Parents’ Influence on Their Children

Do parents have any important, long term influence on the character development of their children? This was the question raised by psychologist Judith Rich Harris, author of the controversial book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, published in 1998. She argues that parents matter much less, at least when it comes to determining the behaviour of their children. Instead Harris contends that a child’s peer group play a much more influential role.

On the other hand, there is the debate about Nature vs Nurture. Some raise the question: why do children reproduce the skills, intelligence and habits of their parents? They argue that personality resemblances between biological relatives are due almost entirely to heredity rather than home environment or nurture. Genes is much more important than the home environment in the personality development of children, they say.

So the important question is: what shapes a person? I would include nature (genes), parental nurture, peers, society and life’s experiences that make a person. Neither one of these factors is in themselves deterministic.

Teach Children by Example

Parents play a critical role in shaping the character or personality of their children. Parents’ personality and the nature of parent/child relationship influence children’s attitudes, choices, decisions and behaviour. Parents leave not only their physical looks, to a certain extent, but also their footprints in the lives of their children. Susan B. Campbell states, “Negative, inconsistent parental behaviour and high levels of family adversity are associated with the emergence of problems in early childhood and predict their persistence (in adult life).” The philosopher John Locke once said, “Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.”

One of the best ways that parents can influence their children is to teach by example. In II Timothy 1.5 Paul reminds his coworker Timothy the influence that the latter’s mother and grandmother had on him: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” We don’t know when these women had come to faith in Jesus Christ. Eunice was a Jewish believer (Acts 16.1). But Timothy’s father was a Greek. He was not a believer in Christ. That could be the reason why his name was not mentioned by Paul. Even then Timothy’s mother maintained her faith in Christ. Most probably Eunice became a believer in Christ after her marriage with Timothy’s father.

The faith of Lois and Eunice was described as “sincere”. The word “sincere” literally means without play acting, without show or pretence, or without hypocrisy. It describes that which is unhypocritical or genuine (cf. Rom. 12.9; II Cor. 6.6; I Tim. 1.5; James 3.7; I Pet. 1.22). A hypocrite was “a stage-actor. It was a custom for Greek and Roman actors to speak in large masks with mechanical devices for augmenting the force of the voice; hence the word became used metaphorically of a dissembler (i.e. the one who puts on false appearance), a hypocrite.” A hypocrite is, therefore, an actor. The faith of Lois and Eunice was completely genuine, without hypocrisy or pretence or deceit. Having a sincere faith doesn’t imply perfection. But it does imply reality (and not pretence) with God. It means to have godly character, qualities, attitude and behaviour (cf. II Pet. 1.5-7).

Paul says that the sincere faith “lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice” (II Tim. 1.5). The word “live” literally means to dwell in, to take up residence. That means, sincere faith took up residence in the lives of Lois and Eunice. This defines the depth and extent to which faith in Jesus Christ has become a vital and integral part of their lives. Sincere faith was not an occasional visitor, but a permanent resident and an abiding presence exerting its influence on their behaviour. Timothy was blessed with a godly heritage, although it was only one parent and grandparent who contributed. In the Roman world, fathers had absolute authority over family, and since Timothy’s father was not a believer in Jesus Christ, his home situation was less than ideal. But the two women were persistent in their faith and provided a model for Timothy to emulate. J.R. Miller writes, “There is something in genealogy, after all. It is a fine thing for a young man to have had a good mother and a godly grandmother. This does not mean that a man (or a woman) is necessarily good because of the faith that dwelt in his grandmother and his own mother. Goodness cannot be passed down like an estate. Some very bad men have had most pious ancestry. At the same time, it is fitting when in successive generations piety is found. A young man (or a woman) with worthy ancestors owes it to them to be worthy. We are responsible for the carrying on of the work which they have begun. Paul was persuaded that the faith of his grandmother and mother was also in Timothy. It should always be so with young people with Christian parents. Those who have a noble inheritance, or memories, influences and teachings should be better than those who have not had these blessings.”

Parents give a lot of thought to what they pass on to their children. By the example of their lives, they can pass on to their children the more important things than a pile of money and possessions. Paul says the best gift of all is the example of sincere faith in Jesus Christ. The faith in Jesus Christ and the related values parents leave in the lives of their children are more important than the valuables they leave to them.

Timothy received sincere faith from his grandmother and mother. This faith was reflected in his life. This was acknowledged by people of his home town and others: “He was well spoken of by the believers in Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16.2). Paul too confessed, “I have no one like him (Timothy) who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (Phil. 2.20).

Guide Children in the Right Path

Godly parents not only teach their children through their exemplary lives, but also attempt to guide them in the path of right living based on the scriptures. Eunice, and probably Lois also, taught Timothy the scriptures starting at a very young age (II Tim. 3.15). Jewish boys start formal instruction in the scriptures at age 5. The Jewish people were instructed as follows: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6.4-7). Parents have responsibility to nurture their children. Parental training is emphasized in the Bible. “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Prov. 22.6). “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6.4). The Greek word for “to bring up” is ektrephō, which means “to educate” or “to nurture”. The texts of Deut. 6.4-7, 11.13-21 and Ex. 13.1-10,11-21 were written in small parchments and placed in small leather boxes and were tied into phylacteries of the Pharisees apparently to remind themselves their obligation to teach their children to obey Yahweh’s commands.

Timothy’s mother instructed him the scriptures and that prepared him to receive the gospel of Jesus Christ (II Tim. 3.15). Nurturing children in scriptures lead them not only to salvation in Jesus Christ, but also to a life of godliness (II Pet. 1.3, 4). Scriptures is profitable for teaching the ways of God, i.e. how God wants us to live, for reproof, i.e. to convince us of our wrongs, and for training us in righteousness, which means not only right relationship with God and neighbor, but also right living (II Tim. 3.16, 17). That means, scriptures helps us to maintain sincere faith that is reflected in godly character, qualities, attitude and behaviour (II Pet. 1.5-7).
Parents, therefore, play a vital role in helping their children to develop godly character and behaviour. Parents who spend time with their children, and are involved, responsive and hold their children to a reasonably high standard of behaviour tend to have their children less likely to engage in risky behaviour. And children who report feeling “connected” to their parents are also least likely to engage in risky behaviour. Often times parents, who have misbehaving children, allow them to continue in this bad behaviour for many different reasons. Children are often very effective in convincing their parents that what their parents say is irrelevant to their lives, and the mistake parents make is to believe it and withdraw from taking any corrective measures for the bad behaviour of their children. Some believe that their children will grow out of it. Unfortunately these parents are actually making things worse for their children. Instead of being indifferent towards your children’s bad behaviour, help them learn about consequences, so that they may behave well and not have problems later on in life. In essence parents should be knowledgeable about their children’s activities and interests in order to guide them to become mature and responsible human beings.

Parents have, therefore, an immense responsibility to bring up their children through positive model life and nurture. Since this is a God-given responsibility, they are accountable to God for the way they discharge their responsibility. Through their positive influence on their child, they are also helping their child to become a responsible adult in society. So actually when parents have influence on their child, they are also influencing society. The quality and quantity of time, accountability to God, setting proper role models, providing security and showing responsibility – all these should be great motivators in helping to see how parents have an important influence on a child.


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