How can we help our kids develop their own relationships with God?
In the last year I have transitioned into a new stage - all three of my children are out of the preschool stage. I can let them out of my sight without wondering if the silence means danger and empty tubs of bottom cream smeared on faces, water outlets being explored, or walls being drawn on with lines and lines of purple circles. I can set them up with a homeschool activity for 5 minutes and they will probably get on okay with it. I can sleep through most nights without being woken up by cries or wet beds or a sneaky invader under the covers cuddling close. My children are physically much less needy, but their emotional needs are more demanding. They need me to be present regularly to process their latest struggle with their brother, a concern or a question.
They are becoming more independent and vocal in their interests (“My sport is running, yours is taekwondo, his is football!”). They are more able to realize when they need time out and what things help them to relax. In their own ways and with their own personalities they are also engaging more with God and spiritual things.
I was at a marriage conference last year and one of the participants asked the couple who were speaking what we could do to make sure our children take on our faith. His response was: ‘don’t be afraid of the prodigal journey as it is the journey that many of us need to take to receive the Father’s love.’
Although it causes us to suffer, we have to let go and recognize that their faith will never be ours. Our children need to have their own journeys and their own relationships with God. We need not to be afraid and we must hope and plant seeds of faith and relationship into our children’s hearts now, praying relationship with God is something they will want to remain in or return to.
My parents never forced the Christian faith on me. They presented it as truth, and I was aware that they deeply cared about my spiritual walk, but they were also wise enough to recognize that trying to force anything will only cause the opposite of what is desired. Even little children can smell manipulation and control and will do their best to run in the opposite direction! Plus they knew that I had to find my own faith in God - I couldn't live through theirs.
Whilst respecting our children’s freedom to choose their own spiritual walk in life (choice is such an important value in the kingdom of God that He placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil right in the centre of the garden), there are definitely ways that we can help support our children in their walk with God. Here are 6 practical things we can do with them:
1) Stopping to Recognize God's Presence
Just as calming ourselves, shutting our eyes and calling God’s presence to mind can help us in our own relationships with God, creating short spaces for our children to relax and recognize God’s Spirit shows them how simple connecting with God is. We can tell our children that God’s Presence is all around us, and His Spirit in us, and ask them to close their eyes and recognize it. It isn’t about feeling something, which they may or may not, but stopping to recognize God. We can tell them they may like to acknowledge God’s Presence by telling Him we love Him or miss Him or asking Him for help. This can be done in a moment of stress or need or in a quieter moment of the day like just before bed. Done regularly, it can help our children to seek God themselves.
2) Praying when they are struggling
Primary aged children often have a lot of concerns, as we do. After my boys have shared their concern we often ask them if we can pray together about it. Sometimes we will ask them if they want to pray or repeat a prayer or if they want us to pray.
When we have struggles - whether we are sick, struggling with a situation or needing provision in some way - we often include the boys too, sharing our struggles and asking them to pray for us. We don’t need to go into details that they don’t need to know for them to be involved, and it is encouraging to not only hear their faith, but also for them to see the answers to prayer and to ask us how we are doing with our struggles.
3) Thanksgiving and celebrating
When we are in times of transition - at a birthday, at the end of a team visiting, at the end of a journey or day we often ask the boys to each share one or more things they are thankful for. On our birthdays recently we have each been sharing something we are thankful about that person. On the tenth anniversary of our living in Peru we bought a small cake and before cutting it we each shared three things we were thankful to God about living in Peru. We try and celebrate the things that God is doing and call them to mind.
4) Youtube worship.
We try to have a time together at the end of each day when we pray together and sing a worship song together. (Currently, we generally read the Bible at other points in the day). We have found Youtube worship songs with lyrics the best thing and each child has their favourite which we rotate in now and again. We have found that doing this in private with the boys during the week has made a huge difference in their engagement in Sunday worship times. They still find it difficult at times, but there is a marked improvement - they feel less inhibited in our private worship times and are freer to worship God as their hearts lead.
5) Give them ways to pray.
Sometimes children don’t want to pray because they don’t know how. Giving them a step-by-step approach like TSP: ’Thanksgiving - Sorry - Please’ can give them prompts to pray, as can allowing them to repeat prayers. Teaching them specific prayers, like the Lord’s prayer and getting them to slow down long enough to think about the words can help them internalize the prayer. When I was a child I used to wake up regularly in the night with nightmares. One of the things my parents taught me was to pray when I was scared at night. They encouraged me to speak out Scripture, like Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need…) as spiritual warfare against the fears that wrapped around me. Although I have nightmares much less now, prayer and Scripture are the first things that come to mind when I do wake in the night.
6) Include them in discerning God’s voice.
As children get older, including them in the decision-making process is an excellent opportunity to prepare them for life and to help them learn to discern God’s voice. It often encourages them to seek God for themselves in ways they haven’t done before. Sometimes when we are praying about a situation we don’t know what to do, we tell the boys that we are going to spend 1 minute in silence (and yes, the clock is watched!) and ask God to speak to us, maybe by bringing a Scripture, a thought or a picture to mind.
One testimony I have of this is when our son Joel was raising money for Children’s Bibles. We were really struggling to find the Bible we wanted here in Peru (this one) and we had also not yet raised much money towards it. We were wondering if we should look for a different Bible instead and if it was really worth it. We prayed with the boys and asked them to spend one minute in silence. Afterwards Joel told me that he had seen a picture in his mind of two rooms - one full of money and one full of Bibles. That day Mark found a contact in Lima which had over 100 of the Bibles that we wanted and in the following weeks enough money came in to buy them all!
Discerning God’s voice may take longer than one minute, especially when it involves a larger decision like moving house, but including our children in the process not only helps them go deeper in their relationship with God, but also helps them to feel less resistant to the final decision if it is against their natural desires. It helps to prepare them for the next steps.
Finally, I want to say that engaging children in spiritual things can sometimes be hard work. Our spiritual times no doubt sound angelic and Mary Poppins perfect in this article and I would be doing you an injustice to not tell you that, just as nearly every meal time in our house has times of disagreement and opportunities for training, so do our times with God. My children can go from holy to horror in the time it takes for them to walk from my bedroom to theirs (actually they don’t even have to leave my bedroom). But don’t give up - large oak trees come from tiny acorns. Don’t be discouraged by the roughness along the way and don’t be afraid of resistance, because resistance builds strength. It may not seem like it at the time, but as you look back you will see your children getting stronger.
Helping our children develop a relationship with God is about regular rhythms and organic opportunities. Whilst spending time reading the Bible, worship and having a daily prayer time is important (and with short attention spans they don’t need to be long!) the organic opportunities that arise from our circumstances to pray in struggles, to celebrate transitions, to discern God’s guidance are of equal importance.
Which do you find easier - making space for a regular rhythm of devotional time with your children or responding organically to opportunities which arise?
Remembering it is about progress, not perfection, what can you do this week to take a step forward?
I have put together a resource: 8 fresh, practical ways to meet with God in 10 minutes or less. These are all ideas which can also be adapted to be used with your children to help them engage with God. To download your free guide, click the banner below: