By Elspeth Campbell Murphy
Children come into the world as receptive learners, open to belief. But faith in God doesn’t develop automatically. It has to be nurtured.
The pattern for such nurturing was set when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land. Moses reminded them of the Law and how they were to teach it to their children:
that I give you today
are to be upon your hearts.
Impress them to your children.
Talk about them
when you sit at home
and when you walk along the road,
when you lie down
and when you get up.”
(Deut. 6:6, 7; NIV)
Two important principles emerge from Moses’ instructions. The first is that a love for God must live in our own hearts before we can nurture such love in our children’s hearts. This is why teaching by modeling is important. We can’t fake conviction. Nor can we hide it. What we believe in and what we love will show up in our lives.
A little girl once shyly asked her father, “Daddy, are you Jesus in disguise? You act so much like him that sometimes I think you must really be him.” Imagine being mistaken for Jesus by someone who lives with you day in and day out! That’s modeling at its very best.
Moses’ instructions also tell us that our modeling has to be followed up by conversation. We’re to talk about God a lot, making him an integral part of our everyday lives. These principles of teaching apply no matter what the child’s age.
Preschoolers (Birth through Five Years)
One of a child’s greatest achievements in the preschool years is learning to talk. But long before your child talks to you, you should be talking to him. Don’t be embarrassed to simply tell your infant daughter that God loves her.
One young mother, feeling that a child shouldn’t be able to remember when he first encountered prayer, used to place her hand over her baby’s as he held his bottle and say, “Thank you, God, for our food.”
The growing preschooler is vitally interested in his world, but he thinks that it all revolves around him: my house, my mommy and daddy, my books, my bed. This is called egocentricity. It doesn’t mean the child is selfish; it just means he can’t think beyond himself.
So start where your child is. Kids are very interested in their bodies, for example, so talk to your child about his body as you give him a bath. “Do you know who made you? God made you! Aren’t you glad God gave you fingers and toes and eyes and a nose?” That’s bringing God into everyday life.
Young children like routine because it makes them feel secure. God can be a part of this routine through a table grace and a bedtime prayer. But be on the alert, too, for occasions of spontaneous prayer. “Aren’t these flowers pretty? Thank you, God, for making flowers!”
Preschoolers also like the security that comes from repetition. They enjoy hearing the same songs and stories over and over. It’s also good to repeat the same basic concepts: God made the world. God made you. God takes care of you. God loves you. Jesus loves you.
Young children don’t understand symbolism, so this is not the time for explaining that the Bible is a road map for life’s journey or for singing about fountains flowing deep and wide.
Because of the child’s limited understanding, there’s a lot you can’t explain to her yet. But remember that preschoolers believe every word you tell them. We may not be able to tell preschoolers everything, but everything we tell them, though simple, should be true.
Primaries (Six through Nine Years)
Talking with a primary is not easy. It’s hard to realize how limited his language skill is, because he seems to be doing so much better than he did as a preschooler. But a primary’s “conversation” is often a long, rambling story, the logic of which exists only in his own mind.
Primary-grade teachers are often treated to discourses such as, “And you know what? My brother and me? We went to go see my grandma. And there was this cobra at the zoo. And you know what?”
But do listen to your child! A primary’s questions, unlike the incessant “whasdats?” and “whys?” of the preschooler, are becoming deeper and harder to form. It’s easier for a primary to answer a question than to ask one. Her questions may be only a vague restlessness in her mind, and she needs help verbalizing what she wants to know. But at the same time, adults need to be careful not to put words in the child’s mouth.
Primaries are keenly interested in God and enjoy talking about him. It’s in these years that a child becomes aware that not everyone believes as he does. The issue is raised not just in regard to who attends Sunday school and who doesn’t, but who’s still writing to Santa and putting teeth under the pillow and who isn’t. (Children cling to beliefs a lot longer than adults think they do). The primary years are a sorting-out time.
As you talk with your child, share with her what God is doing in your life. Children don’t realize that adults are learners, too. It helps them to hear, “I’m sorry I blew up at you. I’m asking God to help me not to do that.” When primaries see adults as learners, it challenges them to be learners, too.
But for all this image of you as a learner, you are still the fount of wisdom as far as your little primary is concerned. You are the final authority on everything from Heaven to earthworms. So take seriously what you say.
Juniors (Nine through Twelve Years)
The late elementary years can be a precious time for parents and children. It’s a time (if you haven’t done so already!) to establish openness and communication with your child. This is a prime time for conversation, because the junior’s language skills are greatly developed. She’s able to talk with you—and she still wants to; she hasn’t yet withdrawn in the way young teens often do.
So what do you talk about?
Talk about the child. School is a very important part of his life, and closely tied to school is the matter of self-esteem. The child is keenly aware of his abilities or lack of them. So bring God into this key part of everyday life. Help him thank God for his strengths and ask for help with his weaknesses. And be sure to let your child know that you love and support him.
Talk about the world. The junior is able to discuss her own feelings and to care about the feelings of others. She may have lots of probing “why” questions.
Talk about Christianity and the Bible. The junior is able to reason more than he was earlier, but he’s still not thinking abstractly and symbolically, so keep explanations straightforward and answer questions as simply as you can. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
For the first time, the child is able to really understand history and geography. This means her Bible study can become all the more meaningful as she sees how the Bible fits together.
Talk about yourself. Because of his increased understanding of the past, the child is eager to hear about your childhood and that of his grandparents. Talk about your feelings, questions, and struggles.
For all his openness to you, the junior is becoming independent; so don’t be alarmed if he tries out some new ideas.
There’s a difference, though, between independence and alienation. So don’t give your child reason to reject your faith. The junior is quick to pick up on discrepancies between what is preached and what is practiced. The modeling that was so important through the preschool and primary years is just as important now.
Becoming a parent (or grandparent, uncle, aunt, or caregiver) means becoming a teacher. We teach our children by living the Christian life for them to see. And we teach them by what we say.
William Hendricks in his book A Theology for Children writes: “I am convinced that it is one of life’s rarest privileges and also one of its most awesome tasks to talk meaningfully about God to children.”
Keeping the Faith
Young people who have been part of the local church since babyhood are sometimes warned that “God has no grandchildren” and that no one can get by on “hand-me-down” faith.
It is certainly true that each of us has to respond in a personal way to God calling us to himself. But perhaps we place so much emphasis on appropriating the Faith for ourselves that we downplay the role of other people in preserving it for us.
When I look back on my own Christian journey, I’m grateful for the small Presbyterian church in Gary, Indiana, which was my spiritual nest. I remember the pastor’s benedictions. He usually quoted Hebrews 13:20, 21 or Jude 24 and 25.
At the end of the service, I would let his familiar words flow into my mind and heart. The words were stirring and soothing at the same time. They were words filled with hope:
Now unto him that is able
to keep you from falling,
and to present you faultless
before the presence of his glory
with exceeding joy,
To the only wise God our Saviour,
be glory and majesty,
dominion and power,
both now and ever.
I’m grateful that I grew up hearing those last two verses of Jude over and over again. I’m grateful for the repeated affirmation that this magnificent God was busy safeguarding me for himself.
Having received the Faith, it’s our turn to pass it on to others. In my case, the “others” are young children, and the way I know best is writing for them. In her book Writing for Young Children, Claudia Lewis says that “the writer who opens up a ‘moral view’ to children stands among them and lifts them up to look through his own window.”
Because people kept the faith for me, I now have Someone to show children when they look through my window. As David said in Psalm 145:4 (NIV), “One generation will commend your works to another.”
Family devotions. The term often leaves parents feeling guilty (“I suppose this is something we really ought to do”) and kids feeling resentful (“Aw, do we have to?”).
But with a little planning and enthusiasm, family devotions can be something everyone looks forward to.
Don’t take on more than you can handle. While it’s a good idea to pray with your children every day (meals, bedtime), a more structured family worship time may take place only once or twice a week. It’s up to you. It’s not a question of how often you gather as a family, but of how regularly. There’s something to be said for “same time, same place.”
With today’s hectic lifestyles, it may be hard to find a regular, relaxed time, but it’s important to plan for a time when you won’t feel rushed (even though family devotions don’t have to take long). And don’t choose a time when the children are aching to be doing something else; you’re only asking for resistance.
Family devotions are primarily for the kids—as a way of nurturing their faith. (They’re not a substitute for your private devotions or for the quiet time you might share as a couple.) So design your devotions on the children’s level. Have in mind what you’re going to do before you gather the family. Keep your plan simple, designing it around Scripture, prayer, music, and discussion. Check your Christian bookstore for worship guides, but beware of “object lessons” that may be aimed at kids but that are far too symbolic for children to understand.
Be sure to involve the kids in the planning. Encourage them to prepare something—maybe to teach the family a Sunday school song or to act out a Bible story. Older children could even plan and lead a whole service. But even if attendance is required, don’t force a child to participate.
A final word of caution: don’t use your devotion time to punish or preach. If you have to confront the kids about grades or chores, for example, do it at another time. Your devotion time should be as free from tension as possible. Keep in mind that your purpose is to gather as a family to worship God.