Spiritual Disciplines for Children

When I write about books on this blog, they’re usually academic or semi-academic works of history or theology. But for the end of the week, I thought I’d share a rather different kind of book that my wife and I are reading — both as parents and as teachers of a 4th grade Sunday School class: Valerie Hess and Marti Watson Garlett’s Habits of a Child’s Heart: Raising Your Kids with the Spiritual Disciplines (NavPress, 2004).

It’s been out for a while, but came to our attention because some friends are using it in a parenting class that meets upstairs at church while our 4th graders are downstairs acting out stories of Elijah and Elisha. Hess and Garlett begin:

Hess and Garlett, Habits of a Child's HeartAll of us—young or old, new Christians or mature in the faith—can benefit from the strengths and freedoms the spiritual disciplines can bring. We know, because the two of us have experienced firsthand their value in nurturing spiritual maturity and deepening connecting with God.

Our prayer is that this book you hold in your hands will inspire you to begin practicing the disciplines in your own life, if you aren’t already doing so, and then show you how to cultivate the life-affirming possibilities of the spiritual disciplines—or “holy habits,” as they’re sometimes known—in your children.

Not at all surprisingly, the book is endorsed by spiritual discipline guru Richard Foster, who contends that “Children need whole-life teaching in the spiritual disciplines—age appropriate, loving, wise teaching.” And that’s exactly what we’ve found in Habits of a Child’s Heart. Like Foster, we recommend it highly!

(Though I’d also recommend that adults less familiar with the spiritual disciplines read a book like Foster’s Celebration of Discipline or Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines to fill out the sketches from Hess and Garlett, who cover the same disciplines in the same sequence as Foster.)

Each chapter starts by introducing the discipline for adults, then concludes with three sets of suggestions for how to teach it to children, covering early childhood (4-7), middle childhood (8-11), and adolescence (12-15). Our own children have just entered the first of those life stages, but I thought I’d share a few of the things we’ve talked about with the 10-year olds in our Sunday School class (at the same time that some of their parents are studying similar topics upstairs), as a way to preview the book for your own use.

Introducing Disciplines: “What is discipline?”, we asked the kids. “Punishment” and “rules” came up right away, but then we could suggest other meanings. We talked about the similarity to the word “disciple” and how following Jesus — like anything else — requires practice and commitment. Several of our students are active in sports or take music lessons — this idea connected pretty easily.

Meditation: I missed the first two-thirds of this class while I was talking to new members of Salem, so my wife would have to explain why she had the kids clamber underneath their chairs to illustrate meditation… I came in for an easier example: as usual, we closed class in prayer, but this time we left a significant chunk of silence in the middle of all the praises and requests and just asked the kids to concentrate and listen for God’s voice. Fortunately (for illustrating the point), the neighboring class was pretty boisterous at that precise moment: it was all too easy for our students to understand that meditation requires lots of practice to help us tune out the noise that distracts us being still and knowing God.

Child praying
Licensed by Creative Commons (bigbirdz)

Prayer: We’d already been having our students keep a prayer journal throughout the Sunday School year, which is one of the book’s suggested practices. For this discipline we picked up on Hess and Garlett’s discussion of “rules” of prayer: “When we practice a rule of prayer, prayer gradually becomes a holy habit, something we do that is not dependent on feelings or moods or our ability to articulate well. It becomes central to our lives and strengthens our connections to God” (p. 37). Students could readily identify regular times of prayer in their days: before meals, before sleep, perhaps after waking up. Then we focused on brainstorming “javelin prayers” (quick ones we say on the run — one of our student-athletes said he prays before he shoots a free throw in basketball) and “prayer prompts” — not uncommon situations that remind us to pray (e.g., praying for healing every time you see an ambulance with its sirens on, praying for the homeless on especially cold nights).

Fasting: Easily our least successful discussion, and not just because we left ourselves only five minutes at the end of a particularly active session. That certainly wasn’t enough time to delve in a discipline that requires real caution and care. More than that, neither of us was particularly eager to suggest practical steps in this realm — definitely something for parents to talk about with children. In part because of the prevalence of eating disorders among adolescents, Hess and Garlett advise readers to “tread cautiously, prayerfully, and in great humility” (p. 57) in teaching children about fasting.

Study: Easily our best discussion, in part because it resonates so strongly with things I do every day as a Christian college professor who writes and teaches on faith-learning integration. We started by simply asking each 4th grader to name their favorite subject (besides recess) in school, then asked them why they like it so much. Finally, we asked, “How can studying ______ help you understand God?” Cue bewildered, but intrigued silence. It was beyond wonderful to watch their faces as we suggested answers: If you like making art, does it help you understand what it means that God is Creator? (Or that you’re made in the image of God?) Can studying math or science or geography help you appreciate what God accomplished with Creation? Can social studies help us see that God values and loves every person, or that he means for us to seek justice and peace?

We asked them to spend some time this week thinking deliberately about where they might see God in their schoolwork, or some other activity that they wouldn’t normally associate with God. I can’t wait to hear them report back on Sunday, before we turn to the discipline of simplicity.


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