This past summer I wrote the first verses of Psalm 1 on a chalkboard beside my sink. As a tired and happy mom of four little girls, I needed a bigger vision I could hang my thoughts on than just reacting to the daily rush of life. The Psalmist sings and everything begins to take its proper place:
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away…”
As a mother, I read this psalm and think to myself, “How do I encourage my children to be like trees planted by streams of water and not to be like chaff? How do I inspire them to be like evergreen trees and not simply pretty flowers that bloom today and are gone tomorrow?” Isn’t that what we hope for ourselves and for our children?
Just as with a tree, this psalm reminds us what our children need most of all comes from outside of them and not within them. This stream they need is the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. They need all the riches we have in him to flow into all of their life by his grace. It’s on him we should meditate, and one of the best ways to meditate on something is to sing it.
Singing engages the memory, emotions, and understanding in a divinely appointed way. It’s not a small thing that the Bible tells us over and over again to sing to the Lord—not just those who are good at it, not even just those who like it, but it’s the calling for every believer! It helps us give voice to our praise, and helps instruct and remind us about the One worthy of all our praise. If we sing the ABCs with our children so that they learn how to read and write, we should also sing the ABCs of the gospel with them, so that they might grow in the faith. If I want to guide my children in the way they should go, singing is part of that; just like other spiritual disciplines. Singing songs of the Lord helps grow strong evergreen trees.
So what might that look like? We have had three goals in our hymn writing over these last 20 years and each one speaks to the value of singing for all the family and not just the grown-ups.
That we sing and what we sing profoundly matters—it affects us so deeply. So we’ve been challenged to not tepidly skim or belittle the big truths of God when we sing with our kids. There’s no children’s section in the book of Psalms; they’re for everyone. The truths we sing should feel bigger than us at whatever age we are, because they are. They should feel like a fit for us at whatever age we are, because it is. Singing songs that drink deeply of God’s Word helps keep us rooted in him.
C. S. Lewis wrote on the subject of writing for children. He said children learn not as a train goes from station to station, but as a tree grows by adding rings. In other words, we learn and grow one ring at a time—connecting each part together in a way that deepens our understanding and joy.Not like a train that simply changes stations and doesn't grow in itself. If each ring remains linking to the next then each ring is important. The songs you sing today are shaping the view and understanding your children have of the Lord in a way they will carry with them through their life.
A tree grows slowly and steadily for a long time. Alongside all the fun songs we sing for a shorter period of time, we should make sure a significant portion of the songs we teach our children are melodic pieces of art they can grow old with, that are worth keeping. Hymns that don’t crumble under the weight of life’s realities, but stand up to the big questions; that don’t patronize, but are pieces of beauty. Hymns that still seem fresh when we are 17, 47, and 87 years old. Like “Amazing Grace” or “Be Thou My Vision.” Make a list of the hymns you love and share them with your children. We can’t always assume they will learn them somewhere else. They won’t be learned in a day. It will be a reach. But most things worth doing are a reach. Our children learned to walk, eat, and talk over a period of time. Going after growing trees takes a long view.
Singing together as families and as the church
Forests are built by trees reaching in to share a water source and leaning on one another—roots woven together under the ground. Our singing is not just a private activity, it’s a public expression of the community we have in the body of Christ. We sing of glorious things sung over centuries. We sing them again now to pass on the Truth and the good news of the Lord Jesus to the next generation. So it’s helpful for us to find hymns we can actually all sing together. Our home church includes the children five years and older in the first 10-15 minutes of the main service so they learn what it is to sing with the different age groups—one song at a time sung by everybody. As parents, it’s one of the things we love most about our church and the connections this provides between our home life and our church life.
As a family we aim to learn one hymn together a month. We simply sing unaccompanied or along with music from our phones. We talk about the lyrics and learn it bit by bit. We’ll come back around as the Lord gives us time, adding to their understanding and ability to sing them. We sing mostly at bedtime but also over breakfast, in the car on the way to school, as we go about our day.
I’ve been amazed how many times I’ve heard strong believers talk about the hymns they learned, particularly from their mothers, and how those songs have grown and sustained their faith. What an opportunity we have to give something to our children that goes with them where our arms and voices might not reach—things they will remember when we are gone, things they will remember in their old age when they struggle to remember anything else. Such is the powerful gift and role of music! Sing even in the earliest years. I know that while the days seem slow and the years go fast, singing songs of the Lord is often the low hanging fruit I can reach for as I nurture my own soul and my family.
Sing to your children and your grandchildren. Sing with them. Sing for them.
Kristyn Getty along with her husband Keith Getty are modern hymn writers who have created a catalogue of songs teaching Christian doctrine and crossing the genres of traditional, classical, folk and contemporary composition which are sung all over the world. Songs from the Getty canon, including "In Christ Alone" (written with Stuart Townend), are sung by an estimated 100 million people around the world each year. The Getty’s international championing of hymnody and of family and congregational singing has also led to the creation of the Getty Music Worship Conference-Sing!, an annual event focused on reforming and encouraging congregational worship. Kristyn and her husband live between Northern Ireland and Nashville with their four daughters.