My friends Laura and Mamitte (not their real names) were having coffee at Mamitte’s apartment while their 7-year-old boys and a neighbor boy played in the courtyard. Mamitte walked out to check on them and discovered that they had smashed a bunch of snails. She said to them, “Oh, I am so saddened by this,” and returned to the apartment to figure out, along with Laura, what to do about it.
What’s really important, they decided, is the greater lesson of how we treat creatures.
When both women went outside, the boys began to play “he said/she said” about who actually smashed and who watched. But Mamitte asked them if they were willing to gather the snails’ bodies and put them to rest in God’s earth. The boys said they were willing to participate.
They gathered the snails’ bodies.
As they did, they had time to process and look at what they had actually done. They then put the snails in the specified resting place.
Mamitte asked them if they wanted to say something.
- Ethan said, “We ask God to forgive us for how we treated the snails.”
- Raul said, “And forgive me for not protecting them.”
- Logan sang a little song and said, “And that God would give them a home and love them in heaven.”
Then they all said Amen.
The moms decided to take it one step further.
Because the snails had been smashed all over a long bench in this courtyard where everyone sits, Mamitte got out rags and a cleaning solution to disinfect the bench and brought those out to the boys.
As they sat on the ground, scrubbing different parts of the bench, they bounced ideas back and forth to each other. It was all Mamitte and Laura could do to keep their mouths shut (a very important parenting skill).
The boys figure it all out on their own.
- One says, “Gosh, I don’t want to be doing all this WORK right now. This is so much WORK and we could be playing.”
- Another says, “Well, that’s what happens when we make bad choices.”
- And as they’re going back and forth, the third boy says, “I. will. never. do. this. again.”
Those are the huge connections that we want–
- They are experiencing the consequences of their actions.
- The heart issue, the core of it, is that we shouldn’t treat other beings like that.
The two moms celebrated silently, standing behind the boys so they couldn’t see.
When they returned to their coffee cups in the apartment, they asked each other, “How did we do that—It worked so effectively?!”
Here’s what they came up with:
- Our parenting was not reactive. Laura said, “My first instinct had been to take my son, rip him out of the courtyard, put him in the car and say, ‘Well, if you’re going to act that way over here, we can’t be over here.'”
- We asked if they would be willing. Mamitte said to Laura, “When you approached them and stopped the bickering, you asked if they would be willing to gather the snails’ bodies. I was shocked, thinking, “I can’t believe she’s asking them because they aren’t going to do it.” And they all chose it! It wasn’t anything forced.
- We found a teachable moment. Natural consequences are often the teachable moments. We guided them, we didn’t punish. We invited them to take responsibility to care for the snails’ bodies.
Tweetable: See how three boys increase in respect for all creatures at a memorial service for snails. Click to Tweet
Since 1991 I have sat with children in support groups as they process circumstances that upset them. Sometimes an older child will ask me why God didn’t stop it or why God lets tragedies happen. Here are two principles I use to guide these conversations.
Principle #1: Find out why they are asking.
From Dr. Becky Bailey I learn to discover first whether the child wants information or understanding. I can find a clue by listening to their tone of voice–the force behind their question. I watch their facial expression and reflect back what I see. I will ask what situation they are thinking of.
Are they asking because evil and suffering have touched them personally and often? Have they been treated cruelly by others? They are more likely asking for emotional support and a way out of the hurtful experience right now in their own life circumstances.
Are they asking because they have they seen and heard about evil and suffering around them: violence, poverty, abuse, natural disasters and more? When looking at it globally, their interest may tend toward information about what God’s character is really like. Is this the kind of being that God is?
Principle #2: Then….Respond.
Some responses are obvious. For example, an incident may need to be reported. Or a child may need empathy or a chance to express their feelings.
If they are asking for information about the nature of God’s involvement in pain and suffering, you could say that nobody really knows for sure. But what are some things you found to be true as you have wrestled with this question for yourself? Use those as talking points–seeds of discussion that give children space to work it out in their own words. Here are mine:
- God wants a good life for humanity.God intends to bless us and not to hurt us.
- God created the possibility that people could choose to make a different choice than what he intends.
- People, not God, hurt people. God could make people stop–if he wanted to control people’s lives–but he gives us freedom and the right to do good or bad, feel hate or love.
- God allows nature to take its course and that includes extreme weather and all kinds of disease.
- Suffering people often say that they see God’s involvement after a tragedy though the hands, feet and voice of the people who bring relief and order into the situation.
- In our relationship with God we work alongside him when we involve ourselves in the response to pain and suffering in the world.
Tweetable: When children ask why bad things happen, the child-sized ideas here may shed light on a very tough issue. Click to Tweet
The English class assignment was to write a five-paragraph essay about a personal hero. Adrian’s* hero is his grandmother–a friend of mine–who shared the essay. Notice how Adrian’s every point flows from his grandmother’s human spirit… and not a single point flows from material possessions.
“My grandmother will always be my personal hero and she has a lot more super powers than you could imagine.”
Superpower #1 Acts of courage
A hero is not just somebody who saves lives or flies. It is someone who makes a difference with acts of courage, love and positive influence. My grandmother will always be my personal hero because she never gives up on me and always tries to be a positive role model.
Superpower #2 Directs me towards a great future
Last week she told me “what you do today will decide what you do tomorrow.” At first I did not understand what she meant, but she explained it to me in a way I could understand it better. She said if I don’t study this week I will not be ready for the test at the end of the week. That made a lot more sense and I told her I hadn’t thought about that before. She just smiled and I know she only wants me to give thought and peace of mind to everything in my life.
Superpower #3 Never gives up on me
For example, over the past few years I have probably said or done something hurtful to my grandmother that I didn’t mean, but she never quit on me. She only encouraged me to make better decisions.
Sometimes I wanted her to quit on me because I quit on myself and she never did. I can honestly say that without my grandmother I would not be where I am today. She has pushed me in many ways to become a more responsible and respectful person and I am lucky to have her in my life.
Superpower #4 Works on her flaws
When I told her I was going to write an essay about her she blushed and said, “I don’t think of myself as a hero.” This statement only made me want to write the essay more because a hero is humble.
However my Grandma is human and has flaws, but in those flaws is her personality and like a hero she works on those flaws to become stronger and wiser.
*not his real name
Tweetable: No mention of possessions, fame or fortune in this boy’s essay about his personal hero–his grandmother. Click to tweet
One dad has been laying a spiritual foundation for his children based upon the truth about their higher power, as they understand it–God knows you, loves you and cares about you.
This dad shares his approach to helping his children know that they are known by God and loved by God. Notice how precisely his actions display the character of their higher power, combining emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence.
I make time when my kids want to discuss or emote on any part of their life.
I am creating space to be with them in what they are feeling and thinking. They can express what they’re experiencing and I don’t correct them. Sometimes I have to let go of what I think their outcome should be. Yet I am there to help them navigate out.
However, I also come to them when I am frustrated.
I’ve said out loud that it is hard for me not to get angry or that I’m probably not thinking clearly right now. Without burdening them with inappropriate adult details, I want to show them my emotional state, and how they can recognize their emotional state in what I am saying about mine.
In our interactions, I hope that my children are experiencing what they believe is true about their higher power:
There is a safety in coming to me with anything they feel or think. They won’t be corrected in how they feel. Because I make time and space to listen, I know my children, and I accept the fact that we have our differences, all the time loving and providing for them.
I am proud of their freedom to disagree intensely with people, be in direct conflict with people, but not feel personal offense and intense relational separation from them. They have the comfort of knowing that they are loved by God and us and they can love and respect those with whom they disagree.
How willing are you to share your internal world–including your upsets–with the children in your life?
Tweetable: Can adults display the character or nature of a child’s higher power? This dad gives it a try. Click to Tweet