You’ve heard the old adage, “practice makes perfect.” Recently my son came home from school and said, “Mom, do you know practice really makes permanent?” He then proceeded to explain to me what his teacher had taught him: if you learn to do something the wrong way (and repeatedly do it the wrong way) you will learn permanent bad habits, which will likely result in bad outcomes.

I mulled over his statement for a while and realized this rang true in many areas of life. I decided to turn it into a teachable moment to talk to my kids about ways we do this in our spiritual lives, thought lives, and relationships.

What are we practicing at home?

My fear is that as we teach our children various behaviors and habits, our focus is often about external behavior only. Our instruction centers on what to do, and when do it, without any real connection to why. Ultimately, everything our children do should stem from a love for God and others. (I love my sister so I allow her to choose the movie, or I love God so I pick up my room in gratitude for the belongings he has blessed me with.) We want to teach our children to do good things—for godly reasons. This informs the motives behind our behavior as well as the attitude with which we do such tasks.

What is becoming permanent?

My concern is that good habits, behaviors, and even spiritual disciplines can become permanent rituals done for duty’s sake only, rather than resulting from a relational choice to love. It is important to realize that life and faith can become a practiced obligation—“the right thing to do”—with permanent, loveless effects.

Consider these daily examples that appear mundane: making the bed, brushing your teeth, feeding the dog, cleaning the kitchen, filing papers, practicing the violin, and exercising good study skills. Or consider religious tasks: prayer, regular church attendance, and Bible reading. If we do these things only because we are “supposed to” they will become rote, obligatory, and eventually meaningless tasks because they are disconnected from a personal, loving relationship with God.

For example, what do you teach your children about prayer? I have worked with countless children who know that the right response to a difficult situation is to pray, but when pressed, they have little or no expectation that it will actually accomplish anything. For them it is merely a forced habit, void of relationship, with no expectation that God is really there at the other end. If we aren’t careful, these children will grow up believing that because prayer does not always produce a change in circumstances that it does not work at all.

Instead, we need to teach prayer relationally. With God as our Father and Jesus our older brother, prayer during hard times is asking them, as our godly family, to be with us and strengthen us. These kinds of prayers do accomplish something. They build up our relationship with God and this spills over into other relationships and situations.

What should we be practicing?

The solution is this. We must be committed to teaching our children (and reminding ourselves) that everything we do—whether great acts of service or mundane daily tasks—must be done out of a conscious decision to live our lives based on our love for God. It is from this personal conviction that we choose to serve our family, sacrifice personal desires out of love for our neighbor, and steward our life well before the Lord. In teaching this truth—that all life is lived before God—we are impressing on our children a different way of thinking, a different rationale for living that will serve them well when human motivation is waning.

My hope is this: that God would help us model and practice with our children the delight of living in relationship with him, a relationship that builds godly convictions and habits, and nurtures a godly view of life. What an excellent practice to become permanent in our homes.