Every parent seeks to teach his or her children that they are important. We tell them how precious they are, how wonderful.

But why? Why are they so important?

If we tell our children they are important because they are good-looking, or smart, or talented, we are setting them up for trouble. Because all those things can change. Tomorrow, the child may not feel so smart or pretty or capable.

When we encourage children to base their self-esteem on that which can change, we are building on quicksand. Human attributes -- brains or beauty or skill -- are perilous foundations for self-esteem.

Our children are important because they are created in the image of God.

Being in the image of God does not change when our children succeed, or when they fail. It does not change when they feel loved, or when they feel lonely and lost. It is eternal. Their appearance may change, their bodies transform, but they always continue to be created in God's image. And to be in God's image is to be infinitely valuable. It is to be holy.

For most parents, telling our children that they're created in God's image is not an easy thing to say. It invites our children to ask us further questions about God -- questions that may challenge us or make us feel uncomfortable.

Once I spoke to a large group of children in Dallas. I asked them, "What would your mother say if you asked her what she thought about God?" A girl in the very first row jumped to her feet and waved her hand. Her answer was brief and memorable: "She would say, 'Ask your father!'"

When the laughter died down, I thought about the sad truth of that answer. Many parents of all faiths are afraid to open the conversation. Too many children grow up hearing their parents' views on everything from health care reform to foreign aid, but never their views on God.

The potential for embarrassment shouldn't stop us from introducing the topic. By following up with an explanation of what we mean, we begin to teach them one of adulthood's great lessons: the importance of the invisible.

Not everything that is powerful can be seen. That is why Judaism uses an image of light to explain God. We cannot see light; what we see is not light, but light bouncing off other things -- walls, furniture, even particles in the air. Light makes other things visible.

Love also fits this category. We cannot see it. We cannot touch it, for it has no physical location. Yet love is real. Children all feel its undeniable force. It helps shape their hearts.

God is not identical with light or love, but starting with these concepts may help children understand something about God -- and what it means to be created in God's image. They cannot see God when they look in the mirror, but God's presence illuminates other things in the world -- especially other people. Without God, as without light, we cannot truly see each other. Like love, God helps shape our hearts.

In our culture, with its emphasis on the material, talking about God is a good way to teach our children that things we cannot touch or see -- things we can only feel -- are vital forces. God is the one who helps us understand the world, who moves us to do good. We cannot explain God, but we can live in such a way as to demonstrate God's influence in our lives.

There is a marvelous story of a man who once stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world. "Dear God," he cried out, "Look at all the suffering, the anguish and distress in Your world. Why don't You send help?"

God responded: "I did send help. I sent you."

When we tell our children that story, we must tell them that we hope they will live in such a way as to prove that God sent them. God sent them to make this world a bit better. God sent them to care, to help, and to love. But we must also tell them that they are not alone. God sent us to help them in their search.

How can a parent respond when children ask what we see when we look at them? We can tell them, "In you I see a miracle, a glimmer of God."

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