My wife recounted a conversation she had the first time she took our daughter to the dentist. Like most first-time parents, we were fairly clueless about how to care for our little princess. It seemed common-sense that you’d start brushing her teeth when she actually had teeth, right?


The dentist recommended we go ahead and start brushing her gums because you want to get her used to the types of behavior that she will grow into over time.

I’ve thought about this over the decade since that conversation. The basic concept was clear—you practice important habits before the child actually needs to implement them so they are already in place when they become necessary. This is the work of a strategic dad of a toddler.

It’s easy to convince ourselves that the heavy-lifting of parenting comes later, when our children can understand and apply truth to their lives like we can. If we’re not careful, we can miss valuable opportunities to instill the habits and virtues we want our children to grow into. And, one could argue, establishing these things while they are young is actually vital to whether or not they grow into them at all.

Taught vs. Caught Values

As strategic parents, we have to realize that values are both taught and caught. Particularly for young children, values that are caught have far greater staying power over time. Strategic dads certainly teach values to their children: “We tell the truth, even when it hurts.” “We do what’s right, even when no one is looking.” “We trust in Jesus, even when we’re tempted to lose heart.” We actively communicate these values because we understand they shape mature, godly, humble men and women who enter adulthood prepared to honor God and steward their lives to bring Him glory.

But for many, it’s easy to rely on verbal communication and neglect training our children with the actual environment we create our homes. Our children need to both hear us call them to certain values and see those values shape the world in which they live. 

Families are discipleship schools, for both good and bad habits. We train patterns of behavior in our children constantly because they learn by observing what we do, talk about, and make sacrifices for. Try as we might, we’ll simply never teach our kids to embody values that are spoken, but that are not also lived out in the natural ebb and flow of our homes. They need to see truth-telling, hard work, trust in Jesus, speedy repentance, and other virtues as the norm. And then, by God’s grace, they too will grow into them as they age.

Caught Values and Toddlers

Training with both taught and caught values is particularly valuable when we consider toddlers. Like my daughter at the dentist, much of what we know our toddlers will need to navigate life is beyond the grasp of their developing mental, social, and spiritual capacity. We can either wait until we believe they are ready or go ahead and establish the habits we pray they will grow into. And here’s the rub. It’s far easier to periodically teach values than it is to create a pattern of those values in the culture of our homes. We intuitively know that this hard work makes all the difference. Kids are prone to dismiss our teaching if they do not also see those truth claims shaping our lives. But, our teaching will be reinforced if our children observe certain patterns of life that are then reinforced by the values they hear us teach.

An easy way to assess the values of your home is to consider what would happen if an outsider were to move in with you for a week. What would they think matters to the people in your home? What patterns of life would they observe? And what would that demonstrate about what you value? Rest assured that if a stranger can observe these values, children, even from a young age, are certainly picking up on them long before they can articulate the values themselves. This means that the most significant work a dad can do in these early years is to ensure that the right values are being communicated.

What do our habits communicate to our child about God’s love?

What do our habits communicate about God’s mission?

What do our habits communicate about God’s church?

What do our habits communicate about God’s control?

We may have the right, biblical answers to these and other related questions, but our toddlers will need more than the right answers. They need to see the correct answers lived out before they even know to ask the questions. In time, God-willing, they’ll be able to look back and say, “Oh, so that’s why mommy and daddy were so quick to say they were sorry when they did something wrong” or “That’s why our family spent so much time having neighbors over for dinner and talking to them about Jesus.”

For example, imagine a family who sits down for devotions and regularly prays for the work of international missions. They might have pray cards with pictures of missionaries on the breakfast table or use an online tool to discover places around the world without access to the gospel. Toddlers raised in this environment may not know what missionaries do or have even the slightest understanding of the massive world around them, but they will not forget the priority their parents place on prayer for this work. Later in life when they can more fully comprehend the need for missions, it’s likely that they will have caught this value long before they were taught it.

The work of embodying these values will be a life-long journey but it’s worth the work. Our hope is that God will fuel our meager efforts with supernatural power to turn our toddlers into mature and multiplying worshippers of God.

This is Matt’s third post on parenting children at different ages and stages. Check out his first post here to learn how to adapt your parenting as your kids grow upor read his latest post on being a strategic dad while caring for a baby.

Matt Rogers is a father of five living in Greenville, SC. He pastors The Church at Cherrydale and serves as an assistant professor of Church Planting at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt writes and speaks throughout the United States on issues ranging from discipleship, church leadership, and missions. You can find more about Matt at or