Years ago at a Christian festival I saw a stall selling ‘Sons not Dogs’ T-shirts. The idea behind these T-shirts was that in the Bible, people who don’t love God are sometimes described as dogs (e.g. Mark 7:27-28; Revelation 22:15 but probably no need to look them up), but believers are described as sons (Galatians 4:6; Hebrews 2:10). At least that’s what I think they were about.
It struck me at the time that this wasn’t a great evangelistic tool:
‘Hey, what’s your T shirt about?’
‘Oh it’s about how I’m a son of God, and you’re a dog.’
‘Ooh, really? Please tell me more about this God!’
I don’t think so.
(Perhaps I will now be inundated with people defending these T shirts: I shall have to cope with that.)
The other night I got chatting to a dog walker. A dog walker does what it says on the tin – walks dogs. They walk dogs for people who have a dog and also have the money to pay someone to walk their dog. (As I’ve possibly mentioned before, I live in London: Zone One.) I don’t know much about dogs, so in my attempt to make conversation (a ‘skill’ I’ve ridiculed before on this blog, I think!) I got chatting to her about the similarities between training a dog and raising a child.
Dogs respond well to clear boundaries – to rewards and sanctions and tone of voice – as do children. The lady I was chatting to told me that she sometimes gets criticised by strangers in the park for being too strict with her dog. When she’s giving him a ‘time out’ people ask if they can go and stroke him. Perhaps you, as a parent, may have come under criticism for being too strict with your children – although I find these are the same people who compliment your children on their good behaviour! Perhaps they should notice the connection? A friend who teaches dog obedience classes tells me that in those classes he’s training the owners more than he is training the dogs. In some ways that can seem true with parenting, can’t it? If you think about programmes like Supernanny, it’s the parents who are being trained, which then affects the children.
Perhaps you will disagree, but I think in our society today it’s pretty inoffensive to draw these comparisons between dogs and children. But it strikes me that this says something about our view of children. Because the thing is, of course: children are not dogs. And dogs (despite the ‘doggy prams’ I see being pushed down the street I live on), dogs are not children.
Children are made in God’s image. Children have complex emotions and unique personalities. Children are capable of goodness and kindness, and they’re also born sinners. Like their parents, they have corrupt motives and like to keep rules – if they get something out of it.
Looking at the outward behaviour of a child doesn’t always tell you what’s going on in their hearts. Sometimes a child is doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes a child is doing the wrong thing, but it’s not as wrong as the thing they were doing a month ago so you can see progress that others miss. Some children are born rebellious little mavericks, pushing every boundary from day one. Some are natural Pharisees, sticking to the rule book and hoping everyone notices.
If we want our children just to behave (sit when we tell them, come when we shout ‘heel!’) then we can probably find a rule book, a formula that will help us to achieve this goal. If we want them to be disciples of Christ, then we’re going to need to show them Jesus every day, to be gracious to them and show them our own need of grace, to pray for them and acknowledge that we’re completely dependent on God’s merciful kindness. This might mean our children sometimes embarrass us. They might wee in inappropriate places and bite and show us up by not coming to us when we call them. But God knows we’re on a journey and we’re relying on his Spirit to change the hearts of our kids, rather than just relying on ourselves to change their behaviour.
Let’s see what Jesus thought of well behaved people who were performing tricks in the hope of a dog biscuit:
Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (Matt 6:1)
‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matt 23:27-28)
Let’s not train our children like dogs. Let’s remember that they’re sons (and daughters). But please don’t buy the T-shirt.
For more on this, I recommend ‘Shepherding a Child’s Heart’ by Paul David Tripp. You might not agree with all of the application, but the principles themselves are Biblical.