When I think back to the many positive influences in my early life, I recognize that one of the greatest gifts I received was the way my family approached learning about God and prayer.
God was a part of our everyday existence, as regular a part of conversation as sports or school or doing the dishes. So was prayer. My mother prayed daily for us before we left for school. In fact, I can remember the time when her prayers for me to resist temptation flashed through my head and stopped me from cheating on a test that I hadn’t studied for.
The moments our family spent together with God gave us an incredible foundation in Christian values, and it created a very secure environment for us at home. it opened the door for us to communicate with each other in a unique way that carried into our adulthood.
In my college years, for instance, when I became engaged to Margaret, I sat down with my dad and talked to him about the sexual temptation I faced. He encouraged me to remain pure; he shared Scripture-, he prayed with me; and he held me accountable.
You may not have been as fortunate. Maybe you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, or if you did, the only time your family spent praying was a quick grace before dinner. Maybe God was a subject left to Sunday school teachers.
But your home doesn’t have to be that way. You can create a heritage of meaningful times getting to know God with your family. And you can do it without a complete knowledge of the Bible, without teaching experience, and without lots of free time.
Here are 10 guidelines that Margaret and I have used to successfully instill spiritual values in our children:
1. Be an example. As Albert Schweitzer once said,
“Example is not the main thing in influencing others-it is the only thing.”
We should never underestimate the power of our example on our children. We teach what we know, but we reproduce what we are. Much of what we do today was modeled by our parents. For example, without my mother knowing it, I often listened outside my parents’ room as she prayed. I learned a lot from that, and it’s helped me to be intimate with God in my prayers as an adult.
When our son, Joel Porter, was younger, Margaret told himthat she wanted him to spend some time reading the Bible. His response was, “I don’t see you reading the Bible.” And it was true: She usually had her personal Scripture time after he went to bed. So Margaret began reading earlier, and Joel was encouraged by her example. Be willing to make adjustments to the way you do things so that you can be a better model for your children.
2. Keep it simple. Parents don’t have to be intimidated when talking about God and praying with their children.
If you are experiencing personal spiritual growth and learning about God through Scripture, you have everything you need. Take what you know and think of ways to communicate it simply and clearly to your children.
We enjoy sharing ideas with our children through the use of analogy. We compare a person or concept from the Bible to some person or thing our children already know. For example, while we were fixing popcorn one evening, Margaret compared Christians to the kernels of popcorn:
“God has a plan for each of us to become a very special person, but we haven’t become that special person yet. To do it, we need God’s help. We’re like these kernels of popcorn. They can change, but they can’t pop all by themselves-they need help from the power of the stove or the microwave oven. We’re just like that. We need God’s power to become the person He wants us to be.”
What Margaret said wasn’t profound- it was just simple and clear. It relied on information that the kids could easily grasp. To communicate effectively with your children, begin looking around for everyday occurrences and objects you can use to convey deeper ideas to them. But remember, keep it simple.
3. Be sensitive. Sometimes the best devotions with children consist of simply listening to their concerns and answering their questions. Jesus often did this with His disciples. He spent time with them and allowed them to set the agenda-such as the time they asked Him how to pray. if you listen closely and discover where your children are, and then meet them there-no matter what their age-you can offer them meaningful times of prayer and devotion.
4. Keep it short. The time you spend with your children and God doesn’t have to be long. When our kids were of elementary school age, we tried to limit devotions to three to five minutes. Anything longer lost their interest. Keeping the time short helps kids look forward to them.
5. Make it exciting. Another way to keep the kids’ attitudes positive about devotions is to use creativity.
Read Bible stories. Watch and discuss Christian videos. Pray about things they like. Use games. One of our favorite games is “Twenty Questions.” One of the kids will pick a person, place or thing from the Bible, and the rest of us take turns asking questions to guess the answer. Game options are limitless, and many common games can be adapted to teach Christian principles. The important thing is to gear activities to the children’s interests-and keep them fun.
6. Be flexible. Spending time with your children in prayer before bedtime is intimate and rewarding, but it’s not the only way to spend time getting to know God together. In addition to bedtime prayer, we try to vary what we do and where we do it. We do things in the car, at meals, in the pool-just about anywhere. Rather than focusing on a routine (and then feeling guilty if we can’t follow it), we try to make each time an adventure.
7. Be consistent. Balance flexibility with consistency. We are encouraged in the Scriptures to love God and teach His commands: “Impress them on 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. 6:7, NIV). Taking time to talk about God and pray should become a lifestyle, not just a specific activity to be completed each day.
8. Keep expectations realistic. I heard a story once of a man who went on vacation with his young son, who was keeping a journal of their trip. One day the father took him to see the Grand Canyon. He was anxious that the boy enjoy its magnificence as much as he did. As they stood overlooking the canyon, the boy seemed totally absorbed in the experience. Later that night, the father read what his son wrote in the journal. All it said was “Today, I spit over a mile!”
We can’t expect our children to react as adults to times of prayer and devotion. Sometimes their minds wander, or they might give disappointing answers to your questions. They forget things we’ve just taught them. But don’t despair. Keep in mind that the time we spend with them won’t change them today-but it will shape them for a lifetime.
9. Be transparent with them. We do our children a real disservice when we lead them to believe that we are anything other than sinners saved by grace-real people with fears and faults just like them. When we confess our errors and apologize to God and to them, we show our humanity and our humility before God. We model a right relationship with God, and we also make ourselves more accessible to our children. My father’s modeling as I grew up made it possible for me to come to him as a teenager struggling with temptation.
10. Begin today. You may be nervous about beginning prayer and devotion times with your kids, but remember, the time spent with your children getting to know God doesn’t need to be perfect; it just needs to happen. When you’re watching television with your kids, and you see a character do something nice for someone, during the commercial tell them, “That reminds me of Jesus. Has anyone ever told you about the time Jesus… ?”
Tell the story in those two minutes, and when you tuck your children into bed that night, pray for them and tell them Jesus loves them as much as the person in that story. That’s all it takes to get started.
The time you spend with your children will reap eternal benefits. There was a period when my brother, a successful businessman, was not living a godly life. When we talked one day, I told him I was praying for him to return to God. He said to me, “John, I know I will. No matter what I do, I just can’t get away from what we learned from our parents.”
And my brother has returned, thanks to the godly input of our mother and father.