With the New Year, I’m guessing some of you may be resolving to do a better job at having family devotional times in 2015. I say this because when I was parenting small kids, this was an area that I often wondered about. The nature of my wondering had to do with how best to appeal to my children’s hearts.
I want to explain, but first, a disclaimer:
In this blog, I do not presume to be a parenting expert dispensing advice. However, Mollie and I found that one of the most helpful things for us when we were young parents raising small children was to hear the experiences of other parents. Hearing different perspectives helped us to think through things more carefully. Evangelical subculture can sometimes tend to feel a bit one-size-fits-all. Mollie and I found that some things that worked well with one child didn’t necessarily work with another. So we’ve tried to resist the urge to dogmatize our parenting practices.
Here’s the deal: I believe that following Jesus is the utmost adventure. Life in the kingdom, even in the mundane things in life, is deep, meaningful, and foremost. I’ve always hoped my kids would ultimately view the things of God in the same way, rather than viewing, let’s say Bible study, as an obligation.
So how do we impart passion for God to our kids?
Well, a lot of us view family devotions as one way to do this. But for my family, the times I tried this, I could see my kids’ eyes glazing over. And I don’t think the problem was my content or delivery. The problem, (if it’s even correct to call it that,) was my kids – they simply weren’t in the right frame of mind to want to hear it. It was too abstract for them. They weren’t emotionally engaged. I was trying to excite them from the outside.
We’re all aware that there is a school of thought that says this is only to be expected, and that we should push forward anyway. It’s a matter of discipline, and we push through because we know it’s good and right for them. They’re still receiving truth, and the Holy Spirit can use it in their lives even if it is at a later time. I think this is a legitimate way of thinking, and I’ll return to it in a moment.
However, as a dad, I opted for a different approach. It felt wrong to me to bore my kids with God’s revelation – the one thing in the world by which I wanted them to be inspired. So I opted for a 2 part plan: 1) Mollie and I would model a vibrant life of faith to them, and, 2) we would actively look for teachable moments with our kids, and take advantage of those moments.
By “teachable moments” I refer to times throughout the day when their hearts and minds were engaged with a question or problem. I felt that at these times their hearts were primed to receive spiritual instruction. Sometimes it was discussions around the dinner table about the day’s events. Sometimes it was conversations at bedtime. Sometimes it was in the heat of a moment of conflict or worry. Often these moments included praying with them, and praying for them or for a friend, on the spot. Always my aim was for them to feel the relevance of God in our lives in every situation. I was generally prepared to drop everything else when these moments came up.
A Parallel Example
I think the example of learning a musical instrument provides a parallel that clarifies the difference between these two approaches.
On the one hand, parents can take the approach of making a child take music lessons even when that child doesn’t want lessons, and it’s a fight to get them to practice. I have a friend whose mom made him practice violin for an hour everyday at 5:30 every morning, which he hated. Today he is grateful to her. He has played for the St. Louis Philharmonic, and plays violin everyday because he loves it. (But not, presumably, at 5:30 am.)
On the other hand, parents can take the approach of waiting until a child wants to learn an instrument, and the desire to do so is something the child owns. We’ve taken this approach with a couple of our teenagers. They’ve had a lot of catching up to do, but their hearts are in it, and it’s fun and exciting for them. It would be strange for us to remind them to practice because they’re self-motivated, and learning the instrument was their idea in the first place.
I honestly don’t know if one approach is better than another, though obviously I lean toward the latter. For years I’ve been asking accomplished musicians their opinions on the question and have gotten mixed answers.
Paying Attention to Your Child’s Heart
When it comes to raising up kids who are passionate for God, I have also seen mixed results. We all want the same things for our kids, but sometimes our efforts as parents do not produce the intended results. I have seen plenty of kids who were so burnt out on “spiritual disciplines” that they wanted to be done with God, the church, and the Bible as soon as they could leave home. For others, spiritual disciplines seem to have helped them hit the ground running when they left home as young adults.
I have heard some pastors urging parents to require their kids to regularly journal and memorize Bible verses. I approached these subjects with my kids as a suggestion, but I always felt that requiring these things of them would serve to make these things drudgery for them. I wanted them to do these things, but from the heart – not because I required it of them.
It is interesting having adult children who are now passionate about Jesus, because I can ask them about my parenting. They have confirmed that they would probably have resented being required to engage in spiritual disciplines that would’ve seemed dry to them at the time. Most are grateful that I didn’t make them regularly sit through “boring” family devotions, (although my oldest son did like them.)
Your experience may be different from mine. If so, that’s great! I’m elated that what you are doing is working for your family. My intent is not to be critical of the idea of family devotions. My hope in writing this is to encourage parents who may be struggling with feeling as though they are failing because their (formal) family devotional times are sporadic, or non-existent, or not working. Within the parameters of a Spirit-led life there is more than one way to have a home that is centered around Jesus. I’m inclined to think that serving others as a family would be more helpful for everyone involved than sitting around on the sofa talking about serving others.
The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
I can think of one context where the systemized impartation of biblical instruction makes sense to me, regardless of whether or not the child’s heart is in it: in a home school setting.
In this case, most of what he or she is learning is viewed by both parent and student as a requirement that must be carried out. It is school, after all. With our three oldest children, Mollie started off the school day with a devotional time, and memorizing verses was a part of their curriculum. We think this benefited those three. When we moved to Colorado, Mollie had to start working, and our youngest two did not receive this benefit. But with all five, I still believe the real work of discipling was and is done in the course of “real life.”
The guy who discipled me during my college years used to say, “More is caught than is taught.” I believe there is a lot of truth in that.
Finally, I’m firmly convinced that good, compelling stories are one of the best ways to impart a biblical worldview to young children – it’s the very reason I started Big Picture Publishing. The reason I think this is that stories engage the heart and emotions as well as the intellect, and that is when lasting impressions are made. Thank you for supporting me in this project as I support you.
Please feel free to share your experiences below, whether you agree or disagree with me. Your comments may be of help to other parents. I’d love to hear your thoughts.