I believe that the primary purpose of Christian parenting is discipleship, inviting my children into my walk with Jesus, investing in them the life of God that I’ve come to experience so that they grow into being “new creatures” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is how it worked for Timothy: the Apostle Paul affirmed him and his family saying that his faith “first lived” in his grandmother and then his mother (2 Timothy 1:5, NIV, emphasis added).
How do we develop our child’s identity in Christ? Here are some thoughts and practical ideas from the experience that Kristi and I have had raising our three children.
Breath God’s L.I.F.E. into Your Child
Before Jesus ascended into heaven he said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he breathed on them (John 20:22). In Jesus the Living God had walked and talked with Peter, James, John, and the other disciples and Christ-followers, but now God’s very life entered their souls and their bodies became temples for the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). If there’s one thing that our kids need from us, it’s the life of God.
Do you know what the LIFE of God is? I’m not just talking about becoming a Christian. That’s just the beginning. I’m talking about you and I and our kids having our souls animated by God’s Spirit such that we live in the “abundant life” that Jesus came to bring us (John 10:10), a life that enjoys God moment by moment, a life of faith that overcomes the stresses and dark forces in this world, a life of vitality and purpose that impacts our world with God’s good news.
People ripped off the roofs of houses to get this life from Jesus! (Mark 2:1-12) Parents fought their way through crowds, with their children in tow, just to have their kids touched by the Living God! (Matthew 19:1-2, 13-15). It was that important to them. And it is to me. In fact, there is nothing more important to me than being alive with God’s life and imparting this to others, especially my children. “For it is in him that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, NIV).
I think there are four aspects to this living faith that we want to impart to our children (and to experience for ourselves or else how can we give it to them?). They represent four ways that we need God’s “L.I.F.E.” in our souls, four developmental building blocks for the Christian life: Love, Identity, Favor (including forgiveness), and Enthusiasm. Imagine these four spiritual developmental needs as building blocks that stack on top of each other in a certain order, starting with love as the foundation.
Imprint Your Child’s Identity in Christ
Let’s look at the second of these four building blocks of child development: Identity. As a parent you probably have more power than you realize to develop a godly and glorious identity in your child. Yes, glorious! 2 Corinthians 3:18 in the NIV says that we’re to “reflect the Lord’s glory” with ever increasing glory. Certainly, it often doesn’t feel that we can influence our kids like we want! They have minds of their own. But I’ve found it to be true that most children (and even many adults) are spiritually moldable, but only at critical moments of trust.
Developing your child’s identity is like the way in which a gosling becomes “imprinted.” Right after it hatches, and only at that moment, the baby goose attaches itself to the first thing it sees moving nearby. Of course, this is supposed to be the Mother Goose, but if she is removed then the gosling will settle for any mother substitute. That could be a mother duck, in which case he’d grow up confused! Or it could be a fox and in that case he’d be eaten! Or, researchers have found that goslings imprint readily on blue football bladders being dragged by a string! They follow the blue bladder around wherever it goes!
Time is critical in the imprinting process. The gosling imprints in the few seconds right after it hatches. If the opportunity is lost then it cannot be regained. It’s similar for children, but fortunately, we have years to work with, not seconds. But, as any parent with older children knows, the time is short and the older they get they harder it is to make a godly imprint. Infants and toddlers will imprint on their mother’s relational style and emotional state because their attachment (loving connection) needs are so strong. And pre-school and school aged children will imprint their parent’s affirmations and values to form their identity and conscience.
As the Proverb says, “Train a child in the way he or she should go, and when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Some Bible teachers say that this verse is better interpreted to say, “Train up a child according to who he or she is and when they are old they will not turn from it.” In other words, discover the God-given personality and gifts of your child and bring that out!
Affirm Your Child’s Personality and Gifts
A few months ago I had an imprinting opportunity when my seven-year old daughter Briana asked me a question I’ll never forget. My family was going around the dinner table sharing our “peaks and pits” of the day and I had just responded to what Briana’s sister Jenny shared by affirming her as having “a heart of compassion.” Jenny is such an appreciative girl so she lapped up my words like a puppy with a bowl of milk. It was at that point that Briana, looked at me with her own puppy dog eyes and panted with anticipation, “Daddy, what do I have a heart of?”
I turned to look at her precious face and eager heart. She had caught me unprepared so I hesitated for a moment and shot up a quick arrow prayer! “Little girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice,” wouldn’t have met Briana’s need! She wanted me to recognize her beautiful uniqueness like I had her sister’s. Thank God that He gave me the words, “Briana, you have the heart of a leader. Your name means ‘Strong in God’s grace’ and that’s what you are. I love to see how you lead people in good ways.” (“My Little Girl Needed her Father’s Blessing” tells the whole story.)
And there was also a quiet hound dog at the table who could have been left out so I affirmed him also by saying, “And David, you’re an engineer and a teacher. I love the way you design and build things and then explain how it works to others.” Blessing my children with affirming words is not something that has come natural for me. I’ve worked on it though because I believe it is so crucial.
Our Heavenly Father in the Bible models it for us. For instance, he says that children are a “heritage” and a “reward” (Psalm 127:3, NIV), a blessing (Psalm 127:5) and a “crown” (Proverbs 17:6). And in a culture in which children were thought of as possessions and interruptions Jesus made time for them and repeatedly held them in highest esteem, standing them in front of the crowds to praise them and point out that anyone who wants to enter God’s kingdom must become like a child (Matthew 18:1-6; 19:13-15).
A Model for Family Devotions
One of the most helpful things that my wife Kristi and I have done to encourage our children’s spiritual development and strengthen their emerging Christian identities was to launch family devotions at dinner. We had tried and failed at this a few times and I had become quite frustrated, feeling like I was spiritually encouraging my clients, the lay counselors I train, and people who came to my seminars at church, but not getting through to my own kids! We were both sad about this because God’s Word is so important to us and we want it to be important in our family life too.
So we tried again and our effort was again met with resistance in the form of protests, complaining, and whining. But this time we persisted and our kids grew to appreciate this time and only occasionally do they react negatively to it now. I wish I could show you the three-ring binder notebook with Bible verses that we use! It would demonstrate to you their affection and identification with our family devotions. Each one of them has taken turns personalizing the white cover and pages with messages like:
- “Bible + Jesus = God”
- “Gaultiere’s Dinner Devotional”
- Precious pictures of Jesus, a heart, a house
- A drawing of a girl reading a Bible in her lap and saying, “Wow!”
- A triangle labeled “God,” and each point of the triangle lists a member of the Trinity: Father, Jesus, Spirit. (They even drew the theology they were learning!)
Our kids have made these devotions a part of our family identity.
Along with the united determination that Kristi and I had, I think what helped us develop our family devotions was that we used a very simple system that fit our family values. We scraped the idea of the typical family devotions book that has stories and crafts and pictures. Instead, I simply picked out 365 Bible verses according to 31 themes (one theme for each day of the month so that there were 12 verses for each theme).
We called our first family devotional “31 Essential Christian Beliefs and Values.” (You can download this devotional as a pdf for free!) It’s like an easy to use Evangelical Christian Catechism for faith in Jesus Christ and living as his disciple. It’s themes include God’s love and holiness, the Trinity, Jesus as the way to relationship with God, confessing our sins, appreciating our incredible worth as God’s children, and obeying each of the Ten Commandments.
A very important lesson was that we made our family devotions very flexible. Since the verses were numbered 1 to 31 and not tied to a specific date we didn’t feel guilty if we missed a day; we knew we’d catch that verse the next month and it wouldn’t matter if it took us longer than a year to get through it (It did!). Furthermore, if the kids were antsy when we were discussing the importance of telling the truth, for example, then we would read the verse, explain it, and pray in just two or three minutes. On the other hand, if they were interested in the devotional — like when we talked what the Bible teaches about sex! — then we’d let the discussion go on, relating the verse to real situations that were occurring in their lives and answering their questions. As much as possible we got our children to do the talking and had the older kids teach the younger ones.
(I also developed two other family devotionals that we completed: “God’s Promises to Our Family” and “Spiritual Disciplines for Apprentices to Jesus.”)
Encourage Your Child to Do Personal Bible Study
I think I was about ten years old when I got my first Bible. For years I had watched my mother read the Bible and underline verses that were especially important to her. She wrote verses down and put them up on our refrigerator. It was like she was feeding off of it everyday. I now know that she was! It’s just like Jesus said, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, “People do not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, NIV).
For over 30 years now I’ve been feeding my own soul almost daily on God’s Word. I’ve learned that not only is the Bible soul food, but it’s a window and a mirror. It’s a window for me to see what God is like, the glorious beauty of His holiness and the wonder of His mercy. And it’s a mirror for me to see my need for God’s grace and wisdom and to appreciate the astounding truth that He’s transforming me to be glorious like Him.
Of course, pressuring our kids to read the Bible is not helpful. I’ve learned that when we do this they either swallow our expectation whole and compliantly read the Bible without digesting it or they gag over being force-fed and rebel. From birth we’ve read our kids Bible stories when they were receptive. Then as each one has learned to read we’ve provided them with beginner’s Bibles. And, as we just discussed, once they were all school-aged we started doing regular family devotions, which we did make a nonnegotiable, but we have tried to do it in a way that accommodates their interest level.
Kristi and I were so grateful last summer when one of our daughters was invited by some of her friends to join a Bible study! She wanted to do this and brought her own Bible to the group. She did her lessons each week, asking Kristi for help when she needed it. Then this year she wanted Kristi to lead the group and to hold it in our home so that she could invite some of her friends in the neighborhood who don’t go to church. It’s exciting to see her developing her own relationship with God’s Word and it gives us hope that she’ll continue this throughout her life.
Rely on the Body of Christ
Each of these ideas for guiding your child into an enthusiastic faith requires depending on the Body of Christ in some way. You just can’t raise a godly child without Christian community. The first time we sent our oldest child to Christian camp it was difficult to let go. He was ten at the time and we worried, Would he be lonely or get homesick? Might there be some bad influences? But he came back excited. He wanted a Bible of his own and became interested in reading it with me at night. He got a fish sticker and put it on his bedroom window. And he joined a small group Bible Study at our church with other boys his age. Having people other than mom and dad encourage Christian living and being around other kids who are enthusiastic Christians is so powerful in encouraging children to develop their own dynamic faith in Jesus.
Since I read the book Spiritual Milestones Kristi and I have started planning out and celebrating with family and friends our children’s spiritual passages. This is an exciting and impactful way to encourage the development of your child’s faith. The idea is to invite your child to focus on his or her next faith step and then for you and your child to structure a fun and meaningful celebration around that event. You can do this with first communion, catechism class, a preparing for adolescence weekend, a commitment to sexual purity ceremony, or a Christian “Rite of Passage” ceremony (like a Jewish Bar-mitzvah).
For instance, when our daughter Jenny wanted to be baptized at age 10 she and I had studied what the Bible teaches about being baptized and she took a class at church on it so she knew what she was doing. She said that she wanted to be baptized to be a witness for Jesus, to show her family and friends (including her nonchristian friends from public school) that she believed in Jesus. So we planned a special service for her. She invited 56 people to our house and amazingly almost everyone came! The invitation that she sent out had her testimony on it and it was so powerful that her eight-year old cousin prayed to become a Christian after reading it!
At the actual baptism service Kristi and I gathered everyone and gave them a chance to affirm Jenny’s faith. The pastor explained the meaning of baptism, people laid hands on her and prayed for her, she said why she wanted to be baptized, and her pastor and I baptized her in our backyard Jacuzzi with these words, “Jenny, since God loves you and you want to follow Jesus we baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Lastly, we all ate together. Afterward, I asked Jenny what it felt like to be baptized. She said, “Daddy, it was so special. It was like laying back into soft, calming kitten fur!”
Children Internalizing and Passing on the L.I.F.E. of God
The main point I’m emphasizing here is that Christian parenting is incarnational. Think of this as a succession of three triangles, each triangle represent a loving relationship between three entities, as indicated below. The “Trinity Triangle” depicts God in loving community with His three distinct identities. The “Parenting Triangle” shows a parent, teaming up with God to care for his or her child and to invite that child into the parent’s relationship with God. Finally, the “Child’s Soul Triangle” views three critical psychological constructs that a child internalizes from God and the parent and which can be positive or negative depending mostly on how well the Parenting Triangle transmits the Trinity Triangle to the child.
The bottom left corner of each of the three triangles illustrates the incarnational aspect of Christian parenting. God entered human flesh in Jesus, showing us the Father’s love and giving us His Holy Spirit to overflow our souls. Then the parent, as Christ’s Ambassador, is put in position by God to reveal and mediate God’s care. Finally, the child internalizes an understanding of the parent (“Internalized Parent”) and God (the “God-image,” along with the “conscience”) and develops a view of self that’s in relationship to the parent, God, and others.
So as parents we want to try to pass on the Love, Identity, Favor, and Enthusiasm of God to our children so that they internalize the life of God for themselves and then share it with others. For instance, if they experience mom and dad as affirming their worth (internalized parent) and this is done in Jesus’ name (God-image) then the odds are high that they will see themselves as significant (self-image) — they’ll carry God’s glorious image into their lives, blessing other people and honoring their Lord Jesus Christ.