Some Thoughts on Teaching Perseverance to Children & Young People

This e-Pistle entry is the ninth article in a series begun in the previous eight posts and is a continuation of last month’s article on “Perseverance.”
Hardship, difficulty, and suffering are frequent companions of every person traveling life’s rough road. For those of us who know God and His Word, the “up side” is that God accomplishes some things in His children through no other means than adversity. The character quality of perseverance is one of those things (2 Peter 1:6; Romans 5:4; James 1:24).

Each one of us has the natural instinct to avoid pain. Parents may have even a stronger instinct to protect their children from hurt and circumstances that can be hurtful. But, if we know the Scriptural truth (Romans 8:28) that God is at work for the good of those who love Him in all things – including difficult and painful things – then we as Christian parents should take advantage of the “teachable moments” that hardship and suffering provide. We should intentionally and strategically seek to disciple our children in the development of the quality of perseverance.

To that end, here are a few thoughts on “perseverance training”:

The Law of Expectations

In educational philosophy, the law of expectations asserts that students generally rise to the level of the expectations of their teachers. Although this may not be objectively measurable, many teachers and parents have found it to be accurate.

It is tempting for a parent to underestimate or otherwise misunderstand a child’s capabilities. We think that their short attention span will not allow them to sit still and quietly, during a church service for example. We think that it is too difficult for them: that it is too much to expect. But a little difficulty is just what is necessary for development to occur. John and Noel Pipër write,

To sit still and be quiet for an hour or two on Sunday is not an excessive expectation for a healthy six-year-old who has been taught to obey his parents. It requires a measure of discipline, but that is precisely what we want to encourage parents to impart to their children in the first five years.

The difficulty, the discipline of self-control provides the opportunity to practice perseverance. If we protect our children from suffering such hardships because our expectations of them are too low, we rob them of the very experiences they need in order to grow developmentally and spiritually.

Learning to Wait

One of the most difficult lessons for children – perhaps for all of us – to learn is to wait. Ours is not a society which encourages the delay of gratification in any way. We want to have what we want to have when we want to have it, and it is a hardship not to get it or to have to wait for it.

Here is another training ground for perseverance. Parents can help their children and young people to pursue the development of this important quality – while also teaching them about contentment – by causing them and encouraging them to wait.

A child or young person often gets his heart set on a toy or something related to a favorite sport or hobby. Parents might train children to persevere through waiting by requiring them to save their own money or to do some work to earn the money, instead of just buying the item for them.

Another strategy is simply not to allow a child to have something at the moment he wants it. The child may temporarily pine very passionately for something like a particular toy. But we have all seen (or perhaps experienced in our own lives) where a child pleads for an item and soon loses interest in it almost immediately after receiving it. Wise parents will evaluate the long-term value of things their children desire and strategically choose what to allow their children to have.

This simple waiting strategy could be used with young people with regard to getting their learner’s permit and driver’s license. As an eighth grade Bible teacher for many years, I observed numerous students for whom getting their permit and license was a consuming focus of their lives. They continually expressed that they “could not wait” to drive. I believe that this worked against the “secret of contentment” (Philippians 4:11) in the lives of many of these young people.

Later, in a church day camp program I directed, some of these same young people worked as counselors sharing the gospel with children. On many occasions over the years, a counselor would come and tell me that he had to miss a day of work because it was his birthday and he had to go get his driver’s license. He had contracted and was being paid to work in ministry for one to six weeks. But, instead of waiting until a week in which he was not scheduled to work, he had to go on the day of his birthday.

The circumstances of some families might require the immediate addition of another driver in order to meet obligations and solve transportation logistics. But many times, this is either an opportunity to train young people to persevere while waiting for something they want, or it is a temptation to feed the “Me-Monster.”

Perhaps the most important “wait training” our children can have is in committing to wait on the Lord to reveal His will for their future marriage.

The interaction between young people of the opposite sex in our culture is commonly driven by attraction and emotion. As a result, relationships that develop are typically motivated by lust, self-interest, personal pleasure, and instant gratification of desires. Few relationships built upon such a poor foundation survive beyond the first signs of waning romantic passions. Nevertheless, our culture teaches and promotes such an approach to social relationships, and the Church has done little to train her children any differently.

In light of the teaching of Scripture and other practical considerations, there is certainly no area in the life of a Christian young person in which he may more meaningfully give evidence of his commitment to God than this one. Learning to resist the caprices of the emotions, the urges of the flesh, and the influences of a corrupt culture are essential to pursuing such undivided devotion to Christ and His kingdom. Believing parents, therefore, must provide guidance and oversight for their children. We must teach them that physical virginity is not God’s sacred standard of purity, but that God’s standard is much higher: God desires heart purity.

Though this topic demands a more comprehensive treatment on its own, a few insights might inform us concerning this most vital “wait training.”

Rev. Richard Crisco, a pastor and former youth minister, has recommended that Christian young people should not expend their energies and attentions in seeking Mr. Right or Miss Right. Instead, he advises that they put their efforts into becoming, by God’s grace, a Mr. or Miss Right. A pithy bit of wisdom to be sure, and it is parents’ responsibility to train their children to do this and to shepherd them in the process.

Such an approach to social relationships would certainly be counter-cultural. Instead of acting on emotions, desires, and attractions, children and young people would learn to wait not just for sex, but to wait to pursue commitment in relationship to the opposite sex until they are ready to seriously consider marriage. Instead of being in a hurry to be a boyfriend or girlfriend to the first person to whom they are attracted, our young people need to want to be husbands and wives to the person God is preparing for them. Instead of yielding to their physical desires to become lovers, they need to aspire to become parents because their heavenly Father is “seeking godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15) – keeping faith with the wife (husband) of their youth (Malachi 2:16) even before they are married.

Now if this seems a bit over-the-top, consider that the recreational dating culture that is prevalent in our society boasts a very poor record in producing lifetime commitment in marriage. Well over half of all marriages in America end in divorce, and statistics have shown recently that the divorce rate in the Church is even a bit higher than in the larger culture. On top of that, other studies have shown that young people who regularly attend church or who attend Christian schools report being sexually active before marriage at fundamentally the same rate as those who lead completely secular lives – to say nothing of the failure to pursue heart purity.

Simple logic demands that we recognize that engaging in a series of relationships which provide a feeling of intimacy without true commitment will not prepare us for a lifetime commitment. In fact, a recent statistical study asserted that the average American has ten serious relationships (that is, having a degree of exclusivity) prior to marriage. In other words, by the time a person makes a “lifetime” commitment, he has already made and broken nine or ten relationships with a significant degree of emotional commitment. A fair question to ask is: Will he have become good at keeping a relationship together, or will he simply have practiced breaking up? The answer to that question is, of course, self-evident.

Will choosing a pathway that is different from our culture be difficult for our children and young people? Yes. Won’t it be hard for them to resist acting on their emotions and attractions? Yes. Isn’t it normal for them to have “crushes”, and doesn’t it subject them to unnatural suffering to be instructed not to act on those romantic attachments? When they are married, they will still have the capacity to be attracted to someone who is not their spouse, but we would all agree that the health of their marriages will be greatly affected by how they manage those attractions and refuse to act upon them or even give them any place. Does it not make sense that they need to learn this same discipline before they are married? In fact, this “suffering” may be the single greatest factor that enables them to persevere in waiting for God’s best, and in keeping purity in their marriages.

We will continue with “Some Thoughts on Teaching Perseverance to Children and Young People” in the next e-Pistle article.