Teaching Your Child About God
by Kevin Ash
This article is taken from 'The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth', September 1995, and is reprinted by kind permission.
Many people appear engrossed in the petty things of life while they are actually exercised in thought concerning the things of God. This is particularly true of children. In fact it is exactly because children are so much like this (and often even more contemplative than adults) that parents have the duty to lovingly teach their children how God calls to them early in life.
This calling commences already in baptism where God actually allows Himself to be bound under the waters of baptism (symbolising the blood of Christ), into an external covenant with both parents and child. Indeed then, are not children, when brought into this external covenant, as deeply concerned with the call of salvation as we adults? Yet we commonly view them as being too little for such things, forgetting as one succinctly put it, 'There is no straight line to mark the time when an individual ceases to be a child and becomes an adult.' Perhaps we should reflect more on Christ's command to 'Suffer the little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven' (Matt. 19:14).
To return, then, during the baptismal vows parents promise to see that their children, 'when come to the years of discretion, (are) instructed and brought up in the aforesaid doctrine to the utmost of (their) power.' While this instruction in doctrine is essential to the proper rearing of children, it should commence much earlier than we often realise. In fact the most suitable time to begin instructing children is shortly after their birth. Although this initial exchange may seem premature since it occurs long before a child can speak or even understand, there are a number of excellent reasons for such an early start. Since infants love to listen to their parents talk, an early initiation accustoms parents from the outset to speaking easily and naturally with their children about God, ensuring that a child will grow up in a home lovingly blanketed with godly conversation. Beyond this, the introduction of simple Biblical truths early in life provides for the establishment of (at least) an outwardly shared faith. Here it is important to emphasise that we are trying to instil attitudes and emotions to build upon as the child grows; we are not trying to impart deep theological platitudes or synthetic moralising. We are trying to nurture a love for the things of God, which is best accomplished in the early years; indeed, with the Spirit's blessing there should be many Timothys in the church today (2 Tim. 3:15).
Of course, to instil this love in a child's heart is obviously far beyond a parent's ability. This, however, is no defence for abandoning this duty or casting it upon the shoulders of the church or school. This labour of love is given specifically to parents. One suspects that parents are hesitant to speak to their children because they know so little of the one thing needful themselves. Parents need to spend time working out their own salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) while at the same time (Matt. 23:23) training up their children in the way that they should go (Prov. 22:6). Indeed, parental inhibition does not remove the need to speak freely with children, but rather underlines the need to pray for grace to be true parents. Those parents who, with true concerted effort, mixed with many prayers, have raised their children only to be be repudiated in return, have still fulfilled their obligations. Their efforts are accepted of God as if their child had embraced the truth as fully as their parents had hoped. Here the parental labour expended on a child may yield fruit long after the parents have died, as many of the godly can attest. God is sovereign; His will shall be done on earth.
In general, when a child is nurtured from infancy onwards in a homelife filled with open conversation about God's activity in providence and creation, a deeper interest concerning the things of God will inevitably surface as the child gropes deeper into the mysteries of the world surrounding him. His questions must be met increasingly with answers taken directly from the Bible, God's special revelation. This reliance on Scripture will familiarise him with the Word, ground him in it, and teach him to consult it directly himself for guidance in handling all of life's needs.
The key component in maintaining such a homelife and building this lasting parent-child relationship is openness. While personalities vary broadly from child to child (some being more outgoing and others more reserved), all children will address religious questions to their parents at one time or another. The way in which these questions are handled will largely determine the tone of future conversation. If attentive listening and honest replies are used to foster a relaxed atmosphere for communication, the hope of guiding a child when he needs it most will be great. If, however, parents are distracted or evasive, the door for effectual, rewarding exchange is gradually closed, in some cases permanently.
Parents should begin simply, approaching the existence of God in a childlike way. Due to the fact that children learn best through concrete experience (abstraction being a higher function of the intellect that comes with maturity), basic Biblical truths such as 'God created the heaven and the earth' (Gen. 1:1) are much more accessible to a child's reason than more abstract truths, such as 'God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth' (John 4:24). So even conversational statements like 'Do you see the trees that God made? He waters them with His rain and makes their leaves grow,' readily open the grand scheme of God's greatness to a child's eyes. In short, then, a child is more easily taught in the same basic way that God approaches all men, namely through His daily providence and general revelation (Rom. 1:18-20). So parents must take the little things comprising a child's day and mould the clues found there concerning God into a larger whole. God frequently touches a child's life in these commonplace things, and when they are placed in a Biblical framework they help form a child's first impressions of God.
So a child's honest question should never be met with scorn, shock or ridicule. Rather, a willingness to take time and talk cheerfully with children on any subject will capitalise on the opportunities to share yourself and your beliefs with your children. Sincerity is paramount in dealing with children, for while 'a soft answer turneth away wrath' (Prov. 15:1), a hypocritical answer turns away trust and respect.
Again, the aim in responding to such questions is to train the child. Our goal is to channel his inquiries to contribute to his training and growth as an individual. As Andrew Murray states, 'Training is more than teaching. Teaching makes a child know and understand what he is to do. Training influences him to see that he does it.' Yet training is more than correcting. Let us banish the idea that discipline alone is synonymous with training. Rather, as Murray puts it, 'True training is watching the child to help him prevent mistakes. It is not watching him with the intention of correcting his mistakes.' The highest aim of true training is to guide the child to a love for authority and respect for obedience. Scripture says, 'Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it' (Prov. 22:6).
Lastly, we cannot overlook what Murray calls the power of training for it 'is not in what we say and teach, but in what we are and do. It is not the way we think, but the way we live that makes a difference.' So example underscores training.
One of the most pragmatic ways to teach children about God is during family worship. This sorely neglected duty offers one excellent opportunity to train children since it allows for their direct participation. (Family worship naturally focuses attention on the centrality of belief in a family's life. Here it is critical to emphasise involvement. As families continue to mature, extra effort must be made to include each child in family worship). Such family worship should contain at least three basic elements, namely prayer, Bible reading, and discussion.
Concerning prayer, children's participation can be varied depending on age and ability. It can be as straightforward as learning simple prayers. In family prayer parents themselves should pray aloud, perhaps with mother opening and father closing. This provides the child with an opportunity to glimpse into the hearts of both parents and provides him with an example after which to model his own prayers as he grows. Allowances should be made of course to maintain a simplicity in prayer geared to a child's understanding.
The prevalent danger in regard to prayer is that parents will feel inhibited and pray only silently. This conveys the impression that God is someone who is not to be spoken of, or that religion is too personal to be discussed. The fear that voiceless parents raise prayerless children is a real one. We do well to recall the exhortation of God: 'And thou shalt teach [My words] diligently unto your children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up' (Deut. 6:7). Obviously instruction is to be constant.
Another aspect of family worship that will facilitate learning is Bible reading. Many portions of Scripture, particularly the stories concerning Jesus' life among us, appeal directly to children. Other portions, however, will also spark a child's interest. Action-packed stories, like the fall of Jericho, David and Goliath, the feats of Samson, as well as the poetic measure of numerous Psalms (such as 19, 23, 24, 46, 63, 67, etc.) thrill youngsters with the ways of God. Here the first rule with young children is to present things as plainly as possible, paraphrasing difficult sections as needed. Reading directly from the Bible is much to be preferred, although there is a place for the use of sound Bible story books, provided we are highly selective to avoid using seconds-rate material. (Some recommendations in this category include the 'Learn about God' series by Corine Mackenzie for ages from infancy to three years; the 'Parables and Miracles' series by B.A. Ramsbottom for ages 5 to 8; the Ladybird Publishers set on Bible Characters by L. Diamond for ages 7 to 9. These works are well-illustrated, straightforward, and contain no pictures of Jesus.)
As an aside, there is an arguable place for the reading of carefully selected portions of old writers, especially if they can be brought to bear on a particularly difficult part of Scripture, or if they speak directly to a child's or young person's specific situation.
After reading, children can be asked to explain portions of Scripture as they understand them. This offers an excellent opportunity for the child to review what has been read, to interpret the Biblical message as it speaks to him, while it gives the parent an opportunity to channel the child's learnings and modify his views. Again, parents must be very patient in accommodating these periods to their child's capacity.
Here the church service as it pertains to children is doubly beneficial if parents freely augment the preaching with discussions at home. Parents should plumb the hearts of their children as Philip approached the Ethiopian eunuch. ('Understandest thou what thou readest?' Acts 8:3). Sometimes a frank, heart-warming discussion may follow a parent's inquiry. At other times there may be little response but discretion and patience are advisable. Children should be lovingly questioned since more will be lost in a forced, grilling conversation than is gained.
Remember too that children, especially teenagers, can seem recluse and incommunicative, yet everyone needs time alone to meditate on what they see in the sacraments and hear under the preaching. It is even specifically recorded for our education that the mother of our Lord was at times very reserved (Luke 2:19). So out of all these parent-child interactions a great need arises to encourage openness, and this openness depends on parents' love to children and children's respect for parents.
In a broader vein, family devotions can buttress truths taught during church services. When a child is first brought to church, parents must strive to view things from a child's perspective. Too frequently parents feel children 'get nothing out of a sermon' and imagine it is better to leave a child home. Yet honestly, who has ever heard a child criticise a church service unless he gleaned this attitude by overhearing a gossiping adult? On the contrary, children typically thrive on the solemnity of the divine worship service, and often give evidence of just how closely they really do listen. Besides, there are many opportunities for benefit while worshipping God. As an elderly minister once said: 'No one can claim to get zero benefit out of a worship service. There are ample opportunities to receive a blessing under the congregational prayer, under the Bible reading, under the congregational singing, or under the giving of gifts to God. Even if a person through his own fault fails to receive any sort of blessing under these, at the very least he may receive a blessing passively under the benediction.'
Certainly, then, responding to religious inquiries requires thoughtful consideration. A child's question represents a 'letting down of the guard.' It allows a glimpse of the individual's own self and thinking process which is a very personal thing indeed. As seen earlier, how parents field such questions determines largely the calibre of the ensuing discussion as well as the degree of future opportunities to nurture growth. Just how parents should respond largely depends on why the question was asked. To clarify, parents should consider the following:
While these preceding principles and techniques are by no means exhaustive, they provide a starting point for effective communication in teaching children about God. When prayerfully applied, they will encourage a love for God, His house, and His people. The resultant bonding of parents and children will centre the family on a mutually shared faith rather than on natural familial ties alone. Even if this faith is shared only in an external sense, it will promote, with God's blessing, a more vibrant and fruitful family life. If it is shared in a deeper spiritual sense, as God intended, then it will transform the family into a fortress against the world, providing a warm, safe retreat from the blasts of life. Although we cannot guarantee that such teaching will produce any fruit in our children, one thing is clear: The time of childhood is irreclaimable. We had better remember that our children are not getting ready for living; they are living already. And at any time they can be called to give an account. Therefore we must utilise all the means of grace available for us and our offspring. Who can tell what wonders wait upon our teaching, for out of the mouths of babes and sucklings has not God ordained strength (Ps. 8:2)?
Copyright © Family Matters 1996