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Walk Your Talk

Eugene C. Roehlkepartain

The nationwide study Grading Grown-Ups shows that adults care about kids, but they aren't doing what they know is important. You can help them.

Why is volunteer recruitment the #1 need for the vast majority of children's ministers? Could it be that while adults in church say children are important, most of them don't act as though they are? Suppose you were in a church where all the adults saw themselves as having some responsibility for children.

That idea -- every adult taking responsibility for children -- is the heart of a major new national study of American adults from Lutheran Brotherhood and Search Institute. The study suggests that your congregation is filled with adults -- people with or without kids, young and old, people of all income and education levels -- who believe it's critically important to be active in the lives of children and teenagers. But if your congregation reflects the national poll, only about one out of 20 members are actually engaged in kids' lives.

As shown in the chart on page 50, the vast majority of American adults (at least 70 percent) believe it's important for adults to take at least nine different positive actions to contribute to kids growing up healthy, caring, and responsible. Another nine positive actions -- including discussing religious beliefs and passing down traditions -- are supported by at least half of all adults.

Despite the strong consensus, only two of the top nine actions are actually taken by most adults. Though people who attend church weekly are slightly more likely to take these actions, the basic message is the same: Adults -- including those in churches -- aren't offering kids the guidance and support they know kids need. They aren't walking their talk!

Why? Perhaps adults feel disconnected from the children around them. Perhaps adults who aren't parents depend too much on parents, expecting them to be the only ones responsible for kids. Perhaps adults worry that parents could be suspicious if they show too much interest. Perhaps they're hidered by an unspoken assumption that adults who aren't parents or who don't "work" with children don't really have a responsibility to children.

Whatever the reason, it's evident that we're letting kids down. Kids are missing out on important relationships, guidance, care, and modeling that can make a major difference in their lives. Sure, kids need parents, teachers, and children's ministers to be there for them, but their world will be so much richer if dozens of adults know them and look out for them. Here are 10 ways to help adults in your church develop the motivation, skills, and opportunities to connect with kids.

Lay A Foundation Of Intergenerational Connections

Identify ways to nurture basic connections across generations -- connections that make it possible for adults to engage in all the positive actions examined by this study.

  • Share the results of the Grading Grown-Ups study with your church members and leadership. Ask adults to reflect on the study's implications for your church and their lives. Encourage them to brainstorm intergenerational opportunities with you.
  • Use your worship service, newsletter, adult education, and other settings to urge all adults to get to know children in your church, neighborhood, and other places. Challenge adults to list the names of children they really know -- and then to double that list in three months. Host a panel discussion where parents talk about what kinds of involvement they'd welcome in their children's lives.
  • Extend service opportunities for adults to serve as teachers, leaders, and volunteers.
  • Find, affirm, and honor the adults who are connected with children in your church and in your broader community. Look to them as role models for other adults.
  • Focus your training for leaders and teachers on the importance of taking time to build relationships with kids. If possible, form small groups within your children's ministry to encourage meaningful relationships.

Encourage School Success

Nine out of 10 adults believe it's "most important" for adults to encourage children to be successful in school.

  • Tell everyone in your church about children's milestones and accomplishments in school -- entering kindergarten, going to a new school, or completing a school year. Remind adults that children appreciate notes, pats on the back, words of encouragement, and friendly inquiries about what's happening in school.
  • Provide opportunities for adults to serve as tutors for children in your congregation or community.
  • Encourage adults to volunteer in children's schools. Have adults look for kids from your church while there.

Expect Parents To Set Boundaries

Eighty-four percent of adults believe it's important for parents to establish clear and consistent rules and boundaries.

  • Talk with parents and adults about appropriate expectations and boundaries for children at church. Encourage all adults to reinforce those boundaries by telling children when they cross the line. Publish the boundaries in your church bulletin every now and then.
  • Encourage adults to talk directly with parents if they have questions or concerns about a child's behavior -- not as a way of blaming, but as a way of being supportive and learning how to work together. Remind adults not to focus only on when boundaries are crossed but also to tell parents when children do something right!

Teach Shared Values

Four out of five adults say it's most important that adults teach children and teenagers a set of shared core values, such as equality, honesty, and responsibility.

  • Educate all adults about their role in nurturing faith as they pass on shared positive values.
  • Highlight for adults that they're always modeling values -- but sometimes not the values they want to pass on. Remind them that children notice when they're dishonest or show disrespect, just as children also notice when they're honest or respectful -- even when it's tough.
  • Ask your pastor to address shared values in sermons in ways that all generations can understand.
  • Plan opportunities for generations to discuss what their values mean and how to apply them. For example, at church dinners provide "table talk" sheets that guide all generations in discussing values.

Teach Respect For Cultural Differences

Between ages 6 and 8, children tend to develop an awareness of similarities and differences in people. As this awareness grows, it can either lead to a respect for others or to the cultivation of prejudice.

  • Remind adults to expect, model, and talk about respect for cultural differences. Then respect becomes an integral part of children's developing values and identity.
  • Invite adults who have experiences with different cultures to talk with children about their experiences.
  • Help adults examine their lives and attitudes about other cultures. Explore whether there are subtle ways they're giving children messages that they don't value cultural differences.

Guide Decision Making

Adults can be important guides and resources in helping children learn how to make responsible choices.

  • Encourage adults to include children in making decisions. Have church committees invite children to join them every now and then. By involving children in their decisions, adults model decision-making skills.
  • Teach adults skills for guiding decision making. For example, while it may be tempting to tell children what to do, instead ask questions or share information that helps children learn how to decide for themselves.

Give Financial Guidance

Clearly addressing saving, sharing, and spending money with young people can help equip them to make responsible financial choices in a financially complex world.

  • Ask adults who've made faithful choices about money to tell their stories to children in church.
  • Encourage adults who collect the offering to invite children to collect and count the offering with them. Use this time to talk about why people give to the church.
  • Have intergenerational workshops to help everyone learn about money.

Have Meaningful Conversations

Three-fourths of adults surveyed believe it's important for adults to have conversations with children that help adults and children "really get to know one another." In reality, though, it's rare for adults to say more than "hi" to a child in church -- unless they're teaching or have some other official role.

  • Examine your congregation's current activities (worship, education, fellowship, service projects) to see if you can do more to connect generations through these opportunities.
  • Invite people from all generations to participate in simple one-time events and activities where adults and children get to know each other.
  • Place intergenerational discussion starters on tables in fellowship areas. Encourage adults to reach out and begin conversations with children.

Discuss Personal Values

A whopping 73 percent of adults believe it's highly important for adults to "openly discuss their own values."

  • Give adults opportunities to talk about their values with other adults. Many will be more comfortable talking with children about values after they've talked with other adults.
  • Provide opportunities for adults of all ages to share their faith journeys, beliefs, and values with children. Encourage them to ask the children about their beliefs and values too.
  • Include parents in conversations with their children if the topics are particularly sensitive or there's a wide range of opinions about the issue.

Expect Respect For Adults

Adults are united in believing it's important to expect children and teenagers to respect adults and elders as authority figures. Sixty-eight percent of adults believe that this respect is highly important.

  • Create a respectful, polite environment in your church and children's ministry programs. Have clear expectations for how people treat each other.
  • Challenge adults to show respect for children. Respect begets respect.
  • Talk with children about what kinds of things they respect in adults. You may be surprised! Report what they say to adults in your congregation.

The Grading Grown-Ups study offers a clear challenge and opportunity to children's ministry leaders: To motivate and equip all kinds of adults in the church to connect with children in positive ways -- ways they already believe are important. Those connections aren't made through volunteering alone. They're made by friendly, welcoming, and interested people who see and interact with children.

As people who are already involved in children's lives and committed to their growth, you're a model for other adults. You have the opportunity to invite other adults to experience the joy, satisfaction, and gift of being there for and with children, making a difference that can last for a lifetime.

For more information, see Grading Grown-Ups: American Adults Report on Their Real Relationships With Kids, a nationwide study by Peter C. Scales, Peter L. Benson, and Eugene C. Roehlkepartain. The in-depth report, a summary, a discussion guide, and other information are available for free downloading from www.search-institute.org and www.luthbro.com.


Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, chief communication officer for Search Institute, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a co-author of the Grading Grown-Ups study as well as Prescription for a Healthy Church (Group Publishing, Inc.) Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

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