This article is adapted from Brian Dollar’s new book Talk Now and Later (Salubris Resources), now available. It originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Vital magazine.
In my 20 years as a kids’ pastor, I can’t tell you how many times a parent has walked up to me after church and said, “My son was asking me questions about __________ last night. Would you meet with him to explain what it’s all about?” I’ve received countless emails that say something like, “My daughter asked me what __________ means. I don’t want to confuse her, so can I set her up an appointment with you this week? I’m sure you can explain it better than I can.” Parents have asked me to talk to their kids about every conceivable question about God, death, tragedy, sex, self- image, choices, divorce, friendships, money, bullying, forgiveness. The list goes on.
Most parents have a dozen excuses why they don’t want to talk to their kids about difficult topics.
“I’m worried I won’t say the right things.” “I’m afraid I’ll talk over her head.”
“What if he asks a question I can’t answer? I don’t want to look stupid!”
“I don’t even know what I think about these topics. How in the world can I give my child good information?”
“My kids aren’t ready for this kind of conversation.”
I’m happy to help, but the primary resources for these kids should be their own parents.
In other words … you!
PRIVILEGE AND RESPONSIBILITY
God instituted the family long before He created the church, and kids’ ministry leaders came along many centuries after that. Throughout Scripture, God clearly explains that He has given parents the privilege and responsibility of shaping their kids’ lives – spiritually and otherwise (e.g., Deut. 4:9-10, 11:18-20; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). It was not and is not God’s plan for parents to bring their kids to church a couple of times each month and assume the children’s ministry will take care of their development.
The numbers simply don’t work: Even if your child attends an hour-long program at church every week, that’s only 52 hours a year – and most families don’t attend every week. In fact, the definition of “regular church attendance” has changed so much in the past decades that the term currently applies to some of those who go to church fewer than half of the Sundays in a year. Maybe you make sure your child attends both church and the youth group to benefit from a dedicated children’s ministry team that works hard at developing resources, planning lessons and creating an atmosphere where your child will learn, worship and draw closer to God while developing strong relationships with other young Christians. I applaud your commitment! But this scenario has a problem: It still only covers two hours a week, or 104 hours a year. Parents, by contrast, have an average of more than 70 waking hours each week with their children. That’s 3,640 hours a year – not including their time at school and sleeping. Of course, many kids are involved in extracurricular activities, but those are things we choose; they’re not required. And parents may not actually use the 70 hours each week to connect to their kids in a meaningful way, but the time is there. God wants you to use it wisely.
THE REAL GOAL
As parents our goal isn’t to rush in and have one “fix it” conversation when our children ask us difficult questions. Our goal is to create a warm, open environment where these topics are part of the fabric of family communication. We’re not trying to “solve a problem”; we’re trying to open channels so that every person in the family feels valued, understood and inspired.
The qualities of communication we pour into our children will have a lasting legacy. No matter how painful or difficult our childhood might have been, we have the privilege and responsibility to create something new and wonderful for our kids – and through them, their kids and grandkids.
When we talk to our children about important issues, we shouldn’t get upset if they don’t seem to pay attention or if they resist our point of view. If our measuring stick is immediate change or agreement, we’ll feel frustrated most of the time.
Each conversation is an investment in the life of your children. Have a lot of them, and they’ll pay handsome dividends down the road. Like many investments, it takes a long time to see the account build and the return to be noticeable, but sooner or later, the payoff will come. I can’t tell you how many parents have told me that years later, their kids remembered talks – and specific points in those talks – when the parents thought they hadn’t even been listening. Kids listen far more than we realize.
Every conversation is a spiritual conversation. This doesn’t mean we use “God talk” in every sentence and quote Scripture every time we talk to our kids. But it means the Word of God informs every decision we make and the Spirit of God guides us each step of the way. Parents don’t have to be Bible scholars, but they can read and study enough to let the truth of God sink deep into their attitudes and actions.
WHEN OUR CHILDREN KNOW WE’RE TRUSTING GOD FOR WISDOM AND DIRECTION, THEY SENSE A NEED TO TRUST HIM, TOO. OUR HUNGER FOR GOD AND HIS WORD IS CONTAGIOUS. OUR KIDS MAY LOOK BORED SOMETIMES, AND THEY MAY NOT LIKE WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS, BUT THAT’S PART OF LEARNING, GROWING AND INTERNALIZING THE TRUTHS OF SCRIPTURE AND THE GRACE OF GOD IN OUR LIVES.
Principles of Communication
Answering our kids’ tough questions is a privilege and a responsibility. Now that we know the goal – to create a warm, open environment where God’s Word guides our responses – let’s identify and describe some principles that guide our attitudes and our words.
1. CONNECTIONS TAKE TIME.
Many parents feel uncomfortable with certain topics, and they conclude that one conversation is enough. It never is. If a subject is so threatening that it makes us uncomfortable to talk about it, we need to talk about it more, not less. Wise parents bring these things up before there’s a crisis. When a calamity occurs, emotions run high and threats multiply. It’s far better to have a long track record of good discussions, with open interaction and mutual respect, before any crisis happens.
2. ALL OF US ARE LEARNING.
I’ve watched as parents assumed the role of “the experts” in talking to their children about important matters. When kids are little, the parent’s role of teacher is unavoidable, but as they grow up, we need to communicate increasingly that we’re all in the process of learning and growing. When teenagers sense their parents are still open to new perspectives and ideas, they’ll be far more willing to enter into meaningful dialogue.
3. DON’T TALK DOWN TO THEM.
Similarly, one of the most important principles about talking with kids is to avoid being condescending. Some parents have told me they want to “dumb down” communication with their kids. If they mean they’re trying to talk on the child’s level, that’s a good strategy. My guess, though, is that the term dumb down implies two incorrect and destructive assumptions: that the child is inferior, and the parent is superior. Kids pick up on this perspective, and they deeply resent it.
4. LEARN TO ASK GREAT QUESTIONS AND TO LISTEN MORE THAN YOU TALK.
One of the most important communication tools for anyone in any relationship is the ability to ask great questions. All questions are not equal! A parent may ask, “Why in the world did you do that? What were you thinking?” but questions like these don’t stimulate meaningful interaction! They are rhetorical questions that are actually statements: “You’re so dumb. You obviously weren’t thinking at all!”
Some questions are conversation stoppers, but others are fertilizer for rich interaction. Good questions, spoken with respect and openness, open dialogue with your children so they can tell you what they perceive about a particular event, person or topic. We might ask:
“Why do you think that happened?”
“What are some positive things that might result from that choice?” “What might be some unforeseen consequences of that decision?”
“How do you think God feels about that?”
And as we’ve already mentioned, the best statement to draw out a person isn’t a question at all. It’s simply, “Tell me more about that.”
5. THERE ARE NO DUMB QUESTIONS.
It’s the nature of little children to be creative and spontaneous, and it’s the nature of teenagers to test their parents. In both cases, kids may ask off-the-wall questions – either because they simply don’t understand the issues, or to push back to see if the parents really respect them. For any age group of children, parents need to realize there are no dumb questions.
Every question should be treated with the same weight of importance and value. It may be harder to treat innocuous or defiant questions with respect, but those need it even more.
6. IF THE CHILD WON’T TALK, BE GRACIOUS AND PATIENT, BUT DON’T GIVE UP.
A child may “go dark” for any number of reasons. An event, such as a death, may have traumatized the child; the child may normally withdraw under pressure and process things internally before speaking; or there may not be enough trust for the child to speak up. In these cases don’t press too hard, but don’t withdraw too far. Often, nonverbal communication is the gateway to the heart. Give a hug, go for a drive to a favorite spot or just spend time together some other way without talking about the topic.
When the time is right – and every parent has to figure out when that is, either by instinct or trial and error – gently ask an open-ended question and wait for an answer. The Lord gave us two ears and one mouth, so it’s a good guideline in every relationship to listen twice as much as we talk. That’s especially true when we’re trying to connect with a quiet child.
If the child begins to talk, again, don’t press too hard too soon. The first goal is to build trust, not to force-feed information or demand communication at a deeper level. Be gracious and kind. Acknowledge the little response you get, and then say, “Thanks. Maybe we can talk more about this sometime.” And then look for another opening at a later time.
7. BE WILLING TO APOLOGIZE.
Parents mess up. All parents mess up. Even deeply committed Christian parents mess up. But not all parents are willing to admit it. Some of the most wonderful words children of all ages can hear from parents are, “I was wrong. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I won’t do it again.” Apologies are necessary for individual offenses, but parents also need to address prolonged, harmful patterns of communication – demanding too much, blaming, withdrawing, smothering and so on.
A full apology communicates, “I get it now. I realize how I’ve hurt you, and I’m deeply sorry. I want to open the lines of communication with you. I’ll do my very best to do better, and I need your help. Will you tell me when I mess up again? I have a long way to go, but I’m stepping onto the road today.”
This isn’t just a theory. I’ve had these conversations with my kids. I have asked Ashton and Jordan to speak up anytime I become condescending or demanding, and I’ve promised that I’ll respect them when they have the courage to call me on my personal shortcomings. That means I don’t get angry when they’re honest with me. I don’t walk off in a huff, and I don’t look for some reason to blame them and turn the conversation around. I take it like a man and thank them for their courage and love.
8. WATCH THE BODY LANGUAGE – YOURS AND THEIRS.
Research indicates that body language accounts for 50 to 70 percent of communication. We may not be completely aware of the impact of facial expressions, eye contact and other nonverbal cues, but they powerfully shape the messages we send and receive. Our body language – a smile or frown, crossed or relaxed arms, etc. – may reinforce what we’re saying, or it may completely contradict our words. I’ve watched parents with stern expressions growl to a little child, “You know I love you, don’t you?” Well, no, the child doesn’t know the parent loves her if the expression doesn’t match the words!
Parents, be good students of your body language, and make the necessary adjustments to ensure your verbal and nonverbal messages are consistent … and positive. Also be a good student of your children’s body language. It often tells you more than their words can ever say.
9. PREPARE YOUR RESPONSE.
Older kids sometimes (maybe often) test their parents by saying things meant to be shocking. When this happens, don’t take the bait. Act like you’re playing poker in the saloon in an old Western. Keep a straight face, nod that you heard the comment and say something like, “Interesting. What do you think about it?”
When children begin to challenge their parents, the parents need to do some evaluation and planning before responding. They can ask themselves, “How are we going to respond – or react – when Jim or Janie tell us something designed to elicit outrage or shock?” I suggest they role-play and practice their responses. They can look in the mirror to see the expression on their faces when a spouse plays the role of the child and says something like, “By the way, I’m pregnant,” “Johnny set himself on fire,” or “Mom and Dad, how do you like the dragon tattoo … on my neck?”
In tense moments in relationships, people often make one of two mistakes: They “get big” or they “get little.” They get big by talking loudly, leaning forward, glaring and making demands. Or they get little by slumping in the chair, looking down, mumbling inaudibly and giving in to any perceived threat. This response doesn’t happen just once; it becomes the pattern of every significant and difficult interaction.
BOTH RESPONSES ARE ATTEMPTS TO GAIN CONTROL – ONE BY MAKING DEMANDS AND NOT TAKING NO FOR AN ANSWER, AND THE OTHER BY GIVING IN TO RESOLVE THE CONFLICT AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. AND THEY WORK! THE “BIG” PERSON “WINS” THE ARGUMENT, AND THE “LITTLE” PERSON GETS IT OVER QUICKLY. SO EVERYBODY FEELS BETTER, BUT ONLY FOR A MOMENT. THE DAMAGE IS ONGOING BECAUSE THESE MISGUIDED COPING STRATEGIES SIGNIFICANTLY ERODE TRUST AND CREATE DEEPER DIVISIONS.
If parents are aware of their normal responses to difficult conversations, they’ll be able to make choices before, during and after their conversations with their kids. It’s hard to change the pattern of a lifetime, but for some parents, it’s necessary if they want to create an environment where people feel valued and vulnerable without risk.
10. KNOW YOUR CHILD.
Children are anything but static creatures. They’re enormously complex, and they change from one stage to the next. Gender, personality, experiences and age all play vital roles in how they process the ups and downs of life. And each child, even within a family, can be very, very different. Our task as parents is to notice what makes each of our children tick and then tailor our communication to fit that child in that situation.
Many parents do well with their kids when they’re small, but they don’t understand what’s going on in adolescence. Teenagers (and perhaps young people into their 20s) are developing their sense of identity – an identity that’s separate from their parents. This doesn’t mean they’ll run away and never come back, but the normal, healthy process of becoming an adult requires them to increasingly become self-reliant instead of remaining dependent on their parents.
When teenagers push back, understand that’s part of the program for them to grow up and become adults. They’re trying out their independence on you. Instead of feeling threatened and putting the clamps down on them, learn to work with them to give them a powerful combination of roots and wings – roots of security and wings to fly and try new things.
THEY’RE GOING TO GET SOME THINGS WRONG. THAT’S GUARANTEED. BUT A PARENT’S OVERREACTION TO THEIR ATTEMPTS AT INDEPENDENCE PRODUCES DEFIANCE, NOT TRUST.
Gradually, as the children grow up, take on more responsibilities, learn from their failures and craft their own identities, we can have an adult-adult relationship with them. For some, that happens early, but other kids tend to remain emotionally (and maybe financially) dependent for the rest of their lives. Don’t let that happen! Let their roots sink deep into your love and acceptance, and give them strong wings to fly on their own. They’ll be tremendously grateful, and you’ll have a wonderful connection for the rest of your lives.
YOU CAN DO IT!
You don’t have to be a social worker or a psychologist to understand enough to have meaningful conversations with your kids. You don’t have to be a pastor or know how to pray eloquently to lead your family in prayer about a tender topic. It means everything to your kids when you take the initiative to stop and talk to God in a normal voice with an open heart. And you don’t need to pray for 20 minutes. Just tell God that you need His help, you’re looking to Him for direction, and you’re grateful for the conversation. That’s enough. If you haven’t prayed with your children before, it may feel awkward at first. Push through that feeling. You’ll get more comfortable as you have more experience. It’s important. Let your kids know you want and need God to be in the center of your family’s life.
In fact, you’re probably not an expert on any of the topics kids ask tough questions about. Admit to your kids that you’re learning, too – and actually be a learner. Read, ask questions and find out more than you knew before. At every point, take the initiative to begin these conversations and share what you know. Your kids will undoubtedly ask questions or voice opinions that challenge you. Don’t let that throw you. Instead of reacting, say something like, “Let me find out more about that, and you can find out more too. Then let’s talk again about it and see where we go. We’re going to trust God to give us wisdom about this.”
Any of us can take the initiative to begin the conversation, admit we don’t have all the answers, and explain that we’re trusting God for direction. If we do those three things, we’ve taken enormous strides in being the parents God wants us to be for our children. This attitude and these actions break down walls between our kids and us. We become a little more vulnerable, which gives them permission to be a little more honest and open. As conversations progress and become a normal part of your relationship with your kids, they’ll realize you aren’t out to control them; you respect them, and you want God’s best for them.
Brian Dollar is the kids pastor at First Assembly in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He is the founder of High Voltage Kids Ministry Resources and the author of Talk Now and Later (Salubris Resources, 2015), from which this article is adapted with permission.