Train up a child in the way he should go

My grandson Tommy has an especially keen mind. He loves math and sometimes asks me to give him a complicated math question…which he figures out in his mind as we travel. “A salesman was taking a trip from New York City to Erie, Pennsylvania trip of 325 miles. His car gets 25 miles per gallon. Gasoline is $2.34 a gallon. How much will the trip cost him?” After a few minutes of silence, Tommy will come up with the correct answer. It’s amazing.

Bob & Judy Russell with grandson TommyNaturally I think all seven of my grandchildren are smart and talented but Tommy is particularly gifted intellectually. Last year as a sophomore he scored a 32 on his ACT test. I’m told that’s pretty good and he could be in line for valuable academic scholarships.

However, I’ve often prayed, “Lord, please don’t let Tommy be a nerd.” Of course I don’t think intellectuals are nerds but for a variety of reasons they are often stereotyped. While I’m proud of my grandson’s intellect I’ve seen too many scholars who are awkward, can’t relate to people and can’t function in the real world. And since Tommy is home-schooled, I feared it would only increase the potential for him to be unrelatable. So, right or wrong, I often found myself praying against that stereotype, “Lord, don’t let him be a nerd.”

Three years ago, I saw a sign that God was answering that prayer when Tommy, age 14, surprisingly announced he wanted to play football. He lives in Florida where home-school students are eligible to play for their local public school. Tim Tebow is the prime example of someone who did that extremely well.

But Tommy’s chances of playing football weren’t good. In the first place his local school in Port Charlotte, Florida is a division 5A school with over 2000 students. (One of last year’s star players is now on the University of Louisville’s roster) Secondly, high school football is really serious in Florida. Most players start before first grade and come up through the youth football leagues. Tommy had not done that. He was way behind. Thirdly, Tommy is a Russell. He’s no Tim Tebow. He’s not built for football. As a freshman he was 5’8” and 130 pounds.

But Tommy went out for football as a complete novice and a stranger to the team. I thought to myself, “He won’t last three days.” Somehow he loved it and stuck with it in spite of getting knocked all over the field. His freshman year he dressed with the JV team and sat the bench. But he never missed practice. He showed up for the weightlifting sessions and attended the special workouts. He did what the coaches told him to do and they encouraged him.

The Port Charlotte Pirates JV team was so good they entered the final game of Tommy’s first season undefeated and unscored on. The team was particularly proud of the fact that no one had managed to cross the goal line against their defense. They won by such large margins that sometimes Tommy and other subs on the end of the bench got into the game in the final minutes. I was amazed that he actually got to play.

After the final game of the season, Tommy telephoned to tell me that something special had happened. I’d never seen him so excited about anything but math. “Pop, we got way ahead and the coach inserted the second team defense. I was playing linebacker and they ran around the end on my side. The first guy missed him, then the second guy missed him and I realized I was the last guy between him and a touchdown. I prayed, “O, Lord, don’t let me be the man who lets them score!”

“Pop, I went down low to tackle him, just like I was taught and I brought the ball-carrier down all by myself out in the open field. All the guys came running over and patted me on the back, calling, “Tommy! Tommy! You saved our record! Way to go, Tommy!”

I have to admit I got misty-eyed hearing that. My grandson is not a star, he’s not a starter, but he’s not some awkward, nerdy kid either.  My prayers were answered. I was really proud of him.

That was two years ago. This weekend I traveled to Port Charlotte, Florida to watch Tommy’s team play. He is now a junior and on the varsity roster. He’s continued to work out and develop his body. He’s bulked up to 180 pounds. He showed up for every summer weight-lifting session. The coaches respect his work ethic and he does all the right things on and off the field.

At this point you might expect me to announce that Tommy is now a starter on defense and one of the stars of the team. That’s not the case. He’s a second-string linebacker and only occasionally gets in the game. But I am very proud of him for sticking it out, and learning the lessons that are taught through competitive sports: getting along with others, handling criticism, enduring pain, respecting authority, sacrificing selfish desires, coping with failure, etc.

I have high hopes that Tommy will one day be a dynamic preacher, a seminary professor, a Bible translator, a skillful surgeon or Godly entrepreneur. I’m praying that he will make a big contribution to the Kingdom of God. And I believe he’ll perform his task better because he played on a football team and he is far from being an awkward nerd.

Several lessons can be learned from Tommy’s experience:
– Allow your children to stretch and accept a challenge. Don’t try to protect them from failure or insist they be the center of attention. Let them experience failure and pain and be ready for the real world.

– Pray for your children and grandchildren constantly. Don’t send them out into a spiritually hostile world without bathing them in prayer every day.

– Encourage your children in the area of their giftedness. Be proud of your kids even though they’re not the star and compliment them for what they’re learning. But remember that God has designed each person to contribute in a different area of life. Tom isn’t a football star but he is a gifted musician who leads youth worship at church and he excels in academics. Your kids are much more likely to be the best they can be if they have parents and grandparents who root for them in every phase of life and are wise enough to encourage them most in the areas of their evident giftedness.

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when the are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

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