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Leading Your Child to JesusHow Parents Can Talk with Their Kids about Faith
By David Staal
ZondervanCopyright © 2006 Willow Creek Association
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCommunicating 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 log-like 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." 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."
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 odd-sounding 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. Of course, common sense says we should not use long, complicated terms. "Substitutionary atoning sacrifice" contains three weighty words that most people wouldn't dream of saying to a six-year-old. (And probably not even to one another!) But the simpler phrase "perfect lamb who carried my sins" can just as easily lead toward confusion. Why would a baby sheep carry sins? Even relatively simple words can combine to form complex phrases or analogies that encrypt the meaning from children, who naturally assign literal meanings to words.
Jesus' disciples provide an excellent example of the confusion literal meaning can generate. In Matthew 16:6, Jesus warns them, "Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees." Even though the disciples heard him speak in parables on other occasions, they jumped to a literal translation of Jesus' imagery. They assumed he was referring to their failure to pack bread for their journey. With a touch of exasperation, he spelled out what he meant. "Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (verse 12).
Today's children should not be expected to understand more than Christ's disciples! The answer to the dilemma of abstract wording is to use concrete, or literal, terms. Clarity requires that we use the words kids need to hear, even though they're likely to differ from the words adults typically speak to one another. There's nothing technically wrong with "laying my sins at the foot of the cross," but the words "telling God I'm sorry for the wrong things I've done" conveys the same message in a way a child can far more easily understand.
As your children grow older, their inability to process abstract language will obviously decrease. But so does their likelihood of becoming Christ-followers. As I mentioned earlier, pollster George Barna's research shows that children are most likely to become Christians before age thirteen. As a person who beat the odds and gave my life to Christ as an adult, I know that at any age, people outside the family of God will benefit from concrete language in discussions about faith. In 1 Corinthians 2:1, Paul gives us an excellent model to follow: "When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom" (NRSV).
Dynamic 2 - Children are at different developmental levels. Age affects your child's ability to understand, no matter how simply you word the concepts you want to communicate. A child's age will combine with such factors as education, family and social surroundings, and life experiences to influence his or her intellectual and spiritual knowledge, and these factors will make a difference in how we communicate with our kids.
As a parent, I routinely see differences in my children's developmental levels. For example, my ten-year-old son works on long multiplication problems, while my seven-year-old daughter labors with double-digit addition. Neither is better than the other, they just occupy different learning levels based on their age difference. So in a one-to-one conversation, each child's respective age plays a role in determining the simplicity of the language and concepts I should use.
I recently learned - yet again - that age isn't the only factor. I coach my son's park district league basketball team. This season, a first-year player named Matthew joined our team of eight veterans. He's a great kid with a smile as big as the court we play on. During a scrimmage, I gave Matthew a specific assignment. "When the other team makes a basket," I said, "then you take the ball out of bounds."
"Okay, Coach," he replied with his signature grin.
Everyone on the team understood my instructions meant that after opponents scored, Matthew would grab the ball, step behind the black line under the basket, and then throw the ball to a teammate. Everyone, that is, except Matthew.
Moments later, a player on the other team sunk a basket, setting up Matthew's big role. Confidently, he grabbed the ball and stood behind the out-of-bounds line. And stood there. I whistled for play to stop, and asked Matt why he wasn't throwing the ball. The smile disappeared. I ran over to him, where he quietly informed me that I told him to take the ball out of bounds; I did not say to throw it to anyone.
He was right, and I was wrong. I did not consider Matthew's level of experience when I explained his assignment. I assumed that he would know what I meant. That moment prompted me to start coaching each player individually. We resumed practice with a wiser coach. Fortunately, Matthew's smile resumed as well.
The application to parents is clear - we must constantly self-check the assumptions that precede our comments. If your son has had little exposure to the Bible, then instead of referencing a story from Scripture, take a few moments to explain the story. Or when you encourage your daughter to pray, ensure that she knows how to do that. Sensitivity to developmental levels swells in importance if you have more than one child. Likewise, this same issue deserves consideration before we take children into a church service designed for adults.
Sometimes a lack of knowledge, experience, or exposure is not the issue. Perhaps plenty of learning has taken place, which may or may not be a good thing. Some children have heard wonderful things about God and Jesus. Other kids recognize various names of God as the beginnings of curses from friends, family members, or television. This difference can become a big factor if the gospel is explained using an assumption of reverence for the Almighty.
Never hesitate to call a time-out to check whether your child understands what you're saying. Consider any assumptions you might be making. And always be willing to adapt your words to suit your listener. The more you tailor your comments to what you know about your child's developmental level, the better you will connect with him or her.
Dynamic 3 - Children are most receptive to stories and terms they can relate to or picture. While growing up, I loved to watch the Peanuts television specials. As an adult, I still enjoy them. The story lines, characters, and timeless humor combine to serve as proof of Charles Schultz's genius. My favorite scenes among his numerous made-for-television shows were those times a kid sat in class listening to the teacher talk. The teacher, never shown, always said the same thing: "Wah, wah, wah, waaaah." Just the memory of that sound makes me chuckle as I write this paragraph.
Adults often quote the Peanuts teacher and her highly memorable lines. "Wah, wah, wah, waaaah" communicates jesting mockery of someone's longer-than-necessary droning on a subject, or delivery of a boring lecture. I remember, as a youngster, saying it once as I rolled my eyes in response to something my dad told me. Never tried it again.
The point is that no one, especially a child, enjoys a lecture. In fact, kids will understand far more of what an adult attempts to explain when that adult uses a brief story. Children love stories! Especially short ones. Kids will also engage with what's said at a deeper level when Mom or Dad uses words that refer to something familiar - creating a connection between the story and the listener. Let's look at a practical example.
I have a friend named Dennis who leads small groups of second- and third-grade boys in Promiseland, our church's children's ministry program. In this role, he inevitably has the opportunity to speak with them about his journey to Jesus. When he shares his story, he starts by saying, "Guys, I'd like to tell you a story about a young guy your age who liked to play baseball, soccer, and basketball. He wasn't always the best kid on the team, and didn't always get picked first to play." For the next minute or two, saucer-sized eyes follow Dennis and his every word.
One reason Dennis is so effective at sharing his testimony is his ability to draw kids in - they want to hear what he has to say. He tells them a story, rather than lecturing. He seasons that story with points that are familiar to second- and third-grade boys. If a boy likes sports, he'll relate to Dennis' tale. If he doesn't like sports, he'll relate to how the boy in the story didn't get picked first to play.
Jesus was the master at story-based teaching. He told the tale of the good Samaritan (Luke 10) in response to a question that he could easily have answered with a fact or lecture on who to consider as a neighbor. Instead, he illustrated - through a story - the concept of "neighbor" in a way no one would ever forget.
We too can use this technique, which is sometimes referred to as painting a word picture. If I include one or more parallels to my son or daughter's life in what I say, he or she can picture the scenario and engage in the conversation. Finding a commonality to mention is easy for parents - we do it already without much thought. Sometimes you can rewind the memory of your own life and describe a personal experience. Think of all the times you've said, "When I was a kid ..." For even greater impact, though, relate directly to your child's current life. For instance, "You know how you have lots of choices about what to play during recess ..." or some similar statement lets kids know that what follows will directly apply to them - an approach that will capture attention far more easily than a lecture.
Another way to engage a child in a story is through well-timed questions that spark thoughts but don't require extended pondering. Have you ever observed someone do this particularly well? That question invites your brief mental participation as a reader, but doesn't go down a long tangent. Examples of such questions in conversation include: "Have you ever thought about that?" "Can you imagine how she felt?" "You've never done that, have you?" (followed by a quick smile). The list could go on for pages.
Excerpted from Leading Your Child to Jesus by David Staal Copyright © 2006 by Willow Creek Association. Excerpted by permission.
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