Start The Disciplines Early
By |   March 5, 2012 |   in Family Life |   1 Comment

So, as you may have noticed, the staff of Conversations Journal isn’t perfect. Well, maybe Gary and Joannah are, but I’m certainly not. And during editing season, I’m particularly distractible, apt to forget to return emails or show up to appointments. Which is all preamble to my sincere apology to blogger Valerie Hess for failing to publish her wonderful blog on how children have made an impact on her walk with God during the month of February—despite the fact that she got it to me on time. So, instead of depriving you, our readership, of this excellent piece, I’m sneaking it in now. Enjoy!

Tara Owens, Senior Editor

Unfortunately, there is debate among some Christ-followers about when spiritual disciplines should be introduced to new believers; children are new believers. Besides showing a misunderstanding of the purpose of the spiritual disciplines, viewing them as “add-ons” for “super Christians” instead of holy habits we are invited to cultivate daily in our walk with the risen Christ, it sets up an artificial division between “knowledge” and “practice” in the Christian faith. In reality, knowing God and knowing about God are meant to develop hand-in-hand.

Children learn about the world as they engage with it in multi-leveled ways. They use imaginative games that involve all their senses to process an event or relationship challenge. This multi-level learning process is why children can, for example, engage in the Lord’s Supper at a more profound level than adults who struggle to understand or feel worthy of it. Children simply accept the elements as Jesus coming to them in a unique way. They take and eat, and in that process, a full and rich engagement with the Holy One happens that has fewer filters and roadblocks associated with it.

I’m sure this is why Jesus insisted that a child-like faith is something adults must aspire to.

When children grow up practicing the spiritual disciplines through age-appropriate ways, like fasting (“It’s Wednesday; no dessert today!), fixed hour prayer (bedtime, meal times), or simplicity (If you get this new toy, you will need to give one away.), they will be more firmly rooted in the things of God during the rough days of adolescence and early adulthood. Those who have a practice associated with their belief tend to fare better than those who have a more academic understanding about life in the Kingdom of God. Having memorized the Ten Commandments in Sunday school is often not enough to prevent bad choices from being made. Having good practices, spiritual disciplines, associated with those Commandments is a greater counterweight in moments of temptation.

How many adults have had a “rebellious” period? Did you stop brushing your teeth? Showering? Combing your hair? Maybe, but for most of us, the personal hygiene habits were so ingrained from early childhood on that even in our rebelling against faith, family, or both, we just knew that teeth, bodies, and hair needed regular attention. And if we did decide to rebel in those areas, our peers usually reminded us of those neglected habits.

But how many walked away from a childhood faith tradition and had a hard time finding their way back because there was no place to start, no habit to pick up again and reexamine in a new light? Personally, I believe that if I had been exposed at an earlier age to some of the spiritual discipline practices I struggle with today, I would be a more credible witness to the goodness of God’s mercy and grace.

Childhood is the best time to start the spiritual disciplines but it is never too late to begin them. May God grant each of us the ability to become a trusting, vulnerable child in our daily walk with Christ.

Join the Conversation

Were you gifted with a holy habit in childhood that you’ve since re-examined?

What habits do you hope to give to your children?


Valerie Hess:
Valerie-Hess-low-resValerie Hess is an author, instructor in the Spring Arbor University’s Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Leadership (MSFL) program, retreat speaker, musician, mother and pastor’s wife. She does a weekly blog at and has written numerous articles, mostly on the themes of spiritual formation through the spiritual disciplines and church music. She has written three books: Habits of a Child’s Heart: Raising Your Kids with the Spiritual Disciplines (co-authored with Dr. Marti Watson Garlett), Spiritual Disciplines Devotional: A Year of Readings and The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation" (co-authored with Lane M. Arnold). Her husband is an Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Boulder, CO. She has two daughters.
    • I only have just a minute to share, but was compelled to join the conversation briefly. My first memory of God is in church when I was young, probably around 4. I lived with my Aunt Rubye and Uncle Ralph. Uncle Ralph worked for the Alabama Highway Department but on weekends preached at several rural Baptist churches who couldn’t afford a full-time minister. We spent a lot of time in church and I spent a lot of time learning to sit quietly. But the thing that I learned early, my holy habit, was through Aunt Rubye. Over and again, she would turn me around in my chair or in my pew, fold my hands in my lap, turn my chin toward the front of the church, and whisper into my ear, “You need to be quiet because God is trying to talk to you.” I never remember this as punitive but rather as an invitation. She made it seem exciting, something that I wouldn’t want to miss. From a very early age I learned that God would speak to me if I would listen. That invitation formed a holy habit that has framed my life – and I’m forever thankful. What a blessing that my understanding of God was formed early in childhood through an invitation to hear him speak to me.