During a recent drive home from school, my seven-year old son began to share with me about how he had cried after becoming upset at one of his classmates during their lunch hour. Although I decided to simply listen without giving much feedback, he asked the following question: “Dad, how do I get myself to stop crying when these things happen?” Resonating within this question was the deeper cry of a son asking for his father to shape his character. While the following is not a comprehensive list, it’s one that marks what have been key principles that I constantly think through when raising my own son.
God enables a father to shape his son’s character through…
Prayer…and a lot of it (Colossians 1:9-11, 1 Corinthians 3:6). It’s sobering, but I acknowledge that I ultimately can’t shape my son’s character. Scripture makes it clear that though we may plant and water seeds, God alone causes the growth and ultimately shapes my son’s character (1 Cor 3:6). Many wonderful fathers have raised sons who strayed and rejected their father’s instruction, and many fathers who have miserably failed in their duties have also raised sons who grew up to become godly men. As a father, I know that I must continually humble myself in prayer before Almighty God to whom my son belongs.
Modeling integrity (Luke 6:40, Proverbs 20:7). Character is more caught than taught; a son, once fully trained, eventually becomes like his father. No human influence is wielded more by the Spirit of God in shaping a young man’s character toward Christ-likeness than his father’s integrity; no tool is more wielded by Satan into blinding a young man from embracing the truth of God than his father’s hypocrisy. For the best way to trip a blind man is have a blind father lead him. I’ve found that when my son isn’t asking, he’s watching. And when he’s watching, he’s imitating. It’s no surprise then that even the seemingly most knuckle-headed of sons end up in some way becoming just like their fathers—be it for better or worse.
Showing him affection (Philippians 1:7-8). Testosterone and affection are not mutually exclusive. One particular author deduced the statistic that a young boy is far more influenced toward biblical manhood by his father’s affection than his father’s exhortations— particularly when it comes to the development of sexual orientation. An over-zealous father in his ambition to “show my boys how to be men” may inadvertently hinder the growth process by exhibiting toughness unbalanced with tenderness. But a son will determine to be like a father who he knows sincerely delights in him. It’s no surprise that a good majority of the most biblically masculine men I know—both young and old—grew up in homes with affectionate fathers.
Spending a lot of time together, one on one (2 Timothy 3:10). A son’s character is shaped positively when he’s given the opportunity to see his father in action. From the out-of-town father-son trips, to hiking adventures, to gym excursions, to Sunday morning ride-alongs, to short walks around the neighborhood block, such times constitute irreplaceable facets to my son’s growth. He treasures them so much that, several weeks ago, I woke up from a nap to find a stack of seven eight-by-eleven drawings next to my bed. I looked through them, and realized that they were my son’s hand-drawn pictures portraying (with wonderful stick figures of course) different things that he and I have done together just as father and son over the past year.
Being available for conversation (Mark 4:34, Deuteronomy 6:20). Much of the Bible instructs fathers how to respond “when your son asks you in the time to come” (cf. Deut 6:20; Josh 4:6). I’ve learned the importance of making myself available everyday to privately converse with him with no time limit, ride the wave of his curiosity, and answer every question he has, from how it is that God is both one and three, to what ice cream is made of…and everything in between. When questions are answered, thinking is structured. And when thinking is structured, character is shaped.
Opening his eyes to others’ needs (Philippians 2:3-4). Men are naturally self-absorbed and selfish. One of the ways a father shapes selfless humility in his son is to instruct him to do good to all men not so that he can be esteemed by others, but because all men exhibit a dignity before God’s eyes that ought to be protected and cared for. It’s the difference between telling him to be quiet in the early morning so that he doesn’t get in trouble and telling him to be quiet because our neighbors need good rest. We shape our sons’ characters toward masculinity by opening their eyes to the needs of others.
Affirming when he does right, and forgetting when he did wrong (Philippians 3:12-14). It does a boy no good to dwell on his mistakes. Though corrective discipline is an integral part of raising my son, I do have to make it a point not to dwell on what he has done wrong, but instead to “reset” and affirm when he manages to do what is right. This isn’t to promote self-righteousness, but to help discern right from wrong, to demonstrate rejoicing in the truth, and to model what true forgiveness really is—that God in His grace does not bring to remembrance our sins, but frees us from the debt entirely and rejoices over our repentance. Such affirmation serves to teach him to hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than being paranoid about making mistakes.
Bringing up God and His Word in every facet of life (Deuteronomy 6:4-7, Colossians 1:18). Christ is not simply Lord of Sundays, Bible studies, and family devotions. Shaping my son’s character means helping him understand Christ’s primacy and Lordship in everything, from his behavior at restaurants to his interactions with the neighborhood children. A son’s character will be massively impacted when he learns from his father that God desires to be glorified no matter where he is and what he’s doing.
Cultivating independence in him (Ephesians 6:4, Genesis 2:24). A son’s transition from dependent boyhood to independent manhood is gradually attained as his father grants him more and more independence, as appropriate to his age and stage of life. At some point, a father must allow his son to go about things by himself, deal with the positive and negative consequences of his actions, allow him to learn from his own mistakes and learn to solve problems independently. Part of raising a son is instilling in him the character quality of benevolent responsibility towards the welfare of others, which cannot be cultivated in the soil of over-dependence.
Pushing him to the next level (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12, 4:2). Boys must learn to be boys before they can learn to be men. Pushing a son to achieve certain milestones before he’s ready can be detrimental, cause bad habits, and ironically prevent him from reaching his full potential. But when he senses that the time is right, dad must make the move and push him. It means pushing him to ride a horse by himself, read his first words, swim without floaties, ride a two-wheel bike, run his first mile, ride his first roller-coaster, and bandage up his own scraped knee by himself. A father must instill in his son the value of excelling still more, and the danger of wallowing in complacency.
Teaching him to respect women (1 Peter 3:7). Never teach your son that women are inferior, either by your words or actions. Never speak of women in a way that demeans them. He must learn from his father that women are not only different, but fellow image-bearers of God, and thus ought to be esteemed highly and cared for gently. Admonishing your son not to “act like a girl” must indeed be done, but done so with caution, lest he start to think that how girls act and what they do are somehow inferior. Understanding the value of women before God is the foundation for a man’s pursuit of purity, responsibility, and chivalry toward them.
There is no greater delight for a Christian father than when his sons walk in uprightness of character in accordance to God’s revealed truth (3 John 4). It is my prayer that the men of Christ’s church would whole-heartedly engage in the sweetest form of discipleship that can take place amongst men: a father’s shaping the character of his son.
George Alan Rekers, “Psychological Foundations for Rearing Mascluline Boys and Feminine Girls,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 303.