Parents are always communicating with their children. A touch of restraint on the arm, an encouraging word after school, or a hug before bed all convey important truths. From the casual smile across the dinner table to the tear-filled conversation before bed, every exchange with my kids is an opportunity.
For Christian parents, one goal must shape every interaction: to help our children grow in their knowledge and love of God. We want them to believe and embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ!
There are on-ramps to discuss the gospel in many of our conversations with our children. And many of these conversations with my kids can start with these three-word phrases.
“I love you”
I grew up in a home where I never questioned my parents’ love. My mother and father both told me (and showed me) that they loved me on a regular basis. I thank God for this—I now realize how much security and stability this gave me.
Children first learn what love is from their parents. So parents must communicate love to their children in a way that is not dependent on performance. My kids should not only know they are loved when they score a soccer goal, when they bring home a good report card, or when their painting wins a local prize.
If parents are teaching their children about real love—and ultimately about God’s love—they will remind their children of their love in good times and bad, during times of correction and praise. Every instance of instruction is an opportunity.
Parents must tell their children “I love you,” and they must say it in a way that is full of grace.
“Please forgive me”
Any two people living in close proximity will sin against each other. Often. This is a sad fact of our fractured world.
Before children turn two or three, parents must think about discipline. They will have hard talks during which they help their children confess their sins to God and others. But one of the most powerful conversations a parent can have with their children is when the shoe is on the other foot.
I have needed to seek forgiveness from my kids many times. I have yelled at them in anger and impatience, I have joked at their expense, I have been deliberately unkind as a form of retaliation. This is, sadly, only a partial list.
My confession to my kids is both necessary, because God commands it of me (James 5:16), and important, because it teaches them vital truths about being a Christian.
In my confession, I teach my children about sin. We are all sinners; we will not lay aside these selfish hearts as we age like some pair of toddler pajamas. And sin has consequences. Because sin offends God, we must confess our sin to Him. When we sin against others, we must seek reconciliation.
I try not to make excuses when I confess my sin to my children. I acknowledge the ways I have hurt them and express my sadness and regret for my actions. We discuss Jesus’s work on the cross for me: I can be sure God has forgiven me because Jesus died, was buried, and rose. And then I ask them to forgive me, explaining that they will bear a cost in forgiving me (not holding a grudge, not retaliating, not bringing the incident up as a weapon in the future). There is always a cost to forgiveness.
We talk and then we pray. We hug. I hope this practice creates a culture of humility, short accounts, and eager reconciliation in my family that my children will remember and take with them. What better way to get to the heart of Christianity than to forgive each other and treasure the work of Jesus together!
“God loves you”
This wonderful truth is the foundation of all gospel hope, and we must say it often to ourselves and everyone around us. God really does love you (1 John 4:10)!
God’s love is the foundation for all our belief and the proper motivation for our obedience. When children ask why our family goes to church, there’s an enormous difference between an answer that describes our duty and an answer like this: “God loves us and wants us to worship him” (see Romans 12:1).
When I remind my kids of God’s love, this provokes all kinds of related questions.
How does He show us His love? How can we know His love? Why does He love us? How do we experience His love? Where do we learn about His love? How should we respond to His love?
These are questions of discipleship—both ours and our children’s! They naturally lead to conversations about the cross, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, spiritual disciplines, and the local church.
Parents are long-term disciplers of their children, so we should seek out these conversations, even when our kids respond with questions that are difficult or unrelated.
Parents aim to surround their children with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our time, our actions, our sacrifices, and our priorities all speak loudly to those nearby.
Our conversations matter most of all. And big conversations—conversations of eternal importance—can begin with these smallest of phrases.