Part of the role of good Christian parents is undoubtedly teaching their children the values they cherish. We want our children to understand the importance of these values and, more importantly, to live a life that reflects them. Respect for others (and yourself), kindness, gentleness, self-control and other similar character qualities provide our children with a solid foundation and prepare them for the future. The question for parents, however, is how best to teach these values in ways our children can understand and make their own. Specifically, we need to ask how we can best do this for our children who come from hard places and have not had these things consistently taught, modeled or esteemed.

When it comes to teaching their children values, I suspect most parents naturally think first of using words to communicate their message. Whether it is a story from a book, an everyday life experience or a passage of Scripture, many parents equate teaching with talking (and often with an air of seriousness, at that). 

You’ve probably heard the saying that, when it comes to children, things (such as values) are better “caught” than “taught.” This saying expresses the understanding that teaching is not something parents do so much as it is the sum expression of who they are in front of and with their children. As followers of Jesus Christ, Christian parents are eager to instill in their children that which they believe and hold dear. However, our children may actually learn more about our beliefs and values, and what they look like lived out, from our reaction to someone swerving in front of us on the freeway or our child spilling his drink (again), than from our talking to them about the Bible or sitting down for a “teaching moment.” This truth echoes the essence of the quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary.” 

Even when we do resort to traditional teaching and instruction, parents of children from hard places often discover that their children learn quite differently. As a result, we are required to take a much different approach in order to help them understand the importance of and consistently apply what we are teaching. To do this we need to be willing to dispense with protracted lectures and sermons about right and wrong and do’s and don’ts as our primary means of teaching. Instead, we need to employ strategies such as short teaching scripts (i.e., role play), playful engagement and other creative approaches that can more effectively connect with our children. Our children need concrete and simple examples communicated in non-threatening ways and reinforced with lots of praise and encouragement.  In addition, it is critical that these things be taught and modeled by parents who are fully present and completely attentive to their child. 

Parents find that this different approach is very effective with kids from hard places. But be careful as you introduce or transition to this new way of interacting with your children, because kids do say the darnedest things. One mom reminded me of this as she recounted the story of her son Grant, age five at the time, who was being mouthy and disrespectful. Choosing to engage him playfully in order to de-escalate the situation before taking advantage of the opportunity to teach him about the importance of respect, this mom lightheartedly asked him, “Where did sweet Grant go?” Without missing a beat, Grant replied, “He went on vacation and he’s not coming back!” This mom certainly got her teachable moment, and then some.

*This article is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of Created To Connect: A Christian’s Guide to The Connected Child. This study guide companion to The Connected Child can be downloaded for free. Printed copies of the study guide are also available for purchase.