How to teach young children about Jesus

In Western culture, we often struggle to teach and foster a healthy emotional vocabulary in the minds and hearts of our children. We tell them to “be strong” or to “be good” in tough situations, without providing much more in what that entails. It is our responsibility as parents, caregivers and friends of children to provide safe spaces for them to learn and grow. We can’t sugarcoat every difficulty in life, no matter how much we want to keep our small ones from hurting. Rather, we can protect their hearts during those difficulties by showing them what it means to be resilient and steadfast in the face of adversity. The result? They will grow, and so will we.

With the desire to raise stable and confident young people also comes the great responsibility to show and teach them about Jesus. Raising and teaching children to love the Lord is one of the greatest responsibilities a Christian adult has, but how do we do it?

Children rely on us to model good behaviors and habits they can glean from to use in adulthood, including spirituality. If we are not prepared to model Christlike behavior with our children, the Bible stories we teach them will remain just that: literature. So, it starts with us. We must be willing to constantly and consistently self-examine our own Christian walk, in order to make sure Christ’s nature speaks louder than our own flawed humanity. Teaching our children the difference between practicing religion and cultivating a personal faith is crucial if we want children to grow to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Just like all aspects of parenting, figuring out how best to implement Christian values and principles with children is all about trial and error. This applies to all children within our spheres of influence: at home, at church or in the community.

For parents, finding different opportunities throughout the day to provide Christian education at home is a great place to start. Since I am a full-time single parent who also works full-time, I know that my daily opportunities for this can be limited. Since I have learned that my son is an auditory learner, I make sure that we listen to God-honoring music and stories when we are in the car together.

Sometimes it’s kids songs or a children’s audiobook. Other times, I just need to put on a praise and worship playlist on Spotify, or listen to my favorite prayer podcast, Pray-As-You-Go. Since my son attends a Christian preschool, we also practice his memory verses in the car. Hearing my son sing these songs and say these verses out loud helps me realize these moments are meaningful for him, even if their spiritual truths may not be fully realized yet in his beautiful little soul. He is absorbing the powerful words, which eventually he will be able to directly relate to.

At home, I make sure that we always say a prayer and sing a special song before bed. I don’t “force” him to participate, but he understands and chooses to engage how he feels like participating each night. I have been singing the same song to my son since I was pregnant, which says these words:

“Beautiful Lord, wonderful God: you are my shield, my protector.

I can lie down, go off to sleep knowing you’re watching over me.

Beautiful Lord, wonderful God: help me to trust you forever.

I need not fear, for You are near: I can lie down and sleep in peace.”

On many nights, he now sings this song alongside me. One major thing I have learned about my son in this process is that reading Bible stories doesn’t work as well for him. I am so eager to try and teach him everything I can about the story, but he quickly loses interest. I used to feel frustrated or inadequate as a parent when this would happen, until I realized that the way we absorb God’s truths is different for every person. As I get to know my beautiful son more and more, I learn from trial and error how he best learns and absorbs the world around him.

We all learn differently, so it’s crucial to understand the child we are trying to introduce to Jesus. In groups, coming up with different activities that reach the seven different learning styles (aural, visual, linguistic, mathematic, kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal) is ideal. For example, I realized my son absorbs knowledge much better through music because of his auditory learning style. And there’s resources out there to fit every learning style. All it takes is a disciplined and willing heart, and the necessary time to prepare for Christian youth education.

The most important way I strive to model and teach Christ-like behavior with my 4-year-old son, is by validating every strong emotion he exhibits. That might sound simple, but the truth is our society has been terrible at supporting one another in our emotions. My son is a very sensitive, very intuitive small person. Growing up in a single-parent household, there are certainly some extra challenges that he and I face together. Over the last 18 months, I have had to learn how to just be with him, no matter what he might be feeling. I have realized that it isn’t always my voice that he needs to hear. Sometimes, I just need to be quiet. After all, Jesus was an active listener (see John 4:4-42). We see throughout the Bible that Jesus felt strong emotions, and that people often wrongly wrote him off because of it. 

When we take the time to talk with our little ones about their often-overwhelming emotions in this crazy world, we are teaching them that they matter. That they are loved, cared for, and accepted…no matter what. In doing so, we show them that our love for them is unconditional, just like the love of God.

And I can’t think of a better place to start.

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Laura Foley, Lt.

Lt. Laura Foley is the Assistant Corps Officer at The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Salem, Oregon.