For Christian parents, reading the Bible and praying with our children each day is a critical part of raising them in the faith. Yes, it’s also important to look out for spontaneous opportunities to teach them the gospel. And our lives should be a constant witness to our children. But nothing can replace a fixed daily time of sitting together as family to open the word and pray.
But how do you handle family devotion when your children are very young? My husband and I are wrestling with this issue. We have a 9-month-old son and a 2-and-a-half year old daughter. I was blessed to have been raised in a Christian home where daily Bible reading and prayer were a priority. Here are five tips that I’ve gleaned from my childhood and now from my role as a parent:
1. Pick a daily time
My family read the Bible and prayed together after meals. This came from my mother’s Reformed upbringing in the Netherlands. I strongly recommend that approach. You started the meal with prayer, you shared fellowship at the table, so then it’s natural to close with Bible reading and another prayer.
But if work schedules keep your family apart for meals, then you need to pick another time when the whole family is together.
2. Stick to the daily time
Life with young children can be total chaos. That makes it all the more important to have family devotions at roughly the same time every day – start switching it around and you’ll quickly forget or let it slide. Besides, you’ll be amazed at how quickly children adapt to the routine. When our daughter was just 16 months old, I brought our dinner out of the kitchen and she automatically folded her hands to pray. She knew that’s what we do before we eat.
We are doing our best to establish the routine while our children are still small. That way, when they get older, they will consider daily family devotions as “something we always do.”
3. Get them involved
When our children are older, we’ll be discussing the Bible readings with them. But in the meantime, we’re finding simple ways to get our toddler to participate. If the Bible is in the other room, we ask her to bring it to us. After prayer, we sing scripture songs with her. Family devotions are also a great time to introduce the habit of memorizing Bible verses. We’re teaching our daughter some simple phrases such as “The Lord is my shepherd.”
4. Keep it positive
You need to be realistic about what small children can handle. Our 2-and-a-half year old simply can’t sit still for more than a few minutes – for anything. We are working on gradually increasing the length of our Bible reading but it would be unfair of us to expect more from her than she’s able to give. Sometimes I will take her on my lap. That helps keep her quiet a bit longer. If the baby has a genuine meltdown, I will take him to another room and my husband finishes devotions with the toddler.
The gospel is called “the good news.” Children should have a happy association with family devotions. It should not be a time that your child associates with getting disciplined. We give our kids a fair bit of leeway with squirming. It’s only if someone is being truly disruptive that I’ll intervene. I’m busy listening to the word of God, not carefully supervising my kids’ behavior. And that leads me to my most important point:
5. Keep it reverent
During these early years, we can teach our children so much by our attitude of reverence for God’s word. Do you believe that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12)? That should be evident to your children from the way you act. Before they can even speak, they will have learned that the Bible is something very special and important.
Moreover, your children take their cues from you. If you are modelling proper reverence, it will significantly reduce misbehaviour during family devotions.
In our family, we find it helpful to start with a clear gear-shift. We say, “It’s time to read the Bible” and then “It’s time to pray.” We don’t talk about other things or engage in other activities during this time. If the CD player is still playing some background music, we’ll go through the hassle of getting up to turn it off before devotions.
Trying to have regular family devotions with small children can be frustrating. I pray these five tips may be useful to you. I am thankful to my parents for persevering. I’ve personally experienced the fruit that it bears in later years.