Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Richard Baxter on educating children

The Puritans placed a high priority on education, especially religious instruction. Richard Baxter's instructions in The Godly Home offer direction for the motive behind educating children (Chapter Five) as well as specific, practical instructions (Chapter Twelve).

Baxter points out that the primary motive for instructing our children in religious matters is love. It is a natural expression of our love for our children that we care about their souls:
Consider how deeply nature itself engages you to the greatest care and diligence for the holy education of your children. They are, as it were, parts of yourselves and those whom nature teaches you to love and provide for and take more care for, next to yourselves; and will you be regardless of their chief concerns and the neglect of their souls? Will you in no other way show your love to them until they can go abroad and shift for themselves for bodily sustenance? You do not bring dogs or beasts into the world but children who have immortal souls.
With this in mind, Baxter highlights that parents, not outsiders, should be the children's first teachers. The relationship between parent and child, one of love, is benefit for instruction. We are not to leave it entirely to the church:
The proof is undeniable: God appoints parents to teach their children of His Holy word before they come to the public ministry. Thus, parents' teaching is the first teaching; and parents' teaching is for this end, as well as public teaching, even to cause faith, love, and holiness.
Baxter also provides numerous directions for the practical aspect of teaching. There were a few that stood out to me as being very helpful. Baxter encourages teaching to their level:
The most natural way of teaching children the meaning of God's Word, and the matter of their salvation, is by talking with them suited to their capacities. Begin this while they are on their mother's laps.
He warns about making family instruction dry and cumbersome:
Take heed that you do not turn all your family instructions into a customary, formal course by bare readings and repeating sermons from day to day without personal application... awaken their consciences to know that the matter concerns them, and to force them to make application of it for themselves. (emphasis mine)
This theme of teaching through talking and relationship is also evident in Baxter's encouragement to use questions:
Let the manner of your teaching be often interlocutory, or by way of questions... first, it keeps them awake and attentive when they know they must make some answer to your questions, which set speeches, with the dull and sluggish, will hardly do. Second, it helps them in the application, so that they may more easily take it to heart and see how it applies to them.
When we homeschooled, I used a lot of dialogue like that; not giving answers but asking questions until they saw where the answers were. It was really useful, and it gave them a sense of accomplishment, mastering little chunks at a time. This method of instruction reminds me a lot of Deuteronomy 6:1-3, with its model of instruction on a daily basis, in the ordinary of life.

I found his approach a very gentle one, as demonstrated with these two directions:
Do not tire them with too much at once; give it to them as they can receive it. Narrow-mouthed bottles must not be filled as wider vessels.
... entice them with kindness and rewards. Be kind to your children when they do well, for this makes your persons acceptable at first, and then your instructions will be much more acceptable.
What I found most significant in Baxter's approach was the reality that instruction, and the way we give it, is a function of our love for our children. It is kind of like the loving way our Heavenly Father instructs us, his grown children. He teaches us because He created us, and because He loves us. He gives to us what we can handle at the moment, and He wants us to think through what He teaches us. It's a beautiful picture, really.

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