THE DUTIES OF PARENTS
Written by: Ryle, J.C. Posted on: 04/01/2003
For more than 100 years, J. C. Ryle's (John Charles Ryle) sermons have been
consistently recognized, and their usefulness and impact have continued to
the present day, even in the outdated English of the author's own day.
Why then should expositions already so successful and of such stature and
proven usefulness require adaptation, revision, rewrite or even editing?
The answer is obvious. To increase its usefulness to today's reader, the
language in which it was originally written needs updating.
Though his sermons have served other generations well, just as they came
from the pen of the author in the nineteenth century, they still could be
lost to present and future generations, simply because, to them, the
language is neither readily nor fully understandable.
My goal, however, has not been to reduce the original writing to the
vernacular of our day. It is designed primarily for you who desire to read
and study comfortably and at ease in the language of our time. Only
obviously archaic terminology and passages obscured by expressions not
totally familiar in our day have been revised. However, neither J. C.
Ryle's meaning nor intent have been tampered with.
All Scripture references are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL
VERSION (C) 1978 by the New York Bible Society, used by permission of
Zondervan Bible Publishers.
THE DUTIES OF PARENTS
J. C. Ryle
"Train a child in the way he should go, and when
he is old he will not turn from it."
I suppose that most professing Christians are acquainted with the text at the
head of this page. The sound of it is probably familiar to your ears, like
an old tune. It is likely you have heard it, or read it, talked of it, or
quoted it, many a time. Is this not true?
But, after all, how little is the substance of this text regarded! The
doctrine it contains appears scarcely known, the duty it puts before us seems
seldom practiced. Reader, am I not speaking the truth?
It cannot be said that this is a new subject. The world is old, and we have
the experience of over six thousand years of civilization to help us. We
live in days when there is a great zeal for education in every quarter. We
hear of new schools rising on all sides. We are told of new systems, and new
books for the young, of every sort and description. And still for all this,
the vast majority of children are clearly not trained in the way they should
go, for when they grow up to an adult, they do not walk with God.
Now how shall we account for this state of things? The plain truth is, the
Lord's commandment in our text is not regarded; and therefore, the Lord's
promise in our text is not fulfilled.
Reader, these things may well give rise to great searching's of the heart.
Please listen to a word of exhortation from a minister, about the right
training of children. Believe me, the subject is one that should come home
to every conscience, and make every one ask himself the question, "Am I
doing all that I can in the training of children in the way they should go?"
It is a subject that concerns almost all of us. There is hardly a household
that it does not touch. Parents, nurses, teachers, uncles, aunts, brothers,
sisters--all have an interest in it. Few can be found, I think, who might
not influence some parent in the management of his family, or affect the
training of some child by suggestion or advice. All of us, I suspect, can do
something here, either directly or indirectly, and I wish to stir up everyone
so they can learn the proper way to train children.
It is a subject, too, on which all concerned are in great danger of coming
short of their duty. This is preeminently a point in which men can see the
faults of their neighbors more clearly than their own. They will often bring
up their children in the very path which they have denounced to their friends
as unsafe. They will see minor problems in other men's families, and
overlook catastrophes in their own. They will be quick sighted as eagles in
detecting mistakes in other families, and yet blind as bats to fatal errors
which are daily going on at home. They will be wise about their brother's
house, but foolish about their own flesh and blood. Here, if anywhere, we
have need to suspect our own judgment. This, too, you will do well to bear
As a minister, I cannot help remarking that there is hardly any subject about
which people seem so stubborn as they are about their own children. I have
sometimes been perfectly astonished at the slowness of sensible Christian
parents to believe that their own children are at fault, or deserve blame.
There are many persons to whom I would rather speak about their own sins,
than tell them their children had done anything wrong.
Come now, and let me place before you a few hints about right training.
Bless God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit and make their
words appropriate in all of you. Do not reject them because they are blunt
and simple; do not despise them because they contain nothing new. Be very
sure, if you would train children for heaven, that these hints are not
lightly set aside.
1. If you would train your children rightly, train them in the way they
should go, and not in the way that they would.
Remember children are born with a decided bias towards evil, and therefore,
if you let them choose for themselves, they are certain to choose wrong.
The mother cannot tell whether her tender infant will grow up to be tall or
short, weak or strong, wise or foolish: he may be any of these things or none
of them, it is all uncertain. But one thing the mother can say with
certainty: he will have a corrupt and sinful heart. It is natural for us to
do wrong. "Folly," says Solomon, "is bound up in the heart of a child"
(Proverbs 22:15). "A child left to himself disgraces his mother" (Proverbs
29:15). Our hearts are like the earth on which we walk--let it alone, and it
is sure to bear weeds.
If, then, you would deal wisely with your child, you must not leave him to
the guidance of his own will. Think for him, judge for him, act for him,
just as you would for someone weak and blind; but for pity's sake, do not
give him up to his own wayward tastes and inclinations. It must not be his
likings and wishes that guide him. He does not yet know what is good for his
mind and soul, any more than what is good for his body. You do not let him
decide what he will eat, and what he will drink, and how he will be dressed.
Be consistent, and deal with his mind in like manner. Train him in the way
that is scriptural and right, and not in the way that he fancies.
If you cannot make up your mind to this first principle of Christian
training, it is useless for you to read any further. Self-will is almost the
first thing that appears in a child's mind; and it must be your first
priority to resist it.
2. Train up your child with all tenderness, affection, and patience.
I do not mean that you are to spoil him, but I do mean that you should let
him see that you love him.
Love should be the silver thread that runs through all your conduct.
Kindness, gentleness, patience, sympathy, a willingness to enter into
childish troubles, a readiness to take part in childish joys--these are the
cords by which a child may be led most easily--these are the clues you must
follow if you would find the way to his heart.
Few are to be found, even among grown-up people, who are not more easy to
draw than to drive. There is that in all our minds which rises with
resistance against compulsion; we straighten our backs and stiffen our necks
at the very idea of a forced obedience. We are like young horses in the hand
of a breaker: handle them kindly, and make them do what you desire, and in
time you may guide them with thread; use them roughly and violently, and it
will be many months before you get mastery over them--if at all.
Now children's minds are cast in much the same mold as our own. Sternness
and severity of manner make them cold and cause them to back away. It shuts
up their hearts, and you will weary yourself to find a way in.
But let them see that you have an affectionate feeling towards them--that you
are really desirous to make them happy, and do them good--that if you punish
them, it is intended for their profit, and you would give your heart's blood
to nourish their souls; let them see this, and they will soon be all your
own. But they must be wooed with kindness, if their attention is ever to be
And surely reason itself might teach us this lesson. Children are weak and
tender creatures, and, as such, they need patient and considerate treatment.
We must handle them delicately, like frail machines, lest by rough handling
we do more harm than good. They are like young plants, and need gentle
watering--often, but a little at a time.
We must not expect all things at once. We must remember what children are
and teach them as they are able to bear. Their minds are like a lump of
metal--not to be forged and made useful at once, but only by a succession of
little blows. Their understandings are like narrow-necked vessels: we must
pour in the wine of knowledge gradually, or most of it will be spilled and
lost. "Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a
little there" (Isaiah 28:10) must be our rule. The sharpening stone does its
work slowly, but frequent rubbing will bring the knife to a fine edge. Truly
there is need of patience in training a child, but without it nothing can be
Nothing will compensate for the absence of this tenderness and love. A
minister may speak the truth as it is in Jesus, clearly, forcibly,
unanswerably; but if he does not speak it in love, few souls will be won.
Just so you must set before your children their duty--command, threaten,
punish, reason--but if love is missing in your treatment, your labor will be
all in vain.
Love is one grand secret of successful training. Anger and harshness may
frighten, but they will not persuade the child that you are right; and if he
sees you angry often, you will soon cease to have his respect. A father who
speaks to his son as Saul did to Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:30), need not expect
to retain his influence over that son's mind.
Try hard to keep a hold on your child's affections. It is a dangerous thing,
to make your children afraid of you. Anything is almost better than
reservation and constraint between your child and yourself; and this will
come with fear. Fear puts an end to openness; fear leads to
concealment--fear sows the seed of hypocrisy, and leads to many lies. There
is much truth in the Apostle's words to the Colossians: "Fathers, do not
embitter your children, or they will become discouraged" (Colossians 3:21).
Do not let the advice it contains be overlooked.
3. Train your children with an abiding persuasion of your mind that much
depends upon you.
Grace is the strongest of all principles. See what a revolution grace
effects when it comes into the heart of an old sinner--how it overturns the
strongholds of Satan--how it throws down mountains, fills up valleys, makes
crooked things straight--and creates the new man. Truly nothing is
impossible for grace.
Nature, too, is very strong. See how it struggles against the things of the
kingdom of God--how it fights against every attempt to be more holy--how it
keeps up an unceasing warfare within us to the last hour of life. Nature
indeed is strong.
But after nature and grace, undoubtedly, there is nothing more powerful than
education. Early habits (if I may say so) are everything with us, under God.
We are made what we are by training. Our character takes the form of that
mold into which our first years are cast. He has seen only a little of life
who does not discern everywhere the effect of education on men's opinions and
habits of thinking. The children bring out of the nursery that which
displays itself throughout their lives.
We depend, in a vast measure, on those who bring us up. We get from them a
color, a taste, a bias which cling to us more or less all our lives. We
catch the language of our babysitters and mothers, and learn to speak it
naturally, and unquestionably we catch something of their manners, ways, and
mind at the same time. Time will only tell, I suspect, how much we all owe
to early impressions, and how many things in us may be traced to the seeds
sown in the days of our very infancy by those who were around us. A very
educated Englishman, Mr. Locke, has gone so far as to say: "That of all the
men we meet with, ninety percent of what they are, good or bad, useful or
not, is directly related to their education."
And all this is one of God's merciful arrangements. He gives your children a
mind that will receive impressions like moist clay. He gives them a dis-
position at the starting point of life to believe what you tell them, and to
take for granted what you advise them, and to trust your word rather than a
stranger's. He gives you, in short, a golden opportunity of doing them good.
See that the opportunity is not neglected and thrown away. Once we let it
slip away, it is gone for ever.
Beware of that miserable delusion into which some have fallen--that parents
can do nothing for their children, that you must leave them alone, wait for
the grace of God, and sit still. These persons would like them to die the
death of the righteous man, but they do nothing to make them live his life.
They desire much and have nothing. And the devil rejoices to see such
foolish reasoning, just as he always does over anything which seems to excuse
idleness, or to encourage neglect.
I know that you cannot convert your child. I know very well that they who
are born again are born, not of the will of man, but of God. But I know also
that God says expressly, "Train a child in the way he should go" and that He
never laid a command on man which He would not give man grace to perform.
And I know, too, that our duty is not to stand still and argue, but to go
forward and obey. It is just in the going forward that God will meet us.
The path of obedience is the way in which He gives the blessing. We have
only to do as the servants were commanded at the marriage feast in Cana, to
fill the water-pots with water, and we may safely leave it to the Lord to
turn that water into wine.
4. Train with this thought continually before your eyes--that the soul of
your child is of the utmost importance.
Precious, no doubt, are these little ones in your eyes; but if you love them,
think often of their souls. Nothing should interest you so much as their
eternal destiny. No part of them should be so dear to you as that part which
will never die. The world, with all its glory, will pass away; the hills
will melt; the heavens will rolled away like a scroll; the sun shall cease to
shine. But the spirit which dwells in those little creatures, whom you love
so well, shall outlive them all, and whether in blissful happiness or
agonizing misery will mostly depend on you.
This is the thought that should be uppermost on your mind in all you do for
your children. In every action you take for them, in every plan, and
program, and arrangement that concerns them, do not leave out that mighty
question, "How will this affect their souls?"
Soul love is the soul of all love. To pet and pamper and indulge your child,
as if this world was all he had to live for and this life the only time for
happiness--to do this is not true love, but cruelty. It is treating him like
some animal of the earth, which has only one world to look forward to, and
nothing after death. It is hiding from him that great truth, which he ought
to be made to learn from his very infancy--that the chief end of his life is
the salvation of his soul.
A true Christian must not be a slave to this world if he wants to train his
child for heaven. He must not be content to do things merely because they
are the custom of the world; to teach them and instruct them in certain ways,
merely because it is normal; to allow them to read books of a questionable
sort merely because everybody else reads them; to let them form bad habits
merely because they are the habits of the day. He must train with an eye to
his children's souls. He must not be ashamed to hear his training called odd
or strange. What if it is? The time is short, the ways of this world will
pass away. He that has trained his children for heaven, rather than for
earth--for God, rather than for man--he is the parent that will be called
wise in the end.
5. Train your child to have a knowledge of the Bible.
You cannot make your children love the Bible, I will admit. No one but the
Holy Spirit can give us a heart to delight in the Word. But you can make
your children familiar with the Bible; and be they cannot be acquainted with
that blessed book too soon, or too well.
A thorough knowledge of the Bible is the foundation of all clear views of
religion. He that is well-grounded in it will not generally be found to be a
person who wavers or one who is carried about by every wind of new doctrine.
Any system of training which does not make a knowledge of Scripture the
first thing is unsafe and unsound.
You need to be careful on this point just now, for the devil is busy in this
world and error abounds. Some are to be found among us who give the Church
the honor due to Jesus Christ. Some are to be found who make the religious
duty saviors and passports to eternal life. And some are to be found in like
manner who honor a the Church's traditions more than the Bible, or fill the
minds of their children with worthless little story books, instead of the
Scripture of truth. But if you love your children, let the simplicity of the
Bible be everything in the training of their souls; and let all other books
take second place.
Don't worry so much about them being involved in Church activities, as for
their being mighty in the Scriptures. This is the training, believe me, that
God will honor. The Psalmist says of Him, "You have exalted above all things
your name and your word." (Psalm 138:2) and I think that He gives a special
blessing to all who try to magnify His Word among men.
See that your children read the Bible reverently. Train them to look on it,
not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, written by
the Holy Spirit Himself--all true, all profitable, and able to make us wise
unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
See that they read it regularly. Train them to regard it as their soul's
daily food--as a thing essential to their soul's daily health. I know well
you cannot make this anything more than a form; but there is no telling the
amount of sin which a mere form may indirectly restrain.
See that they read it all. You need not shrink from bringing any doctrine
before them. You need not fancy that the leading doctrines of Christianity
are things which children cannot understand. Children understand far more of
the Bible than we are apt to suppose.
Tell them of sin, its guilt, its consequences, its power, its vileness: you
will find they can comprehend something of this.
Tell them of the Lord Jesus Christ, and His work for our salvation--the
atonement, the cross, the blood, the sacrifice, the intercession: you will
discover that this is not beyond them.
Tell them of the work of the Holy Spirit in man's heart, how He changes, and
renews, and sanctifies, and purifies: you will soon see they can go alone
with you in some measure in this. In short, I suspect we have no idea how
much a little child can take in of the length and breadth of the glorious
gospel. They see far more of these things than we suppose. (As to the age
when the religious instruction of a child should begin, no general rule can
be laid down. The mind seems to open in some children much more quickly than
in others. We seldom begin too early. There are wonderful examples on
record of what a child can attain to, even at three years old).
Fill their minds with Scripture. Let the Word dwell in them richly. Give
them the Bible, the whole Bible, even while they are young.
6. Train them to make a habit of prayer.
Prayer is the very life-breath of true religion. It is one of the first
evidences that a man is born again. "Ananias!" said the Lord of Saul, in
the day he sent Ananias to him, "He is praying" (Acts 9:11). He had begun to
pray, and that was proof enough.
Prayer was the distinguishing mark of the Lord's people in the day that there
began to be a separation between them and the world. "At that time men began
to call on the name of the LORD" (Genesis 4:26).
Prayer is the characteristic of all real Christians. They pray, telling God
their wants, their feelings, their desires, their fears and they mean what
they say. The person who is a Christian in name only may repeat prayers, and
good sounding prayers too, but he goes no further.
Prayer is the turning-point in a man's soul. Our ministry is unprofitable,
and our labor is vain till you are brought to your knees. Till then, we have
no hope concerning you.
Prayer is one great secret of spiritual prosperity. When there is
considerable private communion with God, your soul will grow like the grass
after a rain; when there is only a little prayer then all will be at a
standstill, you will barely keep your soul alive. Show me a growing
Christian, a Christian moving forward, a strong Christian, a flourishing
Christian, and I am sure that he is one that often speaks with His Lord. He
asks much, and he has much. He tells Jesus everything, and so he always
knows how to act.
Prayer is the mightiest power God has placed in our hands. It is the best
weapon to use in every difficulty, and the surest remedy for every trouble.
It is the key that unlocks the treasury of promises, and the hand that
reaches out and grabs hold of grace and help in time of need. It is the
silver trumpet God commands us to sound whenever we have need, and it is the
cry He has promised always to respond to, even as a loving mother would to
the voice of her child.
Prayer is the simplest means that man can use in coming to God. It is within
reach of all--the sick, the aged, the weak, the paralytic, the blind, the
poor, the illiterate--all can pray. It does no good for you to excuse the
lack of prayer based upon the fact that you have a weak memory, or that you
lack education, or that you have not read enough books on prayer, or that you
have not been adequately taught in this matter. As long as you have a tongue
to tell the state of your soul to God, you can and must pray. Those words,
"You do not have, because you do not ask God" (James 4:2), will be a fearful
condemnation to many in the day of judgment.
Parents, if you love your children, do all that lies in your power to train
them up to a habit of prayer. Show them how to begin. Tell them what to
say. Encourage them to persevere. Remind them if they become careless and
slack about it. Let it not be your fault, at any rate, if they never call on
the name of the Lord.
This, remember, is the first step in Christianity which a child is able to
take. Long before he can read, you can teach him to kneel by his mother's
side, and repeat the simple words of prayer and praise which she puts in his
mouth. And as the first steps in any undertaking, are always the most
important, so is the manner in which your children's prayers are prayed, a
point which deserves your closest attention. Few seem to know how much
depends on this. You must be careful that they don't get into a habit of
saying them in a hurried, careless, and irreverent manner. You must beware
of giving up the supervision of this matter to others, or of trusting too
much to your children doing it when left to themselves. I cannot praise that
mother who never looks after this most important part of her child's daily
life herself. Surely if there be any habit which your own hand and eye
should help in forming, it is the habit of prayer. Believe me, if you never
hear your children pray yourself, you are much to blame. You are little
wiser than the bird described in Job, "She lays her eggs on the ground and
lets them warm in the sand, unmindful that a foot may crush them, that some
wild animal may trample them. She treats her young harshly, as if they were
not hers; she cares not that her labor was in vain" (Job 39:14-16).
Prayer is, of all habits, the one which we remember the longest. Many a
grey-headed man could tell you how his mother used to make him pray in the
days of his childhood. Other things have passed away from his mind perhaps.
The church where he was taken to worship, the minister whom he heard preach,
the companions who used to play with him--all these, it may be, have passed
from his memory, and left no mark behind. But you will often find it is far
different with his first prayers. He will often be able to tell you where he
knelt, and what he was taught to say, and even how his mother looked all the
while. It will come up as fresh before his mind's eye as if it was but
Reader, if you love your children, I charge you, do not let the opportunity
of developing a prayerful habit pass away. If you train your children to
anything, train them, at least, to a habit of prayer.
7. Train them to habits of diligence, and regularity about gathering
together with God's people.
Tell them of the obligation and privilege of going to church and joining in
the prayers of the congregation. Tell them that wherever the Lord's people
are gathered together, there the Lord Jesus is present in a special way, and
that those who fail to attend church must expect, like the Apostle Thomas, to
miss a blessing. Tell them of the importance of hearing the Word preached,
and that it is God's method for converting, sanctifying, and building up the
souls of men. Tell them how the Apostle Paul enjoins us not to "Give up
meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one
another--and all the more as we see the day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25).
Do not allow them to grow up with a habit of making vain excuses for not
coming to church. Plainly make them understand, that so long as they live
under your roof it is the rule of your house for every one in health to honor
the Lord on the Lord's day by attending services, and that you consider
anyone who purposely avoids the gathering of God's people to be a murderer
of his own soul.
See to it too, if it can be arranged, that your children sit near you in
church when they are there. To go to church is one thing but to behave well
at church is quite another. And believe me, there is no guarantee for good
behavior like that of having them under your own eye.
The minds of young people are easily distracted, and their attention lost and
every possible means should be used to counteract this. I do not like to see
what I call "a young people's corner" in a church. They often catch habits
of inattention and irreverence there, which it takes years to unlearn, if
they ever really unlearn it at all. What I like to see is a whole family
sitting together, old and young side by side--men, women, and children,
serving God according to their households.
But there are some who say that it is useless to urge children to pay
attention in church because they cannot understand what is being said.
Do not listen to such reasoning. I find no such doctrine in the Old
Testament. When Moses goes before Pharaoh (Exodus 10:9), I observe he says,
"We will go with our young and old, with our sins and daughters, and with our
flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to the Lord." When
Joshua read the law (Joshua 8:35), I observe, "There was not a word that
Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and
children, and the aliens who lived among them." And when I turn to the New
Testament, I find children mentioned there as partaking in public acts of
religion as well as in the Old Testament. When Paul was leaving the
disciples at Tyre for the last time, I find it said (Acts 21:5), "We left and
continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children
accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray."
Samuel, in the days of his childhood, appears to have ministered unto the
Lord some time before he really knew Him. "Samuel did not yet know the Lord:
The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him" (1 Samuel 3:7). The
Apostles themselves do not seem to have u
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