At each stage of a child’s life they require a different response from their parents. Consider shifting your parent style as your child develops. Realize that each age range is generalized. You child may shift sooner or later.
Birth to age 2: Loving caregiver
Moms and dads are caregivers. In this stage, a child cries, and parents should respond. If a child is hungry, the parents feed them. If a child is wet, the parents change them.
To this age God is a warm loving person; but of course they don’t know that yet because they cannot understand anything more than their immediate world. Demonstrate that by being warm and loving.
Age 3 to Age 5: Affectional Nurturer
Parents should encourage growth. Potty training is growth. Learning letters is growth. Learning to behave in certain environments according to social structure is growth. Parents help them to do this.
They may have the verbiage for God, but He is still too abstract for them to understand. He’s still nothing more than a sentiment that older people talk about. These children may talk about him too, but they struggle to grasp any thought of God beyond how they would think of a bigger-than-life relative or a TV character.
Age 6 to 9: Authoritative storyteller
At this stage the child is beginning to discover a new world of people. They need an authority to guide them into this world. They need stories to model for them how people should experience the world. They don’t need fact. They need a narrative, a story to flesh out their understanding of God. Parents help to prepare that narrative through reading the Bible with their children and demonstrating godly living.
God is becoming more real, but only as he is experienced in stories. Children in this stage cannot think about them in abstract term yet. He is a character in their story.
Age 10 to 12: Instructive coach
Children are becoming the author of their own lives. Parents need to let that happen, but still have an important role in guiding the experience. Wise parents will be instructive but not overbearing. At this stage parents have to allow some mistakes. Children learn from their mistakes.
God is becoming spiritual. Up to this point the child’s concept of God isn’t much different than their conept of grandpa. God is just another person. Now they are learning that he is different in a way that makes him bigger than all other people. Children won’t yet understand the depths of God, but they will know him as something different from the human experience. Parents can encourage this by challenging their children to ask questions about God and their own spirituality.
Age 13 to 17: Inspirational mentor
When children reach high school parents can no long make them do things. They can only encourage their children to move forward. A child at this age is looking for independence. Force will drive them away from their parents, and away from the ideal that parents are hoping their children will achieve. This doesn’t mean parents are impotent in their child’s development. They need to discover a secondary role of mentor or coach and can still encourage great growth.
An adolescent’s view of God can be as mature as an adult’s view, although it may still be quite concrete. Parents should be patient as they help their child stretch towards a more abstract and universal sense of God. It is at this point that a teen should be guided towards a self-directed spirituality. If they exit this age with an external spirituality, they likely won’t stick with any spiritual pursuit. Yet, this is the age when children can take personal and full ownership of their faith.
Adult children: Patient Friend
A child never stops being his or her parent’s child, but once they get to adulthood, they really have all the same tools to know and interact with God and the spiritual life as mom and dad. This can be frustrating for parents, since the parents still have more life experience. It’s especially frustrating when the adult kids have walked away from God. Here, parents need to patiently love their kids. Debating God won’t win them over. Even when children are walking with the Lord, they will make life choices that won’t make full sense to their parents: they’ll raise their kids differently; they’ll choose different churches; and they’ll move far away taking the grandchildren with them.
Patients is key because frustration isn’t helpful. That doesn’t mean that parents will always see their way eventually. It means that parents must know that God is still working. Parents must be patient with God in this stage.
Parent are friends in the sense that they are no longer authoritative. Demanding parent’s rights in this stage will only strain the relationship between parents and child. By now, parents should hope that God is the authority for the child anyhow.