Throughout her life, Ellen White wrote extensively on the subject of religious education for children. This material is a selection of her writings.
The home is where children’s education should begin. This is their first school, where, with their parents as teachers, they should learn the lessons that will guide them in life—lessons of respect, obedience, courtesy, and self-control. The influences of the education received at home are a determining force for good or for evil.
To understand how best to train their children for a purposeful and happy life here, and for higher service and greater joy in the life to come, parents need more than human wisdom at every step.
Parents should look upon their children as if they were entrusted to them by God to be educated for the family in heaven. Those who are faithful to God will represent Him at home. They will regard the education of their children as a sacred work entrusted to them by the Most High.
Parents, smile! Teachers, smile!
Some parents, like some teachers, seem to forget that they themselves were once children. They are sober, cold, and lacking in understanding. Their faces are usually solemn and reproachful. In their eyes there is no excuse for childish joy or restlessness, the constant activity of young life. Small mistakes are treated as grave sins. Such discipline is not like that of Christ. Children so taught fear their parents or teachers, but do not love them. They do not confess their childhood experiences to them. Some of the most precious qualities of mind and heart are frozen to death, like a delicate plant before a winter blizzard.
Parents, smile! Teachers, smile! If your heart is sad, do not let your face show it! Let cheerfulness from a loving and grateful heart brighten the face! Loosen your dignified iron grip, adapt yourselves to the needs of the children and make them love you! You must win their affection if you are to instil religious truth in their hearts. Children hate the darkness of clouds and sadness. Their hearts respond to light, joy, and love.
Lessons from nature’s manual
Next to the Bible, nature is our greatest textbook.
Parents, to raise your children, study the lessons God has given in nature!
If you wanted to grow a carnation, a rose or a lily, how would you do it? Ask the gardener how he makes each branch and leaf grow so beautifully, so that it develops in symmetry and beauty. He will tell you that it is not by rough touch or violent effort, for these would break the delicate stems, but by little, often repeated attention. He moistened the earth and protected the growing plant from the strong winds and the scorching sun, and God made it blossom and grow into great beauty. Follow the gardener’s method in dealing with children. With gentle touches and loving help, seek to mould their character according to the model of Christ.
For the young child, unable to learn from books or the discipline of the classroom, nature is an inexhaustible source of learning and joy. The heart, not yet hardened by contact with evil, can quickly discern the Presence that pervades the whole of creation. The ear that has not yet been deafened by the noise of the world listens to the Voice that speaks through the whispers of nature. Instead of constraining them, let them be free as lambs to play in the sweet, fresh sunshine! Show them the bushes and the flowers, the green grass and the leafy trees, and accustom them to their beautiful, varied and delicate shapes! Teach them to see God’s wisdom and love in the things He has created, and when their hearts are filled with joy and grateful love, let them join the birds in their songs of praise!
Let them have the joy of feeling that they are helping!
Thousands of children are hardly educated in their own families. “It’s too much trouble,” says the mother, “I’d rather do everything myself; it’s too hard this way; you’re bothering me.” Doesn’t the mother remember that she also had to learn little by little before she could be of help? It is an injustice to children to refuse to teach them little by little. Keep your children close! Let them ask you questions and answer them patiently! Give them something to do and let them have the joy of believing that they are helping you! Don’t reject them when they try to do the right thing. When they make mistakes, when accidents happen and things break, don’t scold them! Their whole future life depends on the education you give them in their childhood. Teach them that all the abilities of body and mind have been given to them to use, and that all belong to God and are dedicated to His service. Teach your children to be useful, to assume responsibilities appropriate to their age, and then the habit of work will become second nature to them, and useful work will never seem a chore.
Simplicity and modesty
Some parents devote much time and attention to entertaining their children, but children should be accustomed to playing for themselves, to exercising their own ingenuity and skill. In this way they will learn to be content with the simplest pleasures. They should be taught to endure their little disappointments and trials. Instead of concentrating their attention on every little pain or suffering, direct their minds elsewhere, teach them to gloss over small annoyances or difficulties.
The most agreeable children are those who are genuine and unspoiled. It is not wise to pay special attention to children. Vanity should not be encouraged by praising their looks, words or deeds. Nor should they be dressed in expensive and extravagant ways. This encourages pride in them and arouses envy in the hearts of their friends. Teach children that true adornment is not outward beauty! In many families the seeds of vanity and selfishness are sown in the hearts of children almost from infancy. Their little words and gestures, which show their cleverness, are commented on and praised in their presence, and then shared with others in an exaggerated way. The little ones notice and are filled with pride; they begin to interrupt conversations and become naughty and conceited. Praise and indulgence encourage their vanity and stubbornness until, not infrequently, the youngest ends up ruling the whole family, including his father and mother.
Different and sensitive
Every child born increases the responsibility of parents. Their nature, tendencies, and character traits must be studied. Not all children can be treated in the same way, for the restriction of one child would crush another. Some parents are very concerned to meet the temporary needs of their children; they care for them with gentleness and devotion when they are ill, believing that they have fulfilled their duty. But this is where they are wrong. Their work has only just begun. They must also consider the needs of the soul. It takes skill to apply the right remedies to treat a wounded soul. Children go through trials that are as hard to bear and as painful as those of adults.
No harsh words
When your children fail, don’t get impatient with them! When you correct them, do not speak harshly and sternly! This will confuse them and make them afraid to tell the truth. No infant, child or young person should hear impatient words from their father, mother or any other family member, for they receive impressions very early in their lives, and what their parents make them be today is what they will be tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that. The first lessons impressed upon a child are seldom forgotten. The impressions made on the heart early in life are seen in later years. They may be covered up, but they are seldom erased. The lessons children learn in the first seven years of life have more impact on the formation of character than anything they learn in later years.
Teachers at school will do something to educate your children, but your example will do more than any other means. Your conversations, the way you conduct your affairs, what you like and don’t like, all help to build character. Good manners, self-control, self-discipline, the politeness your children see in you, will be daily lessons for them. Be careful not to be rude to your children. Demand obedience and do not indulge in careless talk with them, for your manners and words are their textbook! Help them with gentleness and kindness at this time of their lives! May the rays of your presence enlighten their hearts! Growing girls and boys are very sensitive, and by harshness you can ruin their whole life. Be careful, mothers! Never scold harshly, for it never helps!
Every family must make the home a church, a beautiful symbol of God’s Church in heaven. If parents were aware of the responsibility they have towards their children, they would not scold them and would not become irritated under any circumstances. Everything leaves its mark on their young minds. They pick up on your expressions, they are influenced by your voice, and they imitate your behaviour.
Fathers and mothers should remember that they are also children who have grown up. Although a great light has shone on their path and they have many years of experience, they are still easily inflamed by envy, jealousy, and evil suspicion! Because of their own faults and shortcomings, they should learn to work gently with children who make mistakes. Be exactly what you want your children to be when they take care of their own families! Speak as you would want them to speak!
You may sometimes feel sad because your children do exactly the opposite of what you have taught them. But have you ever thought about how many times you act contrary to what the Lord has commanded you to do?
Not random acts, but hard work
The Saviour’s rule—”Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31)—should be the rule of all who have responsibility for the education of children and young people. They are the youngest members of God’s family, heirs with all of us of the gift of life. Christ’s rule should be rigorously applied to the laziest, youngest and most unwise children, even to the most misguided and rebellious. Children need more than an occasional warning, more than a word of encouragement. They need hard work, with prayer and attention. Hearts full of love and mercy will reach the hearts of young people who seem callous and hopeless.
A treasure as precious as eternity
Fathers and mothers should teach their babies, children, and young adults about the love of Jesus. The child’s first words should be about Christ. Blessed are the parents…whose gentleness, justice, and enduring patience illustrate to the child the love, justice, and enduring patience of God, and who, by teaching the child to love, trust, and obey them, teach the child to love, trust and obey the Father in heaven. Parents who give such a gift to their children have given them a treasure more precious than the riches of all ages—a treasure that endures for all eternity.