Parenting a toddler is like a marathon—one long test of endurance and stamina. The days and nights collide into each other as your toddler bounces of the walls in excitement and joy. Each new day provides another opportunity for another adventure, filled with new discoveries. Though exhausting, toddlers bring such incredible joy and excitement to the home. As the dad of an almost three year old, I've noticed that these young years provide an incredible opportunity for discipleship. After all, as Christian parents we are called to evangelize and disciple our children. Yet, in my experience, many parents struggle with specifically how to do that. After all, toddlers are just learning language. How much can you really disciple? Well, more than you think. As you parent a toddler, you do not pull out your Millenial charts on the book of Revelation, but rather you set the foundation for future discipleship. If you are building a new home, you cannot start putting paint on the walls before you prepare the foundation. Lay the foundation first; the time for paint will come eventually. The toddler years provide an incredible opportunity to lay a solid foundation that will prepare your child to understand the Gospel as he or she grows.
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So how can you disciple your toddler and lay a solid foundation? By no means am I a toddler expert. Though I am a pastor, I'm just an ordinary dad trying to figure out how to shepherd my family, daily trusting on Jesus for help and guidance. But for what its worth, here are some helpful suggestions on how you can take advantage of these early years.
1. Read Bible Stories to your Toddler
A simple, but sadly neglected way to disciples your toddler. Read the Bible to them! Find a great book like the Jesus Story Book Bible to read to them each day. Teach them to be excited about God's word and learning about Jesus. As they get older, you can teach them more and more, but start the habit now! Yes, help your child understand the Bible stories and the meta-narrative of Scripture, but at this young age you are primarily trying to embed a love and thirst for the Scriptures as your child grows up.
2. Sing to Your Toddler the Christian Classics
It is amazing how much children can learn through song. Sing "Jesus Loves Me" and the "B-I-B-L-E" to your toddler. My wife Kaitlyn started a tradition with our little boy each night. After our nightly prayer, we sing a few songs (We have a set list of the same few songs every night). He loves to sing and we love to sing with him. Teaching him the lyrics to the Christian classics continues to cultivate his heart, preparing for the Spirit to work.
3. Teach Your Toddler to Pray
Your toddler can pray. As you make prayer a habit each day, encourage your child to pray. We try to do that by teaching our little boy to thank God. Even at a young age, when his language skills were undeveloped, he was able to thank God for mommy and daddy. Sometimes he would even thank God for the wall. You know toddlers; they say crazy things.
4. Show Excitement about Church
Toddlers get excited about what you get excited about. If attending church is the low-point of your week, your children will pick up on it. However, if you make church and worshiping the Lord a big deal, then you will teach your toddler to love Church and the people of God. Set an example not just in your attitude, but in your attendance. Make it a priority to go to church with your children. Go as frequently as you can to any midweek activities. You want to cultivate a love for church within your child at an early age.
Yes, when your kids get older you may have to make them go to church (and godly parents will), yet you want your child to want to go to church. Build that foundation early.
One of my little boy's favorite days of the week is when we go to church. He loves it. In fact he asks to go just about everyday. I pray that my son will always have a desire to be around the body of Christ and worship the Lord.
5. Reinforce your Child's Sunday School Lesson at Home
If you go to a good Bible-believing church (and I hope you do!), your child should be learning the Scripture at Sunday School (or whatever your church's equivalent is). Most churches send home a handout reviewing what your child learned that morning. Help disciple your child by reinforcing what your child is learning at home. Go over it a lunch and over the week. If there is a memory verse for the week, help your child learn it. Reinforce the main point of the lesson. The church is not their to disciple your children for you, but to assist you in the work. Utilize their help!
6. Memorize Scripture
If your child can name every train from Thomas & Friends (like mine can), your child can memorize Scripture. As your child's language is developing, why not go ahead and hide God's word in their heart? Though we are just beginning Scripture memorization with our little boy, he enjoys it. It warms your heart to hear him quoting Genesis 1:1 while he is quietly playing in his room.
Pick out simple Bible verses and repeat them often. Perhaps during your family devotions or at the dinner table or before bed. Your toddler is like a sponge and will soak up God's word.
7. Demonstrate the Love of God
Your child's understanding of God's love will be based on your example. That's an overwhelming truth. As parents we are called to image God's love to our children. As our children watch the way we speak and act, we will either reveal or obfuscate the love of God. When we respond to our child in rage, anger, and frustration, we confuse our children about God's grace, mercy, and love. There is a time for discipline, and that should not be neglected. But, our children, above all else, should see the love of God in us and through us.
This is a heavy weight for us Dads in particular. God reveals himself to us as Father. Therefore, when your children begin reading in the Bible that God is their Father, they are going to think about you. Model for them the love of God well. Far to many children cannot understand the concept of God as Father because either they don't have one or their father was a selfish and abusive prick. We need godly Dads who can model the love of God to their families more than ever.
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8. Teach Your Children to Live Under Authority
Our radically individualized culture believes all authority is filled with corruption. As a result there is a hyper-suspicion to anyone in authority over us. Whether it is the government, our teachers, our pastors, our boss, our our parents, we tend to be skeptical of authority. This allergy to good, God-given authority begins in the family. Dad and Mom must model a biblical vision for authority and leadership over their children, and that includes discipline. One of the biggest lessons you can teach your child is that authority is part of God's good design. Therefore they must submit to it and respect God-given authority. As a result, teaching your toddler that Daddy and Mommy are in charge is a crucial spiritual lesson for your children to learn. If you hope to disciple your children in their teenage years, you must first teach your children to live and learn under your authority. After all, how are they going to submit to the authority of Christ over their lives if they haven't learned to submit to Mom and Dad?
Prepare your Child's Heart
No parent can convert their child to Christ, only the Spirit can do that. Yet, careful cultivation of your child's heart can lead to a powerful work of the Spirit in your child's life. The general adage from Proverbs rings true, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV).
Take advantage of these sweet years, when your child is hungry to learn. Set a solid foundation for future spiritual nurture by discipling your toddler now, all the while praying for a great work of the Spirit to save the little soul under your care.