In a world that’s super scary at times, it’s easy to overprotect our kids. Here’s why teaching them to live boldly like Jesus is a better idea.
“Here I come to save the day!”
I have a tendency to go to extremes when it comes to keeping kids safe. On one hand, I want kids to be kids. I say, “Explore! Play in the dirt. Eat that high-fructose corn syrup. Sharpen those scissor skills.” But on the other hand, I don’t let them out of my sight—ever. I supervise their games so no one feels left out or hurt. I break my budget trying to serve only fresh fruits and vegetables. And I go ahead and precut the activity page. (It’s WAY easier that way, amiright?)
I guess I struggle with a kidmin superhero complex. I may not be able to run faster than a speeding bullet or leap across buildings, but I do rush in and rescue kids who struggle. Sometimes these are little urges that don’t seem to cause any harm. But those superhero tendencies really kick in when I see kids hurting or afraid. I want to make divorce go away. There’s a longing in me to build fortresses to keep the bad guys away from schools, churches, and shopping malls. I try to put every single volunteer through the wringer so no one with bad intentions can come remotely close to children in my care.
In my defense, these rescuing tendencies are warranted. Today’s kids live in a society that seems really different from the one I, and perhaps you, grew up in. For them, heart-stopping headline news is just a click away. To them, lockdown and evacuation drills are a part of their “normal” school experience. But is it just me, or does the fact that these scary things are now “normal” make them even more frightening? The world is a scary place. Consider these top parent concerns, according to Pew Research.
Top-8 Parent Concerns
Perhaps, like me, your knee-jerk reaction as a parent or children’s ministry leader is to throw on your superhero cape and go above and beyond to keep kids safe and protected.
But what if our cultural obsession with safety is actually keeping kids from cultivating the courage they need to face hard and scary things? What if our own grown-up rescuer tendencies get in the way of helping kids grow a friendship with Jesus—the true Rescuer? What would happen if, instead of constantly telling kids to “be safe,” we give them the cape and equip them to “be bold!” with Jesus by their side?
“Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1b-2a)
Sounds good, right? But this is easier said than done. Courage isn’t a skill that comes from filling out a worksheet or reading a book. To cultivate courage that comes from Jesus in kids, we need to create a fearless environment for children’s ministry. We nurture courage when we create an environment that gives kids the freedom to explore, communicates boldness rather than fear, and equips kids to take the lead in practical ways.
When I drop my superhero cape, I look around and see that I’m not in this alone. Seemingly normal, everyday people are cultivating courage in kids. And they make it look easy! So, I asked how they do it.
Dalton, Hayden, and Mila call her “Mommy.” Kindergarten kids call her “teacher.” I call her a Courage Coach.
I saw Amanda cultivating courage when we visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, with her two young boys. The nearby bay intrigued her young explorers, who precariously peered down into the water from the edge of the concrete bank. My Spidey senses were screaming. I wanted to grab Dalton’s hand and make sure he didn’t tumble into the water. But Amanda responded differently. She never fussed or demanded, “Be careful!” Instead, her calm presence gave him the courage to explore a brand-new place with Mommy by his side.
Q: You allow your kids the freedom to explore. Why do you think that’s important?
Amanda: Kids learn best by doing. The more time they have to play and explore the world, the better off they are. They need space to learn about things from their perspective, go at their own pace, and discover limitations on their own. That way, discoveries stick.
Q: As a parent, how do you give kids the space they need, while still being present and supportive?
Amanda: My kids all have different personalities and are different ages, so I change my actions based on which child I’m dealing with. There’s a lot more doing or demonstrating when they’re young and a lot more watching and coaching as they get older. As a coach, you can’t do stuff for your players, but you can be on the sideline supporting and giving input.
Q: As a kindergarten teacher, how do you create scenarios where kids have to be bold and try hard things?
Amanda: On the playground, I see so many kids who can’t work out simple problems because they’re used to adults organizing for them, talking for them, and working out their issues. Most kids’ initial reaction is to run to the teacher, tell on their friends, and expect the teacher to fix it. I just won’t do that. I’m not there to fix. I’m there to help them learn, and part of learning is coaching them with words to say when they try to work it out on their own.
Lucy and Emma call him “Dad.” People who’ve read his books call him “author.” I call him a Courage Communicator.
When I first heard about Rick’s new book, Spiritual Grit, I wondered, “What does grit have to do with ministry to children?” My Spidey senses told me that kids shouldn’t have to persevere in the face of hardships—they’re just kids! But each chapter gave more and more insight into growing true grit in myself and the kids and families I serve.
Q: What do the words “be safe” communicate to kids? What consequences come when we tell kids to “be safe?”
Rick: I think (consequences are) unintentional, first of all, because (saying “be safe”) comes out of the care and concern that adults have for their kids. And it comes from living in a world that is 24/7 surrounded by every terrible thing that happens in the world.
But just start listening on a daily basis how often people say “be safe” or some version of it on TV or in person. It’s everywhere! What it does, is that it undermines that Gospel imperative to risk. Jesus never said “be safe” to his disciples. And anyone who’s ever made an impact on the world has never lived their life by “be safe.” That’s because to make a good impact on the world, you have to risk. So my stance is that we should be helping kids from an early age to sort of map their expectations and norms to Jesus rather than to adult fears about the world.
Q: What can we say instead? What does it look like for kids to live like Jesus?
Rick: I do an exercise with ministry leaders where I ask them to come up with five characteristics that show Jesus’ personality. Then I ask them to come up with at least one alternative to “be safe” that ties into those characteristics. So, here’s my favorite and the one that I say to my kids all the time: I don’t say, “Be safe.” I say, “Be bold!” Because Jesus is very bold. So we can train ourselves to change the language we use with kids to language that matches and undergirds the character and personality of Jesus.
Q: How does Jesus’ approach to growing grit (or cultivating courage) in people translate to how we lead kids or teams today?
Rick: Jesus never didn’t try to grow strength and courage through his encounters with people. That’s because when you love people, you want them to grow strength inside.
We follow Jesus’ example when we change our mindset from removing the risk to showing appropriate ways to introduce it. It could be as simple as, instead of telling the answer, let kids wrestle with a question for a while. The fact that you’re waiting leverages anxiety in the situation and pushes kids to actually say something when they normally wouldn’t. That’s a way for a leader to grow courage because it takes a lot of courage for a room to grow quiet for a minute.
Q: How can ministry leaders help kids do hard things?
Rick: There are a lot of things that have to be done in a ministry. In children’s ministry, it’s easy to think, Wow, it’s up to the adults here. But one thing you can do to lean more into risk is, with your leadership team, consider all of the things the adults currently do in your ministry. Then ask, “How many things could the kids actually do?” If the only people in the room who are ever risking are adults, then the kids aren’t growing in their core strength. Giving kids more opportunities to risk helps them to grow.
Kids call her “Miss Olivia;” parents call her “our kids’ pastor.” I call her Courage Equipper.
It was one of my first Sundays as a children’s ministry volunteer at my new church. Olivia told me the Load Out Team would come after the final worship service to clean up, tear down, and load the mobile equipment and supplies into trucks for storage until next weekend. Little did I know the team members were kids. Imagine my surprise when a gang of 4th and 5th graders started tearing apart the stage, pulling out cords, and pushing storage boxes on wheels around the room. My Spidey senses kicked in again, and I thought, “Woah! Should kids be doing that?” But Olivia had trained them well and given them responsibility. Those courageous kids keep showing up, week after week, to do hard things.
Q: What exactly does the Load Out Team do? What gave you the idea to recruit kids for the job instead of adults?
Olivia: Being a mobile church, we bring everything in Sunday mornings and then load out all the equipment after all the gatherings are over. All of the toys, banners, and sound system that we set up all needs to be torn down and wheeled out in cases. So they help put everything away and even carry out some of the large equipment to get loaded on the truck.
Our elementary class is just a wide range of ages, and so I’ve always felt the need to provide a spot for leadership for older kids to help them feel invested and take ownership within the group. Some 4th graders and 5th graders had already expressed wanting more leadership, and this was a need that we had—so it felt like a natural fit.
Q: What did training look like? How long did it take for the kids to feel confident to perform tasks on their own?
Olivia: (Laughs) We actually only went through it once, and then we just did it week after week together. When they had questions, they’d ask. I walked them through all the equipment and taught them the importance of how to handle all the super-expensive gear and tear it down properly.
One of the things that helps is that we always make it a game to see how fast we can load it out. With kids, competition always feels like a win.
Q: How have kids’ parents responded to their service? What do they do when they walk in and see kids taking apart a stage or giving a friend a ride in an equipment case?
Olivia: Parents respond in a couple different ways. They’ve been really excited to see their kids hungry to serve. And they’ve seen their kids take more ownership in their church since the Load Out Team started. So parents are really excited about that.
I do see parents show caution when they observe their kids in action. They say things like, “Are you sure you can lift that?” But I see so much value creating an environment where parents feel good about giving their kids space to do hard things and try things for themselves as they serve their church family.
Q: What has doing hard things produced in the kids?
Olivia: It produces ownership. Kids feel capable of contributing to their church. It also produces a great community of Jesus followers who get to serve together and goof off and laugh together and have fun. And, lastly, they’ve started to explore what they’re capable of and, instead of placing limits and emphasizing what they can’t do, they start to realize what they can do, which, as it turns out, is way more than what they’ve been told.
In a scary world, Courage Cultivators help kids move through fear with Jesus by their side. They boldly go where few dare to tread, encouraging kids to boldly live for Jesus—today!
You and your team can cultivate courage in kids by attending Children’s Ministry Local Training at a location near you. Learn more here.
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