Parenting: Will Training, Rather than Will Breaking

We should guard sacredly [our children’s] privilege of personal choice; … The final responsibility of a choice and of its consequences rests with the child, and not with the parent.
-H Clay Trumbull

parenting training

Mr. Trumbull suggests that it is a parent’s responsibility to train a child to be and do what they should be and do, rather than what they want to be and do.

Will Training vs Will Breaking

Mr. Trumbull’s concept of will training is one I find most prudent. The first point is this: the will of the child is to be trained but by no means attempted to be broken.  That is, the matter of decision should be left with the child, where God placed it. I believe this is founded in the truth that God has given us all free will and so no one would do well to attempt take this away from another. Ignoring this truth and barreling on in an attempt to have your will dominate another’s or to decide for them to “help them” seems as though it would be met with an outcome similar to that of anything that ignores God’s laws. It would be foolish.

I also agree with Trumbull’s second point, that the final responsibility of the choice and its consequences rests with the child, not with the parent. Herein lies the heart responsibility of a parent who loves their child.  The child who is unprepared to make good choices certainly needs the parent.

The parent must use every good measure to train their child to do what they should so as to help the child avoid making bad decision that they do not fully understand. This is done by way of departing understanding to the child, which is at the heart of child training. What exactly does it mean to train a child’s will? Let’s examine how God trains us.

What is Will Training

God, of course, models this with us; He says to us “My will or yours?” and leaves the choice to us.  He tells us clearly that we will have choices to make.  He tells us clearly what the correct choice is and then lays out clearly what will come of our correct choices. He tells us clearly what the incorrect choice is and then lays out clearly what will come of our incorrect choices. All throughout Scripture these choices and their consequences are put before us.  We see a principle example of this in Deuteronomy 30.

A little one might think that they know best, that one of their parent’s rules or God’s rules are actually harder on them.  The little one may think that they have found a better or easier way but the Bible tells us it is the way of the transgressor that is hard (Proverbs 13:15).  As one grows in their faith they grow in understanding, that is they understand the truth of how things work out.  As we trust in Christ we come to understand that anything we trust Christ with is better for it.  We come to know that He is worthy of our trust in all things. We eventually get to a point where we don’t want anything in our hands, we want everything turned over to Him because we know He knows best.

As parents it is our responsibility to do for our children what God has done for us.  To depart understanding to them.  To clearly lay out that they will have important choices to make in life.  To tell them God’s way.  To help them understand the consequences for their choices.

How to Train a Child’s Will

A simplistic example would be telling a child not to touch a hot stove.  The child may think that they know best and that a hot stove wont hurt them.  The parent of course knows better and tells the child that if they touch the stove they’ll get a spanking. (obviously the spanking would only be in order if the child touched a cool stove as touching a hot stove would require no expedited feedback and the opportunity to chasten them betimes would then have unfortunately past.)  Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: But he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” Discipline is what a loving parent does. Notice the word ‘betimes’, this means at the right time, specifically ahead of time or before, as in before it’s too late or before a decision is made.

In life when someone makes poor choices there are consequences. Often those consequences do not set on right away.  One can venture so off the right course by way of a small repeated bad choice that before they realize the matter that they find themselves feeling like all of the sudden things have gone horribly wrong when in fact they had been going horribly wrong all along, little by little each day.  Why does this happen?  It is because one lacked understanding or the will to deny self in the moment for a better future.

Choose not to brush your teeth today and tomorrow there is not much the matter. The next day, the same: not much doing. The next week: no problem. They next year however and now there may be a serious problem.

The parent’s responsibility is to expedite the consequences of the child’s choices, so as to give the child insight in to the understanding that they currently lack.

An adult understands that a bad choice may not be felt right away.  Indeed, a large part of becoming an adult is looking ahead to the consequences of our decisions and deciding to set ourselves up for success in the future, often at the expense of the moment. This is a simple concept but can be challenging in practice, it requires self control.  Likewise, departing this concept to a little one can be challenging in practice.

The younger child needs to understand simply that obedience equals rewards and that disobedience equals consequences.  The parent’s responsibility is to help the child identify the obedient choice and understand the rewards associated with it as well as the disobedient choice and the consequences associated with it.  Practically this means taking the time to communicate the obedient choice (ideally citing Scripture in the process) and devise and explain an expedited due reward or consequence associated with their choice. After all a loving parent won’t just sit back and let a child proceed not brushing their teeth and think to themselves, “they’ll learn when all their teeth fall out!”

The parents responsibility it to expatiate the consequence of their child’s choices so as to expedite the child’s experience with God.  Giving the child quicker feedback in living is what’s needed.

Here is a diagram that helped us visualize this in practice.Each circle represents a choice. Choice “A” represents the correct choice, its reward is to stay in the Way where there is life and truth and goodness. Choice “B” represents the wrong choice that diverts one from the Way, its consequences are death and lies and darkness.  As wrong choices are made one will find themselves further from the Way with more and more dire consequences.

Here is the truth, are you ready for it? The Deceiver is real and he is a lair. He wants people to stand at a decision and believe there is a better Way than thee Way.  He will lead one away from the true Way further and further, delaying and delaying the truth with more and more deception separating one further and further from reality until finally one realizes that they are so far from the path that getting back on the path is impossible and this is where the biggest lie comes in.  The Deceiver wants us to think we can’t get back in the Way.  The truth is that Jesus provides a path to restoration.

As parents it is our responsibility to help our children understand where the Way is and how their choices affect their place in relation to the Way. The practice of helping a child approach every decision with understanding can be costly. The cost is mostly found in the parent giving the process priority, time and careful thought.  In my estimation the price is worth it, there is good value here.

A Hint on How to Avoid a Will Standoff

Are not most standoffs a matter of control? A parent wants their will done, the door shut let us say. So a quick command is given, “Shut the door.” The child feeling that their will is threatened, wants to stay in control of themselves and is inclined to say “no.” This, of course, is not about the door. At this point there is a standoff of wills. The father’s will vs the child’s and thus an issue, the battle of the wills. A better way is to take care not to give a command. Rather, “I should like the door shut, would you please shut the door?”. In this approach a command is replaced with a question and the choice is theirs, their will is not threatened and your will is still clearly stated. Still the child may say no for they have that choice in the matter. What then?

In the matter of the child who may choose not to obey his father, the father may say to himself “what would come of a person who chose not to obey those in authority over time?” He may come to the conclusion, “Why they may end up incarcerated if this habit of choice perpetuates to adulthood.” The father may then chose to help the child understand this consequence in expedited fashion by way of a temporary loss of freedom, a time out. He then presents the child with a reasonably good or a reasonably undesirable outcome and lets the child choose. “I must let you have the choice of this matter. You can either shut the door or take a timeout, the choice is yours, what will it be son?”


-A takeaway from Hints on Child Training by H Clay Trumbull

As always good books, takeaways, stories, and/or lessons learned on the subject are most appreciated.