Developing Your Child’s Devotional Life
By Mary White
If you knew that your children would never have any source of spiritual truth other than yourself, would you panic? If all Sunday schools, Christian schools, Christian bookstores, gospel radio and television programs, and Christian literature were removed, how would you handle the spiritual training of your family? Would you plan and carry out the best possible family devotions? We need to live as though we are the only available source of spiritual training for our children. God holds parents responsible for the training their kids receive. Other sources of input are excellent, but parents contribute the primary spiritual training in a child’s life. How is it in your home? Do your children welcome family devotions? Are your attempts sporadic and weak? Have you tried, failed and abandoned the attempt? Would you like to add spark to devotions? All parents should take the time to think through and to write out on paper a description of the kind of adult they would like to see their child become. Such an exercise produces motivation for providing good spiritual training in the home. When you see what you would like your child to become, you can more easily plan how to structure your family devotional activities. Your description might look like this:
I want my child to become a godly woman (or man) who knows Christ, applies the Bible to her (or his) life, prays in faith, has a concern for other Christians, is a courteous, decent, moral, wholesome human being, contributes to the body of Christ and to society as a whole.
Most importantly, pray over every aspect of your child’s spiritual training. When we have a goal to achieve, motivation, plans and accomplishment fall more easily into place. Helping your child become a living, responsible godly man or woman will take years of concentrated, prayerful effort. There are no formulas for instant success. Parents need to make a commitment to God and to the child until the goal is achieved.
Following are some suggestions for the spiritual training of children in two broad age groups: “tots” and “tweens.”
Tots present an enchanting picture as they learn spiritual values and truths by singing of Jesus in their soprano voices, looking at Bible storybooks and praying in simple, direct terms. Parents need to focus not just on the sweetness of such scenes, but on the seriousness of establishing their preschool children in the basics of knowing, trusting and loving God as their heavenly Father. Children of preschool age learn quickly and without seriously questioning their teachers. That attitude gives parents great opportunities as well as great responsibilities.
When our children were toddlers, we often concentrated our devotions on the life of Jesus. We wanted to introduce them to the Son of God who had come to reveal God to us and to assure our eternal life with Him.
They enjoyed any illustrations that made the story more vivid. They especially liked any story regarding Jesus’ travels on the Sea of Galilee, for then we all trooped to the bathroom where we would enact the story in a tub of water with small plastic boats and toy people.
How do these little ones learn? What processes do they go through to acquire knowledge? Can parents take advantage of those processes?
Children learn by observation. Before a baby accomplishes tasks for himself, he busies himself with watching. Before he can grasp anything, move under his own power or express himself with a smile, he watches and learns by observing. He discovers his parents’ feces hovering above him and he learns to distinguish faces displaying smiles or frowns. From the time he can focus his eyes, a child learns by watching.
Notice a little child’s eyes. Watch him for 10 minutes. He constantly focuses on the source of activity or interest in the room. He swivels his head, or his whole body if necessary, to determine where the action is and to see what is going on. He keeps up this attentiveness almost constantly while awake, along with squirming and stretching his muscles. Sometimes he concentrates so effectively and intensely that he completely wears himself out and falls asleep.
Christian parents need to be aware of the constant observation that occupies their preschoolers and take advantage of it in their spiritual training.
As they grow older, children learn by participation. First they observe, then they get involved with all their senses–taste, touch and smell, as well as sight. Personality has some effect on their degree of involvement, but preschoolers can’t resist entering into any activity that intrigues and welcomes them.
Recently, while helping in the church nursery, I saw this involvement in action. If a nursery attendant started a musical toy in the corner of the room, all the little heads would turn in that direction and then the children would begin moving toward that toy. This would capture their interest for a short time. Then, if they heard a teacher reading a book in another part of the room, they would move in that direction to hear the story. A few would hold back, content to observe and not participate, but most of the children were eager to get involved. Little children love to be included in activities, and to feel they are a part of the action. This desire for involvement can serve a parent well in daily biblical training.
Little children also learn by repetition. First they see, then they do, then they repeat what they have done. And through the repetition they imprint the learning in their minds.
Television commercials are frequently repeated because each time they are shown, they burrow a little deeper in the mind of the viewer. The same holds true to teaching spiritual truth. Repetition during the early years will imprint facts and truth on the mind of a child that will be impossible to erase.
Little children are vulnerable. They are unable to distinguish right from wrong. They only know they trust the teacher and they will accept everything that person says. Since children have no choice regarding their own parents, it becomes vital that the parents teach the right things in the right way.
Perhaps this is why Jesus spoke so forcefully to His disciples regarding the place of children in the kingdom of heaven: “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6).
When the disciples became irritated with parents and children crowding around Jesus to seek His blessing, Jesus sharply rebuked His disciples and told them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
Because of the trusting, accepting response of children, Jesus used them as an example of the ideal member of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 18:3-4 we learn: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Parents must decide the basic things they want to teach their children during the crucial preschool years. Because memories are short at this age and repetition is vital to effective learning, most of it will take place in the home. The Sunday school teachers can’t do the job because they see the children only once a week for an hour. During the early years, children miss Sunday school frequently because of colds and other childhood illnesses. If parents depended on the Sunday school for spiritual instruction, their children would receive only a few minutes per month. Sunday school is a fine supplement but cannot be the primary source of spiritual teaching.
Little children are capable of learning a number of basic lessons of the Christian life.
A concept of God–who He is, His character, His attributes
Love and respect for the Bible
Kindness toward others
Obedience to God and parents
Common Bible characters
Several years ago, one of our neighbors taught a class of preschoolers in the Sunday school at the church she attended. One day while talking with her, I asked her what she taught the children about God.
“Oh, I never talk about God,” she answered. “We just talk about being kind, nice people. They are too young to grasp the concept of God.”
How wrong she was. Children instinctively respond to the life of Jesus. They accept teaching about God without question. They pray willingly. They delight in hearing Bible stories and singing spiritual songs.
Preschool children respond more readily to biblical teaching if it comes in an attractive, enjoyable package. If parents are alert to and make use of the types of stimuli little children enjoy, they will notice a marked interest and anticipation when they announce that time has arrived for devotions.
Mark was one such little boy. When he was 2 years old, his parents felt the responsibility to teach him biblical truth regularly. Each day they read to him from a Bible storybook and prayed with him. But after a week or two he began to fidget and fuss when his father reached for the Bible storybook. His parents were dismayed when he pushed away the book and wiggled away to play with his toys.
Mark’s mother checked with his Sunday school teacher and found that Mark was attentive and cooperative when he could see and participate in the learning process. Mark’s mother made a few puppets from some small pieces of fabric. She invested in some pictures from the local Christian bookstore. Mark’s father drew some simple pictures with chalk and grease pencils to illustrate the stories he was reading.
They discussed the length of the devotional time and decided to cut it from 15 minutes to three or four minutes. Each day they used a different visual aid to tell Mark a Bible story. On days when his interest was high, they continued for another minute or two, but always kept the time under five minutes. They prayed only briefly with him, or let him pray. When they sang a song, it was short and usually included actions. Soon Mark began to ask for “devos” at other times throughout the day.
Mark’s parents found that with very little effort and time on their part, their son’s interest in learning spiritual things was aroused, and they found the satisfaction of effectively communicating with him.
Try some of the following methods to keep the attention of your preschooler and to teach him the things of God.
Use lots of visual aids. Let your child touch, handle, investigate and squeeze the aids you use to teach him. Use puppets, flannel graph, blocks-anything that he can touch. Don’t be afraid the child will ruin the equipment you use. You can always replace or mend the visual aids. Let the child learn by doing. If you can’t find any aids, at least use your hands or your whole body to illustrate the story you are telling.
Use physical closeness during devotions. Hold your child on your lap or let him sit close to you. In a small way this will help your child associate the concept of God with love and care and closeness. Create an atmosphere of enjoyment and eagerness.
Avoid scolding and quarreling during devotions. If a child needs correction, remove him from the family circle and take care of it privately rather than having friction and fussing during the devotional time. If the presentations you make to the children are interesting and participatory, you will find that your children will rarely need correction.
Keep it short. For children under 2 years old, two to three minutes should be enough. When they are 3 to 5 years old, five minutes will do. You can make your children sit through longer times, but you may lose the benefit. It is far better to include well-planned, quick presentations than to drag out a poorly planned devotional time. If your children are particularly tired, cut it even shorter. Pray briefly and sing a song. The content of your times may vary, but you will continue the consistency without overburdening the child when he isn’t in condition to listen.
Continue supportive teaching throughout the day. Sing the songs you are emphasizing in devotions. Repeat the story. Mention the prayer requests again. Verbally reinforce what you have taught during the devotional time.
However, withhold the visual aids that you have used. Keep them particularly for the time when you are together as a family. Make them special. Allowing the child to play with them during the day will remove their intrigue as a teaching tool.
During the preschool years, much of your spiritual training will be done at times other than family devotions–as you take a walk together, ride in the car and tuck the child into bed. But structured devotions will establish a pattern that will expand and develop as they grow older.
Your toddlers are ready to learn. They will respond to all you teach them about the Lord. A small investment of time and preparation on your part will reap dividends for years to come.
Elementary school-age children are a delight for parents to work with spiritually. Tots charm us and teenagers challenge us, but tweens offer us the most gratifying opportunity to teach without resistance and to influence without rejection. They enjoy involvement, action and learning.
They grasp much more than preschoolers but have not yet developed the indifference that some teenagers show. Family devotions with junior-age children satisfy and delight parents as they see their children enjoying the things of God.
One Christmas Eve, my husband, Jerry, and I washed the dinner dishes while the children made final preparations for their devotional presentation. They called us to the living room where they staged a pageant. Our son Steve held center stage playing Joseph, gowned in an old bathrobe and bath towel turban. One daughter played Mary. Our youngest child was squeezed into a doll cradle assuming the role of the baby Jesus. Various visiting cousins were pressed into service as shepherds and wise men. The tableau was complete. Steve read the nativity story from the book of Luke while the other members of the scene tried to look dignified. Another child prayed. The children led in singing a few Christmas carols. Some recited poems or pieces that they had learned about Christmas. The parents watching and the children participating enjoyed the devotional immensely.
For several years when our children were in elementary school, they made elaborate preparations for similar Christmas devotions. We were sorry to see them lose interest in these performances when they reached the teen years and considered themselves too sophisticated to dress up in Dad’s old bathrobes, wind towels around their heads and put dish towels on the dog to simulate sheep.
Children from ages 6 to 12 are moving through a period of life when they experience varied and rapid changes. They enter school which is their first major exposure to life outside the home. Never again will the parents completely control the influences that shape their thoughts and actions. From then on, teachers and classmates will sway their thoughts and value judgments.
Tweens experience a gradually expanding range of relationships through school, church activities, clubs, recreation and sports. Their world broadens explosively within a few years’ time. Girls giggle, boys wrestle, girls like clothes and sports, boys like adventures and sports. By the end of the tween years, they acquire a budding interest in one another.
From sheltered, pampered preschoolers who always have a sympathetic, listening ear, they are thrust into a new world of activity, timetables, requirements, relationships and just plain work.
Jack had looked forward to starting school for a couple of years. His older brother attended school and he wanted to go, too. But at the end of the first day he came home crying.
“We have to sit still, Mom. Teacher said we had to listen. I don’t want to go back there. I’m going to stay home and play.”
Of course, Jack returned to school and eventually realized the benefits of sitting still and listening to the teacher. But often the reality of the requirements of the real world shock younger tweens.
During these years children emerge strongly into the personalities they will possess as adults. As preschoolers, they could restrict their interrelationships, for the most part, to understanding and tolerant family members and neighbors. But once the child ventures into the extended world of teachers and classmates, his personality must blend with a much wider range of people.
The tween child must learn to adapt and cooperate if he is to get along with others. Tweens learn to express themselves and their feelings effectively as their vocabulary develops and their emotions mature. Where they were once obligated to scream and cry to express frustration and indignation, they must now learn to express their feelings verbally. Of course, that process doesn’t end with the tween years. Personal maturity is a lifelong process, and some people never do achieve it–as evidenced by slamming doors, loud noises and cars careening down the highway barely under the control of an angry person.
Tweens are thrust into an environment that demands compromise and tact. Granted, these qualities do not suddenly appear when children enter school, as anyone knows who has seen a school playground during the recess hour and heard the dozens of conflicts in progress. But the process begins and children learn and adapt.
These are the years when children develop independent thinking processes. They no longer accept as complete truth everything they are told. When they hear conflicting information, as they are bound to do, they side with one point of view and then buttonhole parents, friends and teachers to agree with their opinion.
One of our children arrived home from school one day in a state of indignation.
“You seem upset,” I told her.
“I am,” she answered. “My friend said a bad word today, and when I told her she shouldn’t say that, she said bad words don’t count unless you are mad and she wasn’t mad. They do too count, don’t they, Mom? Don’t they?”
She felt strongly that her set of values had been attacked, and she wanted reinforcement from me that she was right and her friend was wrong.
While children of this age are pliable and teachable, they are structuring their own set of guidelines and values, so it is a crucial time for parents to be alert to every possible chance to influence and guide their thinking and understanding of biblical principles.
They are developing the ability to think conceptually and will be making decisions regarding a number of crucial issues in their lives:
Identifying publicly with Christ
Industriousness versus laziness
If parents are aware that the thinking processes are developing, then they can guide the decisions of their children and use the Scriptures to help them develop the right attitudes.
Children in the elementary school years are eager learners. They have a huge capacity for learning, and when properly motivated they can grasp a large amount of material.
Children will absorb far more information than their parents did simply because of the speed with which new frontiers of knowledge are opening. Space, science, biology, engineering and nutrition are some of the fields of study that have developed rapidly in recent years.
Some schoolteachers have an instinctive ability to motivate children to learn, but others do not. Parents are the same, but Christian parents have the advantage of the indwelling Holy Spirit to give guidance and ingenuity to the spiritual teaching process.
Tween children love to run in groups–they form clubs and secret organizations. They have “best friends” and “best, best friends.” Although they may change “best friends” frequently, they are devotedly loyal while the pact lasts.
The “group urge” can be used to advantage during the devotional time with the entire family gathered around the Scriptures. Togetherness gives children a sense of completeness and security, and sets the right atmosphere for learning.
They appreciate regimentation and structure, so it seems natural to them that family devotions should be conducted on a regular basis. The key to keeping their interest is to vary the format of the devotions but not the regularity.
Children of this age enjoy telling stories. They repeat the details of events and happenings and stories. Encourage your children to retell the stories you have been reading in devotions.
Have one child tell the story while another acts it out. Or tell the story together as a group–each family member adding one sentence at a time.
These children love to be physically active. They cannot sit still for extended periods of time. They run when they could walk, they hop and skip when a sedate pace would do, they jiggle and twist and squirm. And because they do, parents who keep devotions brisk and full of things for children to do will find a happier response and far more
When I asked my 10-year-old daughter what she liked best about family devotions, she answered, “I like it when we have flannelgraph and I can help. No, no wait. I know. I like it best when we have sword drills and I try to find the verse first.”
Notice that she selected activities in which she could participate and be active.
Spiritual Value in Tween Devotions
Many children in the middle years reach a point of decision concerning Christ. In strong Christian homes where biblical teaching has been consistent, a child may indicate a desire to receive Christ when he is still of preschool age. If your child does make an early decision, help him to the best of his comprehension. A child’s response to God is a simple thing, and God will meet your child at the point of his understanding
When children reach school age and acquire a deeper understanding of spiritual things, parents should present the gospel clearly and then offer the opportunity to respond. To ensure that the child does not misunderstand, use a week of devotional times to lay the groundwork for specific questions.
The first day read John 3:1-21 in The Living Bible.
The next day present the Four Spiritual Laws or a similar explanation of the gospel. Together read through the presentation, asking the child to read portions consistent with his ability.
Read Isaiah 53 another day, perhaps with a cross of sticks and a roughly shaped crown of thorns for emphasis (if you have the proper bushes and trees nearby).
Then at a private time, perhaps his bedtime, or anytime you are with the child alone, ask him if he has received Christ or if he would like to do it now. Resist any urge to pressure the child. The decision must be his.
If your child tells you he has received Christ, this is an ideal time to give him scriptural proof that what he has done assures his eternity with God. Thank God with the child that together you are a part of the kingdom of God, and ask God to help your child grow into a mature Christian.
Through these years you will find many chances to show your children the relevance of the Bible in their daily lives.
If you get a call from your child’s teacher saying your child has lied or cheated in school, help him by showing him a Scripture passage that details the seriousness of his actions.
If your child seems fearful, emphasize passages or characters in the Bible who faced fear or conquered it with God’s help. Use the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, or Daniel, or the disciples on the lake during the storm (see Daniel 3, Daniel 6, Mark 6:45-52). Include short verses like Psalm 4:8 or 56:3, or Isaiah 41:10. Help the child to memorize these verses and encourage him to repeat them when he feels a wave of fear coming over him.
Many other situations, such as family conflicts or broken friendships, allow parents to gear the family devotions to the needs of their children.
During the middle years, parents can whet the spiritual appetites of their children for God’s Word and a relationship with Him. This will influence their responses to God during their teen years. If a positive, appreciative attitude toward the Bible is established during the elementary school years, a child will enter his teen years ready to develop a continuing relationship with God.
Children of this age can begin to comprehend and appreciate deep spiritual truth. They can understand basic Bible doctrines such as salvation, spiritual maturity, grace, God and Satan.
They can learn more about prayer and find real joy when God answers. But they can also accept answers that they did not ask for or expect, understanding that Romans 8:28 is true: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Children in the middle years still remain fairly available to parents’ schedules. Although their activities and involvement’s outside of the home are increasing, they are dependent on parents to make most decisions regarding their schedules. Therefore, parents can control family members’ use of time and the frequency of devotions.
Scriptural teaching at any age is important, but crucially so during the middle years. Parents would do well to cancel activities that conflict with family devotions. Children can enter sports, take music lessons and attend special events throughout life, but if parents allow other activities to crowd aside spiritual training, they cancel the most important part of a child’s life. The opportunity to teach children spiritually at this tender age comes only once and then is gone forever. Make every effort during these years to draw the family together regularly for devotions.
Use teaching methods that interest children of this age.
They love competition. Use contests for Scripture memory or memorizing the books of the Bible in order. Award small, appropriate prizes of your choice. See that every child in the family is a winner. If the major winner gets a large reward, give the losers something smaller.
Vary your approach. Read, use visual aids pictures, flannel graph and artwork. Ask the children to plan and lead your devotions. Use a recorded Bible story. Ask them to role play. Use charades to quiz one another on Bible events and characters. Write and give simple tests on passages of Scripture you have been covering. Use Bible games, but select them carefully (some are rather boring). Ask them to draw a picture of their interpretation of the Bible story or truth. Use their Sunday school material to reinforce the teaching during a devotional time on Monday.
Emphasize prayer. Ask one of your older middle children to keep a prayer record book. Record requests in one column and answers in another. Record items for thanks.
Tweens love to participate. They enjoy helping and being in the center of activities. But they quickly forget unless teaching is reinforced, so plan to repeat frequently what you teach and share with them. You will have the satisfaction of seeing them develop a relationship with God that can carry through their teen years and into adulthood.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1992, PAGES 3-
16. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH