Can spiritual disciplines serve as foundations for the spiritual formation of children?
I met with parents of preschoolers at my church to discuss this question, which resulted in a fruitful conversation and an affirmation that they can.
Here are a few key reflections and practical ideas from our discussion:
1. Positively forming children to know and follow Jesus begins with parents.
Far more than any times of prayer or family worship, children are shaped by whom their parents are. So taking seriously your own spiritual development and growth is essential.
As parents, it’s important that you familiarize yourselves with the various spiritual disciplines, which we defined as “things we do to be with God.”
I highly recommend that parents read Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline” as a place to begin understanding these practices, so that they can adapt them in teaching their children.
2. Spiritual disciplines are rhythms, just like breathing.
If you only inhaled or only exhaled, you would die. We need the rhythm of breathing in and out to live. It’s similar in the Christian spiritual journey.
3. Consider crafting a “rule of life” for yourself that you might share with your spouse or your small group to help keep you accountable.
This ancient practice is a guide that you construct to help you plan and carry out a series of spiritual disciplines.
Once you’ve decided on and put into practice your own “rule of life,” you can consider helping your children do the same.
4. When teaching children to pray, encourage them to practice short times of silence.
I like to set a timer that gives some structure to the silence. With preschoolers, start with a minute.
You may not get to two minutes until they’re teenagers, but even a minute of silence exposes them to the practice of listening prayer.
I also like to share short, responsive prayers with my little kids. These can be general prayers for any occasion or prayers specific to a season of the church year, such as:
â— Advent: “Dear Jesus, we wait for you to come. Come, Lord Jesus.”
â— Christmas: “Dear Jesus, thank you for coming. Come again, Lord, Jesus.”
â— Epiphany: “Dear Jesus, thank you for showing yourself to us. Now show yourself through us.”
â— Lent: “Dear Jesus, thank you for going to the cross. Be with us as we follow you.”
â— Easter: “Dear Jesus, you died for the sin of the world. You rose to give us new life.”
â— Pentecost: “Dear Jesus, thank you for being with us. Help us to be with you.”
5. Consider learning Bible stories really well and telling them to your kids without anything in between you and your child – just pure storytelling.
Speak slowly and help them experience the stories. At the end, I recommend using “I wonder” statements to discuss them with your child.
For example, “I wonder what Mary was thinking when the angel told her she was going to have a baby.”
This invites some participation from our kids, encourages them to use their imaginations and places them in the stories themselves. But it also doesn’t demand an answer.
It’s not about being right or wrong about the facts of the story. It’s about giving them space to wander around inside the story and get to know it well.
This is very closely related to the classic practice of “lectio divina” – spiritual reading – in which you read the story from the Bible contemplatively.
6. Use the church calendar to explain the seasons of Christian worship.
Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost are the six major seasons.
Each one is a journey of varying length with its own focus and direction that you can explain and use to add some variance to your prayer time together.
7. Find intentional ways you can serve the world with your kids. Here are just a few practical ideas:
â— Get to know your neighbors by making them cookies together, having the kids write notes to them and visiting them just to see how they’re doing.
â— If a friend at school or church is in the hospital, make something for her and go visit her.
â— Fill a brown paper bag with nonperishable foods, bottled water, travel toothpaste/toothbrush and have your child decorate the outside of the paper bag. Keep it in the car for when you encounter someone asking for money on the side of the road.
â— Help your child pick out one of their own toys to donate to Toys for Tots or Goodwill.
8. Consider writing blessings for your children – maybe a blessing for any time you part and a blessing for nighttime.
Make your blessings short but meaningful. These are the words you want to leave with them.