When my oldest son was almost 2½ years old, we decided to start working with him on some basic theology. I know what you’re thinking. Theology? For a 2-year-old? The answer is YES! Of course we’re talking very basic. We started by asking him, “Who made everything?” We tried to get him to point up and say, “God!” He wasn’t even interested in trying, but to our surprise Joshua piped up and exclaimed, “God!” Joshua was about 13 months old at the time, and he picked up on several questions immediately. Today, 6 months later, Joshua knows the answers to 5 questions. Nathanael, who is almost 3, sometimes can answer two of the questions. We know Nathanael is capable, but he has grown up just enough that he’s not as interested in learning answers to questions. We really have to push him to get him to memorize anything. We thought we were starting early with Nathanael, but we were actually starting late. Joshua, on the other hand, has gotten a perfect start at learning Truth from God’s Holy Word.
In less than 3 years of parenthood, we’ve learned a lot about discipling our children from a very young age. I’m sure we still have plenty to learn! We don’t expect them to accept Christ as Savior and Lord while they are toddlers, and so discipling may seem like an odd word to use. I’m using it anyway. We are likely not making a disciple out of our children today, but we are training them up in hopes that they become mature disciples of Christ someday.
You may be wondering, HOW do we disciple our toddlers? If so, here are FOUR practical things we do in order to disciple them now:
We pray with them. We started praying with Nathanael when he was probably 8 months old. When we put him to bed we would hold his hand and say a prayer. We discovered that it helped him relax, and he would always smile as he enjoyed that special time with Mom or Dad. Of course, we also prayed at the dinner table. With time, we began to pray with him whenever something was wrong. When he was throwing a fit and having a hard time calming himself down, I would take his hands, look him in the eye, and ask him if we could pray. He would almost immediately calm down, and he and I would pray together. He even started to repeat words after us. Today he and Joshua both love to repeat prayers after mom or dad say the words. They love to pray! Sometimes Nathanael even joins me in my personal prayer time and in praying over my prayer list.
2. Bible Reading
We read the Bible to them. Right now, we are reading a story from the book of Luke each day at lunch. After our Bible story, we say our memory verse several times. This week’s verse is “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” We do little motions and say the verse in segments of 2-3 words at a time. Joshua does some of the motions and words, and Nathanael usually repeats the words and does the motions. At the end of the verse, we say, “Yay!!!” and clap our hands. The boys love it!
In addition, during my own personal Bible reading time, I will often read Scripture out loud to them. I usually do this when they are interrupting my quiet time. It helps me to focus on God’s Word in spite of their distractions, but it also is an extra opportunity to feed them truth from God’s Word and show them how much I value the Bible.
We practice basic theology. Because they are toddlers, we keep this very basic. We often state truths about God, like “God is good.” “God loves us.” “We can always trust God.” Sometimes Nathanael cries in his bed at night and needs me to come in and comfort him. If he isn’t wanting me to leave him alone after a scary dream, I tell him: “Even when Mommy isn’t here, God is here with you and can take care of you. You are never alone.” We look for opportunities to talk about these things!
In addition to that, we work with them on memorizing the answers to some basic questions about theology. Here are some of the questions we currently ask:
- Q: Who made everything? A: God! (We point up.)
- Q: What’s the only source of Truth? A: Bible!
(We hold our hands in the shape of a book.)
- Q: Who died for you? A: Jesus.
(We touch each palm, which is the sign language for Jesus.)
- Q: How do we talk to God? A: Pray! (Clasp hands as if in prayer.)
- Q: Who is God’s family? A: Church.
(I do the old trick of intertwining my fingers and pointing both index fingers toward the sky like a steeple.)
As they grow from toddlers to preschoolers, we have some basic things about the Gospel that we developed for our church’s family discipleship ministry that we will do with them. I’m sure we will add to them, but here are the basic things we plan to teach them first:
- God made me and everything. Genesis 1
- Adam and Eve did something wrong. That’s called sin. Sin made a wall between people and God. Genesis 2-3, Isaiah 59:2.
- Sometimes I sin, too. Romans 3:23
- God sent His Son Jesus to earth. John 3:16, Luke 2:4-7, Matthew 9:35.
- Jesus died on the cross. Only a perfect man who never sinned could take care of the punishment for sin. Mark 15:25-39, Isiah 53:6, I Peter 3:18, Romans 5:17, John 19:38-42.
- Jesus came back to life! Matthew 28:1-7
- If I believe in Jesus, He can take away my sin and give me everlasting life. I John 1:9, John 6:47, Romans 6:22.
Going to church might seem like a given, but there’s more to it than just “going” when we talk about discipleship. We are starting with some basics that we hope will lay a foundation for future worship and service to God. We’re trying to teach them how to sit still in church and listen. I have to be honest. This is HARD. Like REALLY hard. I think it’s especially hard for us because we have TWO toddlers–both a 1-year-old AND a 2-year-old. We hope Nathanael will have at least mostly mastered this by his third birthday in April. He’s doing pretty well right now, but he’s still not where we want him to be. Joshua is just starting to learn. I feel that we are starting late, so hopefully if God blesses us with more children it will be easier in the future. At our previous church the boys were always in nursery for service. It was nice to be able to sit and listen, but I wasn’t prepared when we moved to a new church that only offered nursery on Sunday morning. At first, my goal was simply to keep them quiet. A wonderful woman sat with me to help out. We brought tons of snacks and toys, and they would play and have so much fun at the pew. As Joshua has gotten older, though, their play has become much louder and it’s been a struggle to even keep them in the pew–much less quiet. We’ve tried a number of things, but after all of our attempts to keep them entertained, we knew we needed a better plan! For now, this is where we have settled:
- I work with Nathanael individually on Sunday morning while Joshua is in the nursery. While there, he’s supposed to participate just like a regular church member. I have him stand for songs. I have him go say “Hi” to people during the meet and greet time. I give him the tithe check to place in the offering “bowl”. He even stands as the church recites our weekly memory verse. Then there is something called “Small Talk” where the children come to the front. I take him up there while I sit on the front pew. The first time, he took off running up on the stage and I had to go fetch him, but now he pays attention pretty well and seems to follow the lead of the bigger kids most of the time. For now, I take him to the nursery after Small Talk, but very soon we’ll work on staying for the sermon.
- We no longer bring toys. Toys caused them to play, and not pay attention to what was going on around them. They also sometimes caused their play to become increasingly more wild. They would play quietly during the singing, but by invitation they were crawling under the pews and throwing a fit that ended in me taking them out.
- We no longer bring snacks. Snacks were similar to toys. Even sippy cups ended up being rolled under pews at other people’s feet. They eat dinner before church and can have a snack when we get home. There really isn’t a need for snacks during that one hour.
- We have them sit. This is a struggle, but we are really working on making them sit on their bottoms for the service. They currently don’t last the entire service, but Nathanael is really close!
- We bring books. Now, I started with bringing a pile of random books, but I’m even changing that up. Too many books just turn into toys. They have fun stacking them. They have fun throwing them on the floor and then getting down to pick them up. So now I’ve decided to only bring 2 books per boy, and only give them one at a time. I will only give them a book after the song service, and only after they start to become antsy. These books will be “Bible” books, for the sake of making sure church is always about God. We have several so we should be able to switch it up a bit. The books are only there because books are just about the only things we have to keep them interested while sitting. Once they get good at sitting with a book, we’ll begin waiting longer to give them a book, and then we’ll eventually take the books away entirely.
- I do not take them to the nursery when they misbehave. There are times when I need to take them out of the service. If they are misbehaving, I do not want them to distract others, and this is where discipline comes in to play. We have one rule about this, though. They can not go downstairs to the nursery and play after they have misbehaved in church. Instead, we find an empty Sunday School room and they sit in chairs. No toys. No books. No snacks. Sometimes we’re able to go back to church after just talking for a few minutes. Other times we spend the rest of church in that room. We will never make it fun when they act poorly in church.
- We practice at home. Currently we do this while their dad works out in the living room. They sit with a book for the entire workout, which lasts anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. They do really well, but of course, Dad is pretty entertaining! 🙂
As a mom, I know God has called me (and my husband) to disciple our children. We hold to God’s promise to “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” We take His Word very seriously when it comes to the way we raise our children. On top of these 4 ways that we are discipling our children, we also recognize that our own lifestyles are pivotal in determining the kind of disciples our children will become. Things like entertainment, materialism, clothing, leisure, diet and exercise, relationships with each other, and relationships with others are all key when it comes to “training them up” to follow and obey God! We need to teach our children that all of life should be given to God and lived out for His glory. So what about you?
What practical ways have you used in discipling your toddlers and young children?
Tell me in the comments below!