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Train Your Child's Heart Before His Head

Children learn to worship God primarily through participating in rightly ordered worship.

Train up a child in the way he should go;
even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Any concerned, Christian parent is committed to training his or her child to be obedient to the Lord and His Word. From the earliest of ages we inundate our children with Bible verses, we make sure that they faithfully attend church, and we seek to instill in them Bible truths that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

I wonder, however, whether Christian parents are really training their children fully. Do we realize how, exactly, our children are influenced and what is influencing them?

It is my fear that most Christian parents do not recognize that before a child can even comprehend facts, his affections and imagination are already being shaped. In fact, I would suggest that most Christian parents never really even consider the moral imaginations of their children. Sure, we say we are targeting their hearts, and by teaching them biblical truth their hearts are certainly influenced.

But do we realize that a child’s heart is shaped far before he or she has the capacity to comprehend truth?

In other words, far before a child can comprehend his need to love the one true and living God, far before he or she can comprehend the concept of a god at all, the child learns how to love.

Far before a child can comprehend his need to fear and reverence God, the child learns how to fear and reverence.

Far before a child can comprehend his purpose to worship God, the child learns how to worship.

What happens with most parents, though, who see only the need to teach their child’s head, is that in order to teach such truths, they are willing to use almost whatever means necessary to do so.

So they use puppets to teach Bible stories, never realizing that their children are learning to view biblical truth as something light and trivial.

Or they use cartoons to teach moral lessons, never realizing that their children are learning to view morality as something silly or “adventurous.”

This problem is seen most acutely with children’s music. Christian parents, educators, and publishers have the noble goal of teaching their children about God, his Word, and how to obey him rightly, but they set such truth to irreverent, trivial, or even downright banal music, forgetting that far before their children learn these truths, they must learn how to express themselves rightly toward those truths.

I do not question the noble motives of these people for an instant. But I do question their understanding of how children are taught to worship.

Children learn to worship God primarily through participating in rightly ordered worship.

Children learn to love God by first learning how to love.

Children learn to reverence God by first learning how to reverence.

Children learn to fear God by first learning how to fear.

Allow me to give a few examples from personal experience, not because I have any special insights or great success, but because this is something I was taught very recently and have fervently tried to implement with my children.

From the time our first son, Caleb, was born, I began to sing hymns to him (We have begun these things with our daughter, now, by the way). Not children’s sacred songs, mind you, but hymns that we regularly sing in gathered worship. Among other times, each night before bed I sing him the same five hymns:

  • All Praise To Thee, My God, This Night
  • God Moves in a Mysterious Way
  • Holy, Holy, Holy
  • I Sing the Mighty Power of God
  • Come, Christians, Join to Sing

Each afternoon before naps, I sing to him the same three hymns:

  • Sun of My Soul
  • O Thou In Whose Presence
  • How Sweet and Awful

And each evening during our time of family worship, we sing various hymns together, usually of Caleb’s choosing.

At about 9 months of age, Caleb could sing the tunes to several hymns. Did he comprehend the words of the hymns? Not at all. Was his mind being affected at that point? Hardly.

But he was learning to love right expressions of ordinate affections. He was learning how to love, how to reverence, how to worship.

Today (Caleb is almost 2 1/2), Caleb can sing about 25 hymns, mumbling through most of the words. Even still, I am certain that he does not comprehend most of the words let alone the truths beneath them. But I am not concerned about that at this point. What I do know is that he is learning to distinguish between kinds of emotions and when certain emotions are appropriate.

I know this is the case because Caleb enjoys singing other songs as well. Fun, children’s songs like “Ring Round the Rosie,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and other similar children’s folk tunes (which, by the way, I also believe are expressions of noble affection, although not appropriate for worship).

Yet when he is asked what he would like to sing after our time of Bible reading, he has never chosen one of those songs. Not because we have limited his choices, and not because we have explicitly taught him which songs are about God.

He just knows.

I remember several years ago when I eliminated all of the “fun” children’s songs from the children’s meetings in our church and began teaching the children “adult” hymns and how to use a hymnal, some of the parents initially objected. They wanted their children to have fun, to “enjoy” coming to church. But I, as their pastor, stood firm.

A few months later, as the children grew to really love singing hymns, enthusiastically belted them out in our worship services, and chose them as favorites in our congregational favorites services, one of the fathers who had initially objected said to me, “My children sing hymns now in the car and at home. They love singing hymns. I realized that now, when they get older, they will chose a church that sings these same hymns.”


Also from the time Caleb was born, I have prayed regularly with him. Each night before bed, I pray The Lord’s Prayer. Not because there is something magical about praying this prayer, but because I am using it as a teaching tool just as our Lord did. Does Caleb (even today) understand all of the words or the concepts of the prayer? Hardly. But he is learning how to pray.

At other times during the day, I pray with Caleb as well. I do not water down my prayers, although I do sometimes choose a bit simpler vocabulary (some times). I do not speak in a silly voice or a child’s voice or any differently than how I would pray in any other circumstance.

Why? Because I am not, at this stage in his life, concerned about what Caleb understands in terms of vocabulary or truth content (although I certainly trust that he will come into that understanding soon).

I am concerned that Caleb learns how to pray.

And I know that it is working. About 3 or 4 months ago, Caleb began asking if he could pray before meals, during our family worship, etc. And so we have let him pray.

He begins with the word, “Fader” (Father), the way his Daddy always begins. He bows his head and speaks in a soft, slow tone of voice. He mumbles through words that we can hardly understand; it’s mostly gibberish, but it is becoming more clear as of late. He is beginning to throw phrases in like “Thank you,” and we hear words like “Mommy,” “Daddy,” “Kate,” “Caleb,” “God,” and “Jesus.” His prayers are never short, never silly, never loud. He closes his prayers with “In Jesus’ [something], Amen.”

Is Caleb praying intelligible sentiments? No. Does he really comprehend to whom he is attempting to speak or even what he is doing at all? I don’t think so.

But I am not concerned about that at this stage in his life. What I am encouraged by is that Caleb seems to understand that prayer should be characterized by reverence and awe, not because I have taught him what those concepts are, but because he has witnessed them repeatedly in the 2+ years of his life.

Just about a month ago we began bringing Caleb into the Sunday morning corporate worship service in our church. We began by bringing him in just for the music portion (and having to take him out during prayers and lengthy Scripture readings), and after a few weeks he now sits in the entire service (not perfectly at all; it’s a lot of work to keep him quiet; but he does).

“But he would comprehend so much more truth in a Junior Church service at his level,” some may object. Likely so (although our church doesn’t even offer a Junior Church service).

Yet what he might gain in terms of intelligibility of intellectual truths does not justify what he would lose by being in a room of his peers, by being separated from the corporate worship of the adults of the Church.

At 2 1/2 years of age, my son cannot really benefit from very much intellectual teaching, no matter the level.

At this stage in his life, he is learning how God is to be approached, how he is to be reverenced, and how he is to be loved.

And let me tell you, there is nothing – nothing – more joyous than to hold your 2 1/2 year old son in your arms in a corporate worship gathering, and have him enthusiastically sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” right along with everyone else in the congregation; to have him bow his head with the rest of the congregation for a lengthy intercessory prayer; to have him sit quietly as two full chapters of the Bible are read publicly before the congregation.

Does he misbehave? O, yes! Do I still have to take him out once in a while? There is a reason we sit in the back!

But my son is learning how to worship by worshiping.

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

12 Responses to Train Your Child's Heart Before His Head

  1. So, where does the title come in? From the content of your article, one could easily say "Train Your Child's Head Before His Heart."

  2. The point is that by singing hymns to our children, praying reverently, and bringing them into worship services, we are training their hearts far before they understand the doctrinal content.

    They are learning how before they learn what and why.

  3. Scott,

    This is a fantastic article. Thank you! My three daughters are almost all grown now (20, 18, and 17 years old). But I remember when our oldest was three. She took a nap every afternoon. To help quiet her, we turned the radio to some 'soothing' soft music. At the time in our area, (and though we are professional classical musicians) the local light pop/rock station was, we thought, the best choice for nap time.

    Not long after this decision had been made, and with no coaching or encouragement from us, our three year old emerged from her nap one afternoon and with a wiggle began to coo, "oooh baby I'm a wantin' you tonight."

    Needless to say, we were appalled at the consequences of our 'harmless' decision. To see this baby of ours so quickly absorb the sound and demeanor of adult sensuality was a knock in the head for us. We immediately put together some softer classical music, children's folk songs, and hymns on a tape to play during naptime.

    Children love what they're taught to love. When parents offer and encourage sensual pablum in the mistaken notion that that's what all kids like by nature, they inadvertently teach kids to like it while tacetly endorsing it. We adults in this culture have bought – hook, line and sinker – that young people must have 'their own' music. This is a commercial ploy by the pop/rock music industry that separates children from their parents in a premature race to sensuality. Prior to the advent of the recording industry, there was no 'generation gap.' Children liked the music their parents taught them and sang to them, not the music they were sold by an industry bent on high profits at all costs. If you watch carefully, you can see this sentiment in much, if not most advertising: "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" capitalizes on the sinful rebellion in our hearts against the authorities Scripture commands us to honor.

    Thankfully, our daughters today won't permit us even a five-minute nostalgic moment listening to any pop/rock station. In God's grace, their loves are choral music, symphonic music, folk music, and jazz, and reverent worship of their Lord.

  4. Scott,
    I appreciate the reasoning behind what you are doing with your kids. In fact, if you took the hymn references out and replaced them with contemporary worship songs and replaced "bowing his head" with "raising his hands", I could write the same about my children. It truly is a blessing to see your children not only 'go through the motions', but grow in their understanding that worship has not as much to do with style as it does heart attitude. Just be careful not to get yourself into a trap. The medium is not the primary focus. Getting caught up in 'how' is dangerous no matter what side of the stylistic fence you are on. Your two and half year old will soon be testing your theories – and that is when it becomes a true blessing. I personally believe that one of the reasons God gives us children is to humble us and show us what truly matters.

  5. Thanks again for your thoughtful "wake-up call." I appreciate the gentle reminder that we crave what we get a steady diet of. I've recently begun teaching our church children in the SS Opener time several doctrinally rich hymns (Faith of Our Fathers, O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing, Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness) (not just the melody but the meaning). Our twins' new favorite hymn is "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing" and they sing all 5 verses consecutively by memory with great enthusiasm. You should have seen them sing it with our congregation this past Sunday morning! It was a thrill to my heart. Their enthusiasm is only encouraged as we sing and love these great hymns ourselves. About a month ago on a Sunday morning, we asked the kids (to see what they're thinking) why we go to church each Sunday. Our son spoke up and said, "So we can praise Him with our thousand tongues!"
    I'm reminded of Dt. 6:7 "You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise."

  6. Great to hear what you're doing, Crystal! It's so neat when our children love the same hymns that we do. :)

  7. Oh, but the style does matter. Many contemporary rock worship songs are rock songs and most rock is erotic.

    When my daughter and her cousin (who lived with us) were in their mid-teens, God opened my eyes to this. I shared my new understanding with the girls and God graciously allowed them to see it as well. I never laid down the law but their consciences responded to truth.

    Their nine years of dance training (ballet, tap and jazz) helped them to quickly perceive that both rock and jazz music is highly sexual. Because there is a very strong connection between musical style and its physical expression in the of dance, the girls readily recognized, through their own extensive experience in interpreting music through movement, that rock and jazz (regardless of lyrical content) produce ungodly and illicit emotions, sensations, and inclinations and physical movements.

    I marvel, looking back, at my own blindness and foolishness in allowing them to participate in these activities. My daughter recently wrote, "I remember the effect it [rock music] had on me…That's probably a big reason why my style and interests changed after we stopped taking dance.] This was also around the time they stopped listening to rock music in general. I noticed that they began to dress more modestly, to have more mature and godly attitudes toward the opposite sex, and to have higher standards in their taste in all forms of entertainment, all without any outside pressure to change in these areas. They have also noticed a strong connection between music choices and modesty (of both appearance and behavior) among their Christian girlfriends.

    I would caution any believer to think long and hard before exposing his or her children to a steady diet of rock music, regardless of its lyrical content.

  8. Correction (3rd paragraph): "both rock and jazz music are [not 'is'] highly sexual." Also noticed a couple of other minor typos. Sorry. :P

  9. By the way, Scott, I love this article and am going to share it around.

    While I was foolish enough to listen to the rock-n-roll oldies station while my girls were growing up, I never liked CCM. Thus, the only worship music they were exposed to regularly included hymns and classic conservative-style Christian songs, both at home and in church. Now, at 22, both of these young women love hymns and the Christian songs they grew up with. It's wonderful to have three generations worshiping together (including their grandparents) with no "worship wars" – no division as a result of the younger generation's addiction to CCM rock songs.

    All praise to the Lord alone for His mercy in bringing this about because on my end, it was rather an accident. I do hope others can learn from it.

    God bless you and keep up the great work!

  10. Thanks for a very helpful article. Where does something like "Patch the Pirate" fit in? Many of the songs are excellent, but there are many just plain silly songs. What affect on a child's heart does mixing worship and frivolity have? Perhaps you have written on this already, so you could just post a link if you have. Again, thanks for your ministry. It has helped sharpen me considerably.

  11. Jack, I try not to make specific applications like this on this site, especially when it involves subjects close to home. I would just urge us to consider what making biblically truth silly does to our children's imaginations of that truth; but we all must make the decision where that line is crossed ourselves!

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