Spiritual Development

Mother and son reading a Bible together

Some parents have bought into the idea that their child's spiritual development is such a personal matter that no attempt should be made to influence the direction the child chooses. This is a serious mistake.

While your child must ultimately decide on her own whether or not she will begin and nurture a relationship with God, you have not only an opportunity but a responsibility to teach and demonstrate the spiritual principles that are the foundation of your family life.

So how do you communicate spiritual truths and moral values to a three- or four year-old? Can she conceive of an infinite God or understand theology or sit through a religious service? Both Old and New Testaments address this quite plainly:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 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. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Jesus called the children to him and said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:16-17)

First, we are to talk to our children about God as we go about our daily business. As important as regular observances can and should be, spiritual matters shouldn't be confined to a specified religious time slot once a week. Conversations about God should be as routine and natural as those about any other subject. Our children should see us pray about the issues of our lives, give thanks for our food (and everything else), and acknowledge God's leadership in our decisions.

In dealing with more formal teaching or family devotions, simple stories will communicate volumes to preschoolers. The Scriptures are filled with them, and Jesus often told stories to get His point across.

Second, small children appear uniquely qualified to understand intimacy with God in ways that may elude them later in life. Perhaps it is their utter trust in their earthly parents (which can be expanded to include a heavenly Father) or their lack of cynicism or their openness or their uninhibited joy and enthusiasm for the objects of their love that draw them to the God they cannot see.

Whatever else parents and the other adults who care for children do, they must not hinder children from trusting in God, which seems to come naturally to them.

Truth Versus Make-Believe

One important job for parents who care about the spiritual lives of their preschoolers is to help them distinguish not only right from wrong but truth from fantasy. This means that you will have to make some careful decisions about dealing with a few popular traditions in our culture.

The crux of the matter is this: If your child is going to take you seriously when you talk about the God who made heaven and earth, you don't have the luxury of deliberately bending the truth in other matters. Whatever else you do, never mislead your child when she asks you point-blank for the facts about mythical personalities or anything else.

On a day-to-day basis, you will also have a responsibility to help your preschooler understand the difference between truth and make-believe in her own life. At an age when there is so much to learn about the world and so much imagination at work in your child's head, the boundaries between reality and fantasy will wear thin at times.

If you hear a breathless report that there are giant spiders crawling around her room, and it appears that her main interest is in gathering attention or reassurance, explain what can go wrong if she makes up alarming stories. A brief recounting of the fate of the boy who cried wolf may be in order.

If she tells a whopper of a tale to explain why her dollhouse is now caved in on one side ("A big gorilla climbed through my window and jumped on it!"), you will need to coax the truth out with some finesse. In particular, she must understand that telling a lie to escape punishment is far more of a concern than the actual misdeed itself.

The first offense in this area should be treated more with explanation than with punishment, but repeated episodes will require specific and meaningful consequences. Otherwise a habit of lying will eventually undermine every relationship in her life.

You cannot afford to demonstrate any "white lies" of your own. If your child hears you say, "Tell him I'm not here" when an obnoxious caller is on the phone, for example, whatever you are trying to teach about truth and lies will be wasted breath.

Building Familiarity With the Bible

This is an appropriate time to present your child with her own Bible (age appropriate and containing lots of pictures), which can provide a rich source of input and topics for conversation. Tell her stories of Old and New Testament heroes, and above all, talk about the life and deeds of Jesus again and again.

Should your preschooler memorize Scripture? Some are able to commit Bible verses to memory quite easily before their fifth birthday, and for these children the words will be "hidden in their hearts" for the rest of their lives. For others, attempts to memorize are like pulling teeth, and if you force the issue, you may create a distaste for Scripture rivaling that for their least favorite foods.

A more effective way to hide the Word in a child's heart when she doesn't memorize easily is to use songs. Many tapes, CDs, and videos communicate spiritual principles and Scripture verses to children (and their parents) through music. The best of these not only teach and entertain but leave both parent and child humming uplifting tunes — sometimes for years to come. Few investments pay such rich dividends.

Adapted from the Complete Guide to Baby & Child Care, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 1999, Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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