In the Way He Should Go

by Douglas Wilson

"When your children are grown up, put them to some lawful calling, wherein they may serve their generation. It is good to consult the natural genius and inclination of a child, for forced callings do as ill, sometimes, as forced matches." (Thomas Watson)

A common failing of parents is that of unwisely or selfishly directing the future course of their child's vocational calling. Obviously, another failing is that of not directing and preparing a child at all. But while abdication is one problem, careful but unwise supervision is another. The latter is our concern here. Small children are not non-descript lumps of clay, to be fashioned according to whatever desires the parents may have. Parents certainly have the authority to direct the course of their children's lives, but they also have the responsibility to do so before the Lord with wisdom. Such wisdom requires, as Watson put it, that they consult the natural ability and inclination of the child. Parents, like everyone else, must play cards with the hand they are dealt.

This means parents must recognize the capacity of a child. "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:13-14). In this passage, the psalmist compares our Father to a good earthly father. In the comparison, he states that God knows our frame; the implication being that a good earthly father pities his children with the same kind of insightful knowledge. This means a good father is not to pile on requirements unsuited to the child until the child crumples. Some people have to realize that some children will just never skate in the Olympics.

"Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged" (Col. 3:21). One good way to provoke a child is to refuse to consult that child's capacities. When the king of Syria sent Naaman to the king of Israel, he did so with the requirement that the king of Israel heal Naaman's leprosy (2 Kings 5:6). The king of Israel did not take it well. "And it happened, when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, 'Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy? Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel with me" (v. 7).

How many children have felt like this distraught king of Israel? Do my parents want me to fail? Why do they make me do all the things I hate?

An important qualification must be made here. Parents are required to teach their children the value and importance of work. This discussion concerns only the nature of the work undertaken, and not the fact of it. Parents must require their children to work hard, because this is a moral requirement. God does not just command us to rest for one day before Him; He also requires that we work for six. As a moral requirement, children cannot opt out of it. But the nature of the work undertaken is another question entirelywill it be practicing the violin or raking the leaves? And as parents require work from their children, they must keep in mind the fact that they are training and equipping their children for their future calling. This parental training will be done either poorly or well. If it is done well, the native abilities of the child will be consulted. This consultation cannot be done in the maternity ward of the hospital; it must be done over time.

Some children are great at mathematics, and others are not. Some are destined for academia, and others are going to glorify God through working with their hands. No parent can put in what God left out, and it is impudence to try. Any attempt to do so after the child's contrary natural abilities are apparent to everyone is rebelliousness. Grandiose plans for a child when that child is still an infant may seem more understandable, but this is also unwise. To return to the earlier analogy, what would we think of a man who starts betting before he looks at his cards? "Because God loves me, He must have given me the hand I wanted." Well, maybe and good luck.

God has given no parent inside a priori knowledge of the talents and abilities bestowed on each child. This means that the parents do not have that knowledge. Possible indications of a child's abilities can be seen in the abilities of parents, their accomplishments, etc., but these indications are only indications. No authoritative information is possible.

James addresses the whole question of vocational planning when he says "you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that'" (Jas. 4:14-15). Now James is talking about a situation where the arrogant planner knows his own abilities and talents, but there are still too many variables for a vapour to take into account. How much more should we be careful concerning our plans for the vapour children? A man may plan his way, but the Lord determines his steps. How much more the steps of that man's children? In Scripture, God promises us many things concerning our children. We must take care never to confound our plans with those promises.

This article is reprinted from Credenda/Agenda, Vol. 8, No. 1, by kind permission.