Raising children today isn't easy, and raising Christian children is more challenging than ever before. Being a parent of kids who love Jesus, I have 15 tips to help you encourage your own kids to follow the Lord.
One of my children may as well have stabbed me in the heart during a recent conversation. The whole thing is crystal clear in my mind: we were in the car, and I was driving, and I know exactly where on the highway the car was when she said what she said.
The conversation went like this:
Child: "How can I get back at her? I want to make her pay."
Me: "I don't think getting revenge is the right thing to do."
Child: "Why not? She stole money from me."
Me: "In the Bible, it says we are to forgive others. Jesus said that if someone takes your shirt, you are supposed to give him your coat, too." (I didn't say this part, but the verse is Matthew 5:40.)
Child: "Well, I don't forgive her. I want to get her back for taking my money."
Me: "I understand that you're angry with her, and I understand that she hurt you when she stole from you, but Jesus would not get revenge. Jesus would pray for her and be nice to her even if she hurt him."
Child: "Well good for Jesus. That's not what I'm going to do."
My mind raced with all the things I needed to say about forgiveness and gentleness and kindness - and it got all stopped up when I realized that my words would have been empty because my children have seen me hold grudges for years.
They learn what we do, not what we say, am I right?
My grudge-holding heart was convicted in that moment, but in the long run, I don't know if it will matter. I can repent for my grudges and I will surely feel them again. Emotions don't go away because we want them to. Hopefully, I will be able to forgive those wrongs and set a better example for my kids, but I don't know. I am just as flawed and broken as they are. Or maybe it's that they are just as flawed and broken as me.
At any rate, this conversation hurt me because I have raised my children in the light of the Lord. We talk about God. We pray. We read the Bible. We are good people.
All that can be true, and sometimes parenting still goes off the rails, like when they feel the need to get revenge because someone stole $6 from them.
So how is a parent to encourage her children to be more like Jesus when the world says that revenge is better and makes more sense? There are a few things we can do.
Note: This is not an article about how to use rewards, boundaries, or chores to raise good kids. You can find that information anywhere. What I'm talking about here is how to protect your kids' hearts, how to build their self-esteem by spending lots of quality time together, how to model emotional intelligence and empathy by being a good role model, and how to discourage bad behavior through your own choices as a leader and parent.
How to Raise Kids Who Love Jesus - 17 Tips for Christian Parents
- Read the Bible. This is probably cliché, but reading the Bible together is a good start. A few weeks ago, sweet Allie came to me with an ICB (International Children's Bible) version of the Bible that we've had for quite a few years now. The ICB version is nice because it's in plain English, in simplified terms kids can easily understand, and it leaves out some of the wordiness that's not essential to understanding the high points of the story.
Anyway, she brought me the book and asked me to read it to her. "Now?" I asked. "No, not now. At bedtime. We can read it together before bed," she replied. So we started that night, and we haven't stopped.
We started at the beginning, with Adam and Eve in Genesis, and we moved through the tower of Babel, Noah and the flood, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob, and finally Joseph and his brothers. Then we moved on to Exodus and Moses, skipped large swathes of Exodus and Leviticus (all those laws and sacrifices are boring, and I did not want her to think that the Bible is boring), and are currently starting Numbers.
Her plan is that we will read through the entire Bible together, and I admire her vision and fervor for the Word. I read to her every night, unless Joe has gone to bed before us (we don't want to wake him up). Otherwise, I read at least one section before we turn off the lights.
One more thing. I don't read all the parts to her. I skip over all the names and family lineages and lists of places. I skipped over a lot of the tedious laws and sacrifices required. They don't add to the narrative, and I leave them out. There will be plenty of time for her to study those passages when she's older. I do not, however, skip over the hard stuff that she might not understand, like the rape of Dinah. I read that just as it was written, and I talked to her about it with honesty and frankness in an age-appropriate way, and that brings me to my next point.
- Talk about the Bible. Reading the Bible isn't just about reading stories to children. If it were that, it would be easy. Allie interrupts me frequently while I'm reading. She asks what things mean (like "physical relations" - that was a conversation!) and sometimes she has insights that even I hadn't considered. She was recently especially interested in death by stoning, as punishment for swearing against the Lord.
Once in a while, I'll pause and say, "I wonder why that is in the Bible," and she'll either agree with me that it doesn't seem to make much sense or she'll disagree and tell me why it does make sense. I have had to go and fetch my Study Bible more than once so that we could read what scholars have said about certain passages because we just couldn't make sense of them.
The thing is that kids are people too, and they have their own ideas about the Bible, and their ideas are just as real and honest and valid as are our own. Talking to them about those ideas helps them to internalize the Bible and make it their own.
- Play worship music in the background of your home. When we're all at home, I like to ask Alexa to turn on the praise & worship station or the Christian music station (both free without an Amazon Music subscription), and we listen on volume level 3. It's loud enough to hear the words of the songs but it's not so loud that we can't go about our business and have conversations over it.
I'm sure you've had a song stuck in your head before. Wouldn't it be great if the songs stuck in your child's head were about Jesus?
- Pray for them. Prayer changes situations, and it changes people. If you aren't praying for your children every day, now is the time to start. You can find an excellent mother's prayer calendar at Inspired to Action. It will guide you through 30 days of prayer for all the different character traits you want to see in your children.
- Pray with them. How will your children learn to pray if you don't give them a good example? It's uncomfortable for me to pray out loud, even with my kids, but I do it anyway.
Jesus prayed with His disciples, and He is always worthy of imitation, right? Remember the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:1-4)? It is Jesus' example of how to pray, and it is a good model that you can follow with even the smallest children. Here is what it means: (Please note that I have included the version of the prayer that I learned as a kid, which is similar to the KJV but a little different. My sister and I attended a bunch of different churches in many different denominations, so I don't know exactly where this version came from but it is substantially the same as all the major Bible translations.)
– Praise Him (Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name)
– Ask Him to expand the Christian church on Earth (Thy kingdom come.)
– Ask Him to reveal His purpose for your life (Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.)
– Ask for the things you need and want (Give us this day our daily bread,)
– Ask Him to forgive your sins (and forgive us our trespasses)
– Ask Him to help you forgive others (as we forgive those who trespass against us.)
– Ask Him to help you make the right choices (And lead us not into temptation,)
– Ask Him to protect you from Satan's schemes (but deliver us from evil,)
– Praise Him (for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.)
If you can follow that model, you will be praying just like Jesus did, and that is an excellent way to teach your kids.
- Model how to handle hard situations. I wanted my daughter to forgive the person who stole the $6, but how would I react if someone I knew stole $60 from me? Or $600? Would I forgive that person with grace and mercy or would I seethe about it? Most likely, I would seethe because that's just the way I am.
How about when you're angry at your kids or you spouse? Do you speak kindly and gently or yell out of fury? I am normally very even and gentle with my kids, but one day last week, I was on a conference call for work, and I could hear them fighting from the living room. I was concerned that the others on the call would be able to hear them, too, and what they were fighting about was so ridiculous that I would have laughed had I not been seeing red. The little one was humming, and the big one was trying to practice the piano.
Big, yelling: STOP HUMMING!
Little, humming louder: I don't have to!
Big, still yelling: I'M GOING TO TELL MOM!
Little, still humming: Go ahead. I'm allowed to hum whenever I want.
Big, now yelling even louder: MOOOOOOOOM! TELL HER TO STOP HUMMING!
Little, humming now as loudly as the yelling sister
Big, screaming: MOOOOOM! I WANT TO PRACTICE THE PIANO AND ALLIE WON'T STOP HUMMING! MOOOOOM! PLEASE MOM! I JUST WANT TO PRACTICE! YOU SAID I COULD PRACTICE ANYTIME I WANT, AND ALLIE WON'T STOP HUMMING!
It just kept going, until I hung up from my call (thankfully not having had to go off of mute) and went out to the top of the stairs with my finger pointing.
Me, yelling over the din: I CAN'T BELIEVE THE TWO OF YOU! I HAVE TO WORK, AND YOU KNOW I HAVE TO WORK! WHEN I AM ON A CALL, YOU HAVE TO BE QUIET. DO YOU WANT ME TO LOOK BAD WITH MY COWORKERS AND MY BOSS? DO YOU WANT ME TO LOSE MY JOB? I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU COULDN'T WORK THIS OUT WITHOUT SCREAMING. ALLIE! WHY DO YOU HAVE TO HUM SO LOUDLY? WHY CAN'T YOU JUST BE QUIET? GRACE, WHAT IS WRONG WITH PLAYING THE PIANO OVER THE TOP OF HER HUMMING? I CAN'T BELIEVE I HAVE TO GET INVOLVED IN THIS NONSENSE!
They both just looked at me with their mouths agape. I think they couldn't believe I was yelling because they probably couldn't remember the last time I yelled at either one of them. It had been years. I was furious and with good reason, but I am not proud of how I handled the situation. I later apologized for yelling at them but stressed that they were both also in the wrong.
All this to say that if you want your children to model Jesus, you have to show them an example of what Jesus would do. I don't know of any time in the Bible where it is said that Jesus yelled at someone, even when people were defiling the temple (Matthew 21:12-13). And He most certainly never yelled at children or His loved ones.
So. Can you show your children a Christ-like example? They aren't going to learn from the lessons you tell them; they will learn from the lessons you show them.
- Be careful about what you expose them to. Listen, I am not going to say you shouldn't watch adult tv shows by yourself (I'm a huge Outlander fan, personally), but be careful about what your children see. Do you allow them to listen to music or watch tv shows that encourage disrespect or immorality? I think immorality is easy to identify, and most of us would die of embarrassment if our children saw a sex scene, but disrespect is much more prevalent and subversive. How do the kids on their tv shows talk to each other? How do they talk to their parents? About their parents? Are the parents ridiculous and stupid? Do the girls act as if the only important things are their hair and their clothes? If you allow them to consume media with images you can't embrace, you are sending them very mixed messages about what you and your family find important.
- Respect authority. Have you ever made an off-hand, snarky comment about a politician or a law? Do you drive over the speed limit or occasionally squeak through a red light? Do you criticize your pastor after the Sunday service is over? These are all showing your kids that you don't respect authority. I am so guilty of this, especially with politics and driving, and it gives my kids the worst possible example. How can I expect them to drive safely and under the speed limit when they grow up if I drive 10 miles over it every time I get on the highway? If I speed up and drive through intersections when the light has turned red? We can't be hypocrites as parents, because our kids see and they will imitate everything we do.
- Love others. What do you do when you see a homeless person on the street with a sign asking for help? Do you offer money or food? I have gone through the drive thru a few times and brought it back to them because it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, but I certainly haven't done it frequently. It's a simple and inexpensive way to help someone without handing him money (if you feel uncomfortable with that, as I do).
What about your speech? Do you speak lovingly about others, especially when you disagree with them? Have your kids ever heard you make a statement about "those Democrats" or "those Republicans" or "those gay people"? That's not loving, my friend, and your kids know it.
- Let them see you giving cheerfully. I suppose this goes along with the last one, but do you give? Whether you're tithing at church of giving time or money to a local, national, or international charity, your kids should see you caring for others in a real, tangible way, and doing it with a cheerful attitude. Allow your kids to put the envelope into the collection plate. Ask them to choose gifts from the World Vision or Compassion catalog, or ask their opinion on which animal you should adopt with the World Wildlife Fund or the Sheldrake Trust. Get them involved in your giving so that they can see how adults really help others all the time.
- Speak kindly to them. This is the one that really trips up most parents. Can you say that you treat your kids as well as you would treat a stranger? Are you worried about offending them? Do you yell at them? Speaking gently and kindly to your kids is every bit as important as speaking gently and kindly to your boss or a police officer or stranger. Even when you're angry. Even when they're wrong. Even when you're tired or hungry or sad or just plain old fed up. Kindness counts.
- Speak kindly about others. One time, a couple of years ago, my family was at a banquet. A woman whose very personality rubs me the wrong way was speaking. "Do you know her?" Grace asked. "Yeah, I know her," I flatly answered. She immediately picked up on my tone. "What's wrong with her? Why don't you like her?" I forget exactly, but I think I told her something about her not having done anything to me, but I just didn't care for the way she talked to people. That wasn't entirely the truth because she had never said anything offensive to me; it was just that I found her manner to be abrasive, and to be honest, I was a little jealous that she seemed to be very popular with the other people in the organization. It was unfair of me to dislike her, and it was a horrible example to let my scorn show in front of my daughter. Now, every time we go to an event with that organization, she asks me if that woman I don't like is going to be there. It's mortifying and entirely of my own doing, and it set the tone for her that it's okay to dislike people for no reason.
- Smile more. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Jesus was a handsome man. In fact it is written in Isaiah 53:2 that there would be nothing beautiful or attractive about the Messiah. However, I believe that He had a radiant smile. I believe that His smile was given freely and that it felt like a gift to whomever saw it. Your smile does the same thing for your children. When you smile at them, a genuine smile that crinkles your eyes, they will see light in your face, and they will feel special and honored. Smile big and often, especially at your kids, and they will learn that there is a lot to be joyful about.
- Give them your undivided attention. When you are with your family, are you really with your family, or are you focused on your phone or work obligations or social media or the latest novel? This is one of my biggest pet peeves, because I don't like it when I'm present with someone, and he or she is not giving me the same respect. Be present, and put your phone down. Don't let work distractions get in the way of family meals. I'm not saying that you should be present with your kids 100% of the time. That's not realistic or healthy. What I am saying is that when you choose to be there, be all there and put the distractions aside.
- Listen to them. I have seen this quote many times, and it always gives me a gut check:
Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don't listen eagerly to the little stuff when they're little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them, all of it has always been big stuff. – Catherine M. Wallace
I know that little kids talk all the time. It can be maddening. My 9-year-old never. stops. talking. I mean, never. She talks from the moment her eyes open until the moment she falls asleep. Strangers comment on the voraciousness of her mouth. And you know what? Sometimes I do get tired of her voice and tune her out, but I try really hard to listen to her whenever I can. I want her to believe that I am eager to hear what she has to say and that I will be there for her when she needs to talk about anything. Because, as the quote above says, it's all been big stuff to her.
- Encourage friendships with other Christian kids. This is often overlooked and so important, in my opinion. It is fine (and important even) for kids to have friends who are not believers. That's how the Good News is shared, after all, but if it is true that you are a combination of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time, you want the people surrounding your kids to be Christians with a solid faith. Is that to say that all church-going Christians are good people? No, I don't believe they are. But if you know their friends and know their friends' families, you have a higher likelihood that those friends will be good influences who build your kids up and point them back to Jesus instead of steering them away toward the world.
- Make them a priority. Let your kids know that they are important to you by the way that you choose to spend your time. I said above that you should not feel compelled to be present with them 100% of the time, and I really believe that, but they have to know that they are important to you. Kids who feel important are kids who know what it's like to be loved, and all love comes from God. If they don't feel important and valued to their parents, how can they know what it feels like to be loved and valued by God? You are the first and best model of love for your kids, so make sure they can see it in the way you choose to spend your time.
We are not perfect parents, you and I, but God made us perfectly suited for our children, challenging as they may be. Raising Christian kids is not easy now and likely never will be easy, but if we can achieve most of the items on this list, we will be way ahead and our kids will be encouraged in their own Christian faith.
Read more about connecting with your kids in a loving, Christian way:
- 70 Ways to Connect with Your Kids
- 75 Ways to Love Your Kids
- 50 Bible Verses Every Christian Kid Should Memorize