While there are many experts out there who have written about chores, allowances, and ways to set rules and boundaries when raising children, I discovered about ten years ago that there weren’t a lot of people writing about how to help children develop holy habits, otherwise known as the spiritual disciplines.
Many adult Christians haven’t heard of the spiritual disciplines and if they have, they often assume they are for people who are “really religious.” Mention the spiritual disciplines and people may squirm in their seat, thinking, “Oh, great. Yet another way I am not following Jesus faithfully. Let me add this to my overflowing guilt closet along with the rest of my out-of-control life.”
The good news is holy habits can be developed just as you have developed every other habit you have in your life. In fact, I would suspect that most of your life and the lives of your children run out of habit. Have you ever wondered if you took your medication or brushed your teeth and then had to stop and really think about it? It was because that morning vitamin or dressing ritual is such a habit that we don’t even think about it anymore. We do it while our minds are a million miles away, thinking of the chore list for the day or the upcoming conference with our child’s teacher after school.
Or someone blindsides you emotionally or cuts you off in traffic. What is your first response? That, too, is a habit. Or if your child is being treated unfairly by a sibling, what is their immediate response? And your response in return? Many of those are habit driven—some holy, others not so much.
So how do we teach our children these holy habits? The good news is, many of the spiritual practices you do as an adult can be modified for use with your children, but you yourself must be intentionally, transparently (as appropriate), and verbally doing them— like Bible reading, regular prayer and worship. Trying to train your children in the spiritual disciplines without them knowing they are a regular part of your life will have as much effect as telling your child to eat well and exercise while you sit around all day and eat the proverbial bon-bons. Actions will always speak louder than words.
One way to get started is by taking serious stock of your own life. Pick a week and spend time each evening listing areas and/or activities that worked in your life that day. Then list those that didn’t work. For example, were you often late? Why? What needs to happen for you to not be late all the time? What steps can you take tomorrow to make that happen? What changes would be long-term? Were you chronically disorganized? Feeling out of touch with God, your spouse, your children, your friends? Did your children cry a lot? Were they up late doing homework again? Were there a lot of trips through fast food restaurants? Where did things run smoothly? What gave you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day?
Next, spend time in prayer over the next several days. Tell God about the areas you think need changing and ask Him to confirm the areas where you are on track. Find a mature spiritual friend to share the list with. Commit to not being offended by their comments. This is not the time for an “oh, it’s okay” session but an honest assessment of what is working and what isn’t—in your life and the lives of your children.
Third, develop a plan starting with one to three SPECIFIC, MEASURABLE actions you will take to begin to make changes. Start small so as to not guarantee failure. The list below offers ideas; pick one that seems to speak to your deepest need or the need of your children.
The Discipline of Meditation. Everyone needs a balanced rhythm in life between work and rest. For example, each day have a time to do spiritual reading with a child or as a family. For example, read a Bible story or a chapter from the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis each night before bedtime. Read slowly and take time to let everyone process the characters and what happened in that chapter or story. Or spend a few minutes outside enjoying God’s creation. Look closely at a flower, a shell, or a bug. Talk about God as an artist. What does God’s artistry tell you about what God believes about you and the world?
The Discipline of Prayer. Teach your children to pray and teach them prayers. Give your children roots through the ancient prayers that Christians have used over the centuries, like the Lord’s Prayer or the prayer of St. Francis, and give them wings by teaching them to pray for the needs of daily life.
The Discipline of Fasting. This can be tricky as you don’t want to plant seeds for an eating disorder. Too many children (and adults) overload on junk food and/or spend too much time in front of a TV or computer. Choose a day each week (preferably the same one so it will be the calendar’s fault and not yours when your children complain) to eliminate those activities and/or foods. Substitute a book or board game for the activity being fasted and collect the money the sugar treat costs to be donated to a charity of your children’s choice after three months.
The Discipline of Study. Insist that children learn to do homework without music, phones or the TV on. Use the Discipline of Solitude to help here. Multi-tasking is a hindrance when training young minds to learn to focus.
The Discipline of Simplicity. Go through your children’s closets with them to find unworn clothing and outgrown toys to donate. Anxiety can be created in children and adults through too much stuff. Limit their after-school activities; limit your activities. Aim for regular unstructured time each week.
The Discipline of Solitude. Observe periods of quiet. Everyone (yourself included!) could spend an age-appropriate amount of time napping, quiet art making, or reading. Consider having special books or supplies used only during these quiet times so it doesn’t feel like a punishment.
The Discipline of Submission. It can be hard to raise kids who respect authority and yet are able to respond appropriately to unjust authority. (Submissive people are not doormats.) Ask yourself if you know how to do this. Teach kids how to respond to injustice in ways that will get them a hearing but doesn’t involve them hitting back. A key task in this discipline is to love your children unconditionally but expect good behavior from them in all situations.
The Discipline of Service. Make doing something anonymously for others a part of your family’s culture. Help your children know they don’t always have to be rewarded or thanked for helping.
The Discipline of Confession. Be a “priest” to your children. Hear their confessions of wrong and tell them “I forgive you.” There may still be consequences for the behavior but let them know that they can come to you (“Jesus with skin on”) to be loved and restored. As appropriate, confess your sins to them and ask them to forgive you.
The Discipline of Worship. Teach your children that worship is not what they get out of it but what God gets out of it. If they are balking at going to church, try to find out if there are other issues going on (abuse? bullying?) Help them understand that if worship was like a sporting event, it is God who is in the stands watching us, the players on the field, and not vice versa. Find a faith community and stick with it through thick and thin. This will teach children that relationships aren’t necessarily abandoned when the going gets tough. If you do need to leave a faith community, model Christian love in sharing that decision with your children.
The Discipline of Guidance. Your children are not here to live the life you didn’t or couldn’t. Help them discover who God created them to be, even if it is far out of your own personal comfort zone. As much as possible, include them in family decisions. Model how one does research on a vacation or major purchase, weighing the pros and cons of the options.
The Discipline of Celebration. Teach your children to play by playing with them. Have a meaningful time of interaction with them daily (see the Discipline of Simplicity above). Activities where a parent is fully involved means so much more than a lot of expensive technology, even for teenagers.
Like all habits, the spiritual disciplines are habits for living and responding to God and others, giving life to everyone involved. With intentionality, we can develop these holy habits and teach them to our children.