Teaching Christian values to children
The power of example is a priceless teaching tool.
Unless we provide our children responsible Christian role models, how can we expect them to acquire and apply divine values? Unfortunately, this is often taken to mean that providing a strong model is all that is needed, and that somehow by some sort of osmosis our children will soak up values and learn to apply them in their own lives.
Values can be taught, however. I suggest five techniques that have proven helpful in my family ministry.
1. Work creatively with children's readiness
Throughout the New Testament Jesus demonstrates His appreciation for individual readiness. The parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) illustrates the difference in responses of the five who were mature and ready and the five who were neither ready nor receptive. The parable of the sowers (Matt. 13:1-23) speaks about readiness of the soil as necessary for fruit bearing. Expressions such as "if any man have ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4:23) are common preludes to the Saviour's teachings.
How do we detect the principle of readiness at work in children? Watch for the obvious signs. Are your children curious? Do they keep at you with questions? Never put off their questions, regardless of how irrelevant or unimportant they may seem to be. Be prepared to be interrupted. To the youngster, a simple why may be the most important question. It shows the child's readiness to learn now.
Encourage readiness by providing creative situations. "Because I say so" is not the way. Spend time with children quality time. In our home, we set aside one evening a week as special family time. It is sacrosanct for all of us. TV is out. Visiting or shopping that evening is out. We all know it is time set apart to be together as a family. We may cook a favorite dish together, sit around and sing, play games, pop corn, build a birdhouse, plan a trip, or leaf through the family scrapbooks. The main thing is we are together as a family with no distractions.
Often during these special evenings we discuss each other's personal aspirations. We solve family difficulties as a group, not as a know-it-all father handing down decisions from on high. We hold family councils and work out the rules of the household. Children are much more ready to obey a rule if they helped set it.
2. Use value incidents
Value incidents help children identify values. You'll find such incidents in literature, history, music, pictures, cartoons, or in today's newspaper.
Suppose a politician endorses capital punishment, and your family hears that statement on TV. Use it to discuss the death penalty, and lead children to identify values. Such a value incident may be useful for teenagers but too heavy for younger children. Select incidents appropriate to the age.
Bible stories make good value incidents. After reading a story or watching an episode, lead your children in an informal discussion. Ask and encourage questions: (1) What is the central point of the story? (2) Why did so-and-so do or say that in the story? (3) What do people in the story consider important to them? (4) If you were in a similar situation, what would you do and why?
A discussion such as this makes children appreciate what others consider important to them that is, their values. With that as a setting, you can begin to talk about values you consider important for your children to acquire and cherish.
3. Teach from known to unknown
Most values are intangible principles, such as faith, repentance, love, obedience, humility, reverence, and modesty. Jesus taught such principles by using one of His favorite teaching methods. Educators call it apperception the process of understanding something in terms of previous experiences. That is learning the unknown from the known.
How does this technique work? Begin with the experience of children and talk about things they already know. Then when you move to what you want them to know, they will understand.
For example, I was once trying with out much success to explain salvation to our 5 -year-old girl, Janet. It wasn't enough to say that salvation is being freed from sin. I wanted to explain the power of the gospel what God does to forgive sins. How was I to do this? I decided to begin with something Janet knew.
Salvation, I told Janet, is like soap. Soap takes care of dirt. Likewise, salvation takes care of sin. Some people stay dirty because they either misuse or fail to use soap. I showed Janet a white handkerchief, clean and unsoiled. Beside it I placed a fresh bar of soap.
"What would happen if this handkerchief were dropped into a mud puddle?" I asked.
"It would get all dirty," Janet replied.
"But what if I washed it carefully with this soap?"
"Then it would be clean again."
"That's right," I continued. I used a tangible to illustrate an intangible. Janet and I moved naturally to talk about the gospel truth of salvation, of what God does to cleanse us from all sin and make us clean again.
Other important religious principles can also be taught by the "is like" formula. Faith is one such. Jesus said, "Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you" (Matt. 17:20).
So faith is a seed. By saying that, Jesus likened faith to something tangible. Now we can build pictures to understand faith. Once my children and I planted some maize seeds. We watched carefully as the seeds germinated and became young plants. Then we watered some plants and let others whither. That led to a discussion about growth what helps, what hinders. Soon our children were better able to "see" what faith is like, what nurturing means, and how faith grows. Once they understood faith, they found it easier to adopt it as a personal value.
Of course, we must guard against being too literal or too technical. No comparison or "like unto" illustration will answer all questions. Repentance is no bar of soap. Nor is the kingdom of heaven a net. Nor were Pharisees whited sepulchers. Use your imagination.
4. Teach by interviewing
One of the intimate bonds my children and I share is my weekly "interview" with them. Every Saturday evening I spend some precious moments with each child in an actual interview situation. The children love it. These delightful one-to-one moments are, of course, in addition to many hours I spend with the children during the rest of the week.
These interviews offer an ideal time to teach values--provided, of course, you create the atmosphere. Let the children do most of the talking. Let them explore their own world. Let them question you and find out how you feel about issues important to them. Let them learn the value of self-discovery. Good communication must build interpersonal trust.
Be a facilitator of communication, not a cross-examiner. If you act like a cross-examiner, you cause the child to be defensive rather than open, to rationalize rather than explain. Good communication and trust thrive with an informal, open approach. The open approach asks: "Janet, how is your Bible reading going?" The closed approach would frame the same question from a position of authority: "Janet, have you studied the Scriptures every day this week?"
By their very nature, closed questions are restrictive and tend to shut the door to good rapport. The open question, on the other hand, lets Janet do the talking while I listen and observe. The open approach gives Janet the freedom to determine the nature and kind of information she wants to share. She understands that I respect her ability to carry on a meaningful, mature conversation. She reveals what she considers important. She gains confidence.
As a parent my interest in these inter view sessions is not only to solicit information but also to teach values. I try to frame questions that are neutral in tone. I try not to influence the discussions. Yet at times the conversation may lead to a point where the child struggles with the worth of an idea or with measuring the goodness or badness of a particular behavior. In moments like these I gently guide the conversation and help the child to see clearly the issues involved and arrive at a self-discovered answer.
5. Teach through prayer
Family prayer is an ideal time to teach values. Here too set an example in prayer life. Let your children know, see, and hear that you pray for them by name. Express gratitude for each family member, for the love that is shared in the home, for the opportunity to work and earn, for the chance to attend school and learn, for the joy of building friendships and helping others, and for health and strength. Have a special prayer for a family member who is facing a personal challenge or a new situation or opportunity.
Teach your children to pray, to communicate with God. Emphasize the spontaneity and variety of prayer--just like conversation with friends. Make prayer sessions an opportunity for sharing and learning: to share experiences of the day, to build a sense of unity and purpose within the family, to talk of love, and to teach values.
As parents we are only stewards of a divine work. Our responsibility is not so much to shape children as it is to help them shape themselves. Teaching values is part of that responsibility. To forget to teach or to be too tired to teach or to elect not to teach is not an option open to Christian parents.
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