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
These ideas for discussing the possibilities of such a relationship are written at a child’s vocabulary level. Adapt it as needed for a child’s unique situation.
Your connection with God starts with God.
From the beginning of your life, God provides a family for you, intending that you will learn what love, nurture and care are. As an infant you responded to God when you experienced delight in looking at your parents’ faces, feeling warm bath water on your skin or being cuddled.
God’s bond with you is ready for you to join in whenever you want to.
God has been preparing it all along. Your human spirit–inside of you–is where this relationship develops. Since God is spirit, God provided you with your human spirit so you would have the inner space to hold a relationship with God.
You have been responding to God, even when you did not recognize it.
When you see the night sky with countless stars and feel amazement at how big and wide it is, you are responding to God’s glory.
When you see someone’s talent expressed you are responding to God’s handiwork. When you feel love and kindness being shown to you, you are sensing God’s presence.
If you take time right now to think about it, you would remember many times you connected with God. Something special was going on but you did not recognize that it was because of God.
Connect more directly with God the same ways you connect with people.
Starting in early childhood and continuing through your whole life, you have plenty of things to go to God about. You have lots to talk about and question. These questions, conversations and encounters, along with the feelings they produce, form the foundation of a real relationship.
Think about the relationships in your life.
You go places together, hang out, laugh, play, work, eat, talk, argue. With God, you do many of the same things. God has feelings. God is delighted when you are having fun. God feels anger when people hurt each other and feels happy when you are generous. God feels disappointed when someone breaks a promise. God understands everything you feel inside. When you are upset, maybe crying, you can be sure that God is aware of every tear. When you are celebrating a special occasion, God’s heart is full of joy. God knows and loves everything about you.
Note: These traits of God are taken from the Bible’s stories.
Tweetable: What do you say when kids ask, “Can people actually make a connection with God?” Some good ideas here. Click to Tweet
Are you a teacher, dad, grandparent–someone who will coach children in their Mother’s Day messages and gifts? Here are some fresh ideas to get them started on their messages.
Young children may touch mom’s heart with their crayon-drawn cards….
….but older children can begin to venture outside the box of “Thanks for all you do for me” into specific actions mom does. Just two or three of them will communicate a deeper level of appreciation perhaps.
Older children and teens can begin to articulate specific qualities, character, personality traits and attitudes.
These creative sentences may spark children’s short messages affirming the spirit of their mother. I like these ideas offered by Keely Chace :
- You’re the glue that holds us together.
- I hope you know how much I admire the woman you are.
- You’ve taught me so much without saying a word.
- Your love has shaped me in lasting ways.
- You are the heart and soul of our family. I love you.
- For all you’ve gone through, all you are and all the love you share.
- You’re the best listener I could ever ask for.
- You don’t just give love, you are love. And I love you so much, too!
- There’s simply no one else like you. I feel so blessed.
- Creative, generous and fun–that’s you. [or whatever qualities fit her]
And for stepmom (or mother figure):
- Thank you for being such an important person in my life. You’re someone I can tell anything and ask anything.
- I wanted to recognize you on Mother’s Day for being such a caring and positive influence in my life.
- I look up to you more than you know.
- You’re an amazing women I admire, appreciate and love.
Tweetable: Creative ideas for Mother’s Day messages beyond “Thanks for all you do for me.” Click to Tweet
It was 8:50am. Jayeff sat in the passenger seat of my car as we crawled toward downtown Los Angeles on our way to teach another Life Skills class. A little daylight opened up in the fast lane and a luxury car jammed its way into the space, then zigzagged to cut in front of me, hoping to find another opening, propelling him to his destination more quickly.
Jayeff and I caught our breath at the reckless behavior. I remarked that he sure was in a big hurry. She said, “He must be late for work….” and I finished with, “…and he’s going to get fired if he’s late one more time!” She said, “He’s the sole provider for his family” and I continued, “I sure hope he makes it safely and on time!”
The skill we would be teaching, in a matter of minutes, was Positive Intent–the very skill we practiced in the car to keep our composure and manage self-control.
Are you a mind reader? Probably not.
I don’t know why that driver was in such a hurry, but since I was making up his intent, “Why in the world would I want to attribute an intent that results in nasty feelings for me? I can just as easily attribute positive intent to these situations and reap positive emotions.” (Dr. Becky Bailey)
Negative intent is ingrained in most of us.
Dr. Bailey writes, “The habit of attributing negative intent is so ingrained in most of us that it is difficult at times to recognize, much less reframe positively.”
I got to thinking: Have I practiced negative intent with God?
Most of us have formed an image of God. When we judged God’s nature, we harvested a bushel of emotions about this higher power. When we attribute negative intent to God, the emotions we experience toward God are equally negative.
Give God the benefit of the doubt
Seeing the best in God is the only perceptual frame that will enable us to connect with this supreme being, rather than projecting guilt, hurt and other negative feelings onto God. We can just as easily attribute positive intent to these situations and reap positive emotions.
Impress it upon the children
With positive intent we can transform the way a child’s experiences God. My parents did this for me, making it possible for me to form a deep, enduring connection with the one who loves us all.
Note: Becky Bailey’s lesson on the skill of Positive Intent inspired me to ponder its effect on human connections with God.
Tweetable: We try to give the benefit of the doubt to people. What would happen if we extended it to God? Click to Tweet
I met Tessa, 21, in a class I taught as part of her drug rehab. What she taught me confirms the benefit of spiritual roots beginning in childhood.
Tessa (not her real name) gave me permission to use this letter she wrote as part of her recovery. Notice how she writes about her drug use as a relationship that she could turn to for support, eventually replacing it with her relationship to her higher power.
My dearest friend,
I am writing you to inform you that we can no longer be in each other’s lives. I no longer need you.
At first I loved you because you helped me through some of the most difficult times in my life. You made me feel numb to my reality, like I could do anything. You gave me power. I felt invincible. But then I became dependent to you. I was the puppet and you were my master.
I thought that our relationship was okay for a long time because I was able to function like a normal person, living a double life. Until one day I lost all control of myself and allowed you to move completely into my life and take hold of the wheel that steers my future. I trusted you to get me through the road ahead.
But you deceived me. You drove me into a world of darkness, shame and guilt. You made me do things I would never do, but you were that voice inside my head that made me believe it was okay to break in to cars and houses, and to break the law. You made me a criminal. You no longer made me feel numb. Now all you did was cause me more and more pain, and because you became a huge part of me, I needed you like fish need water.
But now, today, I am strong enough to stand up for myself against you and say that I don’t need you in my life. That I am worthy to have a good life and that I can get through anything without you because I have a loving God. As long as I continue to walk by faith in Him, He will lead me on my path. He will be there to comfort me when life gets emotionally hard.
Tessa is now relying on her relationship with her higher power— God
— to help her when life becomes overwhelming. But consider this: What if she’d had that relationship all along? What if she had a sense of spirituality since childhood and a higher power who is willing to be known? Quite possibly she’d never have turned to heroin at all.
Why not do everything in our power to give children a chance to form some kind of relationship with God?
They can always abandon it later if they find they don’t need it. But if they do—God is there.
Tweetable: Strong spiritual roots in childhood may have spared this young woman from finding love in the wrong place. Click to Tweet
With two nieces on top-ranked college volleyball teams (Hawaii and UCLA) I sat in a lot of gyms watching serves and returns.
Psychologists sometimes use the term “serve and return parenting” to refer to face-to-face, back-and-forth interactions between caregivers and their babies. Science Journalist Paul Tough observes that these interactions create secure attachments and they motivate a child’s enthusiasm in practicing social interaction, speech and language.
But I also observe the same serve and return dynamics in the development of human spirituality, sparking growth in conscience and character.
Children experience the calm in the inner space of their human spirit that they need to incubate perseverance, tenacity, and the other significant character qualities. These character qualities then carry over into their everyday life.
From serve-and-return spirituality flows an ability to calm oneself– spiritual self-soothing, so to speak. This ability to calm oneself helps children persevere through problems and to begin seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning.
Take perseverance and tenacity, for example–
“In order for kids to have perseverance and tenacity in school later on, they need to start with self-regulatory abilities—the ability to calm themselves down, to focus on something for long periods of time, executive functions, as researchers sometimes call them,” explains Mr. Tough.
Parents know all too well that their child’s self-regulatory abilities, or lack of them, mimic their own. What do you do under stress? Are you easily distracted?
Besides modeling for them, we teach younger children through activities, and older children by listening and coaching. Parents contributed these examples below that have worked for their families. What’s working for you?
Activities to practice serve-and-return spirituality
Infant – age 3: Hold the child in your lap when you’re meditating or praying to show them the habit of sitting quietly and mimicking what you do, followed by smiling, talking, laughing.
Age 4-6: Your bedtime rituals establish a family culture of serve-and-return. Your face-to-face, back-and-forth communication carries a message of unity and belonging: “These are the books, songs, chants, or prayers this family uses at bedtime and no other family uses the exact same ones. We belong to each other.”
Age 7-12: Breakfast Club (can also be done in the car en route to school): Siblings (and adults) take turns going back-and-forth with each other for a short affirmation such as:
- I wish you well in your book report today.
- I saw you studying for your math test. You can relax because you are well-prepared.
- I know you can handle anything that happens today.
- Serve and return spirituality sparks growth in a child’s character and conscience. Click to Tweet
- It pays to turn more attention to developing childhood spirituality. Three simple activities here. Click to Tweet