Building a Boy Backwards Part 1

Feature Art By Brian Marshall Jr.

When I was in high school my parents decided to build a house. They thought carefully about what they wanted the home to look like as a finished product then worked backwards to determine how much square footage would be required for each room, what utilities would be needed, and the type of materials that would be used. Before they ever started the house, they had detailed plans on what the foundation would look like and how sturdy it would need to be to support everything that they wanted in the finished product.

Parenting our boys is an even bigger project with even bigger surprises, joys … and discouragements, so I want to encourage you with a building principle that helped my wife and me with the parenting of our boys: build backwards. Like my parents did when building their home, cast a vision for your boy when he is twenty-years-old and then work backwards to help direct your efforts and focus your limited energy.

This may seem daunting or even scary. It’s hard enough sometimes to picture what your five year old should be like right now let alone when he’s twenty but I have good news. God’s not asking you to craft your own vision, He’s already provided it.

In 2 Timothy 2:22 we read: “Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” In this there is a challenge not to be naïve about our children. There are powerful lusts that are particularly related to the time of youth so a vital part of our training is to assist our children to flee these lusts and pursue the Fruit of the Spirit: righteousness, faith, love, and peace.

Our secular culture tells us about stages to expect, and inevitably, those stages will be about how we should expect our child to be impure. The “terrible twos.” “Pre-teen angst.” The “rebellious teen years.” Framing these stages in terms of impurity makes us feel that the best we can do is simply to survive. But life with growing boys doesn’t have to be a constant state of just surviving.

Note above that Paul says that the characteristic that enables men and women to flee youthful lusts is a pure heart. Don’t miss this. If we want our young adult children to flee youthful lusts we must be focused on helping our boys to develop a heart of purity from which the Fruit of the Spirit can naturally grow.

The Vision: My adult son or daughter will possess a pure heart and exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit.

This may sound overly general but consider how practical this really is. The Bible says that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and the body acts. So the argument over the last donut, the disappointment over the types of clothes in the closet, the illegible handwriting and incomplete sentences on the writing assignment, the pouting response when you say “no,” the constant words of boredom, or the comment “so and so gets to do that,” are all matters of the heart. These aren’t just hassles that get in the way of an otherwise enjoyable day – they are God-made moments for you to train your child to develop a pure heart.

But how do we get there?

We’ve always been a running family and have run together at what seems now like more than a hundred different events. One thing ties together all of these events whether they’re run on the coast, in the mountains, or in the flatlands of central California – they all have the course carefully marked out. The finish line has been measured at exactly 3.2 miles from the starting line with milestones clearly laid out along the way. So let’s trace the trail from lustful boy to pure young man, marking out a few key milestones along the way.

Milestone 1: First Time Obedience

Purity of heart means that my adult child has one primary desire that drives all his other desires: to love and obey God. But he cannot learn to please God unless he first learns to die to self. In the early years we help our sons learn to die to self through teaching first-time, respectful obedience. When you ask your son to do something, there is only one appropriate response – respectful obedience not punctuated with hesitation, complaints, or alternative suggestions. If you accept any other response, you are actually training your child to disobey. We always expected our sons to acknowledge our directives by saying, “Yes, mom,” or “Yes, dad.” It told us that our son heard what we said and was prepared to obey. Of course questions are allowed, but help your child to understand that they may ask clarifying questions even as they demonstrate a willingness to obey.

It often takes years to pass this first major milestone, but we must be vigilant. If you are like my wife and me you’ll frequently be distracted, tired, frustrated by constant disagreement, tempted to ignore sin, often tempted to give your parenting over to your spouse, and disrespectful attitudes will become more difficult to spot because you’ve grown so used to them. Don’t lose sight of the vision. These moments when we’re tempted in this way are precisely those moments God uses to help our sons deal with their own temptations.

Mile Marker 2: An Understanding of Motives

During the first years of your son’s life you make all of the behavioral decisions for him, but as he grows, and especially during adolescence, your child becomes more and more aware of his internal desires. If God is drawing your son to Himself, he will also begin to understand his sin. What this means in practical terms is that he is now better able to receive discipline regarding both his external actions and his internal motivations.

Here are some common examples. Your son after receiving a gift later becomes very territorial; no one may touch or use his new possession. Your son wanders around the kitchen during clean-up after meals, avoiding work while his siblings clean. He rushes to get in line first at the church meal. He is often sullen, with a tendency towards impatience and a lack of gratitude.

From this small sampling of examples you can see that not every behavior is a rule infraction. Many parents try to solve character issues by making new rules, but rules tend to address external actions and often do not fully address internal motivation.

Is your child aware of his need for God? Does he seem to love the Lord and see Him as a source of comfort and strength? Are your child’s prayers evidencing someone in relationship with God and not just mere repetition? Is your child struggling with idols – what are the things without which he cannot be happy? How would he answer the question, “What I really desire is…”?

Ask these questions all the time. My wife and I nearly every day spend a little time at the end of the day debriefing. We talk about the strengths and weaknesses of our kids and discuss the things we need to do to address heart attitudes. When you discipline, address their hearts with them and explain that their character is even more important than their actions because the one flows from the other.

Milestone 3: My child consistently works to discipline his own personal habits.

As our sons continue to grow, their flesh will be crying out that “life is supposed to be fun and enjoyable all the time – please entertain me or I’ll get bored.” But at the same time that they are becoming more aware of their internal struggle you should also see a greater personal desire to be conformed to the spirit and mindset of Christ. Reading the Bible more, talking about the Lord more often, and taking initiative in work as well as in relationships with others are examples of fruit showing that God is working in them.

As you see this third big milestone being established in his life, there will still be a lot of rough edges, but the finish line is in sight. And as with any race, the ultimate motivation to pass each marker and eventually cross the finish line must come from a genuine desire to run well. This desire only comes as a gift of God, but one of the other amazing gifts God gives our sons are the parents provided to help lead them gently to the throne of grace without which building a boy with a pure heart is impossible. After all, it is God who really does the building all along.

View Building a Boy Backwards Part 2

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