In his book, The Social Contract (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote: “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” This statement is often cited in support of the notion that the family and other social institutions warp a child’s natural goodness. Rather than imposing rules on children, so this thinking goes, parents should just let their kids express themselves however their little hearts desire.
(Why anyone listens to Rousseau has always been a mystery to me. Rather than raising his own five children, he fobbed them off on orphanages soon after their births. Perhaps he thought he would make a bad father. If so, what authority does he have to tell other people how they should raise their children?)
The Book of Proverbs expresses the exact opposite advice. Parents should raise their children according to God’s moral law and common sense. Children are not born good, in other words; they become good through proper instruction. Consider, in this light, the following proverbs:
Discipline your son, for in that there is hope;
do not be a willing party to his death (19:18).
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
Punish him with the rod
and save his soul from death (23:13-14).
The rod of correction imparts wisdom,
but a child left to himself disgraces his mother (29:15).
Discipline your son, and he will give you peace;
he will bring delight to your soul (29:17).
These proverbs advocate corporal discipline for hard cases. But surely such discipline is supposed to be rare! The normal mode of instruction for children is, instead, dialogue. That is why Proverbs so often calls upon children to listen to their parents.
Listen to your father, who gave you life,
and do not despise your mother when she is old.
Buy the truth and do not sell it;
get wisdom, discipline and understanding.
The father of a righteous man has great joy;
he who has a wise son delights in him.
May your father and mother be glad;
may she who gave you birth rejoice! (23:22-25)
Interestingly, it seems that siblings also play a crucial role in the moral development of children.
A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity (17:17).
Our siblings, it seems, help our parents teach us the difference between right and wrong.
What is the danger of not instructing children in the way they should go, of not disciplining them (in some form, not necessarily corporal) when they stray? Two proverbs utilize avian imagery:
Like a bird that strays from its nest
is a man who strays from his home (27:8).
The eye that mocks a father,
that scorns obedience to a mother,
will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley,
will be eaten by the vultures (30:17).
Parents, it turns out, are the frontline for teaching children how to get along in society. They aren’t born free; they become free. So, teach your children well!