Storytime: The Secret Weapon of Family Discipleship
Parenthood is intimidating. Christian parenthood can seem even more daunting when we consider our responsibility to disciple our children. In Deuteronomy 6:7, Moses commands God’s people to diligently teach Yahweh’s commandments to their children “as you sit in your house, and walk in the way, and lie down and rise.”
The expectation of round-the-clock teaching may seem more achievable if we recognize that Deuteronomy 6:7 has more to do with organic conversations than uninterrupted scripture memory exercises. We can talk about God with our children in the carpool queue, at bedtime, and when they wake up from a bad dream. But one of the best ways to spark conversations that help children understand God’s world and God’s Word is to read aloud to them.
We can do this by reading story Bibles and other resources from Christian publishers, but we can also make disciples by reading secular picture books and classic novels. Reading aloud provides shared experience and great fodder for discussing how God’s commandments can be applied (or misapplied) in interesting scenarios.
Develop the moral imagination
As evangelical Christians, we want to avoid moralism while teaching our children how to obey God, their parents, and the laws of a just society. Good stories take moral formation out of the realm of abstraction and into the realm of imagination.
One of the best ways to spark conversations that help children understand God’s world and God’s Word is to read aloud to them.
When my nephew was young and I was nearing the end of reading him a story, he would start to say words silently as if he was telling the story to himself. It’s a picture of what we all do when a story engages our imagination. We turn it over in our minds and memories once it’s over.
When we read aloud with a child, we have just shared the experience of the story with her. Thus, we can experience and interact with what she now relives 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. It turns reading aloud into a kind of role-playing game, 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 just read The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s a ridiculous story, and you can laugh about it together! Even so, your child is going to face many situations in which not following the crowd seems very embarrassing. This story gives you the opportunity to talk about why everyone in the crowd could pretend the Emperor was wearing clothes, and why we should do or say the right thing even when no one else does. .
It’s also helpful to have shared stories that you can refer to when character issues naturally arise in life. Say your family read Horton hears a who! by Dr. Seuss. In this story, an elephant discovers and protects the small population of Whoville. It includes the memorable line, “A person is a person, no matter how small.” Then one day, if you see your 4-year-old son abusing a younger brother, snatching things from a baby, or being rough, that 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 if he wants to be like Horton and how Horton might treat a little brother.
Secular stories can fuel a child’s imagination with scenarios where biblical commandments and principles should be applied.
In both of these examples, secular stories fueled a child’s imagination with scenarios where biblical commandments and principles should be applied. Exodus 23:2 says, “Do not follow the crowd doing evil. The Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates why people might accept what they know to be wrong, as well as the folly of that choice. Horton hears a who! pairs well with Matthew 18:10, “Take heed that you despise none of these little ones.” In the eyes of God, we are all small and extremely vulnerable, but we are also created in his image (Genesis 1:27). When we treat the smallest and weakest with tenderness, we live God’s way.
Never too old to read aloud
We are used to reading picture books aloud because small children cannot read on their own. Nevertheless, I hope you won’t stop reading aloud to your children when they can read independently. If you do, you will lose the shared moral imagination that comes from living a story together. I don’t believe it’s possible to do without reading aloud, although 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 to conversations about God. Biographies of past Christians, especially if they include a person’s flaws as well as strengths, can broaden children’s ideas of what the Christian life might be like.
I can think of many great books that shaped my own life and my spiritual walk because they reflected something true about the world.
Discipleship through reading aloud can even extend beyond books with directly Christian themes. I can think of many great books (such as the titles in this reading list) that shaped my own life and my 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 a great opportunity to talk with your child about why some people might take the name of Christ without following his commands.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Truth must gradually dazzle / Or every man must be blind.” When we read stories with our children and talk about them, we create opportunities for the truth to “gradually blind.” We must give them direct instruction by teaching them the Bible and the doctrines of our faith. But by sharing good stories, we can also help them see how that faith could work in the world and have a good time together doing it.