John Newton’s mother spent the first six years of his life, and the last six of her own, teaching her son in the ways of the Lord. But after her death, Newton’s life changed drastically. He was treated harshly, first by his stepmother and then by the headmaster at his boarding school.
Soon, Newton ran away to become a sailor and dove headfirst into a life of sin, before turning to the Lord at age 22. John married two years later, and within five years, he became a pastor. John and his wife, Polly, were unable to have children. But in 1774, after almost 25 years of marriage, they adopted 5-year-old Betsy, one of Polly’s nieces who had been orphaned. Nine years later, they adopted another of Polly’s orphaned nieces, 12-year-old Eliza. When Betsy joined the family, Newton was almost 50; when Eliza entered, he was nearly 60.
Until recently, most of Newton’s writings on parenting were inaccessible, but now Marylynn Rouse has collected them as part of a year-long devotional. As I’ve worked through these writings, Newton’s unique parenting perspective has encouraged me. It was sown by his mother’s influence in his early years, shaped by amazing grace, and forged in the maturity of middle age.
Here are six intentional principles Newton taught Christian parents preparing to launch their children.
1. Set a good example for your children.
Integrity is the oil that allows the rest of the parenting engine to run. Some parents think loving their children means protecting them from harm. But embodying before your children what you expect from them is one of the highest forms of parental love, and it protects them from great harm. Newton said, “Many poor children are forced to blush every day for the behavior of their parents. If you love them, be careful of laying stumbling blocks in their way.”
2. Talk frequently with your children.
Newton encourages parents to train their children in God’s truth, but he wrote, “I mean more by this than to teach them a catechism by rote as you would teach a parrot. They should be conversed with, and every occasion laid hold of, to explain and make them know that God sees and hears them and that this God is only to be known and worshipped in Jesus.”
Newton said parents should leverage their children’s natural curiosity, and he used this approach with Betsy:
When you read our Savior’s discourses, recorded by the evangelists, attend as if you saw him with your own eyes, standing before you; and when you try to pray, assure yourself before you begin, that he is actually in the room with you, and that his ear is open to every word you say. . . . You are not speaking into the air, or to the One who is a great way off; but to One who is very near you—to your best Friend.
3. Lead your children to practice the means of grace.
Newton reminded parents to bring their children to church. “I am afraid many parents have much to answer for in this point,” he wrote. “But almost all the evils and abominations to which youth are in time addicted enter at this door.”
He urged parents to seek the Lord’s grace alongside their children through prayer: “If you would have obedient children and . . . the peace of God in your dwellings, live not without family prayer. The flesh will plead excuses, the devil will help to furnish them, but it is your duty and will be your honour and your blessing.”
4. Work to restrain seeds of evil.
Newton knew the sinfulness of his own heart, even as a child, and he was realistic about what parental discipline can do to renew and transform a child’s heart. He wrote, “Even when we are young, . . . we find it difficult to learn what is good; but that which is evil and wicked is so well suited to our inclinations, that we can learn it quickly.”
But Newton knew that gardens untended in the spring will be overgrown in the autumn: “No care can change the heart, but the Lord works by means—and these evils may be restrained. . . . Be resolute in repressing them for, and restraining them from, things that are plainly sinful.”
5. Don’t discourage your children.
When correcting children, aggression and hypervigilance aren’t the answer. Newton said, “Consider they are but children, therefore especially while they are unawakened [to the Lord], lay not too much upon them. Some good people have wearied their children by expecting conduct from them as if they were experienced Christians, and have thereby given them a disgust and distaste for religion, and made them look upon it as a burden.”
Parents should instead use a light touch: “A little advice now and then, always in the spirit of love and not too much at a time, is the best course.” After all, he writes, “If any correction or restraint is attempted . . . in anger and heat, . . . it is like Satan casting out Satan. If you do not bring in the authority of God and act in a spirit of meekness and steadiness, you may make them fear you, but you will do but little good.”
6. Entrust your children to the Lord.
In all these ways, Newton approached parenting with intentionality and grace. And he always kept the end in mind.
When Newton’s oldest daughter was 13, he told her this story:
The other day I . . . saw a ship launched . . . [and] my thoughts turned from the ship to my child. It seemed an emblem of your present state: you are now . . . in a safe harbour; but by and by you must launch out into the world, which may well be compared to a tempestuous sea. . . . I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command. There is hardly a day passes in which I do not entreat him to take charge of you. Under his care I know you will be safe; he can guide you unhurt amidst the storms, and rocks, and dangers.
All Christian parents prepare their children to launch with this confidence. We provide safe harbor and intentional guidance, but ultimately, we trust our faithful Pilot to lead our children across life’s troubled seas.