One of my earliest memories is visiting the Magna Carta. Dad put me on his shoulders so I could look over all the people pressing around the display case. The document—old and dirty—didn’t impress me. What did impress me was my father’s excitement. “Look!” he kept saying, “That’s it, right there!” Even if it looked lame, I knew it was significant.
Children should be exposed to history early and often through artifacts, oral stories, old art, and especially good books. Increasingly, I’m convinced that because history gives our children so many benefits, it’s actually a parenting tool. It’s a neglected one that can really bless our kids. Here are just six ways it does so.
1. Teaching children history is fun.
Though my children like science better than history right now, we all love to curl up on the couch and read about someone amazing from centuries ago.
Pheidippides—running 200 miles in a couple of days! Zheng He—sailing from China to Mecca before Columbus was born. Luther—saying shocking things that make us laugh and think. Elizabeth—the tsarina who never wore the same dress twice and owned 15,000 when she died.
History is full of crazy, interesting people, and it can be crazy interesting to explore their lives.
2. Teaching children history lets them see values played out.
Think about the traitors in history. That’s where selfishness leads when it’s scared.
How about the dictators? That’s selfishness when it’s bold and powerful.
Generals? That’s leadership exercised for good—or evil.
Scientists? Many show us how curiosity can serve civilization.
Martyrs? Conviction writ large.
Missionaries? The drive to share truth.
When kids get to know history, they get to know what makes people tick and how that changes not only other lives, but even the world. They can also detect the seeds of these tendencies in themselves, and then cultivate or uproot them.
3. Teaching children history gives them perspective.
Our culture is radically individualistic. From baby boomers whose life goal is an amazing retirement to millennials with an entitlement complex, people are obsessed with self, experts at ignoring their mortality. It helps to look back through millennia and see many millions of men, women, and children who are no more.
We’re so small, so temporary. It’s not about us, and history shouts this point. You can’t do history for long and feel bigger than you really are.
You can’t do history for long and feel bigger than you really are.
Children can learn to see eternity swell beyond time’s horizon, learn to number their days, and gain hearts of wisdom (Ps. 90:12).
4. Teaching children history gives them direction.
Contrary to some worldviews, history isn’t going in circles. It has an end point, a climax that’s approaching: “He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity” (Ps. 98:9).
Grasping this end point helps children understand that they can have purpose in life: they can, through loving God and neighbor, actually move history along to its ultimate goal. Their lives can have the same goal that history does: the exaltation of Jesus Christ.
5. Teaching children history grounds them.
The industry that charts family trees, tracks DNA, and reveals roots is booming. Everyone wants to know where they’re from, because it’s part of who they are. It gives them a story, a personal history, an interpretive grid.
Children need this. They need to understand their community and their place in it. They need church history in particular. Especially in our transient culture, this gift brings lifelong blessing. Give it to your children.
6. Teaching children history helps them understand who God is.
History teaches that we’re small and temporary, but it teaches us the opposite about God. He isn’t like us. He is eternal and outside of time. He preserves his church and his Word. He built order and patterns into the world, but he isn’t bound by them. He works in mysterious ways, bringing revival to England while revolution tore France apart. He allowed China to lock itself up to communism, letting the Word and Spirit do their work underground. He brings down nations, and the hearts of kings are like streams of water in his hand (Prov. 21:1).
So pursue history with your kids! Read it out loud to them. Give them quality historic novels and biographies to go through on their own. Talk about it with them. Visit a museum and look at images and artifacts with them.
They’re never too young to meet the people and understand the events that made our world, or to contemplate the God who orchestrates it all for our good and his glory.
Editors’ note: Here is a new series of illustrated board books for young children. These simple stories—written with 1- to 3-year-olds in mind—have beautiful, engaging illustrations that will have your children asking you to read them over and over: