How should we teach our young children about marriage?

Jani Ortlund, and her husband Ray, have leveraged their lives and marriage for God’s glory. They love the Lord and his Word and seek to live it out and teach it, especially with their own family. Jani has recently written a children’s book that teaches the truth of Scripture about an area that is particularly confusing in our current culture—marriage. She answers questions below about her book, A Child’s First Book About Marriage: God’s Way is Always Best, and how parents can continually put God’s design for marriage on display.

1. Marriage seems like an unusual topic for a children’s book. Why did you choose it?

I chose to write a book for children about marriage because of all the confusion and uncertainty surrounding this topic. We can no longer assume that our children will grow up surrounded by biblical marriages and strong families. From very early in their lives, they need to hear about God’s good plan for marriage from the adults they love and trust.  

Marriage to another human being is the most sacred bond two humans can build.  Children deserve to know what marriage is, who made it, and how to enjoy it throughout their whole life. Parents need words to help guide their children along biblical pathways into this blessing from God. I hope this book will meet these needs.

2. Why is it important to begin to teach our children about topics like marriage from a very young age? What other topics should we be addressing?

If a child grows up sensing from day one that marriage is a good gift from God, he will long for that gift.

Children are extremely impressionable and open to what the adults around them say and do. The way a child thinks about himself and his future will be deeply influenced by how his parents and family talk to and treat him. If a child grows up sensing from day one that marriage is a good gift from God, he will long for that gift. If he learns God’s guidelines for marriage from an early age, he will be better equipped to develop a strong, Christ-centered marriage as an adult.

In Exodus 20:1-17, God gives us a perfect list of other topics to discuss with the children in our lives. The Ten Commandments cover every important relationship we have—with God, family members, and others outside our family. I consider this so important that I wrote a book about living out the Ten Commandments and giving them to our children, His Loving Law, Our Lasting Legacy (Crossway).

3. You have raised four children and are investing in your grandchildren, as well.  As a result of your years of experience, what advice would you give to parents of young children?

Well—this could take another whole book, but let me give it a try. Here are a few things Ray and I have learned in our years of parenting:

It is more “who you are” than “what you say”: From their first smile on, children absorb most thoroughly through observation and imitation. You will not be able to convince your children of the beauty and wonder of knowing God if they do not sense that he is beautiful and glorious to you. Talk often of the Lord—your gratitude and delight in knowing him, and your desire to follow his ways. Tell them examples of his care for you. Invite your kids to pray with you for specific needs, and then rejoice together in God’s answers. Live out before them the lives you hope they will someday lead.

Likewise, your children will not believe that marriage can be sweet and fulfilling if your marriage is filled with resentment and anger. Ask God to give you more love for your spouse, more sparkle in your relationship together. Let them see you embrace and kiss each other. Make sure they know that your spouse is the most important person in the world to you. Praise your spouse in front of your children. A secure and happy marriage will help you raise secure and happy kids who will grow into secure and happy adults.  

Enjoy the little years while training for the later ones: Children have so many behaviors that need to be curbed and redirected. I used to worry a lot about how my kids would appear to the adults in my world. One time I confessed to an older friend how embarrassed I was about our five-year-old still sucking his thumb. She wisely told me, “Don’t worry about anything he won’t be doing when he’s 16.” In other words, relax. Let them be children. Learn to distinguish between childish behavior they will outgrow—like poor sleeping patterns, food fussiness, security blankets, etc.—and character issues they will carry into their teen years—like defiant disobedience, deceit, or destructive tendencies.

Say “Yes!” whenever you can. But when you say “No,” mean it: Children will not flourish if you enter into negotiations over every request they make for more food, more time, more money, more everything. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no! Ray and I tried to rein in our inclination to say no too quickly. Would one more story at bedtime really be too exhausting for us? Would a cookie at 4:00 pm on that rare occasion ruin their appetites? Would five more minutes at the park change the course of our day too drastically? Would a “midnight feast” of apple slices under their covers with a flashlight be too big an indulgence? Whenever we reasonably could, we said yes to their little requests. And then, when we said no, we meant it—with an enforced no grumbling habit of obeying the first time.

Pray and play: Pray for your kids. Pray with your kids. I have a page in my prayer journal for each of my children and each of my grandchildren with verses of Scripture I am praying for them. I try to pray for each of them daily. I let them know I’m praying for them. When I visit them, our grandchildren see my prayer pages for them, with their pictures and verses and requests. I ask them to sign it so I can see their precious handwriting developing through the years. They know that we believe in the God who has told us, “Because he holds fast to me in love . . . When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him” (Psa. 91:18). Pray for your family every single day of your life. Surely he will incline his ear and answer us.

But along with all the Scriptural training, make your family a fun place to grow up in. Do you laugh a lot together? Do you spend time together playing games and eating treats and going on adventures? Do you enjoy each other? Enjoyment feels like love, and children need a lot of it. Your home should be the happiest place your children experience in their growing up years. That means lots of playtime together.  

When our kids were young, we set aside each Friday night as family fun night. Sometimes there would be a new game to play or a special treat as we did our nightly reading together. Often we’d play “The Anything Game” where our young kids would silently act out anything they wanted, and we would have to guess what they were doing. How we’d laugh as we guessed! We still chuckle at the memory of four-year-old Krista’s mime of a candle.

There are no guarantees, but God gives us great foundational guidelines: There are no guarantees in raising your kids to know and love and serve the Lord Jesus with all their hearts. But there are biblical guidelines to counsel us along the way. Study the Scriptures. Let the Bible be the most important book in your home. Read it, learn it, and share it. Let it speak into every aspect of your parenting. Love the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind, and entrust your children to his tender care.

4. Reading a book is a start, but it’s not enough to counteract all the messages of the world, our flesh, and the enemy. What other steps can parents take to teach their children about God’s good design for marriage?

Expose your children to other marriages that are solid, godly, and filled with joy. Let them have plenty of up-close reasons to believe that God’s way is always best. You can do this through family or friends or church members. Or, you can go to history and read biographies of Christian marriages that show the world a tiny picture of the Big Romance—the one between Christ and his Church in love together. I think of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, Samuel and Susannah Wesley, Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Billy and Ruth Graham—to name a few. Then, when they are confronted with relationships that go against God’s laws (even if they don’t go against the laws of the country where you live), they will have a solid foundation on which to stand as they think through God’s good purpose in marriage.

Celebrate your anniversary and tell your children why. Help them look forward to the day when they will get to share life with one very special person and build their own family.

And when appropriate, take your children to a wedding ceremony. Prepare them beforehand for what they will see. Talk about the symbolism, the music, the giving of the bride by her father, and the vows. When you get home, discuss what stood out to them, and begin dreaming with them of their own wedding day. Take some time to pray together about their future spouse.

My prayer is that God will help us raise up the coming generations to believe God’s way for marriage is indeed always best.