5 tips for establishing a devotional routine with your toddler

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When our daughters were toddlers, we had a regular bedtime routine. It usually involved reading a story, saying prayers, giving hugs and kisses, and listening to some music before bed. Their stuffed toys got involved, too. Mr. Lamb would read along, and Smiley the Dog would share in hugs and kisses. Once the nightly rhythm was established, every part mattered. Knowing exactly what to expect helped our kids feel safe, confident, and secure.

And when one part was missing—well, I remember one vacation to a theme park. We’d been out late watching fireworks, so we skipped some of the normal bedtime steps. On top of that, we discovered Smiley had been left on a tour bus earlier in the day. Needless to say, sleep was fleeting that night! I learned just how much my kids count on a regular rhythm to thrive.

Christians know that rhythm should include religious instruction, but toddlers are always on the move—no wonder most parents struggle to corral them for any sort of formal family devotional time. Adding to that difficulty is the fact that young parents are often on the move, too. They’re busy establishing a career while raising toddlers and preschoolers at the same time. It’s hard to be present with your children when you’re on call or working overtime or third shift.

I believe God is aware of our seasons of life, and I’m thankful he doesn’t give us a family devotions model that’s overly formal. Moses told Israel to teach their kids during the regular rhythms of life—mealtime, bedtime, drive time, and so on (Deut. 6:7).

With that guilt-free vision in mind, here are five quick tips for establishing a regular devotional routine with your toddler.

1. Find a Time That Works

In our family, we were able to establish the most regular routine at bedtime. If you work third shift, that’s not going to be feasible. Choose a regular time around the table—maybe at breakfast—instead. You’ll be surprised just how much your kids hold you accountable once a family worship pattern is established. It’ll be something they count on and look forward to. Start with one small thing, like reading a short story or saying a prayer. Be consistent. It’s better to gather the family once per week than to exasperate your kids with failed attempts to meet every day.

You’ll be surprised how much your kids hold you accountable once a family worship pattern is established.

I recently spoke to a dad who for several years worked what he described as the “grave shift.” During that season, a nightly devotional was impossible, so he leaned heavily on teaching his kids in small doses throughout the day. My friend’s wife would read to their kids at night before bed, then he’d take a five- or ten-minute break from work to call and pray with them.

I’ve found his regular intentionality to be incredibly encouraging. While not having a set devotional time may seem less than ideal, a regular, “slow drip” approach to family discipleship is actually quite effective. In this way, we can teach our toddlers that relating to God isn’t just something we check off our list at the end of the day; it’s the way we live.

2. Read Something Simple

Two- and three-year-olds have an attention span of two to three minutes. Their vocabulary is limited to 200 to 1,500 words. Like a careful parent cutting up their child’s food into digestible chunks, it’s important to keep your routine short and understandable. Our youngest kids need to learn the vocabulary of faith—basic Bible words like sinpromiseprayer, and the name of Jesus—before moving to more abstract concepts like forgiveness.

If you’re just beginning a family devotional time with your toddler, find a resource that keeps these developmental considerations in mind. You might try Ella Lindvall’s Read-Aloud Bible Stories, David Helm’s Big Picture Story Bible, or my Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible.

3. Talk to God

Bow your head. Close your eyes. Tell your kids to fold their hands. (So they don’t hit each other during the prayer! That trick has worked for centuries.) Then, talk to God. Make it something quick and memorable; remember their short attention span. In our family, we adapted this short prayer:

Thank you God for [child’s name]. Help her to grow up to love Jesus and trust in Jesus. Please help her to have godly friends and a godly husband when she gets big. Please protect her from harm and danger this night. And from Satan and his schemes. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

4. Use Music for Memory

Our kids wanted to listen to music as they fell asleep at night. A friend recommended an album of lullabies that put the questions and answers from the Children’s Catechism to music. (If I had toddlers today, I’d use the The New City Catechism albums and the music of Rain for Roots.)

Our kids memorized great truth simply because they sang it nightly. Other great music albums like the ones from Seeds Family Worship and PROOF Pirates have more of a beat and are less helpful at bedtime. But we made sure this music was in our car so we could sing along (sometimes loud and silly!) while we drove around time.

5. Give Your Kids Your Full Attention

Your devotional routine isn’t just a time for you to impart information to your kids; it’s time for them to spend time with you. So put your phone away. Look your kids in the eye, and let them know you’re listening to them. Show them affection, and not just when it’s time for bedtime hugs and kisses. Cuddle. Have a short wrestling match.

It’s through the attentive presence of loving parents that kids learn about our loving Father.

This post first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.