We rarely think about teaching kids how to love. When they are little, most children give lots of hugs and tell people they love them. The world, however, begins to slowly chip away at that pure, innocent love.
Depending on their circumstances and environment, at fairly young ages some children have already lost a lot of that original love for others. Because we live in a fallen world, even children raised in loving, Christian homes can have their love for others weakened.
When teaching your kids about the Fruit of the Spirit that is love, it’s important to help them understand the way God calls us to love others is very different from what the world usually calls love.
In the world, love is romantic or a word used casually to describe our favorite things. Love is often considered something that must be earned or is conditional.
The love God calls His people to live is a purer, higher, agape love that is unconditional. It is a love that can love our enemies and cause us to actually treat them well. It’s the love that’s described in 1 Corinthians 13.It’s a love that is all too rare in our world.
So what are some fun ways to help your kids begin to understand and consistently practice agape love? Here are a few of our favorite ideas.
Love the invisible. There are a lot of people in our world who are unseen by others. It may be because they are somehow different from others in their community or because they have jobs that are less valued. It may be because they are poor or struggling with a problem like substance abuse. It may be because they have special needs or are socially awkward. Talk with your children about seeing and loving the unseen people in their worlds. Maybe it’s the kid no one will sit with or is teased. How can you show love to them? Start with people in your community and show them love as a family. Then encourage your kids to act in similar ways at school. Kids can be cruel, so talk about what your kids should do if they are teased or harassed for showing love to the unseen people in their school.
Love our family. It seems no one can upset us as easily as our family. They live with us and know our weaknesses. Sometimes we take our frustration at the world out on family members – intentionally or unintentionally. Talk about the ways you aren’t currently being very loving to one another. What bad habits do you need to break? Challenge each other to try and do as many loving things for everyone in the family as they can over the course of a week. You can set any boundaries you want. At the end of the week, come back and talk about the things others did for you. How did they make you feel? How did it change the moods of family members or the atmosphere around your house? How long can you continue to act this way towards one another?
Love our neighbors. Kids love surprises. Why not spend time thinking of nice surprises you can do for your neighbors? Make them secret if you can. How much love can you spread in your neighborhood before you are caught? Is there some little kindness your family can regularly do for your neighbors to show them love all year?
Love your enemies. Whether it’s the “mean” teacher at school, the tough coach or the kid who is always mean to them, your kids may not call them enemies, but they have people in their lives that make it difficult to be loving. Who are these people? How does God want us to treat them? Why does He want us to be loving to people who seem so mean? How can your family show love to them? Can you shower them with so much love, you break down their defenses and see a more loving version of them? This may be the most challenging, but if your kids can master this, they are well on their way to being truly loving.
Be creative. Who else can your family love? What are some ways you can be more loving to everyone you meet every day? Make being loving to others a constant family goal.
The Fruit of the Spirit has an interesting role in Christian parenting. If you look at the list…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)…they are qualities even atheists would probably say they want their children to have. Yet the definitions and the ways we teach them to our children can be very different.
To Christian parents, the Fruit of the Spirit are the evidences that a Christian has the Holy Spirit living in him or her. It’s not that other people can not have these qualities. It’s more that Christians should display these qualities more consistently, perhaps more fully as not just evidence of the Holy Spirit, but to draw others to want to learn more about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Your kids may be too young to make an informed decision to be baptized to become a Christian and receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yet just like secular parents, you can begin working with your children on these characteristics. While the Holy Spirit helps all Christians have these qualities, it is perhaps easier for Christians who already had these characteristics to have them in ways that draw others to God than for new Christians who must work to break bad habits.
Over the next few weeks, we will look at each Fruit of the Spirit. What does it look like if your child possesses that character trait? How is a Christian manifestation perhaps different from the way someone who is not a Christian might see that trait and live it in their lives? How does your child’s heart impact each fruit even before they are old enough to become a Christian?
You will also find lots of fun things to do with your kids that will help them practice that fruit. Teaching them from the earliest ages how to be the person God created them to be. Ways you can teach your kids an important passage from scripture, what it means and how to live it in their lives as also a way of serving others and sharing their faith.
As we begin this series, you may want to pull out a Bible and read the scripture with your kids. Then have them create some scripture art of the verses you can display around your house as reminders. Check back regularly as we post fun ways to teach your kids about each fruit.
Scripture memorization is a great way to help your kids keep God’s words on their hearts and in their minds. Your church may not encourage your kids to memorize scripture. If you want your kids to know what God would want them to do without having to take the time to research, look up and read scriptures, memorization is key.
With so many possible passages, which ones should you help your kids memorize? Below is a list of some of the scriptures that can help your kids be who God wants them to be.
Some of the passages are only one or two verses. You will need to review these regularly in order for them to transfer to your children’s long term memories. Longer passages should do that automatically because of the number of repetitions they take to memorize.
Make sure your kids understand what they are memorizing. Explain to them how those verses can help them if they memorize them. Since memorization assignments at home are rare for non-homeschoolers, you may want to have ways to celebrate whenever they memorize passages.
The scriptures have been divided into categories to help you organize your memorization project.
1 Corinthians 13
Scriptures to Comfort
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Scriptures About Courage
2 Timothy 1:7
1 Peter 5:7
Scriptures About Behavior
1 John 1:8
1 Timothy 4:12
Scriptures About Our Heart
1 Peter 5:5
Scriptures About Family
1 Timothy 5:8
Scriptures About Friends (and Enemies)
1 Corinthians 15:33
1 John 4:7
1 Thessalonians 5:11
1 Peter 4:8-10
Don’t know these scriptures yourself? What a better family activity than memorizing them together? Having God’s words on the hearts and minds of your family will help all of you.
“ For if you forgive others their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15 ESV). This is perhaps one of the more frightening passages in the Bible.
We think we are teaching our kids to forgive their siblings, yet sibling rivalry often has its roots in holding grudges for the inevitable wrongs siblings commit against each other. As parents, you can force your kids to say the words, but getting them to develop a forgiving heart is a lot more difficult.
Living in our culture doesn’t make it any easier. People are encouraged to hold grudges against entire nations, races and other groups. It’s a great way for politicians to maintain their power – by convincing everyone they will “right the wrongs” their opponents “are encouraging”. At its core, it’s a philosophy of revenge – not forgiveness.
Even churches struggle with teaching forgiveness in meaningful, practical ways. Your kids will most likely only get the platitude version of the verse above, when they need more practical help in understanding and practicing forgiveness.
There are some things you can do at home to help your kids to develop more forgiving hearts. Here are some of our favorites.
Share Bible stories in a different way. The stories of Jacob and Esau are a good example. Instead of just telling the story, stop at various points and ask your kids how Jacob or Esau must feel. Ask how hard it might be for Esau to forgive Jacob. Then read the story of Jacob and Esau reuniting. Point out that Esau had evidently forgiven Jacob before he received all of the gifts. Have your kids think of the things Esau might have done to be able to forgive Jacob. Joseph forgiving his brothers is another great example…and he even says why he was able to forgive what they had done.
Encourage your kids to talk to God about what happened and ask for His help forgiving the other person . The best thing your kids can do in any circumstance is to turn to God for help. If you can get them to do as the Bible says and pray for the other person, it will help them develop a forgiving heart towards that person.
Teach your kids that they can forgive even if the person never asks for it. This can be tough for everyone. There is a belief that forgiving someone who hasn’t apologized is the same as saying they didn’t do anything wrong. Forgiveness is about allowing the person to start “fresh” with you – as if the negative incident had never happened. It’s not about saying the person was right when they did the hurtful thing.
Teach your kids that when they forgive someone, they should try to stop thinking about what happened. There may be things that remind them of what happened. They still may hurt physically or emotionally from what happened. The key to forgiving and ultimately forgetting as much as we can is to not allow yourself to continually think about what happened and get yourself angry all over again. Time will ease the pain, if your kids learn to stop themselves as soon as they realize they are thinking about the incident and redirect their thinking to something more pleasant.
Help them see the full picture. This has to be done carefully and in the correct timing. People who are mean have often been mistreated themselves and aren’t happy people. When something first happens and your child is venting is not the best time to have this conversation. Once they have calmed down a bit, they may be more willing to think about having a little empathy for the other person. It doesn’t excuse the negative behaviors, but it can make them easier to forgive.
Teach them to assume the best. People are often totally ignorant that they have hurt or offended others in some way. It is quite possible your child misunderstood what happened or is missing some critical details that would change the interpretation of the event. Teach your kids to start with assuming the person didn’t mean to hurt them. It’s a lot easier for most people to forgive accidents and mistakes than intentionally inflicted pain.
Encourage your kids to keep practicing. If the incident was extremely painful, it may take time for the hurt and anger to totally subside. Teach your child that in addition to redirecting their thoughts away from the incident, they should forgive the person again every time the thought returns.
Don’t allow your kids to keep a running list of the wrongs of others. This can be tough to do, but reminding yourself of everything the person has done to you in the middle of processing the current incident is only going to add fuel to the proverbial fire. Don’t allow your kids to say things like the other person “always” or “never” does something. Even if it were true, it doesn’t help them forgive.
Remind older kids and teens that forgiveness is not optional. It is ultimately their choice as to whether or not they choose to forgive someone. God, however, didn’t tell us to forgive others only when we feel like it. He commanded it. This means forgiveness is one of those things they need to really practice until they are able to forgive, because it is an expectation God has of His people.
Forgiveness isn’t always easy. You may be tempted to avoid teaching your kids about forgiveness because you still struggle with it yourself. It’s okay to be honest with your kids and work on forgiveness together. Everyone will benefit as you all learn to be more forgiving.
Empathy is crucial for showing God’s love – especially to people who may seem difficult to love. Kids are often naturally empathetic, but as they get older, empathy can begin to fade. Children with certain special needs or with trauma in their past, may also find empathy difficult.
Regardless of how empathetic your kids are currently, there are some fun things you can do to help them become more empathetic.
Act it out. This is especially helpful for young children or children who struggle reading facial cues or noticing when words, facial expressions and body language don’t match. Take turns making facial expressions and having the others guess your emotion. For older kids you might want to have a variety of emotions written on slips of paper and players draw a slip with an emotion to portray when it is their turn. Make the game more difficult by making your body language reveal the true emotion while your face is trying to suppress the real emotion. Or don’t show the face at all and have them guess only from body language.
Practice with photos. Grab old family photos, or cut out pictures from magazines. Ask your kids to name the emotions the person may be feeling. If they struggle, give them clues of things to notice, like facial expressions. As they become more adept at the game, turn the sound off on your television and choose random shows. Have them guess how emotions are shifting as people converse.
Read books together. As you read a picture book, ask your kids what they think the characters are feeling. Have them share why they chose the emotions they did. Eventually, you may be able to ask them what they think the characters will do next based on their current emotional state. With upper elementary kids and teens, consider reading books like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper that were written to encourage empathy. Or you can choose any book where people experience a range of emotions. Then talk about how various people in the book must have felt at different points.
Examine the life of Jesus. Read the various stories in the life of Jesus. Ask your kids to point out when they believe Jesus is showing empathy. Why do they think he is empathetic in that situation? What emotions is he seeing in the other people? Do their words and actions always make their emotional state obvious? How does Jesus treat them when he is showing empathy?
Write empathetic backstories. You don’t necessarily need to actually write these stories down. The purpose is to encourage your kids to think of reasons why people make the choices they do. Focus on getting them to develop benign backstories – the person was having a tough day versus the person has a heart filled with hate. The goal is to get your kids in the habit of giving people the benefit of the doubt, rather than jumping to the most negative possibility.
Encourage verbalizing emotions. It’s important for your kids to understand their words and actions can impact the emotions of others. They need to know mom and dad can get their feelings hurt, too. Teaching them to verbalize emotions in appropriate ways can also decrease the problems that can happen when people make incorrect guesses about the emotions of others.
On vacations to new places, go where the “regular” people live. Many tourist spots try to give visitors a fantasy experience. They want you to believe life there is perfect. Unfortunately, in many places the reality can be harsh. If you live in an area where it is rare to encounter anyone who is different than your family, this is especially important. Your kids need to see a broad spectrum of what people might experience in life.
Encourage people to tell your kids their stories. We attended church with this “little old lady” in her 90’s. The kids were so amazed to hear her stories of working at a fast food restaurant in her 90’s and having dinner with the Shah of Iran – complete with fussing at him – when she was younger and temporarily living in Iran with her husband. They didn’t know who the Shah of Iran was, but it made them look at sweet Miss Emma in an entirely different way!
Teaching your kids to have empathy towards others is part of teaching them how to reflect God’s love accurately. It’s worth your time and effort to help them develop true empathy for those around them.