Proverbs 16:21 assumes that promoting instruction is a good thing, and this verse states a simple but profound teaching principle:
The wise in heart are called discerning,
and pleasant words promote instruction.
This translation is from the NIV. Here are three other translations of the same verse; the additional translations help to clarify the importance of the way in which instruction is given.
The wise of heart is called discerning,
and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness. (ESV)
The wise are known for their understanding,
and pleasant words are persuasive. (NLT)
Anyone with a wise heart is called discerning,
and pleasant speech increases learning. (HCSB)
Pleasant words encourage and attract; harsh words discourage and alienate. Threats may produce fear and compliance, but they are not nearly as effective pleasant words, which encourage cooperation, enthusiasm, and affection. Pleasant words promote instruction!
Children need the encouragement of pleasant, sweet words to do their schoolwork in a God-honoring way. You want much more for them than just completed school assignments; you want your children to be wise and discerning in the inner man, and you want them to be drawn to God’s ways. From the world’s perspective, finishing the assignment and getting a good grade is all that is required. From a biblical perspective, every challenge carries the opportunity to know God more deeply. This is where pleasant, gentle persuasion from loving parents and teachers comes into play.
Schoolwork provides an opportunity to hold out the gospel. God’s grace, his help, is available to those who come to him humbly and ask for it. And God is honored when children depend upon him for strength to do the things he has give them to do. God is not honored by attempts to accomplish tasks by the sheer force of human will, apart from the help and purposes of God (Proverbs 19:21).
Use pleasant words to help children see that God wants them to trust him, to come to him for strength for each assignment. That is one aspect of why Jesus died. All of life is about living out the implications of the gospel, and schoolwork, too, is an opportunity to encourage your children to turn to Christ for strength if they do know him, and an opportunity to seek God’s forgiveness and grace if they do not. Don’t miss the opportunity to point them to Christ.
How to do it? Here is an example. If your child is procrastinating in finishing his work, you might be tempted to say something like this in a stern, exasperated tone:
“Schoolwork is just part of life; the sooner you finish the sooner you can play. The Bible says not to complain, so stop complaining and get to work! When I come back I expect your work to be done. Do you understand?!”
Now, the content is accurate. Schoolwork is part of life. When the assignment is completed other things can be done. Complaining is wrong and needs to be corrected. Setting time limits for getting work done is often a good idea. Making sure that children understand your direction is also a good thing. But, as Christians, we have to be more than accurate. We must also, in addition, speak with love, compassion, understanding and persuasion. Speaking this way is not natural, any more than it is natural for children to their work eagerly with a thankful spirit. The power of gospel grace is needed as well! James 1:19-20 illustrates the truth of Proverbs 16:21 this way:
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
It is important for your child to know that there is no alternative; he must do his schoolwork. But how this reality is presented or promoted is also important. What is going to promote instruction and persuade him to do his work? Sweet, pleasant words delivered with firm resolve. So, let’s recast the above example from the viewpoint of Proverbs 16:21.
You see that your child is not being diligent in completing his task. Your tone is pleasant and sympathetic, but it is also firm, indicating that there will be no alternative to completing the work at hand. Your words might be something like this:
“I know it’s difficult to do your work sometimes, isn’t it? Is there anything bothering you that is keeping you from doing your work?”
If the answer is yes, determine quickly what the problem is. Usually, it will be best to address the issue after the schoolwork is done so that the problem itself doesn’t become a way to procrastinate. However, occasionally you may discover something that needs your immediate attention.
“Okay, I know there are other things that seem more interesting. But remember, this work is part of what God has planned for you so that you can know him and learn to follow his ways. God tells us to be diligent. Is there anything about the assignment you don’t understand, or is there something I can help with? Okay, then, let’s pray right now for God to help you focus on your work and ask for his strength to finish. I’ll check back with you soon to make sure things are going well. I know there are some fun things that you want to do, and I want you to be able to get to them as soon as you are finished. I love you.”
Obviously, you will have to adjust the language to fit your situation, but be sure to cover these points in encouraging your child to do his work.
Please note, this approach will not be helpful unless you are modeling this perspective as a teacher or a parent with the responsibilities that you have. If you can’t show it, don’t promote it. Also note that this approach requires consistency. Alternating between pleasant words and words of anger and frustration will only complicate things. It is always wise to remember God’s amazing patience with you when you are tempted to frustration with your children.