The challenge of teaching the Reformation

When it comes to teaching our children about the Reformation, especially our young children, we have to admit the challenge of it. Perhaps, the most obvious challenge is that the official date for recognizing the Reformation is Oct. 31, 1517. There is a part of me that wishes that Martin Luther would have had some foresight with his choosing of a date! Didn’t he know that this would become Halloween and that children would be hopelessly distracted? I am thinking that it probably isn’t enough to dress up your children as Martin Luther to help them understand the joy of the Reformation.

In addition, the Reformation isn’t just competing with Halloween. It’s also competing with Martin Luther King Jr. Day. My daughter, Tayley, came home from public school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day impacted in ways that I rarely see, trying to tell me the story of the civil rights movement. In fact, she is having the hardest time accepting that Martin Luther King Jr. was named after another Martin Luther that was greater than he.

With that said, perhaps the greatest challenger in teaching our children about the Reformation are the truths themselves. Most of the key ideas are framed by Latin slogans or “solas.” Whoever decided to frame the Reformation in this way didn’t have children in mind. What is more, if someone challenged us Lutherans to put the Reformation itself into a single sentence, we might say, “The Reformation was all about the Bible’s teaching that we are justified by grace through faith by Christ alone.” Try teaching that to your six-year-old!

The ideas of the Reformation are saving and powerful, but they are also abstract. Somewhere along the line, I remember learning that kids under a certain age simply cannot grasp abstract concepts. For parents wanting to teach their children about the Reformation, these are the challenges.

I’ll tell you what I am going to do with my kids to meet the challenge. I am going to teach my kids about the Reformation during the entire month of October. Really, whenever it comes up in daily life, we are going to talk about it. I am going to buy a children’s book from Northwestern Publishing House. There’s one called Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed The World that looks especially good, but I’ll look into other possibilities as well. We will talk about the different “Martins” and why October 31 is special to us for better reasons than candy.

But what about the truths of the Reformation? How can we share abstract truths with them in meaningful ways? We will let Luther guide us with Scripture. His first thesis, which guided the other 94 theses, stated, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matthew 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” This is where everything started. He was wanting the world to know that the life of a believer has two parts 1) contrition or sorrow over sin and 2) faith in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That’s actually a pretty simple concept to understand. That’s what I intend to teach my girls.

I am going to teach them to apologize to each other and to their God. I am going to hold his law in front them and show them their sin. Then, I will show them their Savior who died for them. I will speak to them of Jesus’ love and grace and about how forgiven and washed and loved they really are. I probably won’t even call it repentance. They will learn that word later, but they will learn about Jesus. That’s really my number one goal.

Even if they never do come to know with great clarity the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr., I want them to know Jesus. That after all is what the Reformation was all about.

Timothy Bourman is a pastor at Sure Foundation in New York City and co-host of the podcast Project 1517. He and his wife, Amanda, have three young daughters.

Telling—and showing—children the story of the Reformation

Would you like to tell your children a story this Halloween? The 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation gives you that chance.

You can tell the story of a young man bothered by the practice of paying off sin’s punishment with money. You can tell the story of a young man who was brave. He didn’t keep his mouth shut, even before those older than he, because he cared about souls. You can tell the story of a young man who cared about God’s truth, wanting to understand what true repentance meant and wanting the leaders of the church to treasure God’s grace. It is an amazing Halloween story, the posting of 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517.

There is a story to tell. But that story didn’t end on October 31 five hundred years ago. There is a continuing story you can tell every day you are with your children. In fact, you get to live out the story. On each of your days you have the chance to put on display divine Reformation truths that are at the heart of our salvation—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.

We are all in favor of these Reformation concepts. Yet as parents, it is easy to live something other than grace and faith and Scripture. When a child has sinned, we may forget that any Christian discipline intends to have an ultimate happy ending, in the grace of God. In our pride we may overlook the reality of our absolute dependence on God, the centrality of faith for eternal life and for every other moment in life. In the busyness of life, we may speak of Scripture’s importance but let its priority slip. We may speak a story of Reformation when the anniversary hits, but it’s very hard to live out the Reformation during those many moments God gives us with young precious souls.

Being a parent means confessing sin. That’s a Reformation truth. There are times when we sin against our child by assuming the worst and thinking they had done the very thing we had warned them against, only to find out that we were wrong. Can you look your child in the eye and tell him you are sorry, explain that you have a sinful flesh too, and ask him to forgive you? There is no greater joy than to hear a representative of Christ, at the young age of seven, smile and forgive.

Being a parent means forgiving sin as well. That’s a Reformation truth. Your child sins, and she is sitting on the couch in the basement in a timeout. After some screaming and crying there is silence, and then a very different voice rises up the stairs: “I’m sorry.” Can you walk down the stairs and have the first words from your mouth be, “I forgive you, and Jesus forgives you too”? Yes, parents can offer guidelines and loving consequences after assuring their child of forgiveness, but we don’t want our direct response to “I’m sorry” to be a threat—“Don’t let that ever happen again.” Those little souls can be tricked by the devil, but they can be crushed when God’s love is withheld. You don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. We know how precious God’s love has been to us. Shower his grace on those you love.

Being a parent means depending, depending on someone else for your salvation and for every other challenge in life. Can you humbly commiserate with your children? Can you agree with them that we are all weak and we do not have the power to obey as we want? Can you mourn with them over their wicked flesh, but then can you give them hope as you remind them that our peace when we disobey and our power finally to obey comes not from ourselves but from our God? We depend. We trust. By God’s grace, we believe. Faith—that’s a Reformation truth.

Being a parent means listening, listening with your children to words that come from a God whose word made the world and raised the dead. Bible stories are powerful words. The truths of those stories are power to rebuke, to comfort, to guide. Read God’s stories. Talk about God’s stories. Have Scripture be a daily meal in your home—that’s a Reformation truth.

There is a Reformation story to tell. Do speak of Luther’s Reformation. But even more, make the Reformation—by God’s grace and power—your daily beating heart.

Stephen Geiger is a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis. He and his wife, Anna, have six children ranging in age from 10 to 1.

Begin the year with patience and grace

As an early elementary school teacher, I was both nervous and eager to begin each school year. Every new school year held so much promise. Yet beginning something new took such patience and hard work.

I always knew that by mid-October all of the hard work would start paying off as individual students became a classroom community, learning was evident throughout the day, and teachers and families were settled into their new routines and relationships. However, the first weeks can be tough, and how we all handle them sets the tone for the rest of the year.

Parents, teachers, and students are very tired at the beginning of the school year. Be patient! It is exhausting to implement and learn new routines, recognize new faces, and memorize new names while also focusing on academic learning and homework. Give each other time to get everything running smoothly, and try not to make quick judgments based on information gathered in the first couple weeks of the school year.

Choose a Bible verse, like Colossians 3:12, on which to focus as you interact with your children, other families, teachers, and administrators: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Stressful times can give our sinful natures a foothold, but focusing on God’s Word supports us as we build and grow relationships at the beginning of the school year. Posting an encouraging verse in your car, on the fridge, or on your mirror can be a gentle reminder throughout the day of how you would like to treat others in this time of change.

Just when it seems like things are going smoothly and it’s going to be a good year, a couple things often seem to set off a normally patient, kind, and gentle parent—homework and “mean” kids.

• Homework: Often schools have homework philosophies, and teachers need to follow what is required of them. Teachers work hard to give homework that is not too hard, not too easy, beneficial for every student, and that fits every family situation, but . . . this is tremendously hard to accomplish. The only way for a teacher to know if the homework is or is not working for your family is if you discuss it with him or her. If the amount, type, or content of homework is not working for your child or family, please ask to speak to the teacher privately and then share how homework is going. Ask the teacher to help you problem solve so that your child can best benefit from the homework he or she is doing.

• “Mean” kids: At the beginning of the school year, students often have some kind of social growing pains. They may not have spent much time with friends in the summer, and they now have to learn or remember how to problem solve, work, and play in a group and navigate the recess scene successfully. All kids struggle with some aspect of social learning as they practice being part of a group that includes others and treats others with respect. It’s important for parents to remember that other kids are not enemies—they are kids who are working on learning how to be kind friends and successful learners just like your child. When talking with your child about these experiences, try to help your child remain calm and focused on how to help the situation be better the next day. It is hard to hear that your child is sad or upset, but learning how to problem solve and build relationships with others is a vital skill that your child needs time to learn.

Teachers want you to know that we see these relationship dynamics and are closely monitoring interactions between children. However, we will not always step in, as it is so important for kids to practice their problem solving skills and then ask adults for help if needed. If you are concerned about a situation or relationship that seems to be bothering your child, please talk with your child’s teacher in a respectful way. Often asking the teacher for his or her perspective on the situation sets you up for a conversation focused on helping your child, which works better than an attack on the teacher.

Whether you are frustrated about homework, worried about your child’s friendships, or unsure about a teacher’s decisions, remember the grace that God gives you every day and pass that grace along to others. Choosing to interact with people in a spirit of love, kindness, and patience will make all the difference as you strive to begin the school year with positivity and grace.

Rachel Blum and her husband, Matt, have three young children and are members of St. Paul, Green Bay, Wis.

Parenting a high schooler

Is your oldest getting ready to enter high school? It wasn’t so long ago when that’s where my wife, Joyce, and I were. The years go by so fast. It seems like just yesterday that it was kindergarten graduation, the first recital, the first game, and now . . . high school.

Moving from eighth grade to high school can be a little daunting for kids. Last spring they felt like they were at the top and ruling the school, and now it’s a whole different place with new challenges and opportunities.

If you thought the grade school years went fast, wait until your child gets to high school! Four years might sound like a long time, but that will fly by—and then you’re praying about college choices, military service, employment, marriage. There are times you will be so proud of your teen and times when you just wonder what he was thinking. Treasure these days as gifts from God. And continue to be a parent. 

With the rush of high school life, it might be hard to keep up your traditions of family dinners and time together. If your house can be a welcoming place for your teen and his friends, that is a real plus. Having those teens at your house can be a comfort to you and a safe place for them. The friends your teen makes are so influential. 

Speaking of friends, you’ve seen those video clips: “My mom . . . my dad, they’re my best friends!” Does that describe your family? Remember that your teen needs parents more than best friends during the high school years. It’s ultimately a process of preparing him to leave the home “nest.” Pray for him; be there for him; help him with tough decisions; be his role models. These are all so important during the teen years.

Sometimes, we parents think we have to do it all for our teens. Just so you know—that is not possible. Newsflash—he isn’t going to like or agree with everything you decide. He’s growing up; he’s looking for freedom—he doesn’t see things the way you do. Don’t ignore “outside” help. Teachers, coaches, counselors, pastors, family friends, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins can help when, for whatever reason, you just can’t get through to your teen.

As a Christian parent, don’t lose sight of what the real goal is. It’s awesome if he finds success in high school—captain of the team, excellent student, award-winning musician, and so on. But not all kids will. For your dear child, it’s much more important for him to continue to grow up in his faith, to stay close to his Lord, and to be in God’s

Word and at his house regularly. Teens can be especially good at pushing back and not always showing much appreciation, but they are watching us and learning from us, even if they won’t admit it.

Pray. Pray. Pray. Stay close to your child. Stay close to your Lord. The Lord loves your dear child even more than you do. Be faithful and lean on his strength. He has a blessed future for your child in his plan . . . and he is the ultimate Father.

Dave Payne and his wife, Joyce, have four adult children and two grandchildren. Dave serves at Fox Valley Lutheran High School, Appleton, Wis., and is a member of Eternal Love, Appleton, Wis.

Listening or compromising?

As a college professor, my “first day of class” activities are pretty standard. One of my favorite activities for a class primarily comprised of freshmen only takes a minute or two, but it generally produces huge benefits throughout the course of the semester. I have the students turn to someone in the class they don’t know and introduce themselves. It is such fun to walk around the classroom as my students are talking and see this first set of connections develop. I try to do this activity towards the end of the period so that the conversations begun in my class can naturally continue after the students walk out of the classroom door.

Parents, if your children are anything like my students, they will realize pretty quickly that some of the beliefs they’ve held their entire lives may not be shared by this new person they just met. How your children respond and what they do next could create a relationship that will last through four years of college—and beyond—or it could end the relationship before it even gets off the ground. It is crucial for college students to be able to discuss and understand a viewpoint that is different from their own, especially in the area of religion.

For many students, especially freshmen, this is an incredibly hard thing to do. As parents, from early on you’ve trained your children in the way they should go. You’ve taught them that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You’ve modeled your faith for them in your words and actions. And now your children are in a situation where it can feel like they are being asked to give up or compromise their core Christian beliefs.

However, there is a difference between listening and compromising, and that’s what I’m encouraging you as parents to convey to your children. Refusing to listen or respectfully discuss other theological viewpoints isn’t necessarily an example of standing strong in one’s faith. Instead, it can often come off as insular, close-minded, and even unloving. It should certainly be the goal of all Christians to share their faith and spread the gospel. But in many instances, especially on a college campus, this can’t be done before a relationship is created and mutual respect is established.

Understanding when to speak, when to listen, when to agree, and when to disagree requires a certain amount of spiritual maturity. Like most positive character traits, this maturity doesn’t come overnight. It doesn’t always come easily. It takes practice and work. It especially takes practice and work when the other person in the conversation doesn’t have the same spiritual maturity. In these situations, encourage your children to remember that winning the argument in the short term might mean losing the opportunity to witness in the long term.

I love seeing new relationships develop among my students during their first semester in college. I love seeing them meet new people and step outside of their comfort zones. And I particularly love seeing friendships created among students from different religious backgrounds. It is such a joy to see spiritual matters being discussed and faith being shared both inside and outside the classroom. Parents, encourage your children to share their faith—but always with gentleness and respect.

Kristi Meyer is in her twelfth year of teaching mathematics at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wis. She is a member at St. John, Wauwatosa, Wis.

“Where do your kids go to school?”

“Where do your kids go to school?”

This common question always catches me off guard. It shouldn’t, of course, but it does. I answer—with some pride, but mainly apprehension—that we homeschool our kids. Thankfully, most reactions involve admiration and praise followed with general inquiry. However, some reactions have involved judgment, concern, and overall disapproval.

Homeschooling has definitely been a lifestyle change for our family. The journey arriving here certainly wasn’t a part of our parenting plan for our children, even though I have always felt that teaching is my vocation.

I was a public school teacher in the inner city of Milwaukee, Wis., for six years. During that time my husband and I had two children. I worked full time and returned back to school for my masters and an additional teaching license in bilingual education. I was pregnant with our third child when we decided that I would relinquish all my teaching credentials and become a full-time stay-at-home mom. What a blessing!

During that time, my oldest attended a small WELS preschool. This was all new to us and exciting. We had projects, snack calendars, special gym shoes, and a Thomas the Train backpack.

After that year, we moved to a suburb outside of Milwaukee. We found a new church and school, and it quickly became our lifestyle to serve there. My son was thriving, and we received countless praises about his character and love for Jesus and all things in nature. We were pleased with his academic progress and social, spiritual, and physical development.

Our second child started school, our fourth child was born, and our family life started to feel overwhelming. Everything felt rushed and hurried—a result of the choices we had made together, but something had to give.

We started to see signs that our son was struggling in third grade. It can all be summed up into time management and personal responsibility. No one likes to feel rushed and hurried. He confessed feeling this way all the time in school. We worked with his teachers and got to the heart of the matter and discovered that his learning styles weren’t conducive for a typical classroom setting. The teachers were gracious in modifying their lesson assignments for him and provided me with resources and suggestions to better meet his needs.

I spent the rest of that semester exploring all options. We had our son’s vision and hearing tested and met with professionals to offer any insight into his wonderful world of learning and retaining information. We tested his reading comprehension and learned he was reading just below grade level. Finally we decided to pull him at the end of the semester from his WELS grade school, and we began our homeschooling journey.

As we discovered, each homeschooling family is different. We decided to fully involve our son in this decision so he could have ownership and personal responsibility for his schooling. We told him this was going to be the semester we try it out and see if it’s a good fit for our family. And that’s exactly what we did. We used that semester to identify areas of weaknesses and strengths. We poured into his personal interests. We read a ton of books based on his choice of topics, wrote in journals, explored our community, visited several museums, enjoyed nature, made messes doing science and art projects, watched historical documentaries, and occasionally worked on math work books. We finished the school year, and during the summer he informed us that he wanted to continue homeschooling, so we decided to keep going.

We enrolled both our daughters at our church’s school that year—second grade and half-day 4K. I purchased an entire grade-level Christian curriculum, joined a Christian co-op homeschooling group, and began fully homeschooling our then fourth-grade son. He and I worked tirelessly around the baby’s nap schedule and carpool pick-ups. We managed extra-curricular activities and became involved in our co-op. There I met several homeschooling families from all different backgrounds. It was refreshing to be among such diverse company. I was always encouraged and supported, and every family had their own unique story and experience that led them to homeschooling. I was in awe of the spiritual gifts and talents of these parents, all of whom shared a similar sentiment and belief that the schooling of our children is not a one-size-fits-all specific program. What works for your family may not necessarily work for ours, and that’s okay.

That was my first full year of all-in homeschooling. The most exhausting part was the baby. The one-on-one with my son was rewarding and enjoyable. During that year my eldest daughter continually inquired about staying home with her brother to be homeschooled. Although hesitant at first—I didn’t feel ready to add another student to my classroom and she seemed to be thriving at school both academically and socially—we decided to bring her home as well at the beginning of the next school year. I turned my dining room into a classroom and fully committed to this homeschooling lifestyle. It was an absolute joy seeing my children learn together and grow closer to one another.

The benefits of homeschooling have significantly outweighed the challenges for us. We immediately eliminated the busyness, rushing, and hurrying. Our family has grown closer together and developed a collaborative and comfortable learning environment that fosters exploration and discovery and appeals to each child’s interests. We provide balanced amounts of structured and unstructured activities. We give our children a flexible routine that enables them to take responsibility in finishing their own tasks. We provide a comfortable learning environment free from judgment and comparison, focused instead on encouragement and inspiration.

We regularly go on field trips. We go sledding and ice skating for recess during the winter. We have a reading club on the trampoline on warm days. We even have poetry reading family nights with recitations and performances. Our homeschool lifestyle is unique to our family because it caters to our needs and interests while building on the fundamental skills and knowledge for personal growth and progression in all areas of development.

Of course there are drawbacks to homeschooling. First off, you are the school. You are the educator, principal, secretary, guidance counselor, recess supervisor, art and music teacher, gym teacher, etc. It’s a lot of additional responsibility on top of the demands of parenting.

Also, it is a tremendous amount of pressure to provide a well-rounded education for your children. Homeschool parents can’t call a substitute teacher. We often feel inadequate and insecure. We see the neighbor kids getting on the bus, and we are envious. We see pictures on Facebook about school programs and spirit week dress-up days, and we feel excluded. We sit among family, friends, and neighbors who boast about their children’s school achievements, and we are overwhelmed with doubt that we may have made a mistake choosing to homeschool our children. We look at state standards and wonder if we did enough at the end of each year. We see social awkwardness with our children and feel responsible for not providing enough social interaction among peers. The list goes on.

The homeschooling family needs community support. We need encouragement and love from our family, friends, and neighbors. We need to feel accepted, cherished, and included in our church so we may continue to grow in faith. When you meet a homeschooling family, acknowledge and encourage them. Above all, pray for them. The homeschool family needs prayer of wisdom, discernment, and perseverance. Show love and kindness to these families. And when you ask, “Where do your kids go to school?” to a new family and find out that they homeschool, make sure to follow up with, “That’s wonderful! Tell me about your homeschool.”

Sarah Haeuser and her husband, Frank, have four children and live in Merton, Wis.

We need to ask, “Why is the child lying?”

One Sunday morning after church, I stopped for gas. Inside the convenience store, I bumped into a student I knew from the college where I teach.

“What are you up to this morning?” I asked, making casual conversation.

“A bunch of us are headed to Chicago for a concert,” he said. We talked about the band they were seeing, musicians who weren’t afraid to call themselves Christians.

As I left the store, I noticed the others in the student’s car. Several of them were enrolled in my theology class that semester. On Friday they had told me they’d be missing Monday’s class. I hadn’t asked why. They hadn’t told me why. So they hadn’t exactly lied to me; they just held back the truth. They didn’t want to admit that their overnight obligation Sunday to Monday was an out-of-state music show. They were afraid of the dreaded “unexcused absence” from a college class.

When my students returned to class, I hassled them a bit, in a friendly way: “What have I done to make you think you need to hide things from me—that you can’t be open and honest with me?” As a college teacher—especially in a theology classroom—my biggest goal is fostering a closeness among us in Christ, so that we can share our hearts with one another fearlessly. An atmosphere of love in Christ invites such fearlessness. As described by “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23): “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

As parents, our primary goal in our homes is fostering a closeness in Christ so that we always can share our hearts with one another fearlessly. A parent’s goal is not just policing behavior. When one of our children lies to us, we do well to ask ourselves, “Why is the child lying?” There could be many reasons, but one is that the child is afraid of what we’ll say or do if we learn the truth. If our actions when we do learn the truth confirm the child’s worst fears, we may not be preventing future lies but ensuring that the child will be less open, less honest in the future.

Please understand, I’m not suggesting we overlook a child’s lies or accept deceptive dishonesty. Discipline often is necessary—maybe even very stern discipline. But we want to be prudent. We measure our responses to our children’s behavior, weighing what’s best in how we respond, how we seek to shape their future thinking and activity.

It’s not just about how we react to what happened today or yesterday. More than anything, it’s about building up faith and hope and love in the hearts of our children. It’s about finding forgiveness in Christ, who is truth, who atoned for all that is false and wrong in us. It’s from faith in Christ, anchored deep in the heart, that truth flows and lies are overcome. So we aim to build up our children and one another in Christ, not just to penalize the lies that have occurred.

Dave Sellnow teaches at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn. He and his wife, Ellen, have four children ages 21-28.

Parenting guilt? You’re not alone.

We live in a society that reviews and re-evaluates just about everything on a regular basis. It feels natural to have that same critical mindset about our parenting. When we reflect on words we have said or things we have done, it’s easy to feel that we could have said or done something better. We can have lingering feelings of regret and guilt, which might even be intense.

The reality of living in a sinful world is that you’re not going to be a perfect parent. Sometimes, you’re going to be a bad example for your children. You will do what you shouldn’t do, and you will fail to do something you should. You might do the wrong thing for the right reason. And there might even be times when, no matter how hard you try, you’ll be stuck between two bad choices, both of which are going to hurt at least one of your children in some way.

Logically, we realize that we don’t fail our children all the time. The vast majority of our kids are fed regularly, are wearing (reasonably clean) clothes, and have a roof over their heads. The basics are covered. But if we’re honest, we probably don’t have to think too hard to come up with something we’ve done to our child about which we still feel guilty. What can we do to assuage our feelings of guilt and regret?

First, know without a doubt that your sins have been forgiven. As children of God, we are blameless in his eyes. Because of God’s grace towards us, we also can apologize to our children for how we have hurt them. It’s a powerful parenting lesson for our children when we demonstrate repentance and forgiveness in action.

Despite the forgiveness we have, consequences of our sin may remain. Guilty feelings can linger. When we remember what we did, we may feel that we can’t forgive ourselves. But if God can unconditionally forgive us, then we also are free to forgive ourselves. In fact, God wants us to forgive ourselves! He doesn’t want us to live with feelings of shame and regret.

But what can we do about our lingering regret, especially if our sin caused lasting consequences for our child? Romans 8:28 says, “All things work together for good to those who love God.” God promises to use the broken pieces of our life to create something beautiful that glorifies him. God will not abandon us, even when nothing we’ve done has turned out as we’d hoped or expected.

God loves our children more perfectly than we ever can. We are his children, and our children are his children, too. Our heavenly Father is the perfect parent, who promises to love us, care for us, and work everything that we do (or fail to do) in our lives for the good of all his children.

Relax in that knowledge, fellow parents. God has it all under control.

Emily Gresens Strey and her husband, Johnold, have four children ranging in age from 2-13.

Teaching discernment in the digital age

It seems like yesterday when the Lord blessed my husband and me with our three sons, and we began the journey of parenthood in the digital age.

When our oldest was born in 1995, the Internet was brand new to everyone. Being a bit geeky, my husband and I explored tools and techniques for creating websites, which led us to bridging the miles between us and our family and friends, sharing each of our boys’ first-year baby milestones and photos via a website that we updated monthly.

Over time, as the boys grew, we continued to share monthly family news and photos using a “cutting-edge” blog platform to house our family website. Together with our sons, we’ve used the Internet to listen to family-friendly podcasts and free audio books, find geocaches and BreakoutEDU solutions, take care of our Webkinz pets, e-mail our favorite authors, learn to program, play games, create videos, design 3-D models, and so much more.

Now our boys are reaching adulthood, and we are fast approaching the empty-nest stage. As I reflect on the years of their childhood, I remember joys and challenges we encountered along the way in relation to technology. In this sinful world, it is impossible to keep our children 100 percent safe from the dangers the Internet invites into our homes. Here are some of the steps we took to guard their safety:

  • Engage with them—Before allowing our boys to visit a website, we tried it out ourselves or sought the opinions of others regarding it. (A great site for reviews of all types of children’s media is commonsensemedia.org.) As they used websites, we used them, too, guiding them along the way and explaining any areas of concern if they came up.
  • Help them create—We used the tools available on the Internet to excite our sons to use it for good and noble purposes. As they learned how to code video games, we encouraged them to expand the program’s capabilities. When their interest was piqued by podcasts, we started a weekly family podcast. Over the years we used our family blog to share the boys’ creative writing, stop-motion Lego movies, and Haiku poetry.
  • Block inappropriate content—Many software solutions for filtering inappropriate Internet content in the home are available. Something we’ve used for many years is OpenDNS, opendns.com/home-internet-security. The free Family Shield and Home plans include parental controls that protect every device in the home.

My husband and I did all of these things with an end goal in mind—giving our sons discerning hearts.

All too quickly our sons have grown up and ventured out into the world alone. Now they must rely on their own judgement regarding the appropriateness of Internet content, and now our prayer is that the lessons learned in their early years will stay with them.

For a comprehensive list of websites to help parents keep their children safe online, visit https://forwardinchrist.net/online-safety-resources.

Sallie Draper and her husband, Kevin, have three sons and live in New Ulm, Minn.

Guiding children as they use the Internet

How many parents would take their two-year-olds to the pool for the first time and allow them to jump into the deep end? None, I hope! Being able to swim in the deep end is a process that requires lessons, practice, and experience, all guided by loving parents who want their children to enjoy swimming safely.

Staying safe on the Internet is not much different. If we want our teens to know how to enjoy using it safely, we must start the process much earlier. This can be done in the light of God’s Word and his commands.

Internet safety is a wide net, but most parents identify several areas in which they wish to keep their children safe online.

  • They are concerned with the addictive potential of games.
  • They share concern over the stumbling upon of offensive sites, such as pornography, as the kids discover what’s out there. This is often connected with the idea of sexting, which occurs as early as middle school.
  • Finally, parents fear the online social sites that encourage kids to talk with others, whether on gaming sites or social media sites that encourage kids to follow and be followed by others. These sites raise the concern of meeting strangers online who may not be who they portray and the opportunity for online bullying.

Unfortunately, many of us ignore these things until a problem arises. Being proactive in approaching these subjects really helps. Start early.

As parents, if we treat technology as a gift of God while training children to be aware of the dark side on the Internet, we can pray that they develop their Christian faith to assist them in making good and responsible choices. One way we can do that is by talking freely about the evil that is in the world that is now manifested online and can be found one click away. We can discuss this during devotions and in conversations with our children from the time they are in grade school and beyond.

The old model of keeping the desktop computer in an area of the home where mom and dad are walking through and can be aware of computer activity may seem outdated since we now deal with smart phones, tablets, Chromebooks, and laptops. I think it is still reasonable to expect grade school and middle school kids to use their technology in a common area of the home. It is legitimate for a parent to be made aware of musical playlists so that when headphones are used, parents know what is being consumed. As kids grow and schoolwork requires technology, a quiet place may be desirable, but it should still be understood that when homework is done on the computer, that is all that is happening, and parents may come by to see how it is going. Parents need to be vigilant.

At a time determined by parents, all mobile technology can be unplugged and kept in a specified spot. For example, maybe all family devices get plugged in at a common location for the night. Enforce the rules as you talk about why they are good for the family.

Parents can also make rules regarding time limits for game playing and can talk openly about gaming choices and their possible effects on those who play them. Conversations about learning to discern should be ongoing. Social gaming sites, perhaps, should not be allowed until an age that a parent feels the child can make competent choices in this regard. Parents will need to model good online behavior and set the tone for what is acceptable in the home. It should be a family effort.

The creation of the Internet brings many good things to us, but the reality is that it has created a whole other level of parenting. Parents must include applications regarding the misuse of the Internet as they teach their children to discern right from wrong in all facets of life. For example, what is learned in the home as far as how to treat one another in God-pleasing ways can help children be aware of the inappropriateness of bullying online, as an extension of bullying face to face. The idea of sexting as a practice can be addressed as veering outside of what God has commanded us regarding how to keep our bodies chaste. This is an extension of pre-Internet conversations with children that now need to be brought into the scope of what sins are possible through technology. We ask God to keep us from temptation in all we do, including our use of technology.

Parents have always taught their children about “stranger danger.” This same conversation now must be expanded to teach children about the very real dangers of social media sites with followers. Talking on those sites, or in online chat areas, should be discouraged. Stories of online predators and the attempt to catch them are heard often on the news, and you can discuss these news items at family gathering times to drive this point home.

We are blessed to have God’s Word as our handbook for parenting, and it is up to us as parents to continue to nurture our children in that Word as we make applications from the technology that is so ubiquitous in our culture today. May he bless our prayful efforts!

For a comprehensive list of websites to help parents keep their children safe online, visit https://forwardinchrist.net/online-safety-resources.

Gail Potratz and her husband, Phil, have three adult children and eight grandchildren. Gail has served as a teacher and technology coordinator for more than 30 years.