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    dad reading a book with his toddler

    Giving Your Children Your Words

    With their first word, children enter the world of relationships and blessings.

    By Sally Clarkson and Clay Clarkson

    November 28, 2022
    • Nancy S Libertini

      Affirmation, Confirmation, Expectation..... What clear admonishment and direction! This article is a gift to my spirit! I will bless the children following this simple guidance each Sunday as we meet to celebrate the love of God.

    Why do we celebrate a child’s first word? Why play the name game, or continuously offer words to an infant or toddler that are met with a blank stare, bemused smile, or even total disregard? We quietly chuckle at our child in the developmental phase recognized onomatopoetically as babbling, knowing that it represents the first attempts of our little one to mimic the talking they have seen and heard in others, especially in us as parents. In that “baby see, baby do” phase, a child makes early attempts at making the same kinds of sounds as ours, but they’re not the same. The mechanics of speech are clearly working, but the meaning of it is not yet clear.

    But, then, at a time and for a reason unknown until it happens, all the practice at speaking and nonverbal communicating will be momentarily disregarded, dots will be connected between that child’s mind, muscles, and mouth, and for the first time, a meaningful word comes out. Intelligent speech has begun. A verbal world is created. And it is good.

    That first word elicits an immediate and often riotous explosion of smiling faces, cheers, hugs, kisses, and laughter from observing adults. Is it any wonder that your child will want to make that all happen again? Make sounds. Watch faces. Get rewarded. What was to your child a few moments before only a new thing to try, now receives such a positive reinforcing response from delighted parents that the impact is undeniable. The inevitable impression it will make is indelible, and with it the unwritten rules of verbal communication begin to become clear.

    dad reading a book with his toddler

    Image from Adobe Stock.

    The first rule is quickly learned – words matter. This world our little ones find themselves within is a world of words; everyone around seems to use words and to like them. When our little ones use words they are met with praise paralleled perhaps only by their first steps. So, quite sensibly, our bourgeoning persons conclude: words must matter. The second rule can be considered the verbal equivalent of cause and effect in physics – words make things happen. People clap and smile. Soon, they will learn that sometimes people cry because of words. Some words make more things happen than others, but words clearly cause effects. And as more words are learned that make more things happen, a third verbal rule is realized – words mean things. It’s not enough just to make babbling sounds; it is clear that sounds – words – make most things happen, and certain kinds of words make certain kinds of things happen.

    The term image of God is never strictly defined by Scripture, but many suggest that the ability to speak and use language – to communicate – is part of that image in us. In other words, the eternal nature of the triune God is that of a loving relationship within the Godhead – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – and that is stamped on human nature as God’s image: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’ … God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26–27). Elohim, the Creator God of Genesis 1, though translated as a singular noun, is plural in form, suggesting the Godhead. We are created to relate – to God and to one another – because our Creator exists eternally in a divine relationship of perfect love. And we bear God’s image. A relational image.

    God has made and crafted us – body, mind, spirit – to be relational creatures. British theologian N. T. Wright notes the importance of the relationship between image and words: “One of the most powerful things human beings, God’s image-bearers, can do is to speak. Words change things.” There is something profound about the fact that the ability to form sounds into words – to speak and use language – is innate and instinctual, preconfigured in every child’s cognitive, physiological, sensory, psychological, and arguably even spiritual makeup and nature. The primary contribution of parents to that capability is biological, not pedagogical. We enter this world equipped in every way to speak and communicate. The only thing missing is the words, and God has provided family for that. We show our children what to do with words.

    One of the things that words can do is bless. Scripture is full of blessings. The most common word in the Old Testament for that kind of blessing is barak, which literally means to kneel down or to praise. It is a word picture of giving honor to the one who is being blessed. The most common word for blessing in the New Testament is eulogia, a compound word in Greek that literally means “good word.” However, it is no coincidence that the Greek word for grace, charis, can also be translated as “blessing.”

    There are many accounts in the Old Testament of God blessing His people – the first, of course, being when God blessed Adam and Eve with the command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Others include God’s blessing for Aaron and his sons (Num. 6:22–27), for the Babylonian exiles (Jer. 29), and for Israel before entering the Promised Land (Deut. 7:13). There are also family blessings, when a father blesses his children. There is the familiar story of fraternal twins Jacob and Esau, the only sons of Isaac and Rebekah, when Jacob tricked their father into giving him the blessing of the firstborn rather than Esau. Jacob knew what words could do, and even though it is mostly a good example of a bad example, we still hear in it the positive parental language of a Jewish father’s blessing (Gen. 27:27–29). A similar passage is Israel’s (Jacob’s) blessing on his twelve sons before his death in Egypt. Jews today still bless their children on Shabbat (Sabbath).

    Jesus also blessed His children when He “took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). He also blesses the poor, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, those who hunger for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. In the New Testament, blessing flows from God, the One “who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). Jesus Christ is the Word (John 1:1) that God gives us, and that word Himself brings blessing. And in God’s image, we as Christians, and indeed Christian parents, can use our words to bless as well.

    With my own children, I looked to the example of Paul’s opening blessing in his letter to the church in Philippi (Phil. 1:1–9), a body of believers he deeply loved. A blessing should include Affirmation (“You have” words). Lay your hands on your child and say their name. “Mary Elizabeth Jones, our beloved daughter, we bless you today in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” This is the physical connection, but even more it is spiritual, because saying their name makes it personal by affirming who they are in your family. “You have” words look back to the past to affirm your child’s presence and value in your family. (“You have been our treasure.”) Then, there should be Confirmation (“You are” words). In these words, you are giving language to your child that will answer for them the fundamental questions every human being asks: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going? These are positive and affirming “you are” words that only you will know how to say because you know your child. The words should tell your child of their great present value and worth in your eyes and God’s, and of their acceptance by you and God. (“You are a lover of people and a giver of grace. You are loved greatly by us as a gift of grace to our family.”) Finally, there should be Expectation (“You will” words). In these closing words, you are verbalizing what you expect God will do in their life – their purpose, unique gifts, place in His kingdom, eternal destiny as a recipient of Christ’s blessings as His child, and more. (“You will be blessed of God with His peace and presence”).

    So why do we celebrate a child’s first word? We celebrate it because they are entering the world of words, of relationship, of blessings. My four children are adults now with children of their own. Their little ones are just now entering the world of words, discovering that words matter, that they do things, that they mean things. To watch my grandchildren find their first words, and to watch my children give parental words of blessing, is a gift to me. And as I turn to the autumnal years of my life, I hope that increasingly the words I give to my children and grandchildren will be nurturing and life-giving words that they will take with them beyond the walls of home. Because in a life lived with God “who has blessed us … with every spiritual blessing” both the first and last word of our lives is blessing.

    Excerpted from Giving Your Words: The Lifegiving Power of a Verbal Home for Family Faith Formation by Sally and Clay Clarkson. Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, (2022). Used by permission.

    Contributed By SallyClarkson Sally Clarkson

    Sally Clarkson is a wife and mom of four. She is a beloved author of over twenty books including Seasons of Mother’s Heart, The Lifegiving Home, and Awaking Wonder.

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    Contributed By ClayClarkson Clay Clarkson

    Clay Clarkson directs Whole Heart Ministries, a Christian home and parenting ministry founded in 1994 with his wife, Sally.

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