There are many things that we assume are needed for our young children. It may be routine or a good diet or friends for them. It may be getting them into the right nursery, or having a big house so they can have their own room. Maybe we want them to start on the path of academic success early, so we buy flashcards and educational games for our toddlers, and take them to museums. Most of these are fine - though not essential - though it is wise to examine our hearts as what we desire for our children can reveal the idols of our own hearts.
Yesterday, my daughter turned four. Since her birthday is in August, she would be eligible to go to school in September. It feels like the end of a particular stage of bringing up children, and I have been looking back and reflecting on nearly ten years of babies, toddlers and pre-school aged children.
We have a tendency, I think, to get our priorities upside down. It is easy to consider things which are definitely optional absolutely necessary, but to be flexible about things which should be essential. It is easy to be very concerned about weaning or toilet training or learning colours or how to ride a bike, while being half hearted about reading the Bible with our children and hurried when we pray with them.
Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4, "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." With all the pressures of life, all the expectations that are placed on us, we are wise to listen to God's Word. What will it look like in practice to do this for your pre-schooler? What do young children really need?
Correction. If we don't discipline your child, we're not showing them love (Proverbs 13:24). Early years are the time to start. Set high standards. Keep on and keep on correcting. Teach them the right way from the Bible. Give Bible reasons (age appropriately) for your discipline. One of things I have learned is that often you have to be prepared to deal with the same issue time and time again. This shouldn't surprise me - I have weaknesses that are a constant battleground. There is no behaviour strategy that will deal with sin, however; what our children need, from the earliest age, is...
Jesus. They need Jesus. I want to remove my child's sin. I want the path to be easy for them, but this is something I can't do. My job is to keep on pointing them to Jesus. I need to show them their need for forgiveness, and show them the One who can give them forgiveness. I need to talk to them about the cross and what it means. My prayer is that there will never be a time when they don't know Jesus, and they will grow in their joy in knowing Him.
Prayer. We must pray for our children - both alone and when they can hear us and hear what we pray for them. Teach them to pray simple prayers ("Thank you, Sorry, Please" has worked well for us with young children). Pray with them when they are afraid, when they sin, before food, before church, before a day out and so on. We need to show them our dependence on God for everything.
God's Word. Reading the Bible with young children is vital. Start when they are babies with baby Bibles and keep on showing them God's Word. No children's Bible is perfect, so as soon as we could, we started to use a full Bible. We read short verses from the International Children's Bible from the age of about 2, while still continuing with children's Bibles.
Church. Not optional - and not just because I'm married to the minister! (Hebrews 10:25) God's people are commanded to meet together. We won't miss church for parties or other events. This is not to deprive our children, but because we believe that meeting with God's people under God's Word each Sunday is both something which we are commanded to do as a believing family, and also a great blessing to us, to our children and to our church family.
Love. Our children need our love. This is obvious - but love is costly. It's not presents and experiences, it is in prayer, in taking the time to discipline them, in teaching them God's Word. Love will mean taking an interest in their interests. It is wiping noses, getting up in the night, correcting the same faults again and again - forgiving your children again and again. It is taking them to church when you spend half the service jiggling a fractious baby at the back and you go home tired. Love will mean caring more about your child's godliness than about how many letter sounds they know at the age of three. It will mean costly decisions for you, as young children take patience and time - especially to do the things listed above.
Most of the things we want for our children are good, but when these good things crowd out a longing to see our children know Jesus, or a desire to teach our children the Bible or take them to church - then we need to repent and, with God's help, make sure our priorities are right. In my experience, this is something that needs to be done regularly, even daily. When I see that something has slipped - when Bible times are too rushed, or my discipline is functional rather than character training - I need to change.
My children won't wake up one day as perfect children who have finally learned to obey all the time; they need ongoing discipleship. In the early days, I think I thought that at some point it would become easier. Actually, I now know that bringing up children means keep on doing the right things each day. Sometimes we see big moments when big change happens. Often, it is slow, with bad days as well as good. Overall, I have much to thank God for in the work he is doing in all our lives.
I won't wake up one day as a perfect parent with great priorities and endless patience, but I can keep on praying and keep on trying, with God's help. One of the blessings of parenting is how much I am reminded of what I can't do; it keeps me praying for the work in the hearts of my children that only God can do.