Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Train up a child in the way s/he shall go etc., etc. may be the oldest cliché that parents are subjected to in this world. It certainly is the most annoying when it is laid upon one by an overweening grandparent. Yet there is—isn't there always!—a rock-solid truth in the whole thing. In this case, what it means is that the first thing we must do in teaching and forming our children is to become dreadfully honest with ourselves and our mates and/or extended family about just how Christian we want this youngster to be and in what ways.
Most of us, if we're honest, eventually conclude this preliminary work by realizing that what we really want to form is not so much a code of conduct, though that is obviously important, as it is an intimacy with God and the things of God. What we want to implant is an easy and natural affection for the holy, an inherent connectedness to an on-going story, and a sense of membership within a sustaining community that, being larger than any of us, is always there to hold all of us as well as demand some things of us.
And to do these things, the second step is to pray earnestly together as parents and/or extended family and without the children present, for them and for the progress of their souls. That, too, seems like a no-brainer, but it is an adult or mentoring habit often overlooked and almost never routinized in the press of other, more immediate duties.
The third on my short list of a half-dozen essentials is a bit easier to accomplish. Children respond (as do we all) to the very business of routine, and here the flow of the week itself helps. Judaism long ago discovered the informing necessity not just of observing Sabbath...really observing it, that is...but also of wrapping it in prayerful preparation and prayerful conclusion. What that translates to for us is a time of evening prayer as a family on the eve of Sabbath and again on the evening of the Sabbath itself, the former to be a time of preparation for communal worship, and the latter to be a time of family thanksgiving for having been granted the gift thereof.
The fourth in my short-list of essentials is storytelling, but there is a trick here, too. It is a good and joyful thing to read to children (or watch a DVD rendition thereof with them), but it is not nearly as instructive as is the business of telling them a story without benefit of books or discs. Implied in telling is the authenticity of what is being told. The underlying message is that this story matters. It matters because Daddy or Grand-daddy or Uncle Bill knows it all the way through. It matters because Mama or Granny or Aunt Sue loves it enough to know exactly what happens next. Of course, what that also means—and this is the source of the child's perception of authenticity—is that Daddy and Mama et al. have valued this story enough to know it in detail and have also thought about it before telling it. What telling rather than reading or watching also means, of course, is that the stories of the faith can be pulled out spontaneously when their words and plot lines are apropos of some conversation or situation other than bedtime.
All of that is to say that I suspect that of all the things we do in shaping our children in the faith, it is the storytelling that is most formative over the long years of their adult lives. I also think (which is far beyond "I suspect," obviously) that one of the things we as mentoring Christians need most urgently to turn our energies toward is adult classes in teaching each other how to be good storytellers and then in learning in detail the stories of both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures that most need our telling.
The fifth thing in my short-list of ways and means is music. In religion, it is, always and finally, the music that instructs the spirit and rides with it through the years. If we need adult classes in the stories of the faith and the art of their telling, then just as surely we need training sessions with one another about the beloved songs that are our heritage, about intentional ways to bring them seamlessly into domestic life, about family song fests, certainly, but even more about tunes woven artlessly into the mundane business of our lives together.
And last in my half-dozen is something even more basic than storytelling and singing. That is, if there is anything that appeals to a child more than those, it is food. In fact, food manages to leave a fairly lasting impression on all of us, and this is especially true of food that is tied, on an on-going basis, to special events. We hear "Easter" and think "eggs," whether we want to or not. Of course, the other side of that associative process is that, because we all love Christmas candy, when we see a peppermint stick, we inevitably think "Christmas" whether it's Christmas or not. Our forebears in the faith used to use that double reinforcement of food and event more or less un-self-consciously; but it is an art, a grace, and a legitimate ploy that we have somehow lost or misplaced along the way.