My son, give me your heart,
and let your eyes observe my ways. (Proverbs 23:26)
This simple proverb is embedded in a series of exhortations and warnings about the dangers of prostitutes and drunkenness. Its simplicity masks its profundity. In thirteen words, it cuts to the heart of parenting and, when consistently embraced, orients everything else we do in raising our children.
The two exhortations together express the remarkable exchange that we’re after in our fathering and our mothering. As our children grow up in our homes, we want to receive something from them, and we want them to receive something from us. We want their hearts, and we want them to have our ways.
Heartbeat of Parenting
The biblical calling on parents is to raise our children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). There are many aspects to this calling. We teach and admonish. We establish rules and enforce them. We provide instruction and correction. We rebuke and train and equip our children for life. But if we are seeking to raise them “in the Lord,” then we must keep our eye on the ball. We are after their heart.
It’s easy to lose sight of this. It’s easy to give instruction and discipline because we want our child’s obedience, or because we want some peace and quiet, or because we have important work to do and the fussing, whining, quarreling, and provoking happening in the kitchen is an interruption.
Of course, correction is important. Fussing, whining, quarreling, and provoking are all sins to be addressed. We do want their obedience, and we’re responsible to God to instruct them and discipline them. A peaceful home is a blessing to everyone in it. But it is far too easy to address the sins and lose sight of what’s ultimate. It’s possible to lose sight of the fact that what we really want is obedience from the heart, peace and quiet from the heart. What we want is their heart.
“Is the heartbeat of your parenting, ‘My son, give me your heart’?”
This means that our instructions, admonitions, warnings, corrections, exhortations, and discipline must all flow from our desire to gain their hearts. Ask yourself: When you’re setting the rules, are you after their heart? When you instruct them in God’s laws, are you after their heart? When you enforce the rules, whether God’s laws or house rules, are you after their heart? When you say yes to their requests, are you after their heart? When you say no to their requests, are you after their heart?
In all that you do as a parent, is Solomon’s proverb present in your words, attitudes, and actions? Is the heartbeat of your parenting, “My son, give me your heart”?
Following Our Footsteps
Now, seeking their heart is only one side of the equation. The other side is what we hope to give to them. “Let your eyes observe my ways.” A better translation might be, “Let your eyes delight in my ways.” The word observe does not refer to mere disinterested attention. It shows up in passages like these:
The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love. (Psalm 147:11)
The Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation. (Psalm 149:4)
The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:12)
When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him. (Proverbs 16:7)
The sense of the exhortation is this: “My son, look with delight upon the way I conduct myself. Gladly accept my way of life.” In other words, the call is not merely for the son to observe his father’s conduct, but to aspire to imitate it, to follow it, to make his father’s ways his own.
Our ways refer to our habitual conduct, the pattern of thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions that define us. In other words, this is our actual way of walking in the world. It’s not mainly about what we profess, but what we practice. Think of it as your standard operating procedure. This is what our children are exhorted to gladly observe, accept, and follow.
In this sense, the manner of our speech is as important as the content of our speech. It’s not just what we say and do, but how we say and do it. So consider your attitude, your demeanor, your tone of voice, and ask yourself some probing questions.
Do you give instruction with exasperation or with cheerfulness? Do you correct with patience or with frustration? If someone else were in the room when you exhort and discipline your children, would they describe your tone as harsh or firm? Biting or kind? Angry or gentle? What sort of “way” are you asking them to gladly imitate and own? One that abruptly reacts with sharp intensity, or one that wisely responds with sober-minded stability?
Giving Their Hearts to God
These two exhortations hang together. Our ways will be more delightful to them if we are gladly seeking their hearts. One of our fundamental callings is to be the smile of God to our children. That is the heartbeat of our ways. And in reflecting God’s smile, we are also seeking their hearts and calling them to observe, receive, accept, and own our ways.
“Ultimately, we want our children to give their hearts to God. Giving their hearts to us is practice.”
But not just our ways. Ultimately, we want our children to give their hearts to God. Giving their hearts to us is practice for this ultimate giving. They give their hearts to an earthly father (and mother) so that they can learn to give their hearts to their heavenly Father. Gladly observing and imitating our ways is a stepping stone to observing and imitating God’s ways.
But perhaps we can say even more. Jesus tells us that there is a way of receiving children in his name that is also a receiving of Jesus himself. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37). The two acts of receiving — receiving children and receiving Jesus — become one, because the first is done in his name. When you receive children in Jesus’s name, what do you have in the end? You have the children, and you have Jesus.
Similarly, there is a way your children can give you their heart that becomes, over time, and by the grace of God, a giving of their heart to God. They give their heart to you, and, if you’re teaching them rightly, they give their heart to you in the name of Jesus. And when they do that, who has their heart in the end? You do, and he does.