Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Raising Christian children

1. A friend asked how I'd raise a child in the Christian faith. This post will have an emphasis on catechesis. In addition, because I naturally have a more direct understanding of how a boy's mind works, it will have a masculine bias. At the end of the post I'll paste some material from Lydia McGrew which will offset the masculine bias with a complementary feminine perspective. 

There are whole books written about raising boys from a Christian or traditional perspective, viz. Douglas Wilson: Future Men; Anthony Esolen, Defending Boyhood; Iggulden, The Dangerous Book for Boys.

Due to ever-evolving technology, my technological references may quickly become dated, but they can be translated into their next-generation technological counterparts. By the same token, discussions of science or biblical archeology need to be updated periodically. 

My recommendations depend on a child's cognitive aptitude. A precocious child can absorb things at an earlier age than a normal child. Assigned reading varies with the stages of cognitive development.

When it comes to assigned reading, parents shouldn't simply assign a reading, but be able to discuss it with their kids after the kids read it. What did it mean to the child? What did they understand or not understand? 

2. Nowadays it's important for parents not to let Smartphones and the Internet devour their children's lives. I wouldn't give my kid a cellphone unless it was a very primitive phone for emergencies. And I'd probably banish the TV from home. That doesn't mean they couldn't watch any TV fare, but it would be very selective, DVD/Netflix shows selected by their parents. They'd have computers and Internet access, but with restrictions on both time and content. Same thing with video games. 

3. One of the most important things a Christian parent can do is to give their child a happy childhood. That may give them a livelong momentum.

In addition, as Vern Poythress has noted, parents are placeholders for God in the lives of young kids, so at that age the Christian faith is instilled by showing more than telling. 

4. When they're old enough, children should begin to keep a prayer journal to record answered prayers and special providences. That's something they should maintain throughout life. 

5. Presbyterians have a tradition of children memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That's a good idea because it gives a young child a synopsis of Christian theology. Nowadays a modern English version should be used. 

When they get older they should become conversant with the Westminster Confession of Faith, a classic summary of Reformed Puritan theology. It's not above criticism, but a standard frame of reference. 

Around the same time they should read Packer's Concise Theology. At a later date, Paul Helm's trilogy: The Beginnings; The Callings; The Last Things. These resources will give them an overview of systematic theology and ground them in the rudiments of Christian theology. 

At a suitable age they should read a work like Desmond Alexander's From Eden to the New Jerusalem, to give them the basic plot of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

6. At an early age they should regularly listen to something like King's College Choir singing the Psalms. That's an appealing way to drill the Psalter into their minds. 

By the same token, evangelical hymnody is important to cultivate. That will sustain them throughout life. 

7. They should memorize Bible outlines for every book of the Bible. Parents can find outlines by using the search function of Amazon or Google books for standard Bible commentaries. Some of the outlines may need to be simplified for children.

8. They should become very familiar with major books or sections of the Bible like:

• The Pentateuchal narratives

• Life of David (1-2 Sam)

• Proverbs

• Daniel

• Ecclesiastes

• The Gospels

• Acts

• Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians

• 1 John  

• Revelation

By the time they leave home they should have read the Bible cover-to-cover multiple times. However, the Bible can be confounding, which is why it's important for them to have access to quality conservative commentaries. 

9. They should learn Greek and Hebrew vocabulary using flashcards. If available, it would be good for them to pick up modern conversational Greek and Hebrew at a Jewish center or Greek-American club. Something along those lines. A knowledge of the living spoken tongue is a great aid to Bible study in the original. 

10. They should become very familiar with The Book of Common Prayer (original Cranmer). 

11. At a suitable age they should read biographies/autobiographies about Christians who lived in tough times. 

12. During their teens they should familiarize themselves with the argument from miracles, with an emphasis on collections of well-documented case studies (e.g. Keener, Larmer).

Likewise, they should familiarize themselves with the argument from prophecy, viz. The Moody Handbook of Messianic Prophecy.

13. The best argument against atheism is atheism. During their teens they should read nihilists, to expose themselves to the unvarnished consequences of atheism. 

14. They should occasionally work at shelters to see firsthand the consequences of a godless lifestyle. 

15. On Genesis, they should read:

• John Collins, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11

• Vern Poythress, Interpreting Eden: A Guide to Faithfully Reading and Understanding Genesis 1-3

16. On the hermeneutics of inerrancy, they should read:

• Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament

17. On the historicity of the OT, they should read books like:

• James Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible

• John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths

• Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament

• 18. On the historicity of the Gospels, they should read:

• Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?

• Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View

19. On philosophy, they should read: 

• John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology

• John Frame, We Are All Philosophers: A Christian Introduction to Seven Fundamental Questions

• James Anderson, David Hume

• C. Stephen Evans A History of Western Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Postmodernism

20. On apologetics in general, they should read:

• James Anderson, What's Your Worldview & Why Should I Believe Christianity?

• Greg Welty, Why Is There Evil in the World (and So Much of It)?

21. In terms of fiction: 

I doubt it's good for a young boy's mind to be drenched in pagan polytheism, so I wouldn't have them read the Homeric epics, Ovid's Metamorphosis, The Argonautica, and other suchlike until they hit their teens. 

I'm ambivalent about giving them Dante. Although he's an unsurpassed fiction writer, his descriptions are far removed from theological reality. And while the Inferno retains a morbid fascination, it's unhealthy for the imagination to spend too much time down there. 

Recommended fiction writers or writings include:

• Beowulf

• The Song of Roland

• Georges Bernanos

• Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress; The Holy War

• Ray Bradbury

• Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland; Through the Looking Glass

• Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

• Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

• Dostoevsky

• Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

• Goldberg, Lord of the Flies

• Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days

• Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia; The Space Trilogy

• Jack London, The Call of the Wild

• Melville, Moby-Dick

• Anton Myrer, Once An Eagle

• Milton, Paradise Lost

• Walter Scott

• Cordwainer-Smith

• Tolstoy The Death of Ivan Ilyich

• Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

• T. H. White, The Once and Future King

• William Williams of Pantycelyn, Theomemphus

• Charles Williams, All Hallows' Eve; Descent Into Hell

22. Lydia McGrew's recommendations (may have some broken links):

1) I highly recommend homeschooling. I think it is probably your best shot at raising a child in the faith, combined, of course, with having a strong faith yourself, a strong marriage, and displaying this in the family, teaching Scripture, having a good church, etc.

2) Be overwhelmingly careful about Internet usage. Do not assume that your child doesn't know how to get on the Internet. Lock all devices with passwords from the time that your child is an early age, and have parental control and tracking software on all devices your child is allowed to use or might get access to. Limit Internet time and check usage reports. Disable incognito browsing if you can figure out how to do it. Make sure that your tracking software is not bamboozled by incognito mode. Your child *will* very likely figure out how to use incognito at some point, because Chrome will suggest it to any user who deletes browsing history more than a couple of times.

3) If you have done due diligence, loved your child, modeled love for the Lord, and taught sound doctrine and defense of the faith, do not beat yourself up if your child leaves the faith or takes up a sinful lifestyle. None of the things you try to do is a guarantee. Apologetics and homeschooling are not magic bullets, and not all deconversions are intellectual (so that you could tell yourself you could have prevented it with better education). Your child is not someone you can program to follow the Lord. Don't assume it's your fault if things go wrong later. Just cling to the Lord.

4) Full set of the Narnia books, preferrably in the American edition (It's a little better at one point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis made a change for the better when he revised it for American publication.)

Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse (especially good for girls)
Goudge, Linnets and Valerians (for girls)

A whole set of Sugar Creek Gang books. They are in print; they've been "updated" in a few silly ways, but nothing too awful. Not great literature, but quite decent if you aren't opposed to pietistic adventure stories written for boys on principle. (My girls have enjoyed them.) They are also good for kids who are at a sort of in-between stage as far as reading comprehension--perhaps about age 8 or 9--kids who aren't ready for anything very hard but don't want silly things either.

Several good children's books by Patricia St. John:

Three Go Searching
Treasures of the Snow
Star of Light
Tanglewoods' Secret

Johanna Spyri, Heidi

For very little children, I recommend The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor. But you really should get the out-of-print one with the original pictures. They are really quite lovely paintings. The "new" one that I think is now in print has those hideous Jesus-with-big-feet-in-sandals semi-cartoon pictures which I absolutely loathe and consider are probably unintentionally pernicious and bad for children's faith. There are a number of copies of the out-of-print one available at ABE books, it looks like, for reasonable prices. For example hereHere is a somewhat fuzzy image on Amazon that gives you an idea of the style of the illustrations. But it looks like Amazon's used book merchants are selling it at very high prices.

I'm a big fan of Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities for good readers from age 13 and up or so, and also of course of A Christmas Carol, but I know some friends who object to Dickens for their kids on the grounds that apparently he has a few swear words scattered throughout. Dickens can also be a bit too intense. I would not recommend Oliver Twist to kids due to the sadistic murder scene between Sikes and Nancy. Dickens is also quite difficult, so mature reading comprehension is necessary for any Dickens, including A Christmas Carol

The Haunted Man is an underappreciated Dickens novella that I highly recommend for teens and adults. A scientist is given the option to divest himself of all of his memories of sorrow, wrong, and trouble and to confer this forgetfulness upon other people (without their consent) as a "benefit." Naturally, he later regrets this bargain.

http://www.amazon.com/Very-First-Christmas-Paul-Maier/dp/0758606168/ref=cm_cr_pr_pb_t I recommend also for kids this book about Christmas by the historian Paul Maier.

Lovely illustration paintings--the baby Jesus looks like a real newborn baby--and a different flavor to it from most illustrated Christmas books. The frame story is about a boy who tells his mother he's tired of fairy tales, he's too big for them, and he wants a story about something that really happened. So his mother tells him the Christmas story in a matter-of-fact, historical manner. Really well-done.

C. S. Lewis, Letters to Children. Highly recommended.

For somewhat older kids, a very Catholic book, Maria Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Also recommended for adults. Includes oblique references to miscarriages and a carefully worded (not graphic) description of what it was like for the author to go through childbirth, as well as a rather detailed and mildly harrowing description of Captain von Trapp's death from lung cancer. Protestant parents may object to its explicit advocacy of prayers to Mary and other specifically Catholic doctrines. 

Chaim Potok, The Chosen
Intelligent teens and adults. I do not endorse all of Potok's books. Several of his later ones would be highly inappropriate for a church library, and some are not worth reading. But this one is so very good--really, one of the greatest novels in English, in my opinion--that I can't bring myself not to suggest it solely because he got worse later. The Chosen is about Orthodox and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn during World War II. A novel about friendship and about boys growing up. Completely clean, despite some fairly general references to Freud.

Of course, Tolkien--The Hobbit and LOTR

Also The Tolkien Reader which contains the story "Farmer Giles of Ham." Very fun story for kids, though parents have to  point the kids to it, because the book is a hodge-podge and contains a lecture and other stuff  that wouldn't interest kids. But my middle daughter really enjoyed the Farmer Giles story.

Elizabeth Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Well-done historical novel set in colonial Connecticut. Mildly anti-Puritan. The author is probably anti-religious, but she has a good imagination and does not portray the Puritans in a cartoonishly bad way.

Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company. Highly enjoyable historical fiction set during the 1300's. Some mild anti-Catholicism. The edition with the Wyeth paintings is especially nice. Plenty of adults might like it for light reading.

Two books that have been made into famous movies, where the original books are _incomparably_ better than the movies:

Dodie Smith, The Hundred and One Dalmations, preferably the edition with the Grahame-Johnstone illustrations, which are wonderful realistic pen and ink drawings.

Felix Salten, Bambi. Much, much better than the Disney version, though the Disney version was actually a nice movie. The book is a real classic of chldren's literature, and justifiably so. It's sad, so overly sensitive children might find it hard to handle.

Many parents might like to see adventure novels by G. A. Henty. I haven't read them, but my eldest daughter has so many of them I can't remember the titles. 19th c. boys' historical fiction. I'm told they are very well-done and have that 19th c. "Anglican churchman adventure novelist" feeling to them. Home schooling parents often ask for them at public libraries and ask public libraries to stock them, but I don't know if all libraries do. There is one about early Christians. I think it's called Beric the BritonRainbow Resource has all or nearly all of them at discount prices.

H. Rider Haggard, Alan Quatermain
Victorian adventure novel set in Africa. The main character is obviously a good English Anglican, though the novel is only in the most general sense Christian. One of the adventures along the way involves the kidnap and rescue of a missionary's young daughter from the Masai. Highly enjoyable and exciting book for either kids who are good readers (say, age 10 and up) or even for adults.

I almost forgot to mention that back at the beginning when I recommended the Sugar Creek Gang books I meant the ones by Paul Hutchens, not the "new Sugar Creek Gang" which are an entirely new series written by someone else about which I know nothing. The Hutchens ones, as I said, have been "updated" but are still quite similar to the originals. 

For children who like dogs, any of Albert Payson Terhune's dog books are a good filler for voracious readers. (Parents are sometimes at wits' end trying to keep voracious readers occupied.) Unfortunately, many of them are out of print. Terhune is sometimes rather cynical, a bit in the style of O. Henry. But he is simultaneously (and oddly) highly sentimental about women, dogs, and (some) children. (He also has some nasty children characters.) Occasionally Terhune makes allusions that kids (and some adults) may not understand to cultural phenomena or slang contemporary with the time of writing (around the 19-teens and 1920s). E.g. He might hint at police brutality or at Prohibition. These would need to be explained as they can be difficult. But many of his books are just enjoyable dog stories. 

Update: See "Films for boys".


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with Steve's recommendations. Though, I would be careful not to have too tight a rein on one's children's experiences and choices. I think children in a Christian home need to also be inoculated from the philosophies and pleasures of the world by being exposed to them to some age appropriate degree. Otherwise, if they experience them for the first time away from home in college, they may be overwhelmed by their temptations and lose their faith. I'm speaking from a human and psychological point of view, and setting aside the ontological and theological issue of the perseverance of the saints etc. Dogs who are allowed to roam around the property can often be content with staying indoors much of the time. But dogs who are constantly kept indoors become uncontrollably excited and wild when only let out on occasion.

    As Steve has said in the past, such children need to be exposed to the better or best arguments against Christianity and for non-Christian worldviews before they leave their parent's nest. Otherwise, they will be totally unprepared, shocked and overwhelmed by such arguments from their professors and fellow students. They also need to be exposed to non-Christian literature, fiction, movies etc. They need to realize that God's Common Grace also allows for some genius and beauty (though often tainted with some depravity) among non-Christians. Being totally ignorant of Popular Culture will make them feel like freaks and so tempt them to conform in ways that compromise their (apparent and hopefully real) Christian faith.

    Parents shouldn't too overbearing. Shouldn't shield their children from committing all mistakes and the consequences of their mistakes. Smaller mistakes, sins and their consequences at a younger age are an opportunity to learn that doing things in non-Christian ways have negative consequences. I have only compassion for Matt Slick on account of his daughter's apostasy. I'm the last person to judge Matt's parenting style, but on account of his having Asperger syndrome he may have been a bit too strict and controlling. Teens need to be free to some extent to think for themselves and to disagree. Then go about discussing and debating them about those topics with their parents.

    1. Don't attempt to force convictions onto your children. Because it cannot really be done, and will resent it if they disagree deep down. They need to come around to the truth themselves. On the other hand, if they superficially agree uncritically, they may be easily convinced otherwise by non-Christians if they didn't reason it for themselves [of course with the aid of parents and good apologetical books]. They need to be treated as humans with minds and wills, not as slaves or robots to be programmed or ordered to toe the line in absolutely everything. Avoid being too strict or too permissive. You don't want them to feel like hypocrites by violating their own integrity by agreeing to things they don't really believe deep down. That's a nearly sure way to make apostates.

      Also, children shouldn't be taught directly or subtly/indirectly though unintentionally that if they do everything right by "always" doing things God's way, that God will necessarily/inevitably bless all their efforts and sacrifices. Think, for example, of the damage the "purity culture" that [now apostate] Josh Harris' book brought about in some people's lives. It amounted to a sexual "prosperity gospel" which let down a lot of people. Things need to be taught in a balanced and realistic way that makes room for the reality of the consequences of the Fall which we cannot completely escape.

      Finally, show grace in all your dealings with your children. As placeholders for God, you must balance Law with Grace. Make it clear that as parents YOU TOO need God's daily grace, forgiveness and help. Parents are sinners too. Don't feel that to be good parents you need to put up a facade of perfection. Otherwise they'll think they need to live up to that perfection to be acceptable to God, and so never feel worthy of it or be in possession of it. Nor will they learn by your example how to receive grace from God continually. Let them see you receive grace from God, and also experience grace flowing from you yourselves as parents. Don't be too proud to apologize to your children when appropriate. Too much or too little apologies from parents cause children to lose respect for them. The right amount fosters respect.

      Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.- Eph. 6:4

      Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.- Col. 3:21

    2. The point is not that teenagers should be shielded from exposure to other things, but to make sure they are exposed to the right things to lay a foundation and provide a standard of comparison. Likewise, their priceless youth should not be wasted on constant frivolity. They need structure. They can step out of that structure but they need structure.