As both a parent and a follower of Jesus, the greatest desire for my kids is that they know and follow Jesus for themselves. And yet nurturing our children’s faith can sometimes seem to be one of the most challenging aspects of parenting.
I once remember a friend telling me that she was apprehensive of establishing daily rhythms of prayer with her children in case it became a legalistic ritual.
I totally understand her sentiment.
We’ve probably all come across people who were raised in a ‘religious’ environment and have subsequently been turned off from God because of the legalistic structures or rhythms that were enforced upon them. Kids who attended ‘religious’ schools are often cases in point.
As Christians, we often talk about discipline and grace. Dallas Willard sums up the relationship between discipline and grace in his well-known quote, ‘Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.’ I think many of us, as Christian parents, have shied away from the discipline element of raising our kids in faith because we’re fearful that they may not fully grasp the grace of God.
There is nothing like legalism to choke the heart and soul out of walking with God.
Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
We want to strike the balance of discipline and grace. We want our kids to know that there is nothing they can do or say to earn the love and forgiveness of God: it is given and won for them through Jesus. But we know for ourselves that there are disciplines that we can undertake which help posture us before God. As Richard Foster said, disciplines ‘place us before God; they do not give us Brownie points with God.’ The aim of any kind of spiritual discipline, therefore, is always about posture. So, how do we help posture our children before God? I certainly don’t feel like Rich and I have always achieved this as parents, but below are four things we’ve found helpful. (And before I continue, just a little caveat. Our children are all primary-aged children and I know that some of what I say below will change and adapt to allow our children to have increasing responsibility and freedom as they grow older.)
1. Include both Discipline AND Flexibility
In most areas of parenting, we recognise that there will be things we expect of our children that they may not always want to do. Showering, tidying their rooms, and stacking the dishwasher are all classic examples – at least in our family, anyhow. Our kids may not always (or ever) want to engage in any of those activities. And yet as parents, we know and appreciate the value and importance of all of those things, and so they become non-negotiables: things that our children (and we) have to do as part of everyday life.
If we have non-negotiables in the physical, emotional, intellectual and financial areas of our kids’ lives, it stands to reason that we can have some nonnegotiables in their spiritual life too.
A good question to ask ourselves is, What are the disciplined activities that we as a family will engage with to help us connect with God? These might include going to church together, praying and/or reading the Bible together or doing a time of thanksgiving around the dinner table.
We don’t need to pack our lives with these activities – we might just pick two or three ways we choose to engage with God. And these then become our non-negotiables – a daily or weekly rhythm that we participate in, no matter how we feel that moment or that day. And remember, the point of any spiritual discipline is around posturing ourselves before our heavenly father, rather than engaging in ‘religious’ activity or ticking a box.
God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.
Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline
The flexibility within this is how we go about these things. So for example, as a family we pray every weekday morning with our children, using a simple pattern of thanksgiving and supplication. But sometimes everyone feels a bit sluggish, or the routine feels a little stale, or one of the kids is finding it harder to engage with the pattern. Then we know it’s time to shake things up and create some flexibility. So we keep the discipline of prayer together, but we engage with something more creative. For example, we might listen to some worship music whilst drawing out our prayers on paper.
2. Embrace Whole-life Discipleship
We often tend to think in compartments. So we might think about our ‘set’ times of engaging with God as a family, as referred to above. And then we switch off and continue our everyday life. But if we operate in compartments we’re not only missing out personally on how much God might want to share with us, we’re also missing the opportunities to share with our kids what it means to follow Jesus.
I remember once asking a friend with three very intelligent grown-up children if there was a secret to their intelligence. She told me that as parents they had tried to explain everything about life as they went along. So if she was vacuuming the floor, she would also give a running commentary on what the vacuum was doing, and how it was sucking up the dirt. She used every opportunity to pass on the information.
It’s the same with our kids and their faith. If we drive past an accident on the motorway, we can pray out loud for the people involved in the accident. If we see a homeless person on the street, we can involve our kids and ask them what we can do to help, and then go and do it. If we ourselves are learning how to trust God for something, we can share that process with our kids. If we sense something prophetically, we can share what we think God is saying. We’re essentially inviting our kids into our own faith journey and being deliberate and intentional about how we share that with our kids.
And we need to remember that the times our kids want to talk to us about their faith may not seem like the most convenient times. It’s amazing how many spiritual conversations happen at bedtime, or when I’m dashing out the house. I know that I’ve sometimes shut down the potential for growing in faith with my kids because my mind has been too crammed full of other stuff and it hasn’t felt like a convenient time for me. As much as possible, it’s important to recognise and utilise those times. We can’t manufacture those moments and it’s important to try to make the most of every opportunity.
3. Don’t be Afraid of Questions or Doubts
I recently overheard one of my kids saying to their non-believing friend that they weren’t sure whether they believed in God and that maybe He was just a big floaty ghost. Later that evening I talked to my child about their doubts. It opened up a whole conversation around how hard it can be to talk about God to our friends, how we know that God loves us, and the historical evidence of Jesus.
We all have doubts and questions. Our own faith grows by addressing and wrestling with those questions.
Doubt arises within the context of faith. It is a wistful longing to be sure of the things in which we trust. But it is not, and need not, be a problem.
Doubt becomes much more difficult if we internalise it. The Gospel can withstand scrutiny, and if our kids are to live out their faith in an unbelieving world, we need to help them grow a robust and solid faith, one which asks questions and seeks for biblical truth.
And when we don’t have the answers ourselves, or if we need some thinking time to be able to answer, it’s perfectly ok to say that, and come back to those questions at another point.
4. Don’t Shoehorn!
We all go about relationships in different ways. Some of us are introverts. Others are extroverts. Some of us like a plan, others don’t. As I’ve already said, whilst we all have to engage with some disciplined activity (see my first point), we all have our natural ways of living life and building relationships. And we all have different ways we feel loved. And so it’s worth observing our kids and how they naturally engage in relationships with others and then translating that to help them in their relationship with God. For example, one of our children loves written notes. A small note of encouragement of what God thinks of them, based on biblical truth, helps that particular child grow in their relationship with God. What’s your child’s natural personality? How can you help them find a spirituality that fits their personality rather than shoehorning them into a particular way of relating to God?