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5 tips for family devotions with small children

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 modeling proper reverence, it will significantly reduce misbehavior 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.

Conclusion

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.

This article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue.


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What’s the purpose of family devotions?

A mother-to-be asked two of my adult children how we did our family devotions and what they appreciated about them. To my horror, they described how “most of the time” they just complied as expected – singing, being quiet, and looking as if they were listening intently. They added that they had pretty much sat through church services the same way. And there I sat, thinking that we had done a “good job” overall, but discovering that the kids were often just tuning it all out and biding their time until they were freed. I shouldn't have been surprised. Many parents, including us, remember the fruitful times of good singing, contemplation, long discussions, and prayer. But they also remember flying through the format – bing, bang, bong – done, only because they were supposed to. If the dinner conversation unfortunately ended up including arguments, or sibling rivalry, one of the sinful selves may even have shouted: “Settle down - we have to read the BIBLE!”  Was it still worthwhile to “read and pray”? Well, if we wait until life is perfect, we’ll never read or pray, because we sinners do get out of sorts. Teaching children by example to quiet themselves, and then reading a short amount of Scripture and praying for forgiveness and strength, is exactly what is needed to get everyone back on track.  How do we really teach love for God? The purpose of family devotions is to glorify God together. Psalm 63 says, O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. We ourselves must first love God and express that love and honor to God verbally, and by our actions throughout the day. So if we’re not patient and we shout angrily over small matters, we won’t teach them to use self-control. If we don’t ask forgiveness, we won’t teach them to ask for it. Family devotions should demonstrate that love of God. We must genuinely glorify Him when we read, pray, and sing, and not just rattle off words. Four suggestions Worship is the most important thing we do every week and we should treat it as such. How can we do that? Here are four suggestions            1. A new setting can help with attention Consider letting young children leave the table when they are finished and then re-convening in the living room for devotions. This can provide a helpful transition, instead of taxing their patience – and yours – and making everyone want to rush through devotions and just get it over with. It’s also a more comfortable setting, snuggling together on the sofa or chair, away from dirty plates, silverware, and cups that could be spilled. Pre-bedtime might also be an opportunity when children will be happy to give attention to Bible stories and learning to pray. 2. Be a study buddy Work together on your child’s Bible or catechism memorization, or review what they wrote down in their simple sermon notes on Sunday. 3. Plan ahead If you can, find out the texts, songs, and Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day portion for next Sunday. Then use family devotions time to read and practice everything in preparation for worship. 4. Get involvement When the kids can read, let them take turns reading the text and choosing songs so they understand that it’s not just Dad or Mom who can or should do this. Sharon L. Bratcher has a book with 45 of her RP articles in it, and a 2-year lesson plan entitled “Bible Overview for Young Children” ages 2-6 and 6-9. For information on these, contact [email protected]


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