We children’s ministers must partner with parents in the era of anything goes.
Our children are growing up in a tumultuous and rapidly changing world, and we need to be prepared to help them and their parents navigate it. In a culture where nearly anything goes, our children don’t yet have the tools to discern what’s okay and what’s not—or to deal with the backlash from their peer groups when they go against the grain. Here’s what you need to know about kid culture today and how to minister through it.
Jessica was 12, and I knew she was having trouble with girls at her school. I picked her up after school one day for smoothies and girl talk. As Jessica hopped into the car, she blurted out, “Do we have to wait to get to the restaurant to talk or can I just start?” I wasn’t prepared for what came out of her mouth next.
“We’ve been learning about sex at school and now that’s all the girls in my class have been talking about. They said that I did sex stuff with a boy in my class, and my mom found out about it.” I sat there, stunned, trying to wrap my head around what she was saying and struggling to find the right words—any words, for that matter.
She explained that one girl had an older sister who’d shared more details with her than what the school had covered. The girls in Jessica’s class had found out about sex from older siblings, magazines, and the media. And without proper education and context, they didn’t understand what they were hearing and had a lot wrong. Pretty soon, all the girls were talking about sex and anyone who didn’t go along was subject to nasty rumors. We spent the rest of our time talking about purity and standing up for what’s right, even when it’s unpopular. That day was a wake-up call for me.
Wading Into Kid Culture
Our current culture is the combination of our human knowledge, beliefs, and behavior that we’ve passed on to our children. Simply put, culture is the characteristics of a group of people. Spend five minutes with today’s children and it’s clear their culture is radically unique. They speak their own language, have their own art forms, select their own media, live a technologically rich existence, and even have their own rituals and beliefs.
Despite the fact that kid culture today is so different from that of previous generations, much of it is heavily influenced by adults. Adults decide what their children learn and what traditions and beliefs we pass on to them. Adults select the next big fad or toy through product placement and celebrity endorsements. As media influence and technology expand, the result is more adult themes slipping into kid culture, creating a manufactured environment that prematurely ages up kids.
Kids and Observational Learning
According to psychologist Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, we learn behavior from the environment around us through the process of observational learning. Children pay attention to someone, typically a person they can identify with or who has a quality they’d like to possess. Then a child begins to imitate the observed behaviors, values, beliefs, and attitudes of that person—regardless of whether they mesh with what the child has been taught in the home or at church.
This imitation is strengthened through reinforcement, which we may all unwittingly participate in. As a society, we often don’t realize we’re reinforcing poor behavior choices by simply calling attention to them. When celebrities garner media attention for their bad behavior, we’re rewarding them for the behavior. With social media and the Internet, the attention spreads exponentially and overnight. Clicks equal dollars, which equal further media coverage, which equals expanded influence and recognition. Social learning theory says this collective reaction to poor public behavior gives kids observing it permission to imitate the behavior. Ironically, the same can be said when inappropriate behavior goes unpunished because it gives kids a license to repeat the same behavior.
Children imitate the influencers they identify with. And unfortunately, much of our culture isn’t influenced by biblical standards. Rather, it’s manipulated by what feels good or what benefits the individual. Children spend about one hour per week at church. Simple statistics show us that the church isn’t the major influence on children we would like it to be. But we can leverage and maximize our impact by partnering with other key influencers in children’s lives to speak into their culture.
Parents have power.
One of the most important things we can do is recognize that parents are the primary influencers on a child’s life and faith. It’s our job to partner with and support parents by providing them with resources and opportunities to live out that God-given responsibility. Communication with parents is key to a successful partnership. There’s no doubt parents are still the primary influencers in a child’s life, but there are many tough issues facing families today. These issues can alter the influence parents have.
Children come from a variety of situations: single-parent families, blended families, or foster families. These variations can have a profound impact on children and the environment they’re growing up in. Consider that…
- One-third of all children in the United States now live in single-parent families.
- That number has increased by 13 percent since 2000, according to a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
- These changes to the family unit, as well as changes in our economy, have impacted the labor force. Married mothers in the workforce with children under age 3 increased to 60.3 percent in 2009, according to the U.S. Census report.
- In 2012, 70.5 percent of all mothers with children under 18 were in the workforce, and 68.7 percent of married mothers with children under 18 were in the workforce.
- For families with married couples, 57.5 percent had both parents in the workforce in 2012.
These numbers mean more children are in after-school programs, in daycare, with babysitters, or even home alone—which in turn means different sets of influencers in kids’ lives. It also means busier, often fractured, schedules that affect when kids attend church. For many children, attending church every other week is a consistent schedule.
Build relationships with kids.
According to Linda Ranson Jacobs, creator of Divorce Care for Kids (DC4K.org), many of our children arrive at church in a state of brokenness. The main thing they need aside from prayer is relationships. They need spiritually and emotionally healthy people who’ll take time to connect with them. Every child has a story, and we must listen and figure out how to bring Jesus into the story.
Ranson Jacobs encourages leaders to educate themselves and commit to sticking with kids. It can take years for a child to grieve and heal from brokenness in a family. Churches can run support programs, such as DivorceCare for Kids, or assign mentors to follow children through the years.
You can also find ways to foster healthy relationships among families. Children seem to have an easy time making friends, but a relationship won’t last if they don’t connect outside church. Offer opportunities for parents to connect with others who have children the same age or with similar interests. Inform parents when friendships form within your ministry so they can continue and expand those relationships.
Media and Technology Matters
Recently, I heard this generation of children referred to as the “We Generation.” According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children spend an average of seven hours per day using media. And when they’re multitasking, perhaps watching television while on a computer or portable gaming device, that number increases to eight hours per day. This isn’t just older children; 50 percent of kids use the Internet daily by age 5. And 60 percent of the best-selling education apps are geared toward preschool children.
While technology and media can provide entertaining ways for children to learn, they can also be cause for concern. By the time kids reach age 18, they’ll have witnessed 200,000 acts of TV violence, including 40,000 murders. They’ll also have viewed more than 2,000 hours of pornographic images. Studies show that kids who frequently watch sexual content are more likely to participate in sexual activities earlier than peers who don’t watch sexually explicit shows. And as younger children become desensitized, Hollywood and media look for ways to continue pushing boundaries to achieve the same reactions (and thus, sales).
The more media children are exposed to, the fewer hours of restful sleep they get and the worse their school performance is, according to studies by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Many children spend time absorbed in media rather than doing homework or sleeping, especially those with a television or computer in their bedroom. In a true hallmark of this generation, children as young as age 4 are being treated for media addiction. Studies also show that while overexposure to media may not be the cause of major issues, it can contribute to poor nutrition, unhealthy body image, eating disorders, aggressive behavior, fear and desensitization to violence, substance use and abuse, and risky sexual behavior.
Partner with parents to limit technology use.
Encourage parents to keep computers and televisions in common areas. Parents need to have access to children’s mobile devices and all passwords, as well. Preview media you use with kids and for church events, such as movies and music. Resources available that offer reviews from a Christian perspective include Focus on the Family’s website Pluggedin.com.
Research Christian media and alternatives to what the world is offering. Inform parents of your ministry’s favorite worship music or children’s books. Promote Christian artists or events that are coming to town. Some ministries even keep CDs and resources on hand for parents to purchase. Stay informed about popular media so you’re aware of what’s happening and what kids are talking about. This is important because parents often need guidance on how to talk through current issues with their children—and you can be a great resource if you’re knowledgeable about what’s out there and prepared with a relevant, faith-based response.
Find ways to fight media addiction, not contribute to it. Many churches have gaming systems for kids to play before and after services. Set boundaries for how long children can use these systems, and ensure they spend more time interacting with other children and adults than playing. Video clips can be great supplements to a lesson, but use them sparingly and alongside other teaching methods. Decide as a ministry whether you’ll allow children to use their phones and tablets for Bible reading or require them to leave devices at home or at the classroom door.
Peer Pressure and Sexuality
Peer pressure is a significant challenge for 24 percent of children under age 13, according to a recent study by The Barna Group. As children begin to socialize outside their homes, their perception and behavior is widely influenced by peers. And whoever’s influencing those peers can end up influencing your children.
Peer pressure certainly isn’t a new issue, but our children live in a world of constant comparison, competition, and risk on social media. They’re not only comparing themselves to celebrities but to their peers as well. The constant stream of photos and status updates are typically half-truths aimed at making the person posting appear better. Selfies dominate preteens’ Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts, heightening self-consciousness and body image issues and potentially exposing kids to other risks.
The excuse “everyone’s doing it” is more prevalent than ever, because sex truly is everywhere—in music, movies, advertisements, social media pages, the news, and on TV. And while studies over the past 10 years indicate that not all kids are engaging in sexual intercourse, they’re definitely talking about it and experimenting with other sexual activities, which can lead to misinformation, desensitization, and dangerous situations.
Partner with parents for sex education.
Our comfort levels aside, parents and children must be educated. It’s not wise to wait to talk to kids about sex, so encourage parents in your ministry to take the leap. Many times kids have already heard about sex from a friend or gotten “educated” by the media or online. Some experts recommend parents start early by using correct anatomical names and offering age-appropriate facts about human sexuality throughout a child’s life. Most advise against overloading a child with a single “birds-and-bees” talk. It’s an ongoing conversation that needs to happen throughout a child’s development.
After Jessica’s experience, our church changed the way we run our Purity Conference. Our youth group and children’s ministry partnered together to include children in 4th through 12th grades. We require parents to attend with their children, which increases communication at home.
When it comes to trumpeting personal freedoms, today’s culture is front and center. Consider how in just the past few years, the ways our culture has evolved—for instance, legalized marijuana and same-sex marriages. Media waves artificial role models in kids’ faces and elevates sex-tape stars to the status of royalty in mainstream media. Kids are faced with an endless barrage of someone else’s values—usually based on sales numbers. While our culture celebrates the individual, it’s easy for our kids to forget about the One who created us. We can teach our children that true freedom comes from Jesus.
As Paul states in Galatians 5:1, “So Christ has truly set us free.” We’re no longer bound by the law, but Paul also warns of using our freedom to indulge in sin. Jesus has to be the greatest influence in kids’ lives. In a world where anything goes, we can help kids understand that it’s only where Jesus goes that we follow.
School of Influence
Another key influencer on children is their school experience. We asked parents to discuss how their children’s schooling influences their kids.
“We’ve seen her pick up bad habits, but the authorities in the school are promoting Christian values. We set boundaries and are selective with friends. We need to remain the biggest influence in her life.” —current private school parent
“They’re exposed to very much the same things as publicly and privately educated children. However, what’s shared and the manner in which it’s exposed to them is on our terms. We don’t seek to shelter them; just time the exposure according to their maturity.” —current homeschool parent
“He’s exposed to more, but it has provided opportunities to talk about what the world accepts and God’s perspective. Oftentimes, he surprises me with great discernment. It’s helpful in teaching him God’s grace and the consequences of sin.” —current public school parent
“We homeschool, so we’re instilling our values and standards. We believe they will have a firmer foundation and support group to hopefully make good decisions. And when they make the bad ones, we’re there to help them through the situation. That’s the whole point of homeschooling—to be the ones to explain things to them so they understand how God views it and why.”—current homeschool parent
“They’re exposed to more Christianity and less worldly views, which is what we appreciate. It’s not perfect, but we try to talk about things as a family and we bring everything back to the Bible.”—current private school parent
Emily Snider is a children’s pastor and co-founder of Radical Obedience Ministries.
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