The following is an article I wrote for a counseling course, and that was later published in the Journal of Modern Ministry. I mentioned it in the parenting class on Sunday, and promised I would make it available to them. If you are raising children, I hope you are helped by it. Pass it on to others if you’re through that stage of life. I am posting it here for the edification of the body.
Enjoy, and I welcome your questions and comments!
At younger and younger ages children are being lured and enticed into delinquent behavior. Ultimately this is an expression of their depraved heart. However, the company young people keep also influences and shapes them. Christian parents, striving to raise children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, must take measures to curb and restrain the competing nurture and influence of those who would lead their children astray. Often these “competitors” come in the form of friends chosen by the children themselves.
Parents must teach their children to choose their friends wisely. “If you do not help your children select, and help them learn to select for themselves, the right kind of companions, the wrong kind of companions will inevitably select them. The responsibility of teaching children how to choose their friends wisely is therefore a fundamental element of successful biblical parenting” (John MacArthur, Successful Christian Parenting, p. 88).
How should Christian parents approach this task? In order to succeed Christian parents need to understand why this task cannot be neglected, what circumstances hinder proper instruction of children in this area, and then how to help their children understand and apply the Scriptures in the choosing of their companions. God’s sufficient Scriptures supply the necessary truth for training our children to choose friends wisely.
Why Children must be Trained to Choose Friends Wisely
Children are born sinful, naïve and foolish. They must be instructed and trained for godly living. Left to themselves they will follow the promptings of their flesh, and this includes choosing friends whose behavior and attitudes appeal to that sinful flesh. In contrast to the natural bent of children, God’s standard for choosing friends is stated by the psalmist. “I am a companion of all those who fear Thee, And of those who keep Thy precepts” (Psalm 119:63). This standard must be taught and pressed home to the heart of every child. In order to be properly motivated and admonished to be faithful in this responsibility, parents must understand the biblical reasons why this standard must be taught to their children. We will look at three biblical reasons for teaching children to choose friends wisely.
1. Children will become like the Friends They Choose
The Scripture states emphatically that we are influenced by the people around us. Parents must teach their children the dangers and consequences of choosing friends foolishly and indiscriminately. First Corinthians 15:33 provides a clear biblical warning about choosing ungodly companions. “Do not be deceived: ‘bad company corrupts good morals.'” Those categorized by God’s word as “bad company” corrupt the good morals of those around them by influencing others to be like them. While this passage is not speaking directly to parenting, the formative years of childhood, when a child’s moral character is being shaped, is an especially dangerous time to allow children to be subject to the influence of evil companions. MacArthur warns, “It is a fact of human nature that young people are more prone to follow a bad example than they are to set a good example, especially if it means going against their peers” (p. 89)
In addition to general influences, the Scripture also warns of particular character traits being assumed as a result of bad influences. Proverbs 28:7 warns, “He who is a companion of gluttons humiliates his father.” One must assume that the problem is not simply being in the presence of a glutton that brings parental humiliation. Rather, it is learning the lusts and behavior of the glutton that ultimately brings this humiliation. This parallels a similar warning given in Proverbs 22:24, 25a; “Do not associate with a man given to anger; Or go with a hot-tempered man, Lest you learn his ways.” Spending time with a “hot-head” will teach you to respond to life in the same angry and selfish way. People learn the attitudes and behaviors of those they commonly associate with.
This principle can be illustrated by noting the history of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon (see 1 Kings 12:1-16). Rehoboam sought the counsel of “the young men who grew up with him” (1 Kings 12:8). These men encouraged Rehoboam to adopt a cruel attitude toward the people of Israel. While Rehoboam was still responsible for his own words and actions, it is an apt illustration of what happens when sons are allowed to enjoy the companionship of ungodly men. Parents should take heed. These were simply the boys that Rehoboam had grown up with. Part of Solomon’s sad legacy is that the companions he allowed his son to choose ultimately played an influential role in dividing the kingdom of Israel (all of which was, admittedly, part of God’s sovereign plan).
Most parents recognize that their own children take on the attitudes, mannerisms and speech patterns of their friends (or the attitudes, mannerism and speech patterns of those they view in movies or television, with whom they identify in a “friendly” way). “Your kids’ personal moral standards, the language they use, and the activities they engage in, will probably not rise above the lowest common denominator of their companions’ standards. Rarely does a child have the capability to elevate himself beyond the constituent group in which he functions” (MacArthur, p. 88). The point is sufficiently stated and illustrated: children become like the friends they choose.
2. Children who Choose Bad Friends will Suffer Harm
There is a second reason why parents must teach their children to choose their friends wisely. Not only will children take on the character traits of their friends, the Bible warns that they will also suffer the consequences of living out those character traits. “He who walks with wise men shall be wise, But the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20). The harm that may be suffered could come in many different forms. We will look at a representative sample of harmful consequences that the Scripture warns may come upon those who choose friends unwisely. These should be lovingly pressed home upon the hearts and minds of children. Here are two general categories of harm that could come to children if they are not properly warned and instructed in choosing friends.
You may Suffer Harm by being Taken Advantage of
No one plans on being taken advantage of by a friend. But the Bible clearly states that certain kinds of “friends” have a tendency to do just that. Listen to the warning of Proverbs 19:6, 7; “Many will entreat the favor of a generous man, And every man is a friend to him who gives gifts. All the brothers of a poor man hate him; How much more do his friends go far from him! He pursues them with words, but they are gone.” In simple terms, everybody loves the guy with the cash, the cool bike, the fast car, or the latest video game. But as soon as these “friends” are denied the pleasure they are really after they will prove themselves to be fair weather friends. Children should be warned about friends who exhibit an inordinate interest in material things, or who are clearly self-seeking in their pursuits. This can and should be taught at a young age. Douglas Wilson wisely remarks, “What a seventeen-year-old should not do with his car a seven-year-old should not do with his bike-e.g., loan it to a new friend for the summer” (Douglas Wilson, Future Men, p. 119)
It may not be material possessions alone that others are seeking. They may pursue your friendship for a variety of self-seeking interests. Another means of gaining this self-seeking friendship involves flattery. Again the Scriptures warn us; “A man who flatters his neighbor is spreading a net for his steps” (Proverbs 29:5). Young people will likely be able to observe this in their own experience. It is not uncommon for young men or women to flatter someone of the opposite sex, win their affections and interest, only to have it revealed later that it was all done to make the real object of their affections jealous. Scripture testifies that Absalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel by flatteringly telling them they deserved justice and that he was willing to give it to them. But his words were deceitful and designed only to win their affections so that he could usurp the throne of his father. He was playing on their loyalties for his own selfish purposes. In the end these kinds of friends will only take advantage of others and abandon them when they have served their purposes.
Those who choose friends unwisely should be warned to expect such treatment. In contrast, true friends do not take advantage of others and will be faithful through thick or thin. “A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
You may Suffer Harm through the Fruit of Your own Sin
We examined in our first point that children become like the friends they choose. When children choose ungodly companions and then become like them, it follows that they will suffer harm as a natural consequence. There are obvious and severe harms that could be suffered (drugs, alcohol, sex, pregnancy, disease, crime, etc.). Other types of harm are more subtle. Proverbs declares that the companion of a glutton humiliates his father (Proverbs 28:7). If a person adopts a gluttonous lifestyle then he will suffer the physical harms associated with that lifestyle. Proverbs also warns that consequences cannot be avoided if you choose to be the companion of a harlot (Proverbs 6:26-28). Likewise, associating with an angry man and learning his ways brings an inevitable snare in a person’s life (Proverbs 22:24, 25). One does not need a great imagination to think of many ways that angry people get themselves into harmful situations.
The truth that choosing friends unwisely can cause great harm in a person’s life must be pressed home with children when they are young so that it will govern their choices when they are older and living less and less under the direct authority of their parents. Parents must take providential opportunities to illustrate and prove these principles from real life situations around them. It is a parent’s responsibility.
This parental responsibility brings us to the third reason why children must be trained to choose friends wisely.
3. Children who Choose Friends Foolishly will Shame their Parents
The Scripture is clear that children who follow the path of foolishness bring grief and shame upon their parents. “A wise son makes a father glad, But a foolish son is a grief to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). “A foolish son is a grief to his father, And bitterness to her who bore him” (Proverbs 17:25). Wilson rightly states, “The son who causes shame is one who causes shame to his parents. The shame is theirs because the responsibility to teach…was theirs” (Wilson, p. 59). While this is true, the fear of personal shame or harm to a child should not motivate a parent to simply make the choices for him or her (this is not even completely possible as a child gets older). Parents must train children to make wise choices themselves. Paul Tripp provides an excellent statement of a parent’s true goal:
The choice of companions is a very serious matter, but it is also a place where we surrender control to a maturing child. The goal of parenting is not to retain tight-fisted control over our children in an attempt to guarantee their safety and our sanity. Only God is able to exercise that kind of control. The goal is to be used of him to instill in our children an ever-maturing self-control through principles of the Word and to allow them to exercise ever-widening circles of choice, control, and independence (Paul David Tripp, Age of Opportunity, p. 37-38).
That being said, Tripp also acknowledges that it is a parent’s responsibility to teach their children to use biblical principles in the choosing of their friends. When a parent fails to teach these principles adequately, the consequences of their child’s unwise choices will bring grief and shame to both parent and child.
Those three reasons for training children to choose friends wisely should be motivation enough for any parent. Unfortunately, even well-motivated and well-instructed parents can be hindered in their pursuit to do right. In order to help parents be even more equipped for the task we will consider some hindrances to this proper training and instruction.
Factors that Hinder Training Children to Choose Friends Wisely
Parents should consider and plan for those factors that may hinder the faithful pursuit of training children to choose friends wisely. While it would be beyond the main purpose of this article to elaborate on them, four particular hindrances bear brief mention. These must be understood and steps should be taken to overcome the obstacles they create.
One factor hindering proper training in this area is the increasing social acceptance of childhood rebellion, and teenage rebellion in particular.
Many parents have been duped into thinking that their children will inevitably rebel and that nothing can be done to stop it. This causes hopelessness and lack of action. The modern use of the term “adolescence” (a twentieth century creation) has certainly added fuel to this fire. Christian parents must not let this term or its corollaries prevent them from diligently teaching their children biblical principles and holding them accountable to God’s Word.
A second factor to be mentioned here is the role of time and influence in the lives of children attending public or private schools.
A child who attends school seven to eight hours a day–much of that time without the direct oversight and accountability of mature adults–will inevitably be influenced by their peers, for better or for worse. Parents who choose institutional options for educating their children must be prepared to expend the time and effort necessary to adequately overcome these competing influences.
Another factor hindering proper training in this area is that many parents spend very little time with their children even when they DO have the opportunity.
Proper training of children happens in the context of real life. Deuteronomy tells us it should be happening “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7). Most families today do not sit down, take walks, lie down or rise up together. School, sports, music lessons, ministry, and a whole host of activities consume so much time that many parents neglect their duties. Parents must plan and prioritize family activities so that their biblical responsibilities can be fulfilled.
The final factor to be mentioned relates to a parent’s attitude and approach.
Tripp warns, “We need to approach these conversations with sensitivity and love…It is critically important that we as parents avoid undermining our influence with our children by the unwise labeling of their friends, by unwarranted accusations, judgments of motives, and assumptions about the nature and level of influence of the friendship” (Tripp, p. 84-85). Early training in the principles we will outline below will help alleviate some of this concern. However, as these principles are communicated parents must be gracious, kind, cautious and respectful, particularly with older children.
We have investigated the general reasons why parents must instruct their children to choose friends wisely. We have gained a cursory understanding of the hindrances to this training and instruction. Now let us examine the particular principles that parents must instill in children so that they will learn to choose friends wisely.
How to Train Children to Choose Friends Wisely
How then, are parents to train their children to choose their friends wisely? We will first outline some preliminary instruction for children. Then we will outline the specific character traits Scripture encourages us to look for during the process of choosing friends.
Preliminary Matters of Instruction
First, parents must caution and help children avoid pride and self-righteousness. They must be trained to not have a proud and judgmental spirit toward other children. While they must learn to be wise and discerning in their choice of companions, this does not justify “thinking of themselves more highly than they ought” (Romans 12:3). Parents should be watchful and on guard to detect these attitudes in their child.
Secondly, as parents discuss the biblical principles concerning the choosing of friends they must first help their child understand that it is by the words, attitudes and actions of others that we are able to discern whether they will be loyal and faithful friends. Proverbs states, “It is by his deeds that a lad distinguishes himself, If his conduct is pure and right” (Proverbs 20:11; the NIV reads, “a child is known by his actions”). Jesus also taught that, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matthew 15:19). It is by words, attitudes and actions that a parent or a child can discern who will be a faithful friend who will honor God in their friendships.
Third, as parents teach these principles they must emphasize that, in order to be a God-honoring friend and companion, the child must also be exhibiting these character traits (or avoiding them as the case may be). The truth must be applied to their own heart first.
And finally, both parents and children should be careful not to assume that these principles mean we cannot or should not be friends with any unbelievers. The Apostle Paul says, “Let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10). This admonishment assumes that we will have associates outside the family of God. Wilson provides us with a balanced perspective when he states:
All this does not necessarily mean that every friend must be a Christian…The apostle Paul…assumed that Christians at Corinth might get invited to dinner parties thrown by pagans (1 Cor. 10:27). But this needs to be carefully watched, to ensure that the son is not getting into a situation beyond his capacity to handle. The standard situation should be one of godly friends, for all the obvious reasons (Wilson, p. 120).
Having noted a few preliminary considerations we will now turn to the specific principles parents can teach children in order to equip them to choose friends wisely.
Specific Principles to Use in Choosing Friends Wisely
We will examine three categories of principles to be understood and applied discerningly: patterns of speech, attitudes and behaviors.
1. Patterns of Speech
Is the person a slanderer? The Bible clearly teaches that slanderers make bad friends. “A slanderer separates intimate friends” (Proverbs 16:28b; cf. Proverbs 17:9; 20:19). Parents should teach children to be wary of those who are willing to speak poorly about others. If they show it to be a pattern toward others, it is likely that your child will be the victim of slanderous words eventually as well. This would not only be hurtful, but could also tarnish their reputation and testimony.
Is the person a flatterer? Another common practice of those who would prove to be an unfaithful friend is flattery. “A man who flatters his neighbor Is spreading a net for his steps” (Proverbs 29:5). We are not talking about gracious compliments or encouragement. We are referring to false flattery or manipulative compliments intended eventually to serve selfish purposes. “Deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6). This practice of flattery is really a form of deception, which brings us to our third principle of speech.
Is the person honest? God does not show favor to the deceitful. Those who prove to be deceitful with others will likely deceive you as well, often under the guise of “joking.” Proverbs warns, “Like a madman who throws Firebrands, arrows and death, So is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, ‘Was I not joking?'” (Proverbs 26:18-19). In contrast, friends tell the truth, and do not withhold information (see John 15:15).
Is the person gracious? Rather than befriending the slanderous, flattering or deceitful person, children should be trained to recognize and befriend those characterized by gracious speech. “He who loves purity of heart, And whose speech is gracious, the king is his friend” (Proverbs 22:11). A friend should be gracious, even when they admonish. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6).
2. Patterns in Attitudes
Speech patterns are easy to identify because they are always verbal. Related to this are characteristic attitudes of the heart, many of which are detected by the words and actions. An attitude is a pattern of thinking formed over a long period of time. While they are often expressed through words and actions, it is not always the words and actions themselves that are sinful, but the way in which they are expressed or the reasons why they are expressed. We shall briefly examine three such attitudes.
Is the person characteristically angry? We have already seen the dangers of being the companion of an angry man (Proverbs 22:24-25). Young people should be warned to avoid them, not only to escape learning their ways, but also so they do not get hurt by them.
Is the person characteristically materialistic? A materialistic heart will express itself in many ways. A common way with children is the friend who seems overly interested in borrowing or using your property (with children it may be toys, bikes, etc.). They will often get angry or abandon you if they cannot have their way. It may become apparent if they are caught stealing something that belongs to your child. Your child may become aware that they have stolen things from others, or taken advantage of someone else. They child should be warned that this person will make a bad friend, and that they will likely be “next” on his list of victims.
Is the person characteristically lustful? Lust expresses itself through selfishness, gluttony, or sexually immoral behavior (which in very young people begins with crass and crude talk). Children should be warned that this is displeasing to God and is to be exposed as such. Children should be warned to not be partakers with these children. They must not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but rather expose them (Ephesians 5:11). Even young children should be showing a growing ability to deny selfish lusts and consider others more important than themselves.
3. Patterns of Behavior
Is the person immoral? The lustful attitude mentioned in the last point will often express itself in immoral behavior. God clearly warns that Christians should not be “partakers” with the “sons of disobedience.” Other passages are very clear as well. Each can be studied and applied to the specific individuals and relationships in question. In addition to these more didactic passages, a multitude of examples can be compiled from the narratives of the Old Testament, many of which are couched in specific language for the Israelites not to associate with people from the immoral, godless nations around them.
Is the person faithful and loyal? Faithfulness is a quality of a true friend. “A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17; cf. Proverbs 18:24). True friends are loyal, encourage, guide, help, and strengthen others. These are all qualities that children need to be taught to recognize and seek out. Friends who forsake others in their time of need are not faithful and loyal. No one would wish to have friends who abandon others when the going gets tough, or who treat people with disdain if they suffer misfortune (consider Job’s so-called friends; Job 6:14). Unfortunately, it may be difficult to measure a person’s faithfulness until there is a mutual experience of misfortune. However, even with very young children unfaithfulness can be identified. Are they willing to “play favorites,” be “back-stabbers,” and ignore or make fun when their “other friends” are around. Children should be taught that, in general, these so-called friends should be avoided.
Is the person mean? In some ways, this is a general way to state a combination of many of the factors above. However, it is a characteristic that manifests itself in particular ways, even in young children. God warned that the rulers of the Israelites had become companions of thieves, that they were willing to take bribes, and had become oppressive of the widows and the orphans (Isaiah 1:23). In young children this attitude manifests itself as the neighborhood bully who picks on those unable to defend himself or herself. It may also be the young child who always “picks the teams” so that they win (a desire to rule, oppress or be the victor). Or perhaps it will be the child who always changes the rules when someone with “less ability” is about to win. A child who must always have it their way will not make a good companion for others. An excellent passage for study about avoiding the enticement and friendship of the oppressor is Proverbs 1:10-19.
Children must be trained in the choosing of companions. Left to themselves they will only yield to the foolishness that is bound up in their heart and be enticed by those who would lead them astray (Proverbs 12:26; 13:20; 22:15). Parents must faithfully fulfill their God-given responsibility to train up their children in the way of wisdom so that they will not be enticed by the wicked, but be companions of the righteous (Proverbs 1:1-10). As outlined above, parents must understand the reasons why this training is so important, they must prepare to overcome the hindrances to this proper training, and they must faithfully instruct their children in the proper understanding and application of the biblical principles given to us so that they might choose their friends wisely.