The Most Important Task in Parenting
The subject of my letter this month deals with the most important task in parenting. It addresses the responsibility of introducing our children to Jesus Christ, and teaching them His precepts and principles. Nothing even comes close to this assignment in significance and consequence. I have referred to it as “the ultimate priority.”
My perspectives on this topic appear below and are excerpted from my book, Bringing Up Girls. What I have written, however, applies equally to our sons and daughters. I hope you will find it enlightening and helpful.
The majority of teens and young adults in this country and around the world are growing up in environments that are typically devoid of spiritual understanding. You can observe the pagan influence of our culture by strolling through a local mall on a Friday night. Just look around. You’ll see girls and boys who appear to be emotionally lost and spiritually bankrupt. The clothes they wear and the profanity they use and the extreme ways they present themselves expose a poverty of the soul. It is sadness on parade.
Dr. Ken Taylor, the godly patriarch who founded Tyndale House Publishers, was invited to attend a local high school football game after he had retired. He accepted the offer and sat in the bleachers with fans until halftime. Then he quietly slipped away without telling anyone where he was going. He confided to a friend later that he hadn’t been bored with the game. Rather, he was so profoundly burdened for the kids around him that he went home to pray for them. What he saw on that day can also be observed by all of us who enter the world of the young.
We see evidence of this vacuity among the girls who contact us to seek advice. They are very different from those who wrote us twenty years ago. Teens used to inquire about the “right” thing to do, which usually reflected a Christian foundation of some variety. Even those who had no faith seemed to know that some things were simply wrong. That has changed dramatically. A significant number of the teens who ask for our counsel now are not interested in what is moral but rather how they should deal with the messes they are in and whether or not they should act on their impulses and desires. Not all adolescents think this way, of course, nor do the majority of them. But we are hearing from more and more youngsters who are greatly influenced by moral relativism. For them, absolute truth does not exist. There is no reliable standard of right and wrong because they acknowledge no God who can define it.
This is why so many young people today are pursuing alien theologies and pleasures, such as New Age nonsense, the “hookup culture,” substance abuse, and raw materialism. They are searching vainly for something that will satisfy their “soul hunger,” but they are unlikely to find it. Meaning in life comes only by answering the eternal questions that are addressed exclusively within the Christian faith. No other religion can tell us who we are, how we got here, and where we are going after death. And no other belief system teaches that we are known and loved individually by the God of the universe and by His only Son, Jesus Christ.
Moses instructed parents to talk about these spiritual truths continually at home. This is what he wrote to the Children of Israel more than 3,500 years ago.
“These commandments that I gave you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6-9).
Notice that Moses didn’t just make a “suggestion” to parents about the spiritual training of their children. He called that assignment a commandment. There is urgency in his words. It is not enough to mutter, “Now I lay me down to sleep” with your exhausted child at the end of the day. I have concluded that our primary task as parents comes down to four components that will guide our efforts. They are as follows.
1) As Moses instructed the parents of his day, we are to talk to our kids early and often about the Lord and His kindness.
My great-grandmother was a saint who understood that God required her to pass along her faith to her family. She talked about the Lord continually, it seemed.
When I was five years old, I was standing with her in our backyard as a plane flew overhead. She looked up and said, “Oh my, we have to pray for the pilot of that airplane.”
“Why, Nanny?” I asked. “Is he going to crash?”
“No,” she said, “but there is a man up there God knows and loves. We need to pray for him and his family.”
I know now that Nanny was referring to the fact that our country was involved in World War II and that the young man in the plane might soon be engaged in mortal combat, although as a child I didn’t understand those implications. What I did understand at that time was her concern about other human beings and our obligation to pray for them.
I hope you will take advantage of every opportunity to tell your children that faith in God is extremely important and that He cares about them too.
Begin this introduction to spiritual truths when your children are very young. Even at three years of age, a child is capable of learning that the flowers, the sky, the birds, and even rainbows are gifts from God’s hand. He made these wonderful things, just as He created each one of us. The first Scripture our children should learn is, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). They should be taught to thank Him before eating their food and to ask for His help when they are hurt or scared.
In a 2003 nationwide poll, researcher George Barna observed that children ages five through thirteen have a 32 percent probability of accepting Christ as their Savior. That rate drops dramatically to just 4 percent for kids ages fourteen through eighteen. And those who have not become Christians before age nineteen have only a 6 percent probability of doing so during the rest of their lives.
There is no time to lose!
2) Begin teaching your children to pray as early as possible.
My parents and grandparents took that responsibility very seriously. The first word I learned to spell was Jesus. Believe it or not, I began trying to pray even before I learned to talk. I had heard my parents praying during their private devotions, and began imitating the sounds they made before I knew the meaning of the words. My mother and father wondered how that was possible for a child not yet two years of age. I assure you that your children are watching you too, and are influenced by everything you do.
It is fun watching little children as they begin to grasp the art of talking to God. I received a delightful note from a colleague recently who knew I was writing this book. He wrote, “Every evening we pray together with our four-year-old and end by asking him to thank God for anything he wants to mention. The open-ended prayers are often very sweet. Last week he said, ‘Thank you God for everything—except germs and mosquitoes.’”
My friend continued, “Riley will often ramble on like a senator engaged in a filibuster, thanking God for the air, the grass, baseball, his dog, his crayons, etc. But last night he was apparently tired, and when I asked him to pray he said, ‘No, thank you, Daddy. My mouth has run out of words.’”
Our three-year-old grandson, Lincoln, has an extreme dislike for bedtime, and he thinks up every possible excuse to avoid it. He also wakes up at night and tries to figure out how to get up. A few weeks ago, Lincoln called out to his parents at 3 a.m. He said, “Da-Da, I sick.” Ryan came to his bedside and said, “Son, where do you hurt?”
Lincoln pointed to his teeth and said, “Right here.”
Ryan told him that he wasn’t sick and said he had to stay in bed. The toddler then replied with all seriousness, “Da-Da, let’s pray.”
Are you praying with your little ones? How about your older children? Don’t let the golden opportunities slip away.
3) The third component of spiritual training takes us back to King David’s writings. He said in Psalm 119:11, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” If you want your children to be guided morally when they are beyond your reach and after they are grown, you should begin teaching favorite passages to them when they are young. It is amazing how often a relevant biblical reference zings to the surface just when a situation comes up that requires wisdom and discernment. If those verses have not been “downloaded” to our brains, we will have to figure out what to do based on our own limited understanding.
Memorize key Scriptures with your children, make a game out of the process, and reward them for learning these passages. Some of the stored passages will stay with them for a lifetime, and even if the exact words are forgotten, the truths they contain remain alive and will be remembered.
Music is a wonderful tool for teaching the Scriptures. Introduce your girls and boys to an array of songs that contain biblical concepts and stories. You can begin with “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong.”
Being a traditionalist myself, I prefer songs that have endured for many years. Past generations of children have sung them with their parents. You may prefer more contemporary music, of course, but just be sure that your children grow up with the lyrics and stories of the Christian faith. Then get your girls and boys into a strong church that preaches the Word of God and will help you “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
4) The fourth component is to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) for the spiritual welfare of your children.
Prayer is one of God’s most mysterious and remarkable gifts to us. It is our lifeline to heaven, our lifeline to the most holy of relationships, our opportunity to directly express our praises and desires to the Creator of the universe. There is power in this simple act that cannot fully be explained, yet can never be denied. And it is our most effective means of contributing to the welfare of the next generation.
You may be aware that my wife, Shirley, is chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Prayer has been the passion of her life, beginning at six years of age when she gave her heart to the Lord. This is her message to moms and dads:
When confronted with the awesome responsibilities of parenthood—not to mention the evil in today’s world—it’s no surprise that many parents feel an urgent need to pray continually for their children. When [our daughter] Danae was about three years old, Jim and I realized that as parents we needed divine help. We began fasting and praying for her, and later for [our son] Ryan almost every week (a practice that I continue to this day).
Our prayer went something like this: “Lord, give us the wisdom to raise the precious children You have loaned to us, and above all else, help us bring them to the feet of Jesus. This is more important to us than our health or our work or our finances. What we ask most fervently is that the circle be unbroken when we meet in heaven.”
God has not only heard this prayer but blessed it in ways we never anticipated. Our prayer time has become a project that Jim and I enjoy together, drawing us closer to each other as we draw closer to God. In addition, the act of fasting each week serves as an important reminder of our priorities: It’s difficult to forget your highest values when one day out of seven is spent focusing entirely on them. Finally, our children were influenced by these acts of discipline. When they observed us fasting or praying, it gave us the opportunity to explain why we did these things, how much we loved them, and how much we loved and trusted the Lord.
God hears and honors—in His perfect timing—our petitions on behalf of our children. If you want the very best for your sons and daughters, I urge you to call on the greatest power in the universe in frequent prayer.
Shirley’s words go to the heart of what I believe most passionately. It is why throughout my professional life, I have encouraged Christian parents to introduce their boys and girls to Jesus Christ and to continually hold their names before the Lord in prayer. After all, the only way you can be with your sons and daughters in the next life is if you, and they, know Him as Lord and Savior.
Excerpted from Dr. Dobson’s book, Bringing Up Girls. Used by Permission.
Well, that is my message for this month when your children will be out of school and running around the house. Now is the best time to get intentional about the spiritual training of your boys and girls. To summarize my point, we have an opportunity when our children are young to teach them the basics of our faith. Boys and girls are “little sponges” who have an intuitive desire to learn how things work. The foundation that you provide in those early years will serve them well in years to come. I will say it again: this is “the ultimate priority” of parenting.
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I hope your summer is getting off to a great start. These next three months will scurry by before you know it. Enjoy each precious day.
Your friend in Christ,
James Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and President