Faith Development in Children: How to Instill Spiritual Beliefs

by Dr. Mom®

Many parents who want their children to learn about God feel inadequately prepared to answer their questions. The following guidelines can help you shape your child’s perceptions of God and begin to teaching her to know, trust, and love God. If you and your partner differ in your beliefs, emphasize what you agree on, rather than your differences. 

How to Go About Instilling Spiritual Faith

Spiritual beliefs are transmitted most effectively as a routine part of daily life. That’s why it’s said that, “Faith creeds are caught more than they are taught.”

• Laying the Foundation.   Contrary to popular belief, spiritual education can begin in the cradle. Developing an attitude of trust in God actually begins when a baby learns to trust in the dependability of his “God-like” parents’ care and love.

• Children First View God through Their Parents’ Example.   The trust that a child develops in the unconditional love and acceptance of his parents and other caretakers will later form the basis for faith and trust in God as the perfect caretaker. As your child gets older, talk to her about your own beliefs and model your faith practices. Your child will take his cues from you about whether God is compassionate and loving, distant, harsh, forgiving, or uninvolved.

• Create an Atmosphere of Open Communication.   Most children will ask questions of a spiritual nature starting in the preschool years. Be sensitive and emotionally available, correcting misunderstandings without criticizing your child’s primitive beliefs. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t have all the answers.

• Help Children Form a Positive Image of God.   Few things are as important to children’s spiritual development as helping them formulate a positive image of God as loving, caring, trustworthy, forgiving, and desiring intimacy with us. The essence of a loving God is conveyed, not by factual information, but through “attitude education” that influences a child’s behavior and feelings. It is formed by quality interactions with adults who mirror God’s love and care to children. A young child’s image of God may be a blend of media superheroes, local spiritual leaders, and past heroes of your faith. Children may view God as a father figure (protective, strong, authoritative); a mother figure (nurturing, comforting, caretaking); a benevolent grandparent (older, more powerful than their parents, and semi-retired somewhere in heaven); an absent father (remote, distant, not really interested in their lives); a jolly Santa-figure (granting their requests); or a celestial killjoy (watching to catch a child misbehaving). When children form an early negative image of God, it is unlikely they will want to have a close relationship with God. Help your child form a notion of God as good and loving, trustworthy and faithful, creative and powerful, wise and understanding, righteous and moral. 

• Teach Children About the Forebears of Their Faith.   When children learn about Jesus, Abraham, Moses, or Mohammad, they begin to appreciate that God has a special plan for the world and for them. They learn to follow the example of spiritual fathers and mothers of their faith by first following the model of the loved and respected adults in their lives. 

• Use Prayer to Strengthen a Child’s Relationship with God.   Just as dialogue is the foundation for friendships and family relationships, prayer is a powerful way to strengthen our relationship with God. When we help young children pray, we should teach them how to praise, adore, and thank God. Saying grace at meals teaches children to acknowledge God as the creator and source of our daily provisions. Bedtime prayers provide a routine for praising God and thanking Him for our daily blessings. “Anytime prayers” and “event prayers” provide a constant reminder that God is as close as a whispered word or silent thought. Children can learn “ping-pong” prayers, in which we alternate with them in offering a prayer sentence, and eventually they will pray privately. Avoid having young children petition God for specific requests because, when such pleas are not granted, an egocentric preschooler may conclude that God is mean-spirited, rather than loving. Help children appreciate that prayer is a dialogue by listening for God’s response and feeling God’s presence as they pray. 

• Connect God to Daily Life and Nature.   Try to make God relevant to your child’s daily life by mentioning that God created everything we need and enjoy and watches over us. Children can learn about the attributes of God by exploring the wonders of the natural world and appreciating the beauty, orderliness, and predictability in nature. Joyful learning about the known paves the way for understanding the unknown. Because God does not have a tangible appearance, show children indirect evidence of God’s existence.

• Let Children Participate in Formal Worship.   Worship experiences allow children to come into contact with men and women who model the love of God and to experience familiar rituals associated with your faith tradition. Children love to imitate adults and have a strong social need to be part of what the important adults in their lives consider valuable. While young children do not understand what is said at a worship service, they acquire attitudes by participating in the actions of ritual ceremony and learn by using all their senses–seeing the symbols of your faith, hearing worship music and recitations, smelling the floral arrangements or incense, alternately standing and sitting, and touching the collection plate or feeling the handshake of your spiritual leader.

• Provide Formal Religious Training for Children.   A positive religious training experience for children provides quality adult relationships, an age-appropriate learning environment, structure and predictability, and creative activities. Caring teachers serve as a living commentary on the Scriptures, while family activities, suppers, and music performances sponsored by your house of worship create a positive attitude about your faith tradition. 

• Use Music and Singing to Convey Doctrinal Concepts.   Music and singing about doctrinal concepts impress theological messages on the hearts of both children and adults. Children’s praise songs and choruses, with their accompanying body motions and helpful repetition, teach children by the simplicity of their message and their total body involvement. Music is pleasurable, and children remember what they sing.

• Introduce Children to Holy Writings.   Teach young children to recognize the Bible or holy book of your faith and revere it as a symbol of God’s word. Give your child pictorial books of Bible stories for their very own. Be prepared to personalize Bible stories and “filter” out information children cannot yet understand, while conveying the message of God’s love. Choose joyful, uplifting stories as children are learning about God, and omit those with frightening aspects. You can supplement Scripture reading with age-appropriate educational tools, including videotapes, coloring books, and songs.

• Teach Kindness Toward Others.   Teach your child that, just as God loves and cares for us, we are to extend care and kindness to others. When we are generous, compassionate and kind to others, we become partners in God’s plan for the world. Provide opportunities for your child to assist those less fortunate, such as donating gently used toys and clothing.
Copyright ©  2011  Marianne Neifert, MD, MTS     May be duplicated if authorship is cited.