Read an Excerpt
Leading Your Child to Jesus
Ch a p t er 1
Communicating with Kids
The forecast called for a hot, sticky day --- and the weatherman's prediction was right on the mark. Although late July in the
Midwest is a great time to swim in a pool, it is nowhere near the best time to trek through a crowded theme park. But there we were, my five-year-old son Scott and I, constantly seeking shade and drinking our weight in lemonade. Unfortunately,
the fun was melting faster than the ice in our cups.
My spirits lifted when I spotted the Logger's Run. Simpler than most attractions, this ride featured a lazy float in a loglike boat along a river channel that led to a waterfall's brim.
Then came a sudden long drop that bottomed out in a big wet splash, appearing to bring refreshment well worth a second or two of terror. 'Hey Scott,' I said, 'want to go on this ride so we can cool off?'
'Sure,' he replied.
Even the hour-plus wait in line took place in the shade, so it looked like smooth sailing to me. Finally our turn came to step into a log, and Scott and I took the front two spots of the log's four. I noticed no restraining bars, so concluded the drop must not be dangerous. Two teenage girls boarded the back seats,
and our voyage began.
We meandered through the channel for a few minutes,
then paused momentarily before we took the big plunge. Even though most logs skim the water surface at the bottom of the fall, ours didn't. Because Scott and I were in the first two seats,
the log was very front heavy. Okay, to be fair, the weight imbalance was due to me. Regardless of the reason, the nose of our log dove into the water like a duck bobbing for food --- and took all of us down with it. While most people get showered from the big splash, those aboard our log took a bath. We didn't sink in over our heads, but we definitely experienced 100 percent saturation from mid-torso down. And I loved it!
But I sat alone in my joy. The quiet ride to the disembark ramp hinted that a problem existed. The two girls and I quickly exited the log. Then, as I offered Scott a steady hand to step out, I asked him how he liked it. His response confirmed we had a problem. He burst into tears.
'What's wrong, buddy?' I asked.
'You didn't say we'd get wet!' he yelled back.
'Wait a minute,' I reasoned, 'what did you think I meant when I said we'd cool off?'
He paused to catch his breath and then blurted out, 'I
thought it was going to be air-conditioned!'
What's Said vs. What's Understood
I'll never forget the lesson I learned as we stood there dripping in front of a crowd now staring at us: unless I'm careful,
I can do a poor job of choosing words my children fully understand.
This is a common challenge for parents. Especially, it seems,
for Christian moms and dads. Listen closely as some of them speak about spiritual life, and you may hear a language all its own. It might require years to learn --- and that poses a problem.
Christianity has the greatest message in the world, but it won't have any impact if it's delivered with descriptions that come close to being in code to those outside the circle.
This disconnect is even more obvious when it involves children.
Sure, it may create humorous moments for parents to chuckle over or even write about in a book someday. But it also frequently,
and unintentionally, stands in the way of meaningful dialogue about spiritual issues. Which is no laughing matter.
In The Gentle Art of Communicating with Kids, Dr. Suzette Elgin underscores this issue when she says,
'The only meaning a sequence of language has is the meaning the listener understands it to have.'1 Consider the implications of her statement. It doesn't matter what you say; what matters is how a child interprets what you say. Basketball Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach was on the same track when he offered a tip to coaches that lends itself to our topic: 'It's not what you tell your players that counts; it's what they hear.'2
This chapter was designed to help you close the gap between what you say and what your children understand you to have just said. Then the remainder of the book will build off the foundation laid by the following four key dynamics of communication with kids.
Dynamic 1 --- Children understand concrete terms and language better than they understand abstract terms and language.
In other words, children are likely to be much more literal than adults are with language. The parental application of this dynamic is easy: avoid symbolism or 'religious' words. A few examples of what to steer clear of may help.
'Ask Jesus into your heart' is a common confusion causer.
Sure, some kids understand this statement, but many don't.
Although a child might not say so, she may wonder how Jesus can physically fit into such a small space. A place inside her kid-sized body, no less! What the adult who says, 'Ask Jesus into your heart,' really means is, 'Start a personal relationship with Christ today.'
'Pay the price for your sins' is another phrase to reconsider.
A young boy in our children's ministry program once told me he would try to save up his allowance to cover the payment himself! Although we didn't discuss the actual amount he receives, it took him quite awhile to understand that he could never save enough. And that money was not the real issue.
Sometimes it is not the meaning of the words, but the words themselves that can cause problems. A father from our church tucked his young daughter into bed one evening, and listened with confusion to the end of her prayer: 'And suddenly we pray amen.' This oddsounding conclusion continued for three nights, until the dad could no longer contain his curiosity.
'Why do you say 'and suddenly we pray'?' he asked.
'I thought that's how prayers are supposed to end,' she said.
A few moments after he left her room, the father realized what had happened. His daughter was repeating what she thought were the words he uses: 'In the Son's name we pray. Amen.' Lesson learned: When a child doesn't understand the terms a parent uses, she might assign her own meaning --- or even swap for words she does understand.
As a result, this dad became more deliberate with his phrases --- and began to smile every time he ended a family prayer.
Our challenge, then, is to avoid the use of analogy, symbolism,
or any abstract wording that requires familiarity with a concept. Likewise, we must take care to maintain our intended meaning when we select concrete terms. (You'll find alternative wording to common Christian words in chapter 3, which focuses on explaining the gospel message.)
A tempting shortcut to eliminate abstract language is merely to avoid difficult words. That, however, isn't always the solution.