When my children are grown, the one thing I hope they will take with them from our family is …
How would the average American parent answer that question?
The answers would certainly vary, but how often do we hear a parent say, "I want my child to have learned piety in our family?" Would even Christian parents give such an answer? One definition of piety is "devotion to religious duties." The faithful observance of duty in a culture as feeling-oriented as ours sounds less than interesting. Yet devotion to duty ensures that what is right and important gets done, however, we feel about it at the moment. Devotion to duty is a part of good character, and devotion to religious duty-piety-is an essential part of godly character.
Family piety must begin with the knowledge of the one true God, which means God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. If it is true piety, it will not stop there but will spread out into a daily commitment to live in the light of God's revelation-seeing the world as God sees it, loving what he loves, and living to see and to show his glory.
Several commonly held misconceptions about what is best for children threaten to derail the training of our children in this kind of piety if we should thoughtlessly embrace them. So, what are these misconceptions and how do they hinder us in practicing piety in our families?
Misconception 1: "Good parenting is child-centered."
Increasingly, the parents considered to be the most exemplary are those who give the most to their children. Indeed, it always has been true that good parents must give and give and give, often going without the rest or pleasure they would like to have, in order to meet the needs of their children. Today, however, we often consider the good parent as the one who gives the child not just what he needs but what he wants, as well. The measure of a good parent is defined by the speed with which he or she is willing to set aside other concerns to do what a child would like to do:
I have just begun to eat my dinner and my toddler, not hungry, wants to go out to play. If I am a good parent, I will leave my meal and go outside. I am in the middle of a conversation with someone when my child begins tugging on my sleeve and demanding my attention. Since I am a good parent, I excuse myself from the conversation to hear my child’s request. My husband and I would like to spend time alone together, but my children do not like having a babysitter, so we stay home. It is the Lord’s Day and I want to attend worship, but my children dislike sitting through the church service, so we all attend Sunday school, then leave.
Child-centered parenting may be an attempt to guard against spending inadequate time teaching, training, loving, and enjoying one’s children. But parenting goes to the opposite extreme and becomes wrongfully child-centered when what the children prefer is the most frequently used criterion for parental choices.
Child-centered parenting fails on two counts. First, it fails to prepare a child for life in the real world. As children grow, they will find that playmates, teachers, bosses, and spouses do not base all of their decisions on their preferences. If children have come to expect the constant fulfillment of their desires by others, then they will be prepared only for disappointment. Second, and more important, child-centered parenting fails to train a child in piety. Parents must model that God and his will are supreme. Although part of a parent’s responsibility to God includes giving time and attention to a child’s concerns, he has given parents other responsibilities as well. The godly parent makes God’s will central, not the child’s:
I call the babysitter and spend time alone with my husband whether the children prefer that or not because God has called me to be a wife. We attend worship as a family whether or not the children would rather do something else because God has called us to worship with his people.
Children, too, must be trained from an early age to consider others-and especially God-as more important than themselves. Learning to wait to speak until someone else is finished, learning to entertain themselves because Mom or Dad must do something else right now, learning to set aside their own preferences and desires for the sake of another’s—all of this is part of the training required to prepare children to live lives for the glory of God rather than for the immediate satisfaction of their own desires.
Misconception 2: “The most important element of spiritual teaching for children is the child’s enjoyment.”
As a Bible teacher in a Christian junior high school, I am alarmed at how many parents seem content to teach their children to feel good about a nice God who takes care of us and answers our prayers and how few go on to teach them to know the God of the Bible. Children have grown up in churches with programs designed for them and they have had fun, but they know very little about the Bible or about God's character.
Piety must begin with the knowledge of the one true God, which means God as he has revealed himself in the Bible. Yet there is an anti-intellectual sentiment in many evangelical circles that makes a virtue of loving and doing, while actually despising learning and knowing. Doctrine and academic knowledge are contrasted with heartfelt love for Jesus, as though we may have one or the other but not both. Although one can know about God without loving him, one cannot love the true God without knowing him. And since the true God has chosen to reveal himself to us in the pages of the Bible, we cannot know him without study.
One of the most important ways to teach children about Scripture's God is to read widely in Scripture with-and to-them. Another very important means of teaching the substance of the Christian faith is by means of a good catechism. A catechism takes the primary doctrines of the Christian faith and presents them through questions and answers. Its value lies in its stating biblical truths in clear, concise sentences that are easily remembered.
One objection to using catechisms is that they rely on mere rote learning, seemingly void of meaning to the learners. Granted, catechisms do use rote learning; but rote learning is actually one of the most effective learning methods, especially for children. Do you still remember the alphabet, your multiplication tables, old nursery rhymes? How did you learn them? Learning a catechism does not have to be mere rote learning, however, since parents and teachers can-and should-take the time to make sure that children understand the meaning of each answer and can locate its scriptural source.
Study and catechetical memorization are not always fun; they often require hard work and diligence. But the God who gave us his Word in the Bible calls us to such diligence and hard work so that we might know him. Engaging children when we teach is important and we want our children to enjoy learning; yet we should never make our children's enjoyment the top priority in our worship services, Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible Schools, or family devotions. Solid, intellectual substance pulled from the propositions God gives us in Scripture must be our top priority as we lay the foundations on which our children will build lives of piety before God.
Misconception 3: "The goal of education is a fulfilling or lucrative career."
I meet many parents who are concerned that education is practical, packed with acquiring skills their children will be able to use, especially to earn a living. Rare is the parent who understands and values education as that which would most fully develop his child’s potential as a human being created in God’s image-to bring God glory.
The ancient Romans, having conquered the known world, had slaves to do all of their work for them. Consequently, they needed no vocational training. Instead, they needed to teach their children (who were free people or liberi—from which we get the concept of the “liberal arts”) how to make wise use of their free time. Their education, thus, focused on those things that set humans apart from other creatures-namely, the humanities of history, language, philosophy, art, music, and literature. They believed that once their children were educated in this way, they would be able to recognize, value, and create what is good, true, and beautiful.
Many centuries later, Puritan poet John Milton, fully valuing the humanities, added that the true end of education was to repair the ruins left by man’s fall. He believed that education should teach students to know, love, and imitate their Creator. In other words, studying the humanities Christianly would help students to become truly human in the way that God intended. Later still, eighteenth-century theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards wrote that the end of all we do, including academic study, should be to see and savor the glory of God in what he has made.
Whatever kind of education we choose for our children, we must realize that they spend a large portion (perhaps the largest portion) of their everyday lives absorbing what we have chosen for them. So have we asked ourselves whether they are being adequately trained to see the glory of God in every academic discipline they encounter? Are we teaching them to work diligently, not only to acquire those skills they may someday use in a job, but also at those tasks that require intellectual rigor that can enrich their lives and make them more fully human? Are we faithfully reminding our children, by our words and deeds, that we are requiring these things so that they may see more fully God’s glory and show it to their generation?
Misconception 4: “A family’s top priority should be involvement in its children’s activities.”
American children today have many things to do. Most American families seem to believe that the best parent is the one whose children are involved in the most activities. Soccer, baseball, dance, gymnastics, music lessons, art classes-for many families, the list is very long and the family car is always in motion to one activity or another.
Certainly, these activities are all gifts of God to be enjoyed. Scripture teaches that whatever we do can be done to the glory of God and it puts physical exercise, competition, art, and music in a positive light. However, Scripture only mentions these things infrequently. What it repeatedly emphasizes as worthy of our time and attention, what it calls on us to love and value, what it discusses from every conceivable angle, is the Church that Christ redeemed with his own blood.
Considering the tremendous importance the New Testament places upon the Church of Christ, true family piety-devotion to religious duties-must include a family's commitment to a local church body. When a family is so busy with children's activities that it must take Sunday as a day to stay at home together as a family and rest, or when those activities take place on Sunday and must be attended, precluding church attendance, a family is not seeing as God sees or loving what Christ loves.
Children can learn very early that a church body is their family and that God's people are their people. They can learn that worship and meeting with the people of God are top priorities-indeed, duties given by God-that are not to be set aside. Faithful parents can set the example of involvement in a local church and be sure that their children, however young, have some way to serve there themselves.
Misconception 5: "Church is for adults."
I am sure that no parent or pastor would ever say that church is for adults and not for children. Yet considering the assumptions many make that children will "get nothing out of" a worship service and judging by the way most sermons seem to be addressed only to adults, it appears we assume that the worship service, at least, is only for adults.
Most pastors and laypeople could do much more to include children in the church. Sermons should not be "dumbed down" because children are in the congregation, but pastors can remember the children as they prepare their sermons and, thus, work in an illustration or an explanation that would help them to focus on a main point and be able to discuss the sermon with their parents at home. Worship leaders can take a moment to explain a verse or two of a hymn before singing it to help not only children but adults understand the words being sung.
It is often said that children are the Church of tomorrow. They certainly are-and all of us who comprise the Church of God would do well to remember that. But we must also keep in mind that the children among us are part of the Church of today. We should work hard to include them now so that they will still want to be here later.
Parents can teach their children that God requires their involvement with a church. They can set the example by faithfully bringing their children to worship each week. But it is only the Church itself-the people of God whom the children see each Sunday-who can make those children feel that they belong, who can help them want to be there, devoted to this particular religious duty of Church involvement. Faithful participation in the Church is so important to our Lord Jesus Christ. The diligence of both parents and congregation are needed in this most vital part of a child's training in piety.
What would we most want our children to take from our families when they are grown? Do we want our children to know God, as he has revealed himself in his Word, and to love him with a love that moves them to glorify and serve him all their days? Do we want Christian piety in our children? Then let us examine our priorities and our practices. Center our parenting around God rather than around our children. Pass on the substance of the faith we hold through diligent study of the Scriptures and catechetical instruction. Educate our children with the glory of God in view as education's chief goal. Give the church the priority that Christ gives it in our families-and remember to include the children in our churches.
Adapted from Starr Meade, “Thinking Differently: Resisting Five Common Misconceptions that Work Against Family Piety,” Modern Reformation, July/August 2002. Used with permission.