We teach our children whether we know it or not.
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By our very example, we teach our children how to think and behave, how to treat others, and what's important in life. Our children mirror our own behavior and give it a context within their own lives.
But we also teach them intentionally. We teach them how to brush their teeth, how to dress themselves, and how to tidy up a room. We teach them how to be polite and the basic rules for family living. Beyond this, however, it's the intentional teaching of our worldview and our faith that plants the most fruitful seeds and informs their behavior the most.
The word “catechize” simply means “to instruct orally,” but it has the definite connotation of religious education.
(Late Nite Catechism, anyone? I'm not Catholic, but that play-length stand-up comedy routine had me rolling in the aisles and it's been nigh-unto a decade since I've seen it.)
I love how in the Presbyterian church, parents are asked at baptism: “Do you understand you are the primary teacher of your child?” Teaching our faith – regardless of what faith that is – to our children is one of our most privileged and joyful tasks as parents.
But how, exactly, do we go about teaching our children our faith? How do we deal with the Big Questions? How do we instill in our children the joy of all the doctrines and beliefs? Here are a few thoughts.
It almost doesn't matter how you go about teaching your children, merely that you do it. So come up with a plan and some practical ways to bring that plan to life: some families are very structured with specific things they do each day, such as reading a chapter of the Bible every night after dinner, whereas other families are more unstructured and the parents make a point of asking their children leading questions through the day while they're doing other things. For example, one mom I know will ask questions while she and her children are making cookies or sitting in the park: “Why do you think it's important that we share?” and then makes a point of teaching Scripture through the discussion.
I should also note that using a catechism of some sort, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, or other – can be very helpful in this task as the laying out of questions and answers to walk through all areas of doctrine and Big Questions were done for this express purpose – to teach. For very young children, shortened versions can be found.
Set aside intentional time to teach.
I need structure in order to get things done, so for me, one of the essentials of intentionally teaching our children our faith is to set aside specific time to do so. With young children, life tends to be a bit of a whirlwind, so we find the best time to read, teach, and discuss is at times when we're already gathered and sitting, namely – dinner. We vary our routine according to our evening's schedule, but each evening after the plates have been cleared we read either from the Bible, from one of our Children's Story Bibles, or occasionally from a devotional aimed at young children.
Other parents I know use the morning as a structured time with household chores and teaching time and leave the afternoon to be free and unstructured, so find what works for you. Just whatever you do, be intentional.
Get a book.
By this, I don't necessarily get a “how to” book for yourself, but get a book to read with your children. Perhaps a story Bible (we love the Jesus Storybook Bible for young and old alike), a devotional, or a copy of a catechism – something that easily encourages thought and discussion.
There are certainly plenty of excellent book-buying and book-borrowing resources available, but one of our favorites is the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore. They typically have excellent prices, their children's book section includes devotional and catechism books as well as classics from children's literature, and they've got excellent resources for adults as well.
Get videos that are worth watching.
Considering that I'd prefer that our home was TV-free, it's surprising that I would put this on my list. However, film is merely a medium and there are some amazingly wonderful films out there, including ones for instructing our children. (And let's admit it – no matter how anti-TV we may be, sometimes putting on a video and letting your children be robotically babysat is a sanity check. In this case, it's a wonderful gift to have videos you're actually excited about, not just ones that are “good enough.”)
For children of any age over 4, I highly recommend the What's in the Bible? series from Veggie Tales and JellyTelly.com creator, Phil Vischer. These videos deal with hard stories in the Bible head-on and give context to each section of the Bible. I particularly love their song that summarizes the Pentateuch, how they bring Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to life, and their explanation for why King David is a “man after God's own heart” despite his many sins. Overall, the videos inspire a love of studying Scripture and living a holy life. The videos are a bit disjointed in places, especially with the character of Michael, but that very minor critique pales in comparison to the overall effectiveness of the series.
Worship as a family.
This is particularly important because it not only helps teach belief, but engages every member of the family in the act of bringing that faith to life.
And there are various ways to worship together: some families gather for a weekly family prayer time while others choose to have a daily time of singing, praying, reading Scripture, and discussing together – your worship can be short or long, simple or based on a full liturgy, whatever works best for your family and your faith tradition.
Be a model.
Like most things, our actions speak louder than words. By modeling the desire to learn and grow in our faith, our children learn to be eager learners as well. The disciplines associated with living faithfully – reading Scripture, praying, worshipping, and living a life of service – are best taught through doing them ourselves. And I've found, the more I practice these disciplines, the more joy abounds in my own life, even apart from what I'm teaching my children in the process!
Create traditions that teach the faith.
At Christmas time, one of our newest family traditions is to spend Advent making a Jesse Tree. This is a way of working through the Old Testament with passages pointing toward the coming of Christ, which makes the arrival of Christmas extra-special. Along with a short Scripture reading every day, each child gets to hang an ornament (they can even make it themselves) on the Jesse Tree – just a small tree or branch – with a symbol for that day's Scripture reading. It makes for wonderful discussion time about the very basics of the Christian faith.
I love the Jesse Tree tradition in particular because it's an easy way to build a firm foundation of the gospel story, it puts Christmas in proper perspective apart from all the extra glitz and glamour of the Christmas season, and it easily engages children in the story of Christ. Last year, my daughter eagerly looked forward to the activity each day, much to my delight!
Now, certainly a Jesse Tree is not the only way to create a tradition for teaching your children, but it's one example that we use in our family.
These are only a few ways of teaching children about Life's Big Questions – please share ways you have intentionally taught your children!