What to foster healthy spiritual growth in kids? Here’s how you can instill healthy confidence and God’s love in kids—one carefully chosen word at a time.
Wide-eyed, 6-year-old Jacob could hardly contain his excitement as he dribbled the soccer ball down the grassy field. Fueled by the crowd’s roar, he ran faster, outmaneuvering his opponents and tripping over his own feet before regaining control of the ball. The crowd grew wild as Jacob moved within striking range of the goal. He paused, then whacked the ball, sending it flying into the net. Elated, he whirled around to face his biggest fan–but the pained look on Mom’s face told him something was terribly wrong. Slowly, Jacob realized he was standing on the defender’s side of the field. He’d unintentionally scored a point for the other team.
Totally defeated, Jacob crumbled to the ground, thoughts swirling like a dark tornado in his head: I’m so stupid! I bet my team hates me now! What do Mom and Dad think? I’m so embarrassed! He swiped at tears as they rolled down his cheeks and silently cried out for God. His parents, who could read his thoughts, watched helplessly from the stands. Was Jacob’s error partially their fault? Were their warning cries misinterpreted as cheers? They blamed themselves for not sending a clearer message.
Have you ever been in Jacob’s shoes, taking control of the ball only to run it in the wrong direction? Or maybe you can relate to his well-meaning parents whose encouraging words were unfortunately misunderstood.
As teachers and children’s ministers honored with the task of helping kids grow spiritually, we need to ensure that our loving words and intentions aren’t misinterpreted and that they instill healthy confidence and positive spiritual growth in our kids. Here’s a look at how even the noblest of intentions can go awry–and how to set them straight.
Good Spiritual Growth Intentions Gone Bad
Even the best-intentioned spiritual growth compliments and encouragement can have unintended consequences. Here’s how to avoid the pitfalls of good intentions gone bad.
Beware of flooding children with praise that isn’t specific.
Too many overused, generic phrases such as, “Good girl!” and “Nice work!” can have the same sickening effect as pouring too much chocolate syrup into a glass of milk. Moreover, kids with a sweet tooth may become dependent upon other people to pour out the praise, rather than learning to fill their cup of self-worth.
Instead, praise specifically: “I love the way you think of others first!”
Watch out for the lie.
Saying, “You drew the most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen!” may sound like a loving and enthusiastic compliment, but if you don’t mean it, it’s essentially a lie. And even “little white lies” breed mistrust in relationships, which can have a long-term negative impact on a child’s spiritual development. A child who soars in a balloon bloated with praise will inevitably face the razor of reality.
Instead, praise truthfully: “I can see that you worked really hard on your drawing of Jesus, Alonzo.”
Be wary of rewarding good behavior.
When children get rewards for behavior they already willingly perform, they learn to expect payment for performance. And when the rewards lose their appeal, the behavior dwindles along with the appeal. So don’t give out peppermints when kids have been respectful during class or stickers when they share a toy.
Instead, encourage standards of behavior: “Thank you, Kailee, for taking turns with Chenice.”
Think twice before sheltering or overprotecting.
It’s our responsibility to ensure kids’ safety, and we must intervene when any child faces significant danger. But when we consistently prevent children from taking age-appropriate risks or handling social situations for themselves, we actually rob them of golden opportunities to learn and grow.
Instead, allow kids to take appropriate risks and solve social problems on their own, stepping in only when they genuinely need help.
7 Steps for Spiritual Growth Gone Right
Here’s how to create genuine, empowering relationships that help children sense their infinite worth in Jesus’ eyes–as reflected by you.
1. Respect children as you do adults, setting appropriate limits.
Communicate to children that they’re worthy by speaking to them in the same tone you use with their parents. Speak to them at eye-level, be polite, and honor their space. Set age-appropriate rules. Children feel safest when they have clearly defined boundaries (“We give hugs, not hits.” “Raise your hand when you want to talk.”)
When disciplining inappropriate behavior, disapprove of the behavior–not the child. To a concrete-thinking child, “Good girls don’t lie” might be interpreted as “I’m not good because I lied.” An empowering alternative would be to say, “Shauna, I know you’re a very caring and honest person, but you just made a bad choice and told a lie. What can you do to help Emily forgive you?”
2. Catch children behaving well, and call attention to what they’re doing.
Be objective, specific, and genuine. Children feel valued when someone simply takes interest in them; therefore, praise isn’t always necessary: “I noticed you shared your new truck with Pedro today” or “I caught you using your manners. That was very respectful!”
3. Teach children to give and receive compliments.
Genuine compliments from peers are priceless and contagious. They can also be uncomfortable if a child isn’t accustomed to hearing them. So teach Sara that when Hector says her outfit is pretty, he’s trying to honor her. Explain that by responding with a simple “Thank you,” Sara builds up Hector with respect and gratitude.
4. Position children for success.
Create tasks that are achievable yet challenging for kids. Appoint Wiggly Wyatt as the line leader so he can be the first to stand and walk to the door. Shy Shonda can make an important contribution to class by setting the table for snack while the others wash hands. Gradually encourage kids to try increasingly challenging tasks.
5. Empower spiritual growth in kids by giving them appropriate choices.
Make choices fun. For example, “Would you like to read this week’s Bible verse or sing it?” or “Berta, would you like to lead worship or closing prayer today?” Help children feel important by brainstorming solutions to classroom challenges: “What can each of us do to make a new child feel welcome?”
6. Teach children to serve one another in love.
Want to equip kids with an indestructible, independently rechargeable self-worth mega boost? Create opportunities for them to share their God-given talents with someone in need; then step back and watch Jesus’ power work within them.
I was touched by a heart-warming example of this at vacation Bible school. I watched as a second-grader compassionately poured two handfuls of coins and dollars into the Mexico Missions Box. “This is for Juan and his family,” he softly declared, and a smile overtook his face as tears welled in his eyes. He knew he was making a difference in the life of an impoverished family he’d never even met. I instantly wanted to rush over and tell him how noble a deed he’d done, but that was totally unnecessary. Knowing he’d “been Jesus” to someone else was a greater reward than anyone could’ve offered.
7. Pray with each child.
Thank God for creating and loving children just the way they are. Thank God for knowing when they’ve done well, even when others don’t notice it. Teach them to pray for God’s help when they need it. Teach them to listen for God’s encouraging response.
• • •
Moments after the wayward soccer goal, God faithfully answered Jacob’s prayer for help. Mom and Dad rallied around their defeated son at the bench. They wrapped him in arms of empathy, cheered his impressive dribbling and determination, and reminded him how valuable he was to the team. Just then, a teammate’s humble whisper joined the party, “Hey, Jacob, it’s okay. I did the same thing once, too.” Feeling a bit wiser and braver than before, Jacob climbed the ladder of grace and trotted onto the open field once again.
Pray All the Way
“Pray up” before heading into the classroom.
My favorite prayer sounds something like this: “God, as I prepare to spend another hour with the children you’ve entrusted to my care, I ask for your strength, guidance, and grace. Help me to see each precious child through your admiring eyes, and help my words and actions be a reflection of your love.”
Davi-Ann Nabors is a child and family counselor, a speaker, and parent coach in Battle Ground, Washington.
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