As a mother to young children herself, Anna Hawken is passionate about helping Christian parents share their faith with their little ones.
While there is plenty of support for the physical nurturing of babies and toddlers, the mother-of-three wonders whether their spiritual wellbeing is being overlooked.
That's why Hawken, as Ministry Lead for Parenting for Faith, a ministry of Bible Reading Fellowship, is inviting parents and carers to join an online course that has been specially designed to help them introduce their under-5s to God.
Anna speaks to Christian Today about why parents shouldn't wait to start their children on their faith journey, and what churches can do to support them.
CT: From your own experience as a mother with young children, why do you think it's so crucial that we start the spiritual formation of our children from babyhood onwards?
Anna: I think it's useful for the parents as well as the children because there is no magic age where they suddenly start understanding about God. I think there can be a tendency in the Church to think that there's a certain point, like maybe when they turn five or start school, where children will suddenly start to be able to experience God or understand when their parent talks about God or interacts with God, and I just don't think that's true.
Any parent will know from their own little ones copying their words or actions that they are watching and listening and taking everything in. Babies are very sensitive and aware of atmospheres and what's going on. They pick up on our emotions and everything that's happening around them, and we will miss out if we wait until they're older before we start teaching them about God. There's no right age to do that and we run the risk of waiting forever and finding that, before we know it, they're already six or eight or 10 years old and we still haven't started!
So I would encourage all parents to get into the habit of sharing a bit of your spiritual life with your child, finding ways to include them in it, and giving them opportunities to connect with God right from when they're tiny, because that's going to carry over into the rest of their lives.
CT: How does engaging spiritually with young babies and toddlers differ from older kids?
Anna: It's about being aware of the limitations of that age and stage in their development. They don't have verbal language yet, which is something we rely on a lot with older children. With an older child, for example, if you wanted to pray together with them, you could explain that God hears them and then ask if there was anything they wanted to say to Him.
With a younger child, it's much more about them experiencing things with you, which goes back to what I was saying earlier about how they pick up on the atmosphere around them. They will pick up on what you're saying to God and how you are connecting with Him around them, so it's even more important to make this part of your everyday life because you're not going to be able to sit down and do a 30-minute Bible study with them, but what you can do is take 5 or 10 seconds here and there to connect them with God in really simple ways.
For example, rather than simply praying in your head, you could say outloud to your baby: 'I'm feeling a bit stressed just now so I'm just asking God for His peace.' And then just cuddle them for a moment longer.
Just a few moments here and there can make all the difference. With younger ones, it's definitely a case of 'little and often'.
CT: Many churches host mother and toddler groups and coffee mornings for parents and carers. Do you think churches could adapt what they are already doing to bring some spiritual formation into these social gatherings?
Anna: I think churches are most of the way there already! It's absolutely essential, particularly post-Covid, that they provide safe places and places of welcome for people to socialise. Those things are so, so important. But it's just one more little step to say: hey, we're a church and we have a relationship with God; this is a really important part of how we live; it helps us in our every day life and it's something that's available and on offer to you as well.
The cup of tea and chat and toys are important but we do people a disservice if we don't share everything that we as a church and as Christians have to offer. Like I was saying earlier about how parents can engage with their little ones, it doesn't need to be a formal sign-up to a long Bible study series. It can be as simple as, for example, during the singing time in the toddler group, adding in one suggestion about how parents can include a Christian song or music in their week or suggesting a prayer that they can use with their child. It's really easy to add in little suggestions like this here and there.
CT: What does the Parenting for Faith course involve?
Anna: It's designed to be really flexible and we talked to a lot of people before making the resource to make sure it's solving the problem they need solving. We have eight short videos all between five and 10 minutes long, and a guide for leaders, whether that's someone running a toddler group in a church or a mum inviting other mums to her house for coffee.
There are suggestions around how to watch the videos and ideas that parents can try with their toddler and baby in the coming week or month, and some simple next steps. We always tell people how they can explore more if they want to. For example, in the section on Bible stories and bedtimes, it doesn't just make suggestions about stories from the Bible that parents can read with their little ones; it also explains how this can be turned into a whole bedtime routine.
CT: You mentioned earlier about how Parenting for Faith is useful for the parents and carers as well as babies and toddlers. Have you found that it helps the grown-ups' faith and spiritual growth as much as the little ones'?
Anna: Almost without fail! That is actually the comment we get the most. People will tell us: I did this for my child and because I wanted to help my baby or toddler but this has really helped me. For the people who were Christians before they had children, it's a big life change and adjustment, and sometimes people struggle to work out what that looks like and how it fits. And for people who didn't have faith before having a child, that whole process is so awe-inspiring and miraculous that it's often a time when they will have questions about life and God and the bigger picture, so to go on that journey with their baby or toddler is really special.