Training Up Toddlers

When my wife and I first got married, one of the aspects of being the head of our household I was most excited about was family worship. I had grand visions of children sitting with eyes fixed as I read to them from the Word of God, and joyful noises as we sang together, and taking peeks of little bowed heads as we prayed. I had been instructed in the importance of family worship, and I had seen it demonstrated well. However, I was grossly unprepared for leading family worship with toddlers. We have a two-and-a-half year old and a one-and-a-halfer, and both are rambunctious, stubborn, and adorable. All three of which characteristics made my vision of family worship both impractical and frustrating. I thought it might be helpful, with this post, to share some tips and tricks that I’ve learned the hard way.

They Just Don’t Pay Attention

I think the most discouraging obstacle that confronted me while trying to lead little ones was that they seemed to not pay attention. We would sing, and they would dance and play. They sat as still as they could during our prayer time, but that was limited. For a time, I did not even see the point in reading Scripture to them, because they seemed to not be listening. For a time, I thought this was merely a discipline issue. If I corrected them enough, they would sit still and listen. To a degree, that is true, but as I’ve gotten to know my children, I have discovered that I was underestimating them.

Your Children Are Smarter Than You Think They Are

One night, as we sat down to sing a hymn together, our oldest daughter said, “Sing ‘with my soul?'” It took us a minute, but we finally deciphered her meaning: she was asking to sing It Is Well With My Soul, one of our favorite family hymns. That was the moment I realized that my kids are smarter than I had thought. While she was dancing and playing, she was indeed listening to us sing. In fact, it had become her favorite part of bedtime. She now recognizes several different hymns, and can make requests for our nightly hymn (although currently we’re singing Immortal, Invisible, God Only-Wise on repeat). We are teaching her to pray, and she repeats after us as we lead her. Our younger girl does not have the expressive ability yet (as she is still under two), but I have no doubt in my mind that she too is paying attention. How am I certain? She recognizes that when we sing, she can dance and “sing” along, and when we pray it’s time to not speak. It takes time, and consistency, and stubbornness on the parents’ part, but your toddlers can and will learn the routine of family worship.

Visions vs. Reality

I think part of the reason we struggled early with family worship (and I doubt that we are alone in this), is that we had an idealized vision of what family worship should be. I had a picturesque scene in my mind of quiet children giving me their undivided attention. So when that ideal was not met, it was incredibly discouraging. Thankfully, I came to the realization that the issue was that my vision of family worship was suited to older children, not toddlers. The toddler is an incredible creature. I have faced my fair share of bullies, vicious people, and stressful situations. But nothing has made me as frazzled as my toddlers. At the same time, there is no feeling in the world that compares with my toddler running into my arms when I come home from work as she says, “Daddy is Julie’s best friend.”

The Purpose of Family Worship

Before I had children, I understood the theology of family worship; but now, I think, I have finally understood the purpose of family worship. Our goal should not be to simply have attentive listeners who can sit calmly as we read, sing, and pray. Rather, the goal of family worship is to glorify God by training our children to glorify God by worshipping him through the means which he has given to us: his Word, song, and prayer. In other words, family worship is doxological education. And just as we tailor math education to our children’s age and ability, so also should we tailor our method of family worship to our children’s age and ability. For instance, our daughters have enough attention span now that I can read sections of Scripture to them. Instead of reading chapters each night, I will read through a few verses. As they get older, I will read longer sections at each time. In other words, the content of family worship does not change: read, sing, and pray. But I have no issue with my toddlers dancing and singing while we sing our hymns. After all, worship is a happy affair!

A Word of Encouragement

I hope this has been an encouraging read. It was an encouraging realization for me when I discovered that my vision of family worship had been idealized. We are commanded to train our children in the proper worship of God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: and thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:4-7). Remember, worship can be happy. There undoubtedly ought to be a sense of reverence and holy fear as we approach the God with whom we have to do, but remember the words of David: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the LORD imputeth not iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile” (Ps. 32:1-2). There is no greater joy than being in Christ Jesus, and our time of family worship should express that to our children.

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