Thomas Dwight Witherspoon on the Importance of Building a Relationship with Your Children

Thomas Dwight Witherspoon was a 19th-century Presbyterian pastor who ministered in Oxford, MS, and Memphis, TN, among other places. We have published his summary of Presbyterian church government in the booklet The Five Points of Presbyterianism. But he also had much wisdom for Christian parents in his book Children of the Covenant. The following paragraphs come from a section in which he is unpacking several difficulties that he believes lie at the root of why we do not see more conversions among our covenant children:

But a third difficulty, and one far more subversive of the great end of the family relation, is found in the failure of Christian parents to cultivate perfect freedom of communication, and intimacy of relationship, with their children. Many parents never seem to win the confidence of their children at all. They never come into confidential relations with them. The most intimate thoughts of the child's mind, the most sacredly cherished emotions of its heart, are never communicated to the parent. Between father, or mother, and child, there is an unnatural barrier of reserve—a wall of mutual separation. The few communications as to its inner life, which the natural yearnings of the child lead it to make, are treated with indifference, or, perhaps, made the occasion of severe rebuke.

At all events, they do not meet with the proper encourageinent, and its timid nature recoils upon itself. Henceforth, these deep experiences are concealed from parental view. As the nature unfolds, and the confiding spirit of early childhood begins to give place to the reserve and coyness of youth, there comes a studied habit of concealment. The parent sees only the outer life of the child. Its inner nature is a hidden mystery. And there are now long constituted and strengthened barriers to intimate and confidential intercourse, which can never be overcome, however much the parent may strive to secure the end.

And yet, how miserably has that parent failed to secure the true end of the family relationship, whose child respects him, fears him, obeys him, and, it may be, loves him, with a kind of distant, reverential affection; but whose bosom has never become the repository of the joys and sorrows of his child; whose  heart never beats in conscious accord with the deep and yearning sympathies of its nature; to whom the most tender and sacred experiences of its young life are all a sealed book! How can such a parent exert over his child the influence which God designed him to exert? How can such a house, (for home it does not deserve to be called,) witness anything else than the growth into manhood and womanhood, of children who are virtually orphans in the world, and who, like waifs of the sea, are liable to be "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine"—the easy sport of circumstances, the strong anchorage in the family circle being totally wanting? 

How easy it is in early childhood to gain this intimacy and confidence to which I have referred. The little child naturally seeks to confide everything to its parent. Let but the slightest encouragement be given; let the little one only feel that there is a loving heart ready to sympathize with it; to rejoice with it; to solve patiently its difficulties; to bear forgiveingly with its wrongs, and to lead it kindly by the hand through all the perplexities of its path; and how naturally, how unreservedly does it cast itself upon the bosom that seeks its confidence, and pour out there the very deepest and most sacred thoughts and feelings of its heart.

And who shall say what advantage such a parent will have, in the training of his child! He is like the physician who has had the full diagnosis of the disease he is to treat. He Is like the lawyer to whom the client has fully unburdened his case. He knows how to direct the mind and mould the character of his child; and at the same time, as the result of this loving intimacy, he acquires an influence over it — the influence of mind over mind, and of heart over heart — the blessed results of which it is impossible to estimate.

-- Thomas Dwight Witherspoon, Children of the Covenant, 198ff.