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Mrs. Miersma is the wife of Rev. Thomas Miersma, missionary in Spokane, Washington. Previous article in this series: October 1, 2006, p. 10.

Continuing to consider the subject of stewardship of the gifts and talents that God has given to us, let us look at ways in which these abilities are developed as our children move into their school years. The purpose of much of their formal education is to bring out and develop their God-given abilities, not only those that are natural gifts, but the abilities they will need in order to labor as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. While this calling and responsibility is ours as parents, we can be grateful for those who also serve as teachers of our covenant children. What a blessing to be able to entrust aspects of this most important labor to godly men and women, who will not see our children’s abilities as matters of pride and vainglory, or as failure and inadequacy, but will hold before them the calling to faithful service with their unique gifts and to an obedient development of their abilities. Ideally, in the school, their service to others will expand beyond their families to the service of fellow-saints.

Not leaving this task simply to the school, we can and must as parents lead and guide our children. As we continue to stress the principles of love and obedience, our children will gradually spend less time playing and more working. Increasingly children will take more responsibility for the development of their own abilities. Since in school much of their time will be directed for them, the temptation for our children may then be to regard “free” time and vacations as simply time to use as they please. While we need not, and indeed ought not, fill every waking moment of our children’s lives with planned activities, neither should they simply be left to while away their time. They need direction. They need an atmosphere that will stimulate growth, exploration, and development. Just as we provide our children with nutritious meals to grow and develop healthy bodies, we will provide a “nutritious” atmosphere to develop their abilities. Expecting our children to flourish in an atmosphere devoted to entertainment, television, videos, electronic and computer games, and mindless toys (just walk through most toy stores today) is like expecting them to grow strong and healthy bodies on sugary snacks and junk food.

Further, as we well know, it’s very easy to develop a taste for junk food and reject healthy food. So it is with entertainment. Sinful laziness plagues all of us. It’s much easier for our children to be entertained or to do some minimal amount of work to be entertained. Because it keeps them “out of our hair,” it is often tempting to allow or even encourage this type of activity. Everyone in the family can now be hooked up to his own electronic gadget. Further developing the analogy to junk food, it’s not only more work to make nutritious meals than to open a bag of snacks, but it often makes less mess for us. A “nutritious” environment for our children will create more mess and work for us and them than a plugged-in life. We do not reject technology; we may use it, but let us beware of the temptation to abuse it.

What is an environment that will encourage the development of our and our children’s abilities, abilities like listening and reading with concentration and understanding, logical and critical thinking, expressing the godly thoughts and emotions that live within us by God’s grace in various ways, and the ability to express in word and deed sympathy and compassion for others? Every child of God should seek to develop these gifts or abilities in himself or herself and in his or her children. I hope in a future article to write in more detail about each of these, but in general terms, what kind of atmosphere will foster these abilities?

Our homes should be filled with books, books that need not necessarily be purchased, or purchased new. These should include books on a wide variety of subjects of many different types: spiritual books, biographies, history, science, geography, fiction, especially classic works that have been proven over time, and how-to books, to name but a few. We can regularly visit the library withour children. Given the character of some of the material you will find in libraries today, careful supervision is essential, but there is much available that will help our children to develop their knowledge and abilities. As in other areas, children learn by imitation, so if we read ourselves, read with our children, and talk about what we read, they will see this as something to be valued.

We will have some toys, not the mindless television-spawned toys that serve only to entertain and often promote violent or wicked behavior, but construction toys of various kinds that help our children not only to develop the manual skills to manipulate them and the mental skills to figure out how to assemble them, but will require them to use their own imaginations. Working puzzles not only develops abilities to recognize shapes and patterns but requires concentration. Paper, crayons, markers, paints, scissors, and other materials for making things will help them begin to take an idea and make some visible expression of it. Young girls may enjoy dolls, but let’s focus on baby dolls and “little girl” dolls, not the fashion model dolls. Encourage them, as they get older, to make clothes for their dolls and to care for their “babies.” Find dolls they can bathe and diaper and dress. Teach children knitting, crocheting, or other handcrafts. Not only will they have a visible reminder of their work, but they will learn patience and persistence in the process. Have children help with cooking and baking tasks, not just the “dirty work” of household chores, although those are necessary as well.

Good music to listen to, to sing with, and instruments to play will develop abilities of listening and expression. Learning to play an instrument is, I believe, especially valuable. Some children are more musically gifted and are able to learn more quickly than others, but the discipline of regular practice, attention to detail, and mental concentration required will be of benefit in many other areas as well.

Growing plants, setting up aquariums, making collections of natural objects, or having pets will develop skills of observation and a wonder and appreciation for God’s creation. By these means they can also develop in the responsibility of caring for a fellow creature, although this is something they will need to learn with many reminders at first.

Playing games of various kinds with our children can help them sharpen various skills and learn needed facts. Let us avoid certainly the games that rely heavily on what men call chance, focusing rather on developing thinking skills (chess, checkers, and similar strategy games), language skills (spelling and word games), Bible, math, history, or geography facts, or even physical coordination. Games may also help to develop skills of listening and cooperation with others. It may expose sins and weaknesses in our or our children’s characters. Playing games together as a family can be a real challenge when our children are highly competitive or poor losers. We may be tempted to despair and have each one just play his or her own game on the computer, but playing together builds not only knowledge, but also social skills and relationships.

Looking over this far-from-complete list of suggested activities, we see that many of these “nutritious” activities are messy and noisy, and sometimes emotionally and mentally challenging, but without them it will be difficult to reap a harvest in ourselves or our children of being faithful stewards of talents and abilities. Obviously, no one will ever have time to pursue all of these ideas; each family will focus more on one area than another, depending on their natural bent.

Let us encourage our children then to develop skills, things they must practice and work at to improve, skills that, because of time and material limitations, it is difficult for the school to develop. This could be practicing a musical instrument, a sports skill, learning a foreign language, drawing, painting, cooking, sewing, carpentry, animal training, gardening, to name but a few examples. While we might be tempted to focus more on those skills that have a practical value, the concern here is not necessarily so much on the skill itself, but on the ability to learn to do something by practice and discipline, and increasingly by self-discipline. If we have time, we should set an example by our own efforts. Further, because of the complexity of the way in which children learn, the skills we might dismiss as useless may serve later in developing the very ability or abilities God intends them to use either in their own vocation, in training their own children, or in their service as members of the body of Christ.

Very few, if any, of the abilities acquired by passively sitting in front of a screen, however, will serve this function. While some computer games may teach various thinking or math skills, we should be leery of relying too heavily on these. There are tremendous resources available in the form of videos, DVDs, and on-line resources for learning skills, and these can certainly be used, but interaction with a loving parent, teacher, sibling, aunt, or uncle in the course of real life situations will still be needed. This takes work and discipline on our part because very few children will have the motivation or self-discipline, initially, to pursue these skills on their own. Further, with many skills, it takes the achievement of a certain level of competence before it becomes something they will seek to work at on their own, but if we don’t provide opportunities for them to do this, and guidance in learning the needed self-discipline, they likely never will.

In the high school and college years, the abilities of our young men and women have become more evident. They may still need help with accountability, but as they mature they will also grow in their understanding in this area. Our young people, partly out of necessity, become more and more involved in working with computers. For us and our young men and women, computers are wonderful tools, but ways to abuse them are many. Sometimes they seem to lead to as much time wasted as they purport to save. Even apart from the horrors of the kind of filth that can be found online, there are so many opportunities to waste time with games, surfing the Internet, and instant messaging. Not only does very little of this time serve to develop the abilities our young people will need as royal children, but it also supplants far more profitable activities. Better to encourage our children and young people to regard the computer as a tool, first of all, with its entertainment value in a much lower place. Are we aware of how our young people are using the technology so readily available today? Do our young people use these means to develop the talents of godly communication by which they may better serve the Lord?

Young men, especially, should be reminded to develop those talents that will enable them to lead their families with the Word of God by preparing for catechism class and young people’s society, but also be encouraged to read books, according to their ability, that will increase their knowledge of the Reformed faith, that they may prepare themselves to labor as officebearers, should God so call them. While young women may prepare for a vocation, since it is not God’s purpose for every woman to marry, they also should develop the abilities needed to “guide the house” (I Tim. 5:14), including not only traditional domestic skills, but also the knowledge of God’s Word, which will enable them to be helps meet for their husbands and to instruct their children. If we ourselves are weak in any of these areas, perhaps we can use this incentive to develop our own talents in them.

Whatever the special or particular gifts God bestows on our children, let us encourage them continually to develop their abilities in a number of different areas and to be active in the pursuit of knowledge and skill, not as ends in themselves, but as means whereby they may better serve their heavenly Father. We often overlook the second part of the fourth commandment: “Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work…” (Ex. 20:9). We and our children have a positive calling to work. “Even a child is known by his doings, whether his work be pure, and whether it be right” (Prov. 20:11). In this way the Lord will prepare our children for, and lead them to, the particular place and calling in His kingdom that He has uniquely prepared for them.