Building Character before the Concrete Sets
The easiest way to get a good finish on concrete is to work it properly before it hardens. The concrete finisher has a limited time within which to do his craft. It is better to get it right while the concrete is workable, rather than to employ the use of a jackhammer once the concrete sets.
So it is with parenting. Christian parents have the opportunity to shape a developing little creature into a morally sensitive individual. Moms and dads have the duty to mold a servant’s heart in their offspring. They have the responsibility to teach the supreme importance of heaven.
“Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth,” we remind our youngsters. As parents, we may enable them to do that more consistently, if we have done a commendable job during their first decade of life.
Covet the Sponge Years
Toddlers are capable of learning songs, basic Bible stories, Bible memory phrases, and asking the same question repeatedly without growing tired of it. Preschoolers and kindergartners can learn the books of the Bible, detailed Bible stories, and they can memorize as much Scripture as a parent will teach them. Like a sponge, they soak up information all day long. We must covet these early years to ensure that they soak up the Bible.
The Bible contains 66 books. The Bible has two testaments — the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. And so on. We ought to teach our children basic Bible facts while they are able to soak up information.
Are we filling their heads with meaningless statistics? No. First of all, such facts are prerequisite to deepening one’s understanding of the Bible. Second, we are implicitly teaching the importance of the Bible itself — a lesson that cannot be taught too early.
These sponge years are not all fun and games. The toddler has to learn to sit through a worship service; mom and dad are learning that they need more patience. Christian parents must keep their eyes on the goal. However long it takes, and however difficult it may be, parents must not give up on the little ones. If mom and dad want them to learn how to worship God, if they desire that their children acquire the attention and concentration that worship demands, then they must not give up on bringing them to Bible school and worship. Wrestling with a toddler may be exhausting, but it is far less distressful than hoping the prodigal will return some day.
Plan for Spiritual Development
What a wondrous time these years are for a child. What an opportunity they are for the Christian parent. We can, however, become “so busy” that we crave everything — everything but our children’s biblical education. Daily chores, weekly errands, monthly appointments, sports and leisure, and “I’m too tired from work,” all compromise our children’s spiritual needs. We must earnestly desire that our children go to heaven. That desire, then, must express itself in daily spiritual routines.
No more excuses! Every day, our children need time that is dedicated to their spiritual development. I am aware that they can learn from our example all day long, but example is no substitute for active instruction by a parent in spiritual things. (Please don’t use “example” as an excuse as to why you don’t read the Bible to your children.)
During these years, the child’s biblical instruction ought to involve at least two aspects (i.e., Bible reading and Bible teaching). Bible storybooks are a valuable source for exposing our children to the basic narratives of the Bible. Use these for the benefit of your children. Additionally, Christian parents need to form a plan for Bible reading with their children. As the child learns to read, they can take part in this reading plan.
The parent, however, should be selective in their reading so that the child does not become overwhelmed or disinterested. I prefer a plan, for these years, that involves the reading of the history of the Old Testament. Genealogies can be briefly explained while being passed over at the moment. Much of the Mosaic legislation can be postponed. Read with your young children the basic story of the Old Testament from the Bible, and help them see how and why God brought Jesus into the world.
Similarly, selectivity in the New Testament is also advisable. Read your children the accounts of Jesus’ birth from Matthew and Luke. Focus on the life of Jesus through the shorter gospel of Mark. Familiarize them with the history of the church through the book of Acts, and teach them to chart the journeys of Paul as he travels to teach people about Jesus.
This part of their spiritual education is vital for several reasons. It teaches them the importance of the Bible by practice — rather than by mere lip service. This aspect of their spiritual education establishes a habit for them. Just like praying with our children during the day and before going to sleep at night, Bible reading should be instilled early. It also deepens their Bible knowledge, in that the reading is comprehensive. This plan also prepares them for deeper study later in life. They will develop into effective listeners for Bible classes and sermons. All of these benefits help them prepare for Christian living.
Let’s turn our attention to Bible teaching. This is a topical approach wherein we apply the teaching of Scripture to our own lives and to the lives of our children. For instance, if your child tells a lie, the Bible has something to say about the nature and consequences of lying. We may deal with their inappropriate conduct by instant reprimand and punishment. But this is only partial parenting. These moments are opportunities to show that the Bible applies to everyday living.
This approach can be used to teach positive Christian virtues, and it can be employed to correct bad behavior. Such an approach will discipline the child to think like God wants him to think, and eventually he be self-disciplined, choosing to behave like God requires. This three-fold approach involves:
- Memorization of scripture
- Reading Bible stories
- Discussion, prayer, and application by the family
First, teach the child an appropriate memory verse. This needs to be rehearsed daily for several weeks — at the dinner table, riding in the car, etc.
Second, read an appropriate Bible story. This reinforces the memory verse, demonstrates how God looks at the situation, and outlines the consequences and/or blessings.
Third, discuss the matter. How does God view it? How have others been affected by it? How should we behave in order to please God? Pray together, and express to God and one another the need to do what the Bible says.
Consider the following application of these three steps. You need to do some teaching about lying, so you assign Proverbs 12:22 as a memory verse: “Lying lips are an abomination unto the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight.” Such abstractions and figures of speech may not be grasped, depending on the age of your child. Consulting a children’s version, you may reassign the following translation of Proverbs 12:22, depending on the age and understanding of your child: “God hates liars, but he is pleased with those who do what they promise.”
Proverbs are good memory verses. Many of them express the consequences of bad behavior and teach appropriate conduct.
Then, read about the old prophet’s lie to the young prophet in 1 Kings 13. The old prophet lied and bad things happened. Followed by appropriate discussion (i.e., about God’s love, forgiveness, etc.) and prayer, you will reinforce a moral principle with the most effective tool for spiritual growth and discipline — the word of God.
Practice What You Preach
Earlier, we said that example was not a substitute for Bible reading and instruction. We did not say, however, that example is unimportant. You cannot teach patience to your children while loosing your mind. You cannot teach them to save, budget, and spend wisely, while habitually “rewarding yourself” with the MasterCard. You will not teach them to be sincere and kind, while you unmercifully gossip about the flaws of others behind their backs.
Your example can undermine your teaching efforts. But on the positive side, your good influence will reinforce your Bible teaching and be a blessing to the spiritual development of the child. The Bible, read and applied, is the best tool for building character before the concrete sets.