When our youngest daughter, Alisa, was 3, she developed an intense fear of crossing streets. Even with no cars in sight, she would tearfully beg to be carried to the other side. I was glad she was aware of street safety, but I also sensed that something irrational was going on.
I finally understood Alisa’s fear when I overheard her telling a neighbor that Jesus died crossing the street. "Why do you think Jesus died crossing a street?" I later asked my daughter.
"You told me Jesus died on the Cross," she replied. In her young mind, the word cross had been confused with crossing the street. It was one of those cute little mix-ups of childhood faith that every child has, a bit like the Sunday morning when our older daughter observed that our church — God’s “holy house” — didn’t appear to have actual holes in it.
Whenever our children had one of these little mix-ups, my husband, Glen, and I corrected the mistake, and our kids gained a new understanding or insight into our faith. We longed to see our kids grow up with a vibrant faith, knowing God’s love and His plan to save humankind. Along the way, we learned that it’s not always as easy as teaching our kids that Jesus didn’t die crossing a street.
Faith Isn’t a Checklist
Early on, my husband and I committed to regular devotions and times of age-appropriate Scripture study and worship. We attended church as a family and prayed together. We modeled the importance of service by serving the needy in our community. These activities often inspired our kids’ faith, and we did grow closer as a family.
But sometimes these activities and commitments fell flat, becoming simply another item to check off our "to-do" list. Over time, I realized that while it was important that our faith was exercised in tangible ways, what mattered even more was who we were in the process of all this doing. As I turned a microscope on my own life, I saw some areas that needed improvement. These four changes made a big difference in my parenting:
I began to examine my own relationship with God. In my 40s, I grew anxious about the condition of my own heart. Was I striving to teach my children something that was not real in my own life? In Romans 2:21, Paul admonishes: "You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?"
Eventually, God brought me to a place of brokenness where I confessed my pride and surrendered to Him. I began to do this daily as part of my own personal time with God. But I also began to humble myself before my family. I knew my kids needed to see less of my own efforts and more of my willingness to rest in Christ and trust Him. Faith in myself was getting in the way of fostering a lasting faith in my children.
I began to walk in forgiveness and grace.
My children’s defiance and misbehavior often hurt my heart. At those times, I was tempted to respond with a cold shoulder. I wanted them to know that I did not approve of their actions. But this cold rejection does not reflect the heart of God. He doesn’t approve of our sinful actions, but His love is constant.
I saw the importance of extending that same forgiveness to my children. As a parent, I was called to be a safe place for my children, where they could openly confess their sin and receive forgiveness. Mistakes can be powerful opportunities for our children to learn about the heart of God. Through forgiveness and grace we grant them the ability to rise and start anew.
I began to walk in humility.
As very differently wired individuals, Glen and I often had conflicting views on parenting. Sometimes, we argued pretty severely about whose approach was best. Eventually, deep conviction began to have its way in each of our hearts, and we realized we needed to change the growing pattern of stubbornness we were abiding in. Pride was keeping us at odds with each other. As we practiced humility in how we related to each other, we noticed that our children seemed more drawn to Christ.
I began to pray more.
As a young child, I would walk the fields near my home and ponder spiritual ideas. At that time, my own parents were disinterested in matters of faith, but I knew that my grandfather was praying for our family all the way from Finland. This developed a longing deep within me to know God.
I turned to Jesus before my parents did, but eventually my grandfather's prayers were answered on their behalf as well. They, too, gave their hearts to the Lord.
Through the years, prayer has been my lifeline. Each day I pray for my family with eternal goals in mind. Prayer takes my eyes off my circumstances, dispels anxiety and fills me with peace. And I’ve had opportunities to see how prayer changes things. Not just in the lives of my children, either; prayer changes me by constantly turning my eyes to an ever-present, always-available God.
From Generation to Generation
Today, Glen and I are privileged to live very close to our grown kids and their families. We have daily interactions with our children and 11 grandkids. Life is a blessing, although it can be messy at times!
And now we’re witnessing our grandkids' own developing thoughts about God. One Christmastime, our competitive, 4-year-old granddaughter, Alma, let us know what she wanted from God, saying, "I want Him to help me win all the time."
Now that I'm a grandparent, I can see how investing in my own spiritual growth and focusing on the quality of family relationships helped to build a spiritual legacy that’s coming to fruition. I marvel at how faith transfers from the heart of one generation to the next, and one of my greatest joys is telling my grandchildren about an immutable God whose faithfulness extends to all generations.
Ellen Schuknecht is the director of Family Ministries at Veritas Academy in Austin, Texas, where she supports and encourages parents and students. She and her husband, Glen, manage Family Wings Consulting, an organization dedicated to strengthening families. They are the authors of A Spiritual Heritage: Connecting Kids and Grandkids to God and Family.