I know of no more urgent question facing Christian fathers than this: Do I have the hearts of my children? The father who does not see the importance of this question is almost certainly already losing the hearts of his children to someone else. Deep down our children love someone. Deep down they delight in someone. Deep down they trust and admire someone. Deep down they are open to someone and want his or her input. If that person isn’t you, Dad, you’re losing your kids. They may look okay on the outside, but you’re losing them.
It’s easy when they’re young. Children want to be open toward their father when they’re young. They will hug you and kiss you and be glad to see you when you get home from work. But if you aren’t thinking about what it takes to win and keep and guard their hearts, a day is coming when their response to you will fall somewhere between indifference and hostility. And as they regard you, their earthly father, so they will regard their heavenly Father. Mark it down. I have seen it so many times it makes my heart sick.
I don’t want my children to tolerate conversations with me at any stage in their development. I don’t want them to endure family worship or public worship at any stage in their development. I don’t want them just to have a head full of Christian facts, ideas, and rules, either, while their heart is elsewhere. I want children who want to know God, who really enjoy being His children, whose souls burn with sincere passion for the Lord their God; who ask unprompted the question, “What has God made me do? How can I bring glory to Him in the earth? Tell me! Let me at it!”
If this doesn’t happen (and giving due allowance for causes outside my control), it’s because I haven’t done the hard work of interacting with my children lovingly, sincerely, and thoughtfully all the days of their lives. It’s because I haven’t fulfilled the commands of Deuteronomy 6:7. I’m not talking here about talking at my children: lecturing them, filling their ears with the noise of my voice. I’m talking about talking with my children as together we walk the path of life, sharing meaningful hours. This means rebuking and disciplining them, yes; it means catechizing and teaching, yes. It also means listening to music and watching films together, going on hikes and to ballgames together, building forts and reading great books together – and in all of this seeking to find out what is really going on in their heads, entering their thought-world in such a way that they become comfortable with my presence there, even welcome it. It means listening to their questions in such a way that they know I have really heard them (and, by the way, immediate longwinded answers are a sure way to ensure no further questions will be forthcoming). It means being courteous to my children, treating them with the same respect I extend to humans outside my home. I know Christian youth who from toddlerhood have been treated so rudely and sharply by their parents, that eventually (and naturally!) they simply respond in kind. Beyond all of this, it means enacting joyful faith in front of my children, so they get the idea my God is delightful, that He is worthy to be known and worshipped and served.
Christians frequently talk as if all of this is fine with young children, but once the “teen years” roll in, all bets are off. Well, let me put it bluntly. The “teen years” are hard: this is a season of life in which major physical and intellectual transitions are occurring, and as in all transitional periods, there are difficulties to be traversed. Ugly teen years, however, in which Christian youth drift farther and farther from their parents and their God, are the fruit of bad parenting. Your child’s heart is a garden entrusted to you by God, and if it is full of weeds, it happened on your watch (again, giving due allowance for causes genuinely beyond your control). And make no mistake: a garden full of weed-seeds bears weeds, every time. An illustration: One Christian teen frequently posts quotes from great Christian thinkers on her Facebook site. Why? Because deep inside she is pondering this stuff; it genuinely interests her. Another Christian teen posts profanity and pictures of himself drinking with his girlfriend. Why? Because deep inside he is giving the finger to his parents, his Christian upbringing, and ultimately God Himself. What is in his heart comes out on Facebook. And it didn’t get there last week.
“My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways” (Prov 23:26). This is the pulse of Christian parenting. A child whose heart has been in the hand of a godly father all of his life will find, when he comes to adulthood, that his heart has been in the hand of God since before he can remember – it will be a joy to give his heart to his Father in heaven, because he has been doing that, under the tutelage of his earthly father, all along.