Teaching children about God

Wouldn’t it be great if someone said to you as a parent, “Do this, this and this and you will have mature, well adjusted children who are Christians as well!”? One of the things we long for as parents, is to know that if we do something, then we will be assured of the correct response by our children. Unfortunately, children aren’t like that, not even in the same family. Not only is this true in regard to their behaviour, but particularly so in their responses to our teaching about God. We long to see our children as Christians, taking the claims of Jesus for themselves, living godly lives and calling on God as their Father in Heaven. But we cannot orchestrate this development.

Nonetheless, the most important message we have to communicate is about God. If God is important to you, then knowing him will be a vital part of what you share with your children.

The biblical command

The Israelites were encouraged to teach their children about how God had saved them and brought them through the wilderness to the promised land. This was so that their children would fear the Lord and keep his decrees and commandments (Dt 6:1-25). It was important that the children should not forget the great acts of God and what marked them out as God’s chosen people. Later on in Deuteronomy 32:46 they are reminded that God does not speak idle words but words which are “your life”.

Much later, in 2 Timothy, we read how Timothy was taught by his mother and grandmother and had known the Scriptures from infancy—the Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation (2 Tim 3:15).

Our problems

There are many difficulties in teaching our children. Teaching them to know God through the Scriptures is vital. But our problem is that we are not sure of what to do, when to start, how long or what time of day, and we are reluctant to force the Bible upon them. In the end, we hope that Sunday School will satisfactorily meet that need. However, Sunday School can only be a supplement to the teaching and example of parents.

Think of some of the reasons we find for not instructing our children about God. Here’s a sample list:

  • children always choose that moment to misbehave
  • there’s not enough time; the mornings are too rushed
  • after the evening meal everyone is too tired
  • it’s hard work
  • uncertainty of what to do
  • there’s too big an age range in the family
  • children will complain.

The list could go on and on.

The staple diet

What are some of the ways we can instruct our children? Teach them to pray—it is an important part of their relationship with God. Even before they are conceived, it is right to pray that our children will grow up to be God’s children. Praying aloud for them each day, right from their early years, is a good thing to do. As they become more responsive, and you begin to read to them, Bible stories can be included in their selection of stories. Most Christian bookshops have a great range of Bible story books with good text and illustrations. But look at the text carefully and see how it matches up to the biblical account. Sometimes creative and ambitious authors can take away from what the Bible is actually saying. It is worth checking this out. Illustrations too, can distract and give a false impression of what actually happened in the Bible. When the children begin to read the Bible for themselves, they find that it is nothing like the Bible stories they have been used to. The Bible Society produces some clear picture books with simple, modern and accurate text and a helpful page illustration on the opposite page. Don’t forget to sing choruses—this teaches children some great truths in a fun way.

It’s not too long before you can move on to a more systematic approach using the Daily Reading books. One of the earliest ones, which I have found useful, is Day by Day Picture Prayers by Marlene Cohen. She covers a different topic for each day of the week with a choice of activities—singing, prayer, story, games and sticking in photos. Children don’t mind using it week after week—they love repetition. As they become able to listen and answer questions, books like The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor can be very useful. The illustrations are somewhat ‘old-fashioned’ but do not distract from the text.

Sometimes, for a change, you could try teaching a Bible verse for memorizing or talk about what they did in Sunday School. Make special books of their own after you have read the Bible story or learn a simple statement of belief (a catechism—one we used had some key questions with short answers: Who made you? What else did God make? Where do you learn about God?). Teach missionary stories or listen to a children’s tape and talk about the songs (e.g. Mugwumps, Snookles, Jenni Flack).

Growing pains

Some difficulties emerge when there is more than one child and the ages span over several years. You might need to spend time individually meeting with each child, or find family activities which are not competitive. I have gone through Simon & Sarah, initialling each page so that each child had a turn in completing the activities—I could never remember whose turn it was! Time could be spent with the younger children in the morning and the older ones in the evening. We only combined forces when our eldest went to University and the youngest were in Primary School.

By the time children are six or seven, they are developing their own reading skills and these can be encouraged by getting them to participate in reading aloud and answering questions. Reading from the Bible as a family helps children to not only develop skills in understanding how to read the Bible, but also to see how God has revealed himself. Read connected chapters of the Bible, depending on the Bible stories they choose rather than moving haphazardly from the Old Testament to the New. I’ll never forget the day when one of our children finally realised that the ‘Joseph’ stories were all linked up and he exclaimed, “Oh, that’s how it all fits together!”

As a family, each person could take turns reading the passage, then ask questions of the others; or they could read, then explain the passage in their own words; or each person could have a copy of the Bible and ask one question of someone else. Keep trying different ways of encouraging the children to deepen their relationship with God. As well, spend some time in prayer, perhaps choosing a different topic for each day—e.g. family, church, missionaries, friends, our country.

For some families, as children get older, this becomes increasingly difficult and it may be more appropriate to have a weekly time together rather than a daily fixture. It is important to keep your aim clearly before you, otherwise instructing children about God no longer becomes a priority.

When parents are converted after they have had their family, introducing a time of instruction requires sensitivity as to where, spiritually speaking, the other family members are. It might be good to start by praying before meals and gradually introduce key verses you want to share, before moving on to a more structured time.

There are countless books available to supplement our teaching about God as children get older—The Narnia Stories (C.S. Lewis), Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan), Radford’s Big Race (Paul White), The Austins (Madeleine L’Engle). Rhonda Watson (CEP) has written some booklets which focus on big issues—Becoming God’s Friend, Does God still love me?, Why Me, God? and others.

Many want to know what version of the Bible to give to children. When children are young, a children’s Bible is one way they can grasp the enormity of what God has done. Do read the text of some well-known passages to make sure the edition keeps in view what the Bible is intending. The Read and Grow Bible (Sweet Publishing) has a comic layout and provides hours of browsing for the 4-5 year old who loves examining details, and then ideal reading for the 7-8 year old when he/she develops to that level.

It is a privilege to have the responsibility and care of encouraging children in their Christian lives, whether as a parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, godparent or friend. The children God has placed under our care need encouragement and an example of godly living so that they too can grow into godly men and women. It is hard to think of any more important task we can have.

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