How to spiritually nurture young children
Little children are so inquisitive about life, aren’t they? There is a sense of wonder and awe about everything in their world. As parents, you have a powerful opportunity to lay a spiritual foundation in their lives. But specifically how do you intentionally teach your children about Jesus?
In our experience raising three children and over 33 years of pastoral ministry, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice and observe different parenting efforts. Here are the five key areas to emphasize in raising godly kids:
1. Bible stories
Before our children could utter a complete sentence, we read Bible stories from a children’s Bible story book to them. If you’re interested, you can click here to see it on Amazon. Each night at bedtime we read a different story as we worked our way from cover to cover through the book. When we finished the book–we would start over! Our kids knew the Bible stories so well they could quote the stories (pretty accurately!) when pretending to read it.
As they entered kindergarten and elementary school we read to them in their children’s Bible. The important principle for us was that reading the Bible is a daily part of who we are and who they are. We wanted the stories of God’s activity through scripture to be hidden in their hearts.
Knowing the stories helped them know God. It has given us reference points for conversations when they’ve struggled in life. Knowing God helped them grow in their faith and trust Him.
If you begin praying with your children when they are young it will be easier to pray with them when they are older. Other than before meals, we believe there are three key times to pray with your young children.
a. At bedtime
We asked our children if they had any special prayer requests. Then they would pray for family, friends, requests, and also thank Jesus for answers to prayer. Early on we modeled this for them. We were careful not to correct them as they prayed because we didn’t want to crush their spirits or make them feel it was a performance that had to be done right or it wasn’t effective. In fact, when she was two one of our daughters would stand on her head in bed and sing her prayers! (They were actually quite sweet!)
b. At significant moments
When our children had an issue with a friend, something that made them sad, a situation at school or a test–we would say, “Let’s pray about it right now.” And we would! They caught on early and would then do the same for us as well.
c. When scared
As you know, it’s not uncommon for young children to be afraid, especially at night. When our kids were scared we used it as an opportunity to pray with them. We also quoted this verse: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). This subtly reinforced that their peace comes from God. It also empowered them at a young age to quote scripture and pray even when we weren’t available.
3. Time together
You reinforce your children’s value and worth when you spend time with them. Make the choice to do things with them that they enjoy. Our home was always clean, but very rarely was it fully picked up. Our value was to focus our discretionary time on our children vs. a tidy home. Once they were older we could turn our attention on the home (and we did). But the investment of time gave us conversations, laughter, and memories that set the stage for deeper conversations.
There are lots of theories and methods for how to discipline children today. Our focus is to reinforce that discipline is vital to shaping your child’s view of God. Discipline is for the purpose of correction and shaping their hearts and wills to do what is right. Hebrews 12:10-11 reminds us,
Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Notice, discipline should be painful. It shouldn’t be harsh, but it should hurt. We were quite creative through the years to be sure the discipline fit the situation and we mixed it up so they never knew what the consequence would be. But we made sure it wasn’t comfortable.
Why? Because we wanted them to make wise and right choices later in life. Ultimately, how parents choose to discipline their children shapes how they view God. If a child consistently gets away with poor behavior, they will grow up thinking God will let them get away with things as well. If parents are harsh and punitive, children grow up thinking God is harsh and unkind too.
All discipline should be given with a calm and controlled approach. Yes, we know how hard that is! But as your child gets older you can delay the discipline for a little bit to calm down. Sometimes we would say, “I am so upset right now. I’m going think about your consequence and I’ll let you know what it is in the morning.”
Ultimately, we tried to make sure our children knew we loved them even though we didn’t love their behavior. Sometimes they would have to remind us, though. When one of our children was young and crying right after being disciplined they said, “I wish you would hold me and tell me you loved me after you [disciplined] me!” And we did every time thereafter.
5. Accepting Jesus
As parents, pray regularly for your children to love Jesus and make the choice to follow Him. Your kid’s eternity is obviously vital, but so is the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit after they receive Jesus.
In our home we believe each person must make a personal decision to invite Jesus into their life as their Leader and Forgiver. So during the bedtime Bible stories, after church or during the week we would have spiritual conversations with our young children about Jesus.
We talked about how much Jesus loves them and the importance of having Jesus in your life. We shared about the cross and what Jesus did for us on the cross to pay the price for our sins. The resurrection was important for them to know because Jesus is alive today and wants a relationship with them. And we made sure they knew that all they have to do is ask Jesus to forgive them of their sin and invite him into their life. They needed to live with him as the “leader” of their lives.
You may or may not have the opportunity to be with your children when they ask Jesus into their lives. One of our children called us back into their room when they were about four to tell us they had prayed and asked Jesus into their life. We were thrilled! Your child may make that decision in Sunday School or church. Or, you may have the opportunity to lead them in prayer. You might help them pray something like:
Dear Jesus, thank you for loving me and being my friend. Please forgive me of my sins and come into my life. I want to live for you. Thank you! Amen.
As parents of young children, you have the opportunity and privilege of nurturing their little hearts to know and love Jesus just like you. Together, you will not only be raising the next generation of Christ-followers, but you will also build your marriage.