Shaping responsible behavior takes time

Shaping responsible, Christ-like behavior in children takes time.

Somehow my father added several hours to his already busy day to drive me around to selected classmates’ homes. The trips were made so I could render apologies to them and their parents. I had shared something inappropriate with several students and been caught. Part of making the situation right involved my dad giving up his valuable time to make sure I followed through on my tour of atonement. Later that night I gave the eighth-grade valedictory speech at my grade school. I’m pretty sure I had a red face as I shared “The value of a Christian education.”

This is only one example of how my parents were tasked with trying to raise children who would behave responsibly. There were five of us, but I’m pretty sure I gave them the most practice.

No matter how hectic the pace of their daily lives, they not only addressed irresponsible behavior but gave us opportunities to foster responsibility. There was an assumption that we were competent beyond our own expectations—and most of the time we lived up to them.

Take three city buses to get to school? You can do it! And we did.

Go to college and pay for it yourself? Sure, why not?

Travel abroad on your own dime and come home in one piece? Piece of cake!

Shaping responsible behavior takes the kind of faith that realizes our children are just on loan to us from their true Father.

My own children were tasked with daily chores that were part of their preparation for real life. Self-esteem starts with knowing you are a child of God, and conquering skills is an important addition.

Responsible behavior grows when responsibility is given to a child. In my years in the classroom I observed well-meaning parents cripple their children’s growth by assuming responsibilities that could have been given to their children. I was reminded of this myself when I was about to pick up my grandchild’s breakfast dish. My son said kindly, “Never do for a toddler what a toddler can do for herself.”

Follow-through on responsibilities is important. Very early on our children knew that bringing needed books home from school was their responsibility. The first time our daughter forgot a book she knew that even though we lived next door and had a key to the school, we weren’t going to go and get that book for her. It was a hard pill for all of us to swallow but one that would help achieve the desired effect.

At one of the Lutheran schools in which I taught, a very basic lunch was provided for children who forgot theirs. We knew something about the parents when we saw a child pick up that unglamorous lunch without a request to call home. And we saw the growth in responsible behavior as that same child remembered to bring his own lunch in the future.

The motivation for this never-ending job of raising responsible children is simple, powerful, and comes with a promise. Children in our care are a gift from God, and they actually come with instructions: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

“Response-able” kids

“The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message” (Acts 16:14).

My mom will laugh when she sees that I’m writing an article on parenting responsible kids. I don’t think a single school day went by when I could find both of my shoes before mom was in the car backing out of the driveway. I wasn’t known as a very responsible kid in the traditional sense of the word. She used to joke that if my head weren’t attached I would probably lose it. And she was probably right.

But I once heard that being responsible really means that one is able to respond. You might think of it as being spelled response-able. I like this definition. This is, after all, what I really want for my kids. I don’t just want them to know where their shoes are, and, someday, where their keys and wallets are (though it would be nice if they were more responsible than I was . . . okay . . . am). But what I really want for them is to be able to respond to situations they find themselves in throughout their lives in a God-pleasing way.

I want my kids to be able to respond to God’s law and own up to their sin and their mistakes when the mirror of the law exposes them for the sinners that they are. I want them to be able to respond with genuine contrition and repentance. And I think that ability is fostered the more they come to know and believe and appreciate the gospel. They can own up to their sin knowing that Jesus will forgive it and erase it every time.

I want my kids to be able to respond to the consequences of their actions. I want them to know that God isn’t punishing them for their sin—he already punished Jesus in their place. But I want them to know that God (and sometimes their mom and I) allow or send such consequences to teach them to make a better choice next time they are faced with similar temptations.

But most of all I want my kids to be able to respond to the gospel as they rejoice in the full and free forgiveness that is theirs through Christ. He offered his life for them and then rose up again in victory for them and for the world. I want them to be able to respond to that gospel victory by letting it fill their hearts and minds with peace as they put their trust in Jesus more and more. No matter what the situation in which they find themselves, I want them to be able to respond by living lives that are pleasing to him in their attitudes and in their actions, in the way they treat others, and in the way they look to serve those around them.

To me, this is the kind of responsibility I really want for my kids—even if they can’t find their shoes or leave their backpack at school or leave a coat out in the rain. This kind of responsibility will last—not just for a lifetime but for eternity.

What can I do to foster such responsibility in my kids? I can model it and be responsible myself as I respond to the law and gospel in the way God desires. I’ll make both a part of my life every day and strive to be more and more responsible to God’s Word. Finally, I’ll pray that God works this responsibility in me and in my kids, because neither can happen without him. With his help and blessing, our family will be responsible in all that we do.

Helping our kids find role models

When I was a kid, I adored Olivia Newton-John’s character, Sandy, from the movie Grease. I wanted to be her. That perfectly flipped hair. That golden voice. That sweet, upright disposition. Then it all changed in the last scene of the movie. Gone were the sweater sets and pearls and out came the too-tight leather pants and garish makeup. She changed who she was—just to win the favor of some guy. I was crushed! How could I still look up to her?

It’s tough to find good role models, especially for our kids. The “role models” that our society produces—reality TV stars, Hollywood celebs, professional athletes—can have a broken moral compass. Here are a few things to remember as we help our kids find role models they can look up to.

Look for role models outside the norm. Role models can come from all sorts of places: the quiet World War II veteran who lives next door and fought for his country on the beaches of Normandy. The doctor who set aside her six-figure salary and instead chooses to volunteer in a third-world country. The teacher who has spent over half his life faithfully mentoring kids in and out of the classroom. We can help our kids find these role models.

Look for role models in your child’s interest areas. Does your child love science? Encourage her to study the life of someone who made a groundbreaking discovery despite the odds. Does your child love writing? Help him find an author who endured rejection after rejection yet persisted. Kids need role models who can inspire them and show them what’s possible.

Help your kids understand that even the best role models are flawed, and we can learn from that. David—“a man after [God’s] own heart”—had an affair with another man’s wife, and when he found out she was carrying his child, set in motion a series of tragic events that led to the death of her husband and had ramifications on David’s family for years to come. Discuss with your kids why God included flawed heroes in his story: to remind us repeatedly of our desperate need for forgiveness and the power of his grace, and also to remind us that God uses us, flawed as we are, for his purposes.

In the end, we need more than worldly role models. We need a Savior. While we can look to Jesus as a role model, we must first see him as our Redeemer. He was perfectly kind, perfectly loving, perfectly forgiving. He prayed constantly, studied the Scriptures, and obeyed his Father in a way we never could. Praise God that when we inevitably fall short of his perfect standards, we can look to the one who lovingly kept those standards perfectly!

Cherishing positive role models

As parents, I think we can all agree with the importance of Proverbs 22:6: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The question is, “How do we train?”

This has been what I have most appreciated about Heart to Heart. Parents are sharing their unique experiences on how they have trained their children in the Lord. When I read Proverbs, the word “training” initially brings a picture in my mind of sitting down with my son or daughter and studying Scripture or reading a devotion—perhaps more of an academic experience. However, I’m also quite certain that modeling the application of our knowledge of Scripture is important for my kids and included in the idea of “training” from Proverbs.

By default, parents are natural role models for their children, but we can also rely on other positive role models to reinforce that training in the Lord. I want my kids to see how God’s Word comes to life in what we do and say. I’d like them to see how others bring to life the fruits of the spirit: “. . . love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22).

But who are these people who can be role models, and where do we find them? There seem to be many role models out there in sports, movies, television, or YouTube, but are these the people who consistently bring us confidence in their demonstrations of love for God?

As I wrote this article, I couldn’t help but wonder who my kids would identify as their role models. So I asked them, “Besides Mom and Dad, who would you say are your favorite role models—the people you really look up to?” I asked them each separately and both of them had the same top pick. They chose their Aunt Lori because, “She is so loving and patient and kind to everyone.”

Yes! I couldn’t have picked a better role model, and personally I was relieved that the top pick was not a famous YouTuber or sports hero! Another pick was one of their grade school teachers, Miss Bauman, who has devoted her life to the teaching ministry for more than 40 years.

I’d like to think my wife and I intentionally arranged their role models to be family members or called workers. However, it’s interesting that our kids picked the same people that my wife and I would consider our own role models. Maybe the secret to encouraging positive role models for our children is to be sure we have our own first. Thanks be to God that he provides faithful, Christian people in our lives who we can look to as an example. Let our kids see us cherishing them as well.

Use TACT to identify role models

Helping our kids develop discernment about the people they emulate is not a one-and-done conversation. The lessons we parents teach our kids about role models is more caught than taught over their childhoods.

Like thousands of stone chips in a mosaic, numerous mini-conversations about role models create a portrait for our children of the kind of people we Christians pattern our lives after. With every two-minute reflection about Special Agent Gibbs on NCIS, a tile is placed in the mosaic. Comparing the leadership characteristics of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning adds another tile. Gently discussing your daughter’s musical idols lay several more. Of course, parents ensure these tiles are colored with the blood red tones of God’s grace.

Multiple mini-conversations about role models removes much of the pressure parents can feel about influencing their children’s choice of heroes. It means parents don’t have to convince their children each time they tackle this topic. It encourages parents to listen to their children’s opinions. It builds confidence in children that they can make the best role model choices.

These conversations work best with some guidelines. I suggest four that are built around the acronym TACT.

T: Testify about your role models

Identify for your children why you have chosen the role models you have. Talk about how, because of them, your life is different and how your walk with Jesus has improved. This is essential: Let your children see you are striving to be the person your role model already is.

A: Ask about their role models

The same questions you want to answer for your kids about your role models are questions you can ask your kids about their role model choices. Ask: Why do you look up to that person? What are the most valuable things you are learning from that person? How has this person helped you more fully appreciate God’s grace?

C: Confirm their role models’ positives

Point out the most positive traits of your children’s heroes and friends. For example, “I’m glad you hang around with Ethan. He’s always polite.” This gains more ground than stumbling through what you don’t like. When you identify favorable traits, you confirm for your children that they are making good choices and you help them define whom they want to influence their lives.

T: Talk about their role models’ negatives

Talking about the less desirable traits of the people your kids admire is important but tricky. When we put anyone on the defensive, barriers go. Approach this topic as a conversation rather than a lecture. Questions usually work best: “Justin Bieber said, ‘A lot of people who are religious, I think they get lost.’ What do you think he meant? How much do you agree? How much do you think that’s true in our family?”

Begin the conversation early. Continue it often. Build the mosaic. Use TACT.

Helpful strategies for worshiping with children

Jesus said in Luke 18, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” As parents with little children know, bringing their children to Jesus in worship can be quite a challenge.

Our congregation went through a baby boom several years ago. Young couples began building families, adding little people noises to our worship services. My wife and I added four children of our own. It was a joyous time, which introduced to a new generation of parents the age-old challenge of getting children to sit still for worship.

The worship committee at our church offered everything parents needed to help manage their children. A cry room, staffed nursery, and children’s bulletins were available for our use. Parents and their children generally gathered in the last two rows in the back, concentrating the sounds, spills, smells, and general chaos into one area.

One Sunday,  I watched as a young couple walked into church with their baby daughter, passed those of us in the back rows and sat down—in the front row! I was pretty confident that sitting up front was not going to work out well for them. I was wrong.

As their daughter grew, her parents persisted in sitting in the front. Free from the distractions of the back rows, their daughter’s attention was drawn to what was happening in worship, and her parents had a simple expectation that a little child could sit still through a service. Certainly, it took some work. Mom or dad removed the little girl from services more than once.

Those observations and our own experiences taught my wife and me valuable lessons about introducing children to worship. The first lesson is that no one strategy works for every family.

Offered here are some thoughts to help you formulate your own strategy:

  • Make it your default expectation that the sanctuary is the place your children will be. Use the nursery and cry room only when necessary as your child learns and matures.
  • Think little victories. Today you only made it through the first hymn before having to seek refuge in the cry room. Soon you’ll make it to the sermon. Eventually you’ll get to enjoy the whole service!
  • Children are visual learners. Our worship spaces are filled with visual symbols and unique objects not seen at home.  The sanctuary is often decorated at special times of the church year like Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Point out these visuals. Explain what they mean. Ask them to draw pictures of them during the sermon.
  • If the back pews prove too distracting for your child, consider sitting somewhere else. It is easier for them to focus on worship when they can actually see what is going on.
  • Ask the usher for a children’s worship folder. Use it with your child to connect them to simple aspects of the service.

Bringing our children to Jesus and training them to worship are awesome responsibilities. Thankfully, we are not alone in this effort. In Proverbs 22:6, God promises parents: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” By the grace of God, and with the power of his living Word, God will bless your efforts and your children will learn to love their Savior, even if you cannot get them to sit still.

Brian Heinitz and his wife, Sue, have four children and are members of Mt. Olive, Las Vegas, Nev. 

Children belong in church—mostly

Twenty years ago I wrote a column for Forward in Christ magazine titled Children belong in church. My kids were two and four, and though I believed what I wrote, it hadn’t stopped me from taking those two kiddos out of church. Multiple times. At least once, I remember hoicking one up under each arm—like basketballs, but louder and chubbier—walking right out the door and driving home.

I never found the secret to perfect church behavior. Sometimes crayons and Cheerios—let’s call them worship tools—were enough. Sometimes sterner looks and firmer hands were needed.

It’s hard. Too permissive, and our ruckus ruins the service for others. Too rigid, and the kids start dreading church.

Okay, here’s the sad truth. When three-year-old Phil trained himself to lean against my arm and sleep through the sermon, God forgive me but I considered it a blessing. Phil’s pretty sure he slept through sermons until about third grade, and I’m pretty sure I relished it. That’s some less-than-stellar parenting right there.

As kids get older, it’s the church after church—the liturgy you hold in your car on the way to the bakery—that’s almost as important as the service itself.

Confession

Mom: “Today when we confessed our sins, I thought of how crabby I was this morning. I’m sorry. I need to be more patient.”

Kids: “We understand. You were mad ‘cuz we were late again.”

Scripture

Dad: “That’s one of my favorite psalms. How does that verse go again? ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully . . .’ ”

Kids: “Made!”

Sermon

Mom: “What was your favorite part of the sermon?”

Kids: “The story about that little boy who thought Jesus couldn’t love him.” (Spoiler: It’s always the story—for all of us.)

Dad: “Did I hear Pastor say . . . ?”

Kids: “No! What he said was . . .”

In the church after church, families review, discuss, apply, even question. Sometimes we get downright Berean. The temptation, though, is to let the discussion devolve into snarkiness:

“I hate that contemporary music. . . . The prayers were so long. . . . That sermon had nothing to do with my life. . . . Did you see Mrs. Jones’s purple hat?”

And of course: “That crying baby! I wish people would keep their kids quiet in church.”

I guess that takes us back where we started. Sometimes, moms and dads, we do need to take the kids out. But mostly we do our utmost to help them stay. Help them sit, stand, bow, fold, sing, pray, listen.

Help them simply be present as the Spirit works his holy osmosis, passing the promises of Christ into the bloodstream of their souls . . . forming their faith, their character, their habits . . . cultivating in them that deep sense of belonging to something larger than themselves—something eternal.

Involving children in worship services

I love having kids in church both as a dad and a pastor. I love it when kids recite the Creed putting emphasis on different words than I do. It helps me think about what I’m saying. I love it when they smile back at me during the Aaronic Blessing. It shows me how they’re receiving it in faith. There is so much in worship both for kids and for adults through kids in worship. Here are three suggestions to help everybody in the family make the most of worshiping together.

  1. Sit with or near others who are close to your kids. Even though my parents had seven of us, they never handed us off to others. We always sat with them. They wanted us to see them worship, but not only them. They made sure I saw grandpa worship. I remember that one Sunday still today. I looked down the pew and saw my grandpa praying the Lord’s Prayer too. I remember the sincerity on his face and the words that were obviously so familiar to him. And I remember getting back to praying like I’ve never gotten back to it before.
  2. Strategically teach your kids the liturgy. There is nothing I love better than watching my 4-year-old speak the response to the words, “This is the gospel of our Lord.” I love seeing that she knows what it is and better yet knows why it is. We taught her as a 3-year-old, “Elliana, Jesus taught us everything we need to know and he saved us so when we hear from him we get all excited.” Pick some low-hanging liturgical fruit like that for your younger ones. If you have an infant son, help him fold his little hands during the Prayer of the Day. If you have a 5-year-old, help her nail the Creeds. If you have a 12-year-old, show him some profound theological connections. For example, ask him to think about why we sing about the Lamb of God right before the Lord’s Supper.
  3. Receive the Word in faith before your kids. Most weeks the pastor is going to say, “I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Receive that in faith and joy as the best news you’ve heard all week. Even consider leaning over on occasion to whisper into your teenage daughter’s ear, “I really needed that today.” And she’ll get it. She’ll remember your apology for being too hard on her earlier in the week and see how you received Christ then and there for it. Dust off the sermon, too, on the ride home. Tell the kids why it mattered to you so much. Then ask them what mattered to them in it. If it’s crickets, help them remember. You might just see your kids’ ears perk up a bit more next Sunday.

Staying focused on what matters

Christmas is my favorite time of year. I love the annual reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son as a little baby to be with us here on earth and, eventually, to pay the price for our sins.

My daughter came home from school recently, horrified, having learned that some people refer to Christmas as X-mas. “Mom, they don’t even want to say Christmas. They take Christ out completely!”

Part of me was sad that my eight-year-old is becoming more familiar with the ways of the world, and part of me was so thankful that she was deeply troubled by something to which I’ve, sadly, become desensitized. Her reaction was a powerful reminder to me of the importance of teaching my kids to keep Christ in Christmas.

One of our favorite things to do as a family in preparation for Christmas is to decorate our home. We put up the tree, hang up wreaths, and look through last year’s Christmas cards.

But our favorite thing to set out together is our creche. Andy and I have a special set that was a gift from my parents on our first married Christmas. While I set out the shepherds, angel, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, our kids set up a toy nativity of their own. When Henry was two, he set quite the Christmas scene with Jesus in the manger and all his “guys” (Batman, Spiderman, even The Joker) coming to pay their respects to the newborn king.

Another favorite tradition is participating in and attending our church’s Advent By Candlelight service at the start of Advent. There is something so special about sitting next to my daughter and worshiping together, preparing our hearts to celebrate the birth of our Savior.

Each of the past few years, we have received a verse-a-day Advent calendar from that service, and we read it together as a family at breakfast. This, combined with working with my kids to memorize their speaking parts for the Christmas services, is a great start to our days during Advent. (I’m convinced Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is meant to be heard in children’s voices!)

Our family’s biggest blessings in helping to keep us focused on Christ at Christmas are the church and school to which we belong. Worshiping and learning together about the true meaning of Christmas on a daily basis keeps our hearts and minds focused on what matters through the busyness and many distractions of the Christmas season.

Christmas traditions point us to Jesus

“How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change?! We’ve always had that light bulb!”

Sometimes we Lutherans can get the reputation for being resistant to change. We’ve always parked in the same spot in the church parking lot. We’ve always sat in the same pew. We’ve always brought the same dish to the church potluck.

But our hesitancy to change isn’t always bad. It’s rooted in our understanding of the value of traditions. Traditions help us learn. Our little Lutherans know the liturgy with ever growing understanding because they hear those same words spoken every week in church. We celebrate baptisms and confirmations to show that they’re special. Traditions teach us values and important truths.

And if there’s any part of the year that’s steeped in traditions, it’s the Christmas season. So many Christmas traditions are designed to point us to Jesus. So if we want to keep our kids (and ourselves) focused on Jesus at Christmastime, let’s consider focusing on connecting Jesus to the traditions we already have.

  • Do your kids participate in a children’s Christmas program? Be a part of it! Help them memorize their parts and look up the Bible verses in their context. Show your children how they point to Jesus.
  • Do you have a nativity scene? Consider letting the kids play with it (or buy an inexpensive one they can use). Don’t set out all the pieces at once. Let the kids move Mary and Joseph across the room a little each day during Advent. Put the baby in the manger for the first time on Christmas morning. Then add the shepherds and start the Magi on their journey down the hall to join the scene by Epiphany. Talk about the story and anticipate the joy of the Savior’s birth.
  • Do you buy and eat candy canes? Teach your children how the red and white stripes remind us of the red blood Jesus shed for us, which makes us pure and white as snow. Show them the Good Shepherd’s staff which, when turned upside down, makes a “J” for Jesus.
  • Do you decorate a tree in the living room? Teach your children the symbolism behind the tree and its decorations. The lights remind us that Jesus is the light of the world who rescued us from sin. The angel or star remind us of the good news proclaimed. The garland that seems to wrap around the tree endlessly, and the tree itself—that’s evergreen and points to the sky—reminds us of the beautiful eternity that awaits us in heaven one day soon.

What traditions do you have? What do you do to help you and your family celebrate Christmas? How have you used those traditions to focus on Jesus and on the eternal peace that he gives? Engage in the online discussion here and share your traditions in the comments below. Maybe one from your family will help my family and others look to Jesus this Christmas.