We Must Teach Our Children Wisdom

Chris Coursey  and Marcus Warner
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Childhood begins with weaning. We stop depending on Mom to feed us and learn to feed ourselves. It ends with puberty and the physical transformation that prepares young adults to become parents. Puberty has long been recognized as the transition point between childhood and the adult years. Recently, people have pointed out that the developing brain is not fully formed until age twenty-five, but that does not change the fact that once a child hits puberty that child could physically become a parent very quickly if they haven’t learned how to work for and wait for what is good. These are years for learning wisdom.

Babies can act like fools. Let’s face it. They have no idea what is good for them or bad for them. I remember coming home from a date with my wife to find my infant son crawling up the stairs with a butcher knife in his hands. He was giggling and happy with absolutely no clue that he could die if this didn’t end well. The babysitter had made a pizza and used the butcher knife to cut it. Somehow, my active son had found a way to get it off the counter while everyone else was watching TV.

I tell this story because it illustrates the need for children to learn wisdom. My infant son had no idea that it was not good for him to crawl upstairs with a butcher knife in his hand. He thought it was the greatest thing ever! By the time our kids finish puberty (which usually happens around age thirteen) they need to be well practiced at taking care of themselves. This means they need to learn what is good for them and what is bad for them and how to anticipate consequences. Sometimes they learn through trial and error, and sometimes we need to instruct them and give consequences.

Let’s start with a definition of wisdom. I find it interesting that the Hebrew word for wisdom (chokmah) also means skill. It captures the idea that a wise person is skilled at the art of living. This is part of what inspired the ABCD model of parenting. These four categories guide parents in knowing what skills they need to pass on to their kids.

There are two core elements to wisdom: discernment and discipline. Discernment is the ability to distinguish between what is good for me and what is bad for me—what will end well and what will end poorly. It includes the ability to distinguish between what is temporarily pleasurable and what is truly satisfying.

Helping our kids learn what is satisfying has many benefits.

  1. They learn that some things are worth working for.
  2. They learn that some things are worth waiting for.
  3. It strengthens their identity to know what they find satisfying.
  4. It helps them be more creative.
  5. They learn they can add value to the world around them.

Something is satisfying when it makes you smile to relive the experience, or you can still feel the joy of the activity several days later. Recalling my days riding bikes with my friends still makes me smile. So do dozens of other memories from childhood like learning to water ski, the feel of hitting a home run in Little League, the sense of accomplishment at mastering my phonics book in school. As parents, we need to understand that satisfaction is not primarily about finishing a task. It is about the joy of sharing the experience with someone else who finds joy in it.

In order to grow wisdom and learn new skills, a child needs a blend of guidance and freedom. When I learned to water ski, my mom and dad couldn’t teach me what to do because they had never done it. But they were in the boat rooting for me as a family friend taught me. I (Marcus) had never spent any time at a lake before and had no skills in swimming or any experience riding in a speedboat, let alone skiing. The first few attempts weren’t pretty. I wiped out immediately. Then I got up for about ten seconds, hit a wave, and did a forward flip into the water. My parents kept encouraging me, and their friend kept instructing me, and the next time up, I made it all the way around the lake. The feeling of satisfaction was immense. Not only had I accomplished a task, but there were people celebrating it with me. That is a great recipe for developing disciplines relationally.

Discernment is primarily about recognizing what is satisfying. It is the foundation of wisdom. However, it needs to be paired with discipline. Discipline is the ability to work for and wait for what is good or satisfying. One of the words I often heard from my parents was “excellence.” They instilled in their kids the ideal of doing our best and taking the time needed to do things with excellence. Because my parents invested in helping us learn to work hard at what we did, all of us kids got used to success. We had to deal with failure along the way, but the disciplines instilled by our parents made success seem normal.

For example, my (Marcus’s) mom loved art. She loved to help us with our art homework. She was especially good at portraits. She helped us with proportions, shading, and other techniques. As a result, we tended to win most of the art contests we entered. Our mother took the time to relationally help us develop the disciplines to do our work with excellence. This was also the case with music, academics, sports, and other pursuits. It wasn’t overbearing. They weren’t saying, “You better succeed or else.” They were saying, “Do your best. Work hard at this and we’ll see what happens.” They also took the time to celebrate our successes, comfort us in our failures, and make sure we “got back to work” the next day.

For Further Reading:

The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids

by Marcus Warner and Chris Coursey

Is “Joy-Building” the secret to raising mature healthy kids? Joy-filled kids aren’t always happy kids, but they do know how...

book cover for The 4 Habits of Raising Joy-Filled Kids