Friends, a lot — and I mean A LOT — of children’s books come through my house, and one of the books that means the most to me is Pirates on the Farm by Denette Fretz. It’s funny. It’s educational (even has a glossary of pirate terms!). It has strong characters, and it offers a beautiful message of loving your neighbors. I recommend it every chance I get. That’s why I was delighted to interview Denette, who now has a second book in her series, Conrad and the Cowgirl Next Door.
I just love her writing, and her answers to my questions? Well, I think you’ll find true wisdom in them. Enjoy…
As children learn a new mathematics concept, how to play an instrument, or how to compete in a sport, parents and mentors recognize foundational skills, role models, instruction, and practice are necessary. We would agree that children learn to read by reading or to write by writing. When it comes to spiritual training, however, adult influencers often feel children should just “know better.” Training children to “love your neighbor as yourself” is more difficult than learning long division or how to play the piano. Our children are at war with their sinful natures and an “all about me” culture. They need the foundation of the Holy Spirit and—like mastering and maintaining any ability—they need role models, instruction, and repeated practice.
We always seem to focus on parents but are there roles for other people, too?
When a baby is dedicated at the church I attend, the pastor has the congregation covenant to do our part in raising the child. In community, each person who comes in contact with a child—a grandparent, relative, teacher, coach, daycare provider or neighbor—has the opportunity to exhibit and speak Christ’s compassion.
I began teaching almost thirty years ago and have observed a huge decline in the percentage auditory learners. Children cannot only be told how to “love your neighbor.” They must see love in action and have opportunities to practice.
- Model, model, model.
Be compassionate to your child. Let him see loving responses to family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Admit it when you “blow it,” and ask for forgiveness. Is your speech compassionate towards others when they hurt, offend, or fail you? Is loving your neighbor something you do, or who you are? If compassion is not modeled inside the home, every kindness shown outside of it will be viewed as hypocrisy.
- Target the subject of compassion in Scripture.
There’s a reason that “love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment—the ability to fulfill it lies in the first commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:36-39.) Start with Christ’s example of love and compassion to teach your child how to love God and others. Then, use biblical examples of compassion such as the stories of Joseph (Genesis, chapters 37, 39-45) and the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
As you study scripture with your child, try to make it auditory, visual, and kinesthetic. Avoid supplying all the answers. Rather than regurgitating rote replies, your child needs to use higher-level thinking skills and to apply biblical truths. Have her analyze the Bible stories. Why didn’t the priest or the Levite help the injured man? How do I apply the story of the Good Samaritan at home? At school?
Both books in The Next Door Series show the love-your-neighbor problem being resolved through illustrations. My goal is for the child to analyze and synthesize the what, why, how, and outcome—rather than being told through text.
- Provide “practice.”
Family missions trips are fantastic experiences. However, loving neighbors is a lifestyle, not a periodic event. Help your child identify needs he can help meet in your home, neighborhood, school, church, community, and through mission experiences. What helps Mom when she is tired? Who needs a friend at recess? Why is Mrs. Jeffer’s lawn so long?
At the private Christian school where I work, teachers are required to clean their own classrooms. Late last Friday afternoon, a colleague supervised her six and eight-year-old daughters as they vacuumed and dusted my classroom. This coworker is teaching a new grade level and had no more time (or energy) to vacuum than I did. Her actions were a fabulous love-your-neighbor-lesson for her kids, and an enormous end-of-the-week blessing to me.
- Creatively integrate each child’s God-given gifts and interests.
Engage your children by incorporating what they already love to do. A toddler could sing to an ailing friend or paint covers on homemade greeting cards. An animal-loving seven-year-old could walk a shut-in’s dog. The math-genius, Xbox-absorbed teen could tutor a struggling friend, or invite a social outcast over for video games.
- Use relational conflicts and mistakes as teaching opportunities.
When my teenagers were preschoolers, I made a decision to view disobedience, sibling arguments, and relationship conflicts as teaching opportunities instead of parenting failures. My motto became, “How will they know, unless I teach them?”
With parents’ hectic schedules, it is easiest to tell a child how she did not show love to a “neighbor,” offer a solution or administer a consequence, and move on. Instead, guide your child as she analyzes the problem, her actions, and what she will do differently next time. Have your child evaluate her behavior in light of what she knows about the Bible. Role play responses to the current conflict and be proactive in addressing potential issues. “Pretend your best friends say you can’t play because their game is ‘only for two.’ How do you respond?” Or, “Show me what you do when you hear gossip about a friend.”
- Pray with your child
Prayer is a compassionate response to others’ needs. Teach your child to pray for hurting people as well as for “neighbors” who have hurt him. Christ modeled compassionate prayer for those who had crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 NLT)
Why did you choose this theme for your books? And why did you include characters who are more challenging to love?
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is the theme of The Next Door Series because if children can learn to live the second commandment, other relational issues—unkindness, fighting, gossip, stealing, lying about a sibling, jealousy, etc.—submit to love. Jesus said, “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based” on loving God and loving your neighbor. (See Matthew 22:40, NLT.)
I also want children to see all people as individuals in need of God’s grace and not as stereotypes. Challenging “characters” are included in my books because they are a part of every child’s life. Matthew 5:47a (NLT) says, “If you love only those who love you, how are you different from anyone else?” It is at points of great contrast—light against dark, right verses wrong, kindness for cruelty—where Christ’s reflection is obvious and souls are impacted for His kingdom.