In raising children, the first few years are an exciting time of growth and learning. They’re also a foundational time for character development.
These days a trip to the library, a bookstore or an online search will produce an amazing array of books on the topic of raising children. Leafing through the different volumes, it’s clear that popular parenting styles have changed (numerous times!) over the years. What’s in vogue one decade is seen as outdated and inappropriate in another.
Yet while times have changed, children are still fundamentally the same. Are there unchanging, time-tested techniques for raising children that are based on biblical principles?
God cares about families
God, who created the vast heavens and everything on earth, is also the Creator of the family. As the ultimate Father, He created people with the potential to become His sons and daughters (Ephesians 3:15; 2 Corinthians 6:18; 1 John 3:1). Our human families are important to God. They teach us about His purpose for mankind, and they help us to understand spiritual lessons about our relationship with God.
God cares about our children, so it only makes sense that He would give us key principles to use in raising our children. Here are some keys for helping your child grow in the first years of life.
It all begins with love …
While our human love falls far short of God’s great sacrificial love (John 3:16), the natural love that God has given parents is fundamental in all that we do in raising children.
Ideally, love should be at the beginning of every new little life. God designed the sexual relationship to be an expression of love in marriage. That love between husband and wife—now father and mother—should continue to be the foundation of all their parenting, from the time a baby is born and extending his or her entire life.
As the old saying goes, the greatest gift a father can give his children is to love their mother. Children enjoy enormous comfort and security when their parents have a stable, loving marriage. Strong marriages build strong families. So, while the birth of your baby will mean some major changes in your lifestyle, make sure you remember to nourish your relationship with your mate.
Express love to your child
God wants love to be present in all of our relationships (Matthew 22:37-40; John 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 13). With rare exceptions, parents have a natural love for their children. But for love to be truly effective, your children must feel loved. Long before children have the vocabulary to understand the words “I love you,” they can sense love emotionally. Parents can fill that need for love through physical touch, eye contact and attention.
All three are important and necessary for your young child to feel loved, from birth through all the growing years.
Give your time
Jesus Christ was not too busy for little children (Matthew 19:13-14; Mark 10:14), so parents should not be either! At birth your little one is totally helpless and utterly dependent on you for everything. When you respond to your baby’s cries (for food, a diaper change or simply comfort), your little one develops a sense of security—learning that you can be depended on for help. This is an important foundation for your role as a parent, teacher, authority figure—and everything that’s to come!
You continue to take care of your child’s needs, but with time they must gradually develop independence. First they learn to crawl and then to walk and to feed themselves, etc. But don’t forget they still need you! Your involvement and attention is essential. Mother and father are the most important people in your child’s life, and your interactions with your child will make a big difference in how he or she ultimately turns out. Yes, there will be other influences—peers, other adults, teachers—but none will be as influential as you, the parents!
Spend time together as a family, and spend one-on-one time with each of your children. Play with them, talk to them, read to them, do fun things together, show an interest in what they are learning and doing. This kind of focused attention will make them feel special and loved. And this close, loving relationship will make the rest of your parenting much more effective.
Provide routines and structure
God included the regular family routines as the times for parents to talk to their children (Deuteronomy 6:7). Little children do thrive on regular routines. They feel safe and secure when they know what to expect next. So work to have the same morning, mealtime and bedtime routines. Have set times for sleep, naps and rising. In addition to the security that it can give, a regular bedtime can help your child get adequate sleep and avoid behavior problems caused by being tired and cranky!
An important aspect of giving your child structure is setting rules and limits. In addition to matters of safety, it makes children feel secure to know that you—the authority figures they trust to take care of them—are firmly in charge.
Remember, the goal of raising children is to help totally dependent little babies grow to become independent adults who are good citizens, capable of making good choices. Rules and boundaries—while they begin with you, as parents, asserting your control—actually help your child develop his or her own self-control.
As your little one matures, you can encourage a healthy, balanced development of independence by providing age-appropriate, parent-approved options that he or she can choose from.
Set consistent limits
But be forewarned, most children will test the rules you make and the limits you set at some point. You will have to be firm and not give in. Giving in and letting children have their way will teach them that crying, whining or nagging is effective—and you can expect it even more! You made the rules for a reason, and your children need to learn that rules matter.
Your rules should be age-appropriate and flexible enough to be modified as your child grows and matures. Children naturally want to know “why” about most everything, so be sure you can easily and simply explain the “whys” of your rules. For example, a rule to put away toys when the child has finished playing can be understood by explaining that toys can be broken if stepped on or someone could be hurt.
To be effective, rules should be consistently enforced—not just when you feel like it. While there might be flexibility for unusual circumstances (a relative visiting, for instance), your child should be able to expect that the rules tomorrow will be the same as the rules today and will be enforced in the same way.
Deal with disobedience carefully
God tells us that human fathers correct their children—and He corrects His spiritual children (Hebrews 12:5-6). There are three main ways to help your child correct wrong behavior: explanation, reward for good behavior and punishment. Proper parenting will use all three at various times. While parents might prefer never having to use punishment, without doubt it will be a staple in your parenting toolbox.
For punishment to be effective, it must be something the child finds unpleasant and, once again, you must be consistent. Also, it must be speedily (not hastily or in anger) administered so that a young child makes the connection between the misdeed and the punishment.
There are many different kinds of punishment—everything from an expression of your disappointment and unhappiness with the wrongdoing, to time-outs, to losing privileges, to actual corporal punishment.
The punishment should not only fit the “crime” and use logical, related consequences as much as possible—but it should also fit the child. Some children learn with only a light rebuke, while a strong-willed child might require much stiffer punishment. One of the benefits of having a close, loving relationship with your child is that it often makes it possible to bring about positive changes with lighter types of punishment.
Keep the end in mind
While it’s never enjoyable to have to punish your child (Hebrews 12:11), keep in mind that if punishment is effective and just, your children will be more responsive to your instructions and less in need of future punishment.
Whatever type of punishment you choose, make sure you don’t do it in anger. (Especially be careful if you use corporal punishment. It should never even get close to physical abuse.) Make sure you are always in control of your emotions. Administer any punishment necessary with love and sympathy. Your child should know that you are sorry that this is necessary but you care about him or her and want him or her to learn.
So that punishment can truly be discipline (the word means “teaching” and “learning”), parents should accompany it with a brief explanation of the following:
- What specifically the wrongdoing was.
- What problem it created.
- What could have been done instead of the wrong action.
- What the punishment is.
- That you expect your child will do better the next time.
Teach your child
Parents begin by teaching their baby about love, trust and care. Gradually more lessons will be added. Children are little sponges, absorbing what they see and hear around them.
When children are young, a lot of teaching will be by example. Parents teach by showing how to treat others with respect, kindness and consideration.
Ultimately, God wants parents’ instructions to help their children learn about God and His way. After God delivered the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, He instructed the parents: “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). God intended for parents to pass on to their children the knowledge of the amazing things God had done for them (see verses 20-25).
There are many more lessons parents will teach their children, but these basic points have proven to be among the most essential.
As a parent you have the marvelous opportunity to build on your child’s education about God as he or she grows. Help your child develop a personal relationship with God. Help your child see that He is a loving Father to each of us. Make prayer and a story from the Bible a part of your regular daily routine. Let your children know that you look to God and His Word as your ultimate source for help and guidance.
God’s plan for families
God wants our families to produce new potential children for His family. In the book of Malachi God explains a major reason He cares so much about people’s marriages—why He wants people to stay married and not divorce. The reason is that “He seeks godly offspring” (Malachi 2:15).
God wants parents who can follow the example of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. God said of Abraham, “For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18:19).
Ask God to help you in your efforts in raising your children so that the same can be said of you!
For more, see the articles in the “Family” section.