The Power of Teachable Moments

by Kristopher Schaal

Father and son fishing

Deuteronomy 6 includes some of the most important words in the Bible to parents. In vv. 6–7, Moses commands parents to teach their children.

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children….”

The Hebrew word for “diligently” was used to describe the process of sharpening a sword. You sharpen a knife by repeating the same motion over and over. Similarly, we are to teach our children repeatedly, little-by-little.

In addition, this teaching is not to be confined to formal lesson times.

“You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

In his book, Teach them Diligently, Lou Priolo calls this “teaching in the milieu” (the word “milieu” coming from the Latin word for “middle”). The idea is to use life circumstances as a springboard for teaching your kids. Some people call these “teachable moments.” The last six verses of Deuteronomy 6 describe such a moment.

“When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son: ‘We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand; and the Lord showed signs and wonders before our eyes, great and severe, against Egypt, Pharaoh, and all his household.

Then He brought us out from there, that He might bring us in, to give us the land of which He swore to our fathers. And the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day. Then it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to observe all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He has commanded us.’”

Let me tell you about a teachable moment with my dad that changed my life forever.

When I was about four years old, my dad and I were in our church auditorium cleaning on a Saturday evening. (It was a church plant, and we didn’t have a cleaning crew at the time.) We had some room dividers up, and I asked my dad what they were for. Now, looking back, my dad must have been eager to get home. After all, it was Saturday night, and he had to preach the next morning. But instead of saying, “They’re just to make classroom space,” and leaving it at that, he said, “That’s so that if someone raises their hand about getting saved, we can have a quiet place to talk with them.” And then he asked, “Kristopher, are you saved?”

That was the conversation that led to my conversion. I got saved that day because my dad took advantage of a teachable moment.[^1]

Christian dad, are you taking advantage of teachable moments? Here are three reasons why you should.

1. It’s a more enjoyable way to learn.

Dads, if you want to teach your son about baseball, how would you do it? I suppose you could sit him down and give him a lecture, but that would not be very effective.

Instead, you would take him to a baseball game and explain what was going on while the two of you ate hot dogs, right? Better yet, what if you spent some time with him at a park with a glove, a ball, and a bat? Your son is much more likely to get excited about baseball that way!

2. It’s a faster way to learn.

During my seminary years, I had the great privilege of being a pastoral intern. That internship was extremely valuable because it helped me to focus in my seminary classes. I knew the stuff I was learning in class on Monday would be useful for teaching on Wednesday! Interning made me a much better learner.

The same is true with our children. If we pair our teaching with the circumstances in life that demand that teaching, our kids will probably learn the lessons more quickly and will be less likely to forget them.

3. It places knowledge in the context of obedience.

In the Christian life, knowledge is never an end. When Jesus gave the Great Commission, He didn’t say, “Teach them to know everything I commanded,” He said, “Teach them to observe everything I commanded.”

We’re not just teaching facts; we’re teaching habits. Lecture-style instruction tends to produce scholars. Milieu instruction tends to produce practitioners. Of course, we want our kids to be Bible scholars! But we also want them to apply what they know! So we need both styles of teaching.[^2]

But how do we practically make teachable moments work? Here are some basic suggestions.

How to Make Teachable Moments Work

1. Spend time with your children.

You cannot teach your children “when you sit in the house” and “when you walk by the way” if you don’t sit with them in the house and walk with them by the way! Both “quality time” and “quantity time” are essential.

2. Engage with your children.

This one’s often hard for me. You can’t just zone out and scroll Facebook on your phone while they play. You need to be interacting with your kids, observing them, and above all, listening carefully to what they say.

3. Ask questions to draw out your children’s hearts.

The older your children get, the more complicated they become. Parents of teens need to invest a lot of time talking with (not just to!) their children and asking good questions. You want to figure out what’s going on in their heads. And remember, kids don’t pour out their hearts on a time schedule!

That means you’ve got to talk when your children are in the mood, even if you don’t feel like it. Occasionally, one of your children will ask a question or make a comment that reveals a little piece of his heart. Those are the moments to drop everything and talk. This can be exhausting! But it’s well worth the effort.

4. Encourage your children to ask questions and give them good answers.

Your child’s questions are your best friend. Don’t discourage them unless their questions are an excuse for disobedience. It’s critical that you teach your children the “why.” Also, when they do ask questions, don’t opt for the easy answer.

Once, when we were at the park eating dinner, there was a group of young girls doing their hip hop dance practice across the way. It was discouraging to me to see the provocative ways in which these moms were encouraging their daughters to move their bodies. Then, my five-year-old daughter asked me, “Dad, why can’t we be in dance?” (I don’t remember ever telling her she couldn’t be in dance; but somehow, she got that impression.) I think what I said was something like, “Just because.”

Looking back, I missed a great opportunity to give my daughter a short, 2-minute, age-appropriate explanation of why her mom and I didn’t want her in that kind of dance.

Short answers are easier, especially when we’re tired or we don’t know what to say. “Because I said so,” is handy in those situations.

The problem is that if we always give our kids the short answer, they’ll assume it’s because we don’t have a better one, and when they grow up, they’ll reject that conviction.

5. If you miss an opportunity, come back to it.

Depending on the age of your child, he may continue to be interested in that question for the next couple of days. Take some time to think about it and then get back to him.

6. Use role-play to turn family devotions into milieu teaching.

My grandpa Schaal was a very godly man. My dad says that in family devotions growing up, Grandpa Schaal would ask them questions like, “Let’s say that I’m your friend from school. And I say, ‘Kevin, come try these drugs with me.’ What would you do?” By asking questions like that, we can prepare our kids ahead of time for situations they haven’t even faced yet.

7. Help your children memorize Scripture that you can use to teach them.

One of the greatest blessings of memorizing Scripture is that you have it with you at all times. This is very helpful for milieu teaching, when you don’t have a Bible in front of you.

8. Learn to trace your experiences back to the character of God.

What does the fact that we got a flat tire remind us about God’s ways? How does a giraffe bring glory to Him? What should we remember about Christ when people make fun of us? Bring theology into every aspect of your kids’ lives!

9. Make a family meal and devotions your flagship teaching time.

Many families do not eat dinner together. However, family meals provide the perfect context for teaching in the milieu. We often ask the question, “What did you do today?” and that leads to conversation. I look forward to those conversations becoming deeper and livelier as our children mature.

I’m reading a book called The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath, which describes the importance of a defining moment and talks about how to use (and even create!) such experiences to help people grow. Modern psychology is fascinating. However, the concept of “the power of moments” is not new to God. Almost 3500 years ago, He instructed His people to use teachable moments to teach their children.

Dad, will you make the most of teachable moments?

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