An acquaintance of mine, a preschool teacher, describes a time when she saw God’s heart reflected in a child’s actions.
“One of the children in my class became upset and started to cry. Her classmate, Miguel, immediately stopped what he was doing, grabbed a tissue and literally wiped her eyes. He then sat next to her and comforted her. Miguel is filled with a deep sense of compassion and justice. I praised Miguel for that compassion and for caring for his friend.”
1) See experiences through the child’s eyes.
Miguel’s empathy reflected God’s heart toward his friend. He had understanding and insight into his friend’s thoughts and feelings. He took action to comfort her.
Empathy is not an easy skill to use, especially for those who were raised to minimize feelings, or skip over feelings and go right to changing or fixing them. When we practice empathy we communicate to children that we care.
2) Respond with empathy to reflect God’s heart of love toward children:
- That hurts, doesn’t it?
- I’m so sorry.
- Good for you! You did it!
- I remember feeling that way when I was a child–it’s exciting, isn’t it?
- It’s scary to feel all alone.
3) Support the child’s bond with God and God’s bond with the child.
Obviously bonding requires presence. Mere information about someone does not make a strong bond. We reflect God’s heart toward children when we support God’s bond with the child. This is difficult because we’re dealing with a Higher Power who is invisible. But when you are with the child, it is also easy to find God’s presence.
- Look for kind acts and loving gestures wherever you go. Why? Because that’s where God is making an appearance. Develop a family habit to point out the good, not the stupid or rude.
- Notice and verbalize signs of God’s love: in nature, in movies, music, children’s literature, in happy surprises.
- Focus on God’s nurturing, comforting, gentle presence in difficult times and give God the benefit of the doubt.
Tweetable: Understand & support a child’s bond with God even when you don’t have one, or don’t have the same kind. Click to Tweet
Our foster daughter Angie had the most sympathy of any person I’ve ever known. At age 14, her spontaneous, heartfelt expressions of sadness for someone else’s misfortune far surpassed my own.
Angie and I had occasion to drive through some hardscrabble neighborhoods in Los Angeles County. From time to time we would see a man lying on the sidewalk and she would say out loud with great feeling, “Oh! Poor thing!”
Angie’s sympathy moved her to pray for hurting people.
Sometimes I’d ask her, “What is your prayer for this person?” Other times, Angie would say, “We should pray for that man,” and say a short prayer out loud (integrated right into our conversation) about her hope that he finds food today or a better place to sleep.
Prayer fosters a sense of security.
In his book Love in a Fearful Land, Henri Nouwen writes, “Prayer is the way to both the heart of God and the heart of the world.” Prayer is a word that describes a relationship.
Praise children for being willing to pray. They will sometimes pray things that you know are unrealistic or inappropriate. It is up to us to teach them a different way so that they gain trust in God’s goodness and sidestep the disillusionment (which sometimes lasts a lifetime) that God didn’t answer the prayer — God doesn’t care — God doesn’t even exist.
Prayer helps a child be calmer.
Prayer can be one action children take when they feel sympathy for strangers. Perhaps they see something like a car accident firsthand or hear upsetting national or world news. When you allow them to make a loving and prayerful response, you are helping the child be calmer. And reflect back to the child his or her admirable intention that some good comes to the stranger(s).
Tweetable: Allowing kids to make a prayerful response to upsetting events helps them be calmer. Click to Tweet
For most young people, school and its related activities are the scene of almost all personal involvement with others. You might say that school is a community– the broader environment in which kids find themselves. They can not only have a good experience there, but they can take the initiative to make it a good experience for others.
3 ways students can facilitate positive change in their school community
- Approach and include students who are being excluded.
- Tell someone who’s bullying or using put-downs that it’s not cool; not something that’s okay here.
- Speak to a campus administrator if there’s word of a fight, or if someone has carried a weapon to school. (Rick Phillips)
As more than bystanders — students can see specific results.
A Sacramento-area high school administrator shares, “Two of our students engaged in a war of words on Twitter that led one to ponder suicide…. One of our… students intervened by supporting the victim, directing the attacker to stop, and getting help. The student is now getting support. This was a dangerous situation very possibly stopped because of some Safe School Ambassador [students] on our campus.” (Chris Smith in The Press-Democrat)
Care, speak up, right a wrong
Parents share some ideas here that worked for them when children came to them with community concerns.
- Preschool – When the child sees classmates in distress, encourage hugs or words of comfort. Let them know that they can pass along to others whatever empathetic gestures you’ve been making toward them.
- Early elementary – As you listen to the child’s concerns about an injustice or putdown directed at a classmate, first mirror back what you see and hear. Identify your child’s underlying emotion: “You seem angry.” And finally, move to brainstorming ideas for action: “If that happened to you, what would you want someone to do for you to comfort you?”
- Older elementary – Talk about the difference between speaking up to get help for a friend in distress and tattling to get someone in trouble. Keep asking for help until someone responds. And always tell me so I can support you.
Tweetable: Safe ways for students to become more than bystanders when their classmates are in distress. Click to Tweet
One consistently underrated motivator for kids is the moral or spiritual motivation. We’re trained to think kids won’t care about doing the right or courageous thing for its own sake. But what is almost every classic kids’ movie or book about? The classic clash between good and evil and being on the right side of the battle, even when it’s hard. There’s something intrinsically motivating about being good, brave or honorable.
Motivator: The self-sacrifices of 9/11
First responders, a group of airline passengers, and many more on 9/11 touched our global society through their internal motivations, their moral convictions driving their actions. The powerful drive to do the good and right thing was laid brick by brick in childhood. In a crisis moment the curtain was pulled back on their heart, soul, conscience (call it what you will) propelling them to a level of moral greatness the world recognized.
Motivator: A Little League coach adds another brick
Over this past season, I watched a Little League coach lead his team of 9-year-olds in giving affirmations to teammates in a post-game ritual. There goes another brick into the boys’ ethical foundation: the importance of seeing the good in others. By blending a kind of balance between their physical and moral growth, this coach makes a deposit that will bring a return for the rest of their lives.
Dimensions of the spiritual foundation
Authors Charles R. Ridley and Robert E.Logan identify dimensions that can become cornerstones in people’s spiritual foundations. Over the next several articles here we will offer conversation starters and activities that can be done on the run if you’d like to motivate kids to add some more bricks to the foundation of their internal moral motivation.
- Community transformation
- Authentic relationships
- Personal character development
- Generous living
- Sacrificial service
- Spiritual responsiveness
- Experiencing God
- How am I feeling challenged as I try to instill moral values in children?
- Which of my efforts has been working well and I want to continue?
- What isn’t working in my interactions with them about their motives?
- What do I have to offer by way of personal examples of my intrinsic motivations?
- Who else in our family’s circle of relationships demonstrates intrinsic motivations I respect? What am I doing to get the kids together with them?
Tweetable: Strive to balance physical, intellectual and spiritual development of children. Go here for ideas to solidify moral (spiritual) development. Click to Tweet
Has anyone ever asked you about your personal spiritual style? Has anyone ever offered to support you in exactly that area, the area of your strongest receptiveness for the divine? Or has it been your experience that most [people] are so focused on their own approach to God that they believe it is the right one, or at least the best one, for everyone else?
Researcher Christian Schwarz posed these questions as he explained why he considers his study identifying spiritual styles to be important in understanding how both adults and children seek and find God. In recent posts, we discussed Sensory, Rational and Bold Idealistic styles. Here we add another.
The Sharing Style: A child passes on the grace of God through service.
Note the statements that apply to children in your life to help identify whether they may possess a sharing style of spirituality.
- The child strongly senses God’s presence whenever they show grace and forgiveness to others.
- Often the child’s prayers are for people who aren’t experiencing love from other people and/or God.
- The child is drawn to service projects and other ways to share with others.
- The child notices and comments when people do random acts of kindness in everyday life.
- The child expresses a desire to respond to the hurts and needs of people.
- The child looks for ways to include everyone.
- You can see the child’s faith grow when he experiences God in his interactions with people.
Discovery questions for sharing children:
If you can identify four or more of the statements above you can probably recall several times when the child connected with God through sharing.
The following questions may be useful as you seek to strengthen the area of their strongest receptiveness for the divine.
- How did you experience God by giving?
- How did you see God in other people’s kind actions?
- What does this show you about God?
- How were you feeling when someone shared with you?
- How does that connect with who God is?
- When were you able to forgive someone who wronged you?
Coming up: The Enthusiastic style
Adapted from The 3 Colors of Your Spirituality, by Christian A. Schwarz.
Tweetable: A child’s spiritual style is important in understanding how they seek and find God. More here. Click to Tweet