One day Sarah's mother took her to a public playground, and she immediately began to play with two other little girls. The girls were several years older than five-year-old Sarah, and they were sisters.
As they were playing, the older sister got upset with her younger sister and said to her in anger, "You are stupid and ugly!"
When Sarah heard that, she said, "Word police! Word police!" The older girl turned to Sarah and asked, ''What did you say?" Sarah repeated, ''I said, "word police." The older girl retorted, ''Why did you say that?" Sarah answered, "I said 'word police' because you said two bad words.''
"What bad words did I say?" the older girl questioned.
Sarah responded; "You said 'stupid' and 'ugly,' and those are bad words. And when you say bad words, the 'word police' come out!"
''Oh yeah?" said the older girl. ''Well, how about $%#*?" And she blurted out a four-letter word.
Sarah said, "Yep! I think that would be one, too!"
This true-life experience happened to our granddaughter, Sarah, who has a delightful personality and never is at a loss for words. What's interesting about the experience is this: We see that one child is being taught daily how to be loving, gracious, and respectful toward others-and also how to stand tall for what is right and good. She has learned at home and at church that it is not nice to call someone stupid or ugly. In contrast, the other child's parents were sitting right there on a park bench within easy earshot of that colorful conversation. They were reading magazines. They never looked up. They never said a word. They never corrected their daughter.
The Early Years Are So Important
Psychologists have emphasized how important the early years are. Our personalities, attitudes, values, habits, principles, self-esteem, and even I.Q.s are shaped so powerfully by whathappens to us in the first few years of life.
I once read a poem that touched my heart called "A Child's Appeal." The poem, written by Mamie Gene Cole, uses the first person as if a child is speaking to the world. The child is essentially saying,
"Here I am, world. You have anticipated my arrival, and now I'm here—ready to find my special place. But I need your help. I need your encouragement. I need your teaching. I need your inspiration. I need your guidance. My destiny is in your hands."
The poem ends with these powerful words: "Train me, I beg you, that I may be a blessing to the world."
Just as we begin training our children physically and mentally when they are very young, so also we must begin training them spiritually in their earliest years. There's an old story about a young mother who asked a noted counselor how soon she should begin teaching her child the faith. The counselor asked. "How old is your child?" The mother answered, "Two." The counselor said, "Hurry home. You're three years late already." The counselor was right. It is best to start early. But let me hurry to say that it's never too late. Starting late is better than never starting at all. Proverbs 22:6 puts it like this: "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray" (NRSV).
Where and How Do We Begin?
Most of us know how important it is to share our faith with our children; the part we struggle with is knowing where and how to begin. How do we train our children so that they may be a blessing to the world? How do we crown their heads with wisdom, fill their hearts with love, and set them on the right paths? What are the most important things we can teach our children?
A fourteen-year-old girl was suspended from school for cheating. When her mother tried to talk to her about it, the girl screamed, "So what? Everything's different now. We don't go by your rules anymore."
"I guess that's true," the shaken mother said to me later, "and I don't know how to cope with it."
Well, is that true? Can it be that in this troubled, stressful, fast-changing world in which we live, the rules have changed? Have the enduring values changed so that we're unsure not only of how to teach our children but also of what to teach them? Should we just improvise as we go along? Of course not! No matter how fast times and customs may change, certain values always endure, certain truths always are relevant, certain attitudes always are appropriate, and certain actions always are right. As Christian parents, we have the responsibility of sharing these truths and values—our faith—with our children.
So, where and how do we begin? I couldn't begin to list all the important Christian values and principles we should teach our children, but let me suggest three essential ones .
We must teach our children to be honest.
The apostle Paul put it like this: "Love does not rejoice in what is wrong; it rejoices in what is right" (1 Corinthians 13:6, author's paraphrase). We need to teach our children that integrity is so important. Nothing will ever eliminate the need for honesty. In fact, it is impossible to imagine any decent, desirable society without it. Integrity is the quality of being able to be trusted. It means that we don't lie to one another, that we do what we say we will do, that the affection we profess is genuine, and that the praise we give is honest. Teaching children to live in this way is sometimes difficult because honesty and integrity often seem to be in short supply today.
"I'm so ashamed," a man once said to me. "My teenage son has been helping a friend fix up a second-hand car, and the other day he told us how he had helped sell it, too. He said, 'Hey, Dad, I showed Brian that neat trick with the mileage you used when you got rid of the old Chevy."
We teach our children honesty—or dishonesty—by the way we ourselves live.
A six-year-old boy saw a comic book that he really wanted, but he only had a nickel. So when the storekeeper was not looking, he took the book. His parents found out and discussed what to do. They agreed the comic book had to be paid for, but they wondered if they could just take the money to the store and explain. After all, he was just a very little boy; and if they talked to him about it, they were certain he would never do it again. Eventually they decided they couldn't treat the situation that lightly. So the boy, accompanied by his parents, went back to the store and told the owner what he had done, paid for the book, and asked for forgiveness.
Those parents were right! Honesty and integrity do not come without a price, and although that lesson is best taught when children are young, it is a lesson worth teaching at any age.
Everyday ways to teach honesty:
- Be honest in your own dealings with others, such as telling the truth even when it's not convenient or desirable. Children take note when we tell the salesclerk that he has given us back too much change, or when we take a phone call we don't want to take rather than asking a family member to say we're not home.
Don't try to "hide" things from others, especially family members. Trying to hide something can be just as destructive as outright lying about it.
Never allow your children's dishonesty to "slide by." Explain why honesty is so important by discussing relevant scriptures. Determine and discuss reasonable consequences for dishonesty in advance, and be consistent in enforcing them.
We must teach our children to love.
The apostle Paul called love "the more excellent way" (1 Cor. 12:31 NRSV) and "the greatest" of all (1 Cor. 13:13 NRSV). We need to give our children love—and lots of it! And we need to show them how to be loving persons.
One day as I was standing in line in a supermarket, I overheard some parents unload a vicious verbal attack on their child. Horrible expletives, dirty names, profane accusations, nasty insinuations, angry put-downs were all aimed directly at a tired little boy who just wanted a five-cent piece of bubble gum. Maybe he didn't need the bubble gum; but even when we say "no," we can say it with respect, can't we? We need to always remember that every child is a child of God, a person of integrity and worth, a person for whom Christ came and died.
One of the ways we teach our children how to be loving persons is by being patient with them, understanding of them and respectful toward them in every stage of their lives. They will go through stages, and they may go off on tangents; but if we respect our children and they see us treating every person we meet with dignity, respect, kindness, and courtesy, then they will learn how to love. And most often they will work through the stages and, eventually, come back to the values of their Christian faith, the principles and standards of their home, and the art of love.
The best way to teach children how to be loving persons is to model love—in other words, to teach love not only in our words but also in our actions.
Everyday ways to teach love:
- Tell your children how much you love them—then show it.
- Live the Golden Rule, especially at home.
- Be forgiving and merciful. Never discipline in anger.
- Be affectionate! Hug, hold, and kiss your children often.
- Always be respectful of your children.
We must teach our children to have faith.
Faith is not only what we believe; it is also a way of living. It is a lifestyle. Faith is not a small room stuck on the back of the house; it is the light in all the rooms. In other words, faith is the golden thread that ties all our Christian values and beliefs together. It is the cement that gives us strength and endurance against the storms of life. It's the strong rock upon which we stand. In a word, it is commitment—to God and to what we believe.
Everyday ways to teach faith:
- Talk with your children about God's promises and the ways God has been faithful in your own life.
- Help your children memorize specific Bible promises or verses of reassurance and recite them together, particularly during difficult or uncertain times.
- Demonstrate your commitment to God by putting God first in your life.
- Be true to your word. Keep the promises you make, and make promises you plan to keep.
- Teach your children to do their best and trust God for the rest.
Faith is More "Caught" Than Taught
If you want to teach your children the Christian faith, the best way is to let them see and experience your faith. Of course, you should teach them memorized prayers; but remember it's more important for them to see and hear you pray. Of course, you should encourage them to attend church and Sunday school; but remember it's even more important for them to see you going to church and being excited to be there. You see, the Christian faith is more "caught" than taught. The old saying is so true: What we do speaks more loudly than what we say.
Dr. Dick Murray, one of the leading Christian educators in America, once said that he had taught his four-year-old grandson, Martin, how to sing "Old MacDonald" and "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"; and he decided that he needed to teach him the "Gloria Patri." So they got in the car, buckled up, and rode through the streets of Dallas singing "Glory Be to the Father..." over and over and over. A short time later, he took Martin to "big church" for the first time; and when they got to that place in the service where the congregation stood together and began to sing the "Gloria Patri," he felt a tug on his coat. He bent down and Martin said excitedly in his ear, "Poppa! They are singing our song!"
Teaching our faith to our children can be as easy and natural as singing or laughing or playing together. Just by watching our example, our children can learn to "sing our song" of faith. Here are some easy ways to make sharing your faith a natural part of everyday life:
- Pray daily with your children. In addition to praying before meals, pray spontaneously together at bedtime and other times.
- Read the Bible—or Bible stories—together regularly, perhaps at bedtime, before or after a meal, or during a family devotion time.
- Eat together as a family as often as possible. Take advantage of opportunities to talk about the ways God is working in your lives.
- Include God in everyday conversation, such as saying, "Didn't God paint a beautiful sky today?" or "I was nervous about my meeting today, but I said a prayer and God got me through it.:
- Attend church together regularly. Afterward, talk about the things each of you learned and experienced. Get involved in mission and service opportunities as a family, as well as fellowship and learning activities.
- Look for ways your family can work together to help others in your neighborhood and community and beyond. Make this a regular part of family life.