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In 1997, Earl Woods coauthored a book with his son, Tiger, titled Training a Tiger: A Father’s Guide to Raising a Winner in Both Golf and Life. Avid readers wanted to know the secret of how to turn their little ones into sports champions, just as Tiger Woods’ father had done.

We have since learned that Tiger Woods grew up to be a winner in golf, but his life is a different story. He failed miserably in an area where, as the statistics show and pastors know, most Americans now struggle greatly—marriage. But Earl Woods’ book is right in its basic premise—we should raise children with an eye toward what we hope they will grow up to be.

We can’t help but dream of seeing our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews grow up to become outstanding athletes, artists, or achievers of various kinds. We see their gifts surface at a young age and wonder to what heights those gifts might carry them. Perhaps to the big stage or to the Olympic Games or at least to a college scholarship? These prospects lure many parents into making endless sacrifices in the pursuit of the child’s “full potential.”

But when is the last time you looked at a little face and thought, “I would love to see him grow up to be a great husband or to see her grow up to be a great wife”?

There Is No Magic Marriage Dust

There’s a myth out there that is ruining marriages and probably reducing the number of marriages as well. It’s the myth that we can spend our childhood and adolescence putting our personal success before our need of personal character development and the needs of our future families. A selfless habit of mind will not suddenly appear in marriage. There’s a myth that if we meet Mr. Right or Ms. Perfect and exchange vows at the altar, magic marriage dust will fall upon us both, and we will walk out of that service transformed into selfless people, ready for the real-life demands of marriage.

There is no magic marriage dust. We walk out of the service with the same deeply entrenched habits and dispositions that were rooted in our heart when we walked in. Only now, we have so much more responsibility.

As parents of future husbands and future wives, perhaps we should think less about training up gifted standouts and focus more on training up men and women who will be prepared to succeed where Tiger Woods fell short.

Getting Practical: Dinnertime and Worship Time

So, how might we train up future husbands and wives? Perhaps with dinnertime. Too often, parents make enormous sacrifices for their children without asking the children to make any sacrifices for the family. Dinnertime calls the individual members to seek—as well as enjoy—the good of the whole family.

That future daughter-in-law or son-in-law of yours would much rather you focus now on raising up a future husband or wife than raising up a future sports champ.

In foregoing legitimate pursuits in order to be with the family at the dinner table, family members learn through hundreds of repetitions that the well-being of the family requires sacrifices. (The child also learns an important theological truth about human beings made in God’s image—that communion matters as much as function.) On the other hand, when the family table makes no claims on the child’s schedule, the child secretly learns that individual dreams and pursuits take priority over the well-being of the family.

As with dinnertime, so with church. Years ago, recreational sports teams did not think to schedule games on Sundays. Now parents face a choice: When the team’s call to play bumps up against God’s call to worship, who wins?

Our culture has so trained our hearts to prize sports that it’s hard for us to imagine that we could hold our child out of a game and still be a “good parent” (especially if pleas and tears are involved). But underneath that soccer uniform is the heart of a future husband or wife that is being trained in one of two ways. That heart is either developing the habit of putting God, family, and church before personal pursuits, or it is developing the reflex of putting personal pursuits before God, family, and church.

Early Training for the Race of Repentance

Paul tells fathers to “bring [your children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Just four verses earlier, Paul was writing of the high calling of marriage, in which the wife images the church and the husband images Christ Himself (5:22–33). Not every child will get married, but preparing every child for marriage will prepare them for real life in service to Christ, with its ten thousand acts of self-denial. Of believers, Calvin writes that “God assigns them the race of repentance to run during their whole lives” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.3.9). In Christian marriage, a man and woman are called to run that race of repentance together. Preparation for that race must begin in childhood, or it will be hard learned—if learned at all—in later years.

How children see themselves in relation to the family when they are young will carry over into how they see themselves in relation to their marriage—and in relation to their Lord—when they are grown. When we insist that some legitimate activities cannot be pursued because they will reduce the home to an overnight parking lot for busy, self-seeking individuals, we are not ruining our child’s future—we are investing in it. When we hold the line on the Lord’s Day and exalt public worship as more significant than the league office’s schedule, we are not ruining our child’s future—we are investing in it. We are training up a future husband or wife.

Someone Will Be Trusting Your Child’s “I Do”

As you ponder your child’s future and the possibility of their marriage, remember that more than your own child’s future is at stake. For somewhere across town, across the country, or on the other side of the globe is a little boy or girl who may one day stand across from your child and trust their lives to your child’s “I do.” And when they do, how prepared will your child be to steward that trust in this epic commitment of ten thousand acts of self-denial?

That future daughter-in-law or son-in-law of yours would much rather you focus now on raising up a future husband or wife than raising up a future sports champ.

The Blessing of God’s Promises

The Pastor’s Family and the Church