The wise man said, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). I would suggest to you that such training begins, and largely ends, at a younger age than many of us would suspect.
When our son Luke was four years-old I tried to coax him into the swimming pool, but to no avail. No reassurance, nothing I said, seemed to work. I couldn’t get him in the pool. Then, moments later, one of his little friends said, “Luke. Come in the pool,” and he jumped right in!
I was reminded of that when I read an article in which Marilyn vos Savant was asked a question about a three-year-old girl who is growing up in England. Her parents are Americans, but the little girl is speaking with a British accent. Vos Savant said that as children begin to socialize with other children they adopt the accent of their peers, not their parents. Isn’t that interesting?
A friend of mine who worked with children for many years once told me that most every significant character attribute of a human being was set by age five. He said, “You give me a child for the first five years and I can teach them self-discipline, respect, trust, love, and how to treat others. But if they don’t learn these things in the first five years, you’re too late. Their basic character and values are set by the time they enter kindergarten.”
However you want to think about it, abundant evidence from many sectors seems to confirm that training up an adult is largely accomplished by the age of five. If a child doesn’t learn how to respect others by age five, good luck on teaching them to respect others when they’re 14. If a child doesn’t learn that she can trust her parents, and God, at an early age, it will be a “tall order” to help them become a trusting adult.
Have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment? Beginning in the 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Mischel tested five-year-olds on their ability to delay gratification. The children were offered a choice between a small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for about 15 minutes. The reward was a marshmallow or cookie. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the rewards tended to have better life outcomes. SAT scores were higher. Educational attainment was greater. Even the body mass index (BMI) was better for adults who as five-year-olds were able to delay gratification. If a five-year-old is able to delay gratification, they are more apt to have a better life as an adult.
What does this mean for you and me? First, it means that parents must be intentional about teaching their little ones values, disciplines, and basic biblical truths. If we think that teaching children about God’s love for them, and their need to obey God and love Him can wait until they are older, we need to adjust our thinking. One of the reasons that some five-year-olds flunked the “marshmallow test,” was that they hadn’t learned they can trust adults to do what they say. If children don’t learn to trust their parents when they are very young, it can significantly impair their ability to trust others and delay gratification when they are older. This can impact a young person’s choices regarding premarital sex, staying in school, or sticking with any task whose reward is in the distant future.
Second, pastors and churches must provide a robust ministry for little children. Even if your church has only a few little ones, do not neglect to teach them and train them in the ways of God. They will learn and keep in their hearts more than we know.
So much more could be said. Books have been written on this. But in the last few weeks it has been made clear to all that the world will teach our children that family and marriage is whatever 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court says it is. Not only that, but as of January 2015, in Oregon, teenage children as young as 15 can now obtain a “gender reassignment surgery” without parental consent. How did this happen!?
This morning on the news I heard it argued that Planned Parenthood’s selling of the body parts of aborted babies could be justified because they were trying to find cures to illnesses through experimentation with these body parts. How far have we fallen! If we ever could, it is clear that we no longer can, expect the community to reinforce the Bible truths that we hold dear. And we’d better do all we can to teach our “littlest” these truths. Human beings need to learn the value of life while still cradled in their mother’s arms. Two-year-olds need to learn respect for others. Disciple-making can’t wait until the “age of accountability.” By then, you may be too late.