Four-year-old Alicia made a slight mistake when she said her Bible verse: "That who so ever believes in him should not perish but have ever laughing life." Grinning, her mother didn?t correct her. That?s exactly how she wants Alicia to feel about Jesus.
From their earliest days, we want our children to know the joy of learning about Jesus. But how much can a child really understand about God? And how does that change as she gets older? To help our children develop a faith that will carry them into adulthood, it?s essential we play off their strengths at each stage of development.
A Solid Start:
Birth to 2
Even these early years are critical to your child?s spiritual development. As a parent, you?re always there, ready to feed your baby when he?s hungry, play with him when he?s awake and rock him when he?s fussy. Through these experiences, your child develops a foundation of love and trust in you that will later lead to trust in God.
Children under 2 also learn by imitating. When you pray with your toddler, she might fold her hands and try to copy the language and tone of your prayers. These activities will eventually help your child make sense of the concept of having a relationship with God.
Children first become conscious of God around age 2. The God-images they develop now are crucial to their future concept of who God is. You can help shape your child?s idea of God by talking about God?s love and kindness. You can assure your child that we can trust God to take care of us.
This is also a great time to use your child?s natural curiosity as a spring board for talking about God?s power and creativity. Talk about God as the Creator as you walk outside, read about nature or visit the zoo.
Bible truths for Birth to 2-year-olds:
- God made all things.
- God loves and cares for me.
- Jesus, God?s Son, loves me.
Ages 3 and 4
At this stage, a child will often express his thoughts and feelings through play. As your child learns more about God?s love, he?ll want to show God love in return. He can do that through simple songs and prayers.
This is also a stage of rapid mental development. Between the ages of 3 and 10, the activity level in your child?s brain is about 225 percent higher than that of an adult brain.
With this expanding mental ability comes a better understanding of right and wrong. So as your preschooler learns Biblical truths like loving others and respecting parents, he can begin to apply those truths to his actions. Now is a good time to talk to your child about his conscience. Explain that the conscience is one way God talks to us. When our conscience tells us something is wrong, we need to listen.
Bible truths for 3- and 4-year-olds:
- The Bible tells me about a loving God and his Son, Jesus.
- I can listen to Bible stories and learn Bible verses.
- I?m beginning to understand that the Bible is God?s Word.
- I know that Jesus feels sad when I do something I shouldn?t.
A Child of God:
Ages 5 and 6
At this age, many children who have been raised in Christian homes are ready to ask Jesus to be their friend for life. Although this is an exciting time for parents, it?s important to let them make their own decision. Sharon, the mother of 6-year-old twins says, "They?re asking questions about sin and Jesus? death on the cross. But they don?t quite get it yet." She says. "I?m not pushing them. I want their decision to be made for the right reasons, not be cause they?re pleasing me."
By the time your child reaches 6 years old, she starts to realize that Bible stories and songs actually relate to her own identity as a Christian. You can use simple symbols as teaching tools. For example, set an extra plate and chair at the table and explain that it?s for Jesus who is with you all the time even though you can?t see him.
Bible truths for 5- and 6-year-olds:
- Jesus loves everyone and that?s why he came to earth.
- I know who God is, what he?s like and what he?s done for me.
- I can talk to God whenever and wherever I want.
- I know people in Bible times loved God and served him, and I know how I can love and serve him today.
Ready to Reach Out:
Ages 7 and 8
Once your child reaches this stage, the questions start to get harder: If the little girl in the Bible story was dead, why did Jesus lie and say she was only sleeping? Why did you tell that policeman you didn?t know the stop sign was there? When your child asks these kinds of questions, don?t worry. Questions and doubts are clues that your child is maturing and learning to seek out her own answers. When she finds those answers? by searching Scripture or talking to you?she?ll be better equipped to follow God on her own, rather than simply following your example.
At this age, children are beginning to realize that God can use them to do his work. For example, when 8-year-old Brian put all $20 of his birthday money in the offering, his Sunday school teacher questioned him: Did he know how much that was? Did he know he wouldn?t get it back? Brian was surprised that she?d questioned his gift. "Of course I want to give all of it," he told her. "The missionary who visited our class needs it for the computer he told us about."
Encourage your child to use his special abilities to serve God and those around him.
Bible truths for 7- and 8-year-olds:
- The Bible is God?s truth for me.
- Jesus? death and resurrection makes a difference to me.
- The Ten Commandments are hard to obey. I need Jesus? help.
- The world is a big place, and God is working all over the world.
Ages 9 and 10
Obviously, parents are pleased when their children provide correct answers to spiritual questions. But it?s important to encourage them to dig deeper and to grapple with spiritual issues.
If your child doesn?t ask hard questions, ask them yourself. One mother did this with her children. Tina Reiman says, "When we discussed David?s sins of adultery and murder, I asked my children why God would take the throne away from King Saul and not take it away from David. We looked at the ways David and Saul each reacted when his sin was revealed. This gave us a chance to contrast true repentance and mere regret."
Ask probing questions that require your child to think deeply. Just as physical exercise develops athletes, spiritual activity will grow disciples.
Bible truths for 9- and 10-year-olds:
- The Bible defines right and wrong, and I?m responsible for choosing right.
- Salvation is for me and all people who trust Jesus.
- The Bible is the big picture of God working with his people, and I?m part of that picture.
The relative calm of the 9- and 10-year-old world seems to shatter around age 11 when the child?s mind makes the dramatic leap from following concrete rules to a world of infinite possibilities. Around this time, your child will begin to think about "What if ? " questions: What if Jesus hadn?t died? What if my Buddhist friends aren?t wrong? Encourage your teen to test theories and move to higher levels of abstract thought. This allows him to see God in an even bigger way. Seek out answers to tough questions together. The search itself will show your teen that faith is a process of growing and learning, even for adults.
At this stage, your child will also begin to wrestle with her own identity and where she fits in this world. Help her find that identity in the Lord. Encourage her to join a church youth group or a Christian club at school. Help her find an older Christian who can serve as a mentor. Support her interest in mission trips or other outreach efforts.
Bible truths for 11- to 14-year-olds:
- Being a Christian is part of who I am and the choices I make reflect that identity.
- God?s Word is filled with people just like me who were faced with difficult circumstances. I can look to the Bible for solutions to problems I face.
- God wants me to serve him by serving others through missions trips and ministries.
As your child grows and develops, keep your eyes open to indications that he?s moving toward spiritual maturity.
Eight-year-old Jeffrey and his father were watching a TV program about a cult. The child kept saying, "That?s not true."
"How do you know that?s not true, Jeffrey?" his dad asked.
"Well," responded Jeffrey, "when you?ve been a Christian as many years as I have, you know what?s right and what?s wrong."
Amen to that!
Marlene LeFever is director of church relations for Cook Communications Ministries.
We'd really like to know what you think about this article!
Is this the kind of article you'd like to see more of?
Is there a topic you'd like us to cover?
Please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today Magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.