Train Up a Child
Parents can block their kids' spiritual growth because they know them too well. Quoting Willie George, one of America's leading children's ministers, Harper says parents fail to see their children with a spiritual eye. "Most people know their children after the flesh," he says. "We must believe our children can know and experience God and be used by Him."
Jesus faced a similar problem when He went to Nazareth. He could not do many miracles in His hometown because the people had no faith in Him. To them, He was just the carpenter's son (see Matt. 13:53-58).
Henley says the key to communicating faith to children is to know them as individuals and to relate to them according to their developmental stages. Although these stages are universal, the ages attached to them are only a guideline.
Infants. Meeting an infant's physical needs for food, warmth and affection teaches him to trust. Exposing babies to soothing Christian music, prayer and scripture helps initiate the concept of God in their spirits.
Toddlers (ages 2-3). In toddlers, the conscience is not yet developed, so be patient with inconsistent choices and apparent disregard for others, including God. But take advantage of this selfish stage to teach about how God created your child special, beautiful and so on, Thicke says. Focus on teaching consistent obedience because obedience to parents precedes obedience to God.
Toddlers love upbeat music and dancing, so worship with instruments, shout, leap, kneel, lift hands, be active, Harper says. Bible verses set to music are easily memorized at this age. Don't worry, the words become more meaningful as children mature.
Because they don't comprehend death, toddlers can't grasp the meaning of the cross, Henley says. And they think very literally, so watch how you articulate the gospel. She says some children are disturbed about "asking Jesus into their hearts" because they can't figure out how to get Him inside their bodies.
Toddlers also cannot consistently discern between reality and fantasy, so tell them over and over when a story or character is real and when it is "pretend." Also be discerning about graphic stories and pictures, even from the Bible. Focus on God's love and kindness.
Preschool (ages 4-5). Around age 4, the conscience begins to develop. Allow preschoolers to see themselves as sinners, continually pointing to Jesus, who forgives and helps us.
Preschoolers compare themselves with others and copy heroes. "Because they're looking at everybody else, it is the best time to teach them to become a helper," Thicke says. She recommends Betty Lukens' flannelgraphs as a tool to teach about the early life of Jesus.
According to James Dobson of Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the year from age 5 to age 6 is the most critical time for children to internalize what they've been taught. As they begin to distinguish fantasy from reality, they either believe or discard ideas about life, so parents must reinforce truth in tangible ways.
Expose preschoolers to spiritual gifts but don't focus on them, ministers say. Encourage conversational prayer, and pray the Scriptures together.
Elementary (ages 6-10). During the elementary years, children begin to understand symbolism and rely on God more personally. Begin to study and pray about spiritual gifts together, but focus more on God's promises, character and attributes.
Around age 7, the conscience develops more fully, and understanding of sin becomes more personal. Pray for a spirit of repentance. Once your child learns to read, help him establish a daily devotional time when he can pray, worship and read his Bible on his own.
Preteen (ages 10-12). During preteen years, self-identity is key. As children begin looking more outside the family, parents should not feel threatened but should seek positive mentors and role models for their kids, LaGuardia says.
It's also important to begin allowing greater responsibility by building leadership qualities in your child that can be demonstrated both at home and at church.
Teen-ager (ages 13-17). Teens need to separate from their parents and find their own footings in faith, Henley says. Make sure they are challenged and shepherded by their youth pastor, and find ways for teens to serve in the church to give them a real sense of belonging.
"Relationship is everything," LaGuardia says. Stay aware of their lives, stay close, and keep the lines of prayer and communication open.
Seeking the Giver, Not the Gifts
Although supernatural experiences can revolutionize a child's relationship with God, limiting the work of the Holy Spirit to the spectacular may leave kids dissatisfied and doubting God's work in their lives. Some even see a danger in attending services in which people manifest the power of God in unusual ways, such as shaking or being slain in the spirit. Kids who don't have a profound experience in such services may feel confused, alienated or even manipulated into doing something disingenuous, so it's important to communicate to them that God works uniquely in each person's life.
"How do you define the presence of the Holy Spirit?" LaGuardia asks. "The Holy Spirit is moving in the corporate thing, and that's the real deal, but if it doesn't repeat itself at home, it's not the real deal? I think that's bogus," he says. "When kids come home and just love on their parents, I think that's the Holy Spirit too."
LaGuardia says miracles in a child's world may sometimes be defined in smaller ways such as answered prayer, boldness to witness on the playground or restoring broken relationships in the home. He teaches children to minister to their families by praying for them and leading unsaved parents to Christ.
"You need to be real practical with your family," Thicke agrees. "It's the small things like teaching your children to forgive each other, love each other and love God."
Children need to be equipped with faith that is powerful and relevant, complete with real-life experiences. But basic disciplines such as worship, prayer and Bible reading are what bring a standard of biblical truth to experiential faith.
"It's really about how we model Jesus for these kids," LaGuardia says.
And any Christian parent can do that, no matter what age his children are. There is no better way than mentoring and motivating them on the home front to insure that God continues to powerfully touch this generation by the power of His Spirit as He has already begun to do.
Anahid Schweikert is a frequent contributor to Charisma. She lives in Memphis, Tenn., with her husband and their two daughters, who were adopted from China.
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