we ask of or tell them.
To treat children as if they must understand everything before they trust and follow us is to prepare them for a life of skepticism, not faith.
But sure enough, parents in Ryle’s day had the same challenge! Justifying every decision to your kids, he argues, actually undermines their ability to believe. Children must learn to trust those wiser than them, even if they can’t see the whole picture: “Reason with your child if you are so disposed, at certain times, but never forget to keep him in mind (if you really love him) that he is but a child after all—that he thinks as a child, he understands as a child, and therefore must not expect to know the reason of everything at once.”
That’s true of children—it’s also true of us. To treat them as if they must understand everything before they trust and follow us is to prepare them for a life of skepticism, not faith.
3. Teach your children the habit of obedience.
Perhaps the greatest fear I sense among young Christian parents is of raising little Pharisees. Will requiring quick obedience train their kids to hope in their works? No, Ryle argues, for obedience is “faith visible, faith acting, and faith incarnate. It is the test of real discipleship among the Lord’s people.”
As we teach our children to obey us—the clear, God-given authority in their lives—we train them that it’s good to obey God himself. As Ryle puts it, “You must not wonder that men refuse to obey their Father which is in heaven, if you allow them, when children, to disobey their father who is upon earth.”
Timeless and Timely
These are just three of Ryle’s 17 practical pieces of parenting advice. What makes his advice so timeless—and therefore timely—is his recognition that how we train kids in mundane matters will either prepare them for spiritual prosperity or hinder it.
Perhaps as you read one of the above points, your mind went to how the authority of a parent might be abused. But even that highlights the vital role of training a child’s view of what a good and godly life can look like. Don’t shirk your rightful authority. Use it to point your children to Jesus.