Working on the Railroad: Choosing a Direction for Your Child’s Life

One of the most important factors in my decision to go into pediatrics was the fact that it provides an opportunity to intervene at a point in someone’s life where a small change can make a world of difference. I had dealt with adult patients in medical school who were nice enough, but were typically so set in their ways that effecting significant behavioral changes was nearly impossible. But if you alter the direction of child’s life while they are still malleable, the outcome can be entirely different.

Maybe it’s my Navy background, but I had always imagined this guidance as standing at the helm of a ship, pointing it in the direction you’d like it to go. But, really, it’s more like a railroad. Sailing a ship, driving a car, and flying a plane all require constant attention and adjustment. If you walk away from the controls, they will quickly drift off course. Railroads are different. They take a lot more work on the front end, but at some point, your work is done. You can sit back, wipe the sweat from your forehead, and watch as the tracks that you built guide the train into the future. Different trains may travel faster or slower, and occasionally one gets derailed. But the majority of them tend to follow the course that was set for them with little need for continued input.

Obviously, my analogy (like all analogies) breaks down at some point. Children are autonomous; they can make conscious decisions to stray from the path you set for them. They don’t all turn out like we would want them to, despite our efforts–but it sure does help. This isn’t a new idea; Proverbs 22:6 expresses the same principle: “Train up a child in the way he should go. Even when he is old he will not depart from it (NASB).” [Am I the only one that noticed the homographic use of the word “train?”]

And, just so you know, it works in practice. I meet a lot of kids, and if I’m honest (which I usually am), I don’t like all of them. A lot of kids are rude, dishonest, or lazy. But I’ve noticed a common theme among the ones that really impress me: they’ve typically chosen excellent parents. Children with healthy eating habits are less likely to grow into adults that struggle with obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Kids with parents that provide loving discipline are less likely to end up in prison. Children whose parents model a strong work ethic and financial stability don’t typically end up in poverty. Those with parents who are encouraging, supportive, and optimistic are more likely to excel in their chosen fields. Sadly, the converse is also true. The habits we foster in our children today will likely be carried into adulthood, with all the positive or negative consequences they entrain. And every day you wait to change bad habits is another nudge in the wrong direction. So think about the course you’re setting for your children. If that course needs correction, make the changes now; it won’t get any easier.