Parenting is daunting. Christian parenting can feel even more intimidating when we consider our responsibility to disciple our children. In Deuteronomy 6:7, Moses instructs God’s people to diligently teach Yahweh’s commands to their children “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
The expectation of round-the-clock instruction may seem more doable if we recognize that Deuteronomy 6:7 has more to do with organic conversations than non-stop Scripture memory drills. We can talk about God with our kids in the carpool line, at bedtime, and when they wake from a bad dream. But one of the best ways we can spark conversations that help children understand God’s world and God’s Word is by reading aloud to them.
We can do this by reading story Bibles and other resources from Christian publishers, but we can also disciple as we read secular picture books and classic novels. Reading aloud provides shared experience and excellent fodder for discussing the way God’s commands can be applied (or misapplied) in interesting scenarios.
Expand the Moral Imagination
As gospel-shaped Christians, we want to avoid moralism while still instructing our children about how to obey God, their parents, and the laws of a just society. Good stories take moral formation outside the realm of abstraction and into the realm of imagination.
One of the best ways we can spark conversations that help children understand God’s world and God’s Word is by reading aloud to them.
When my nephew was young and I got to the end of reading him a story, he would start silently mouthing words as if he were telling the story over again to himself. This is a picture of what all of us do when a story engages our imagination. We turn it over in our minds and memories after it’s finished.
When we read aloud with a child, we’ve just shared the experience of the story with her. So we can know and interact with what she’s now reliving in her imagination.
One way to interact about a story is to ask questions that connect the themes of the story to the child’s life. This makes the read aloud into a sort of role-play, helping the child figure out the right thing to do in a situation before they’re faced with a similar moral dilemma in real life.
Say you’ve just read The Emperor’s New Clothes. This is a ridiculous story, and you can laugh at it together! Even so, your child is going to face many situations in which not going along with the crowd seems highly embarrassing. This story gives you an opportunity to talk about why everyone in the crowd might pretend the emperor was wearing clothes, and why we should do or say what’s right even when no one else is.
It’s also helpful to have shared stories you can reference when questions of character arise naturally in life. Say your family has read Horton Hears a Who! by Dr. Seuss. In this story, an elephant discovers and protects the tiny population of Whoville. It includes the memorable line, “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Then one day, if you observe your 4-year-old son mistreating a younger sibling, snatching things from a baby, or being rough, it would be a good time to bring up Horton and the Whos. Ask your son how Horton treated the Whos and why he protected them. Ask him whether he wants to be like Horton, and how Horton might treat a baby brother.
Secular stories can stock a child’s imagination with scenarios where biblical commands and principles should be applied.
In both of these examples, secular stories have stocked a child’s imagination with scenarios where biblical commands and principles should be applied. Exodus 23:2 says, “Do not follow the crowd by doing wrong.” The Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates why people might go along with what they know is wrong, as well as the folly of this choice. Horton Hears a Who! pairs nicely with Matthew 18:10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” In God’s eyes, we’re all small and extremely vulnerable, but we’re also made in his image (Gen. 1:27). When we treat the smallest and weakest with tender care, we are living God’s way.
Never Too Old for a Read Aloud
We’re accustomed to reading picture books aloud because small children can’t read to themselves. Nevertheless, I hope you won’t stop reading aloud to your children when they can read independently. If you do, you’ll lose the shared moral imagination that comes from experiencing a story together. I don’t believe it’s possible to grow out of reading aloud, though as children get older, they may want to do some of the reading to you.
Fictional chapter books written by Christians, such as The Chronicles of Narnia or The Wingfeather Saga, lead very naturally into conversations about God. Biographies of Christians from the past, especially if they include a person’s flaws as well as their strengths, can expand children’s ideas about what the Christian life might look like.
I can think of many great books that shaped my own life and spiritual walk because they reflected something true about the world.
Discipleship through reading aloud can even expand beyond books with directly Christian themes. I can think of many great books (such as the titles on this reading list) that shaped my own life and spiritual walk because they reflected something true about the world. Even reading a book that portrays a Christian character in a negative light can be an excellent opportunity to talk with your child about why some people might take the name of Christ while not obeying his commands.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind.” When we read stories with our children and talk about them, we create opportunities for the truth to “dazzle gradually.” We need to give them direct instruction through teaching them the Bible and the doctrines of our faith. But by sharing good stories, we can also help them see how that faith might work out in the world—and have a good time together doing it.