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
Sooner or later, every child sees trouble coming into life. Things go wrong. Even young children feel anger, disappointment, grief, pain and loss.
Older kids might not like the design of their body, the parents they got or didn’t get. They are surprised when they first learn that adults aren’t always fair or kind.
They are sad when the people who are supposed to keep them safe don’t do their job. They feel helpless when bad things happen or no one listens to them. Their anxiety level rises.
We cannot take away children’s uncomfortable feelings.
But we can reassure them that they are loved by their parents, family members, friends and very importantly—by God.
Guard against offering them false promises.
For example, when serious marital problems persist, avoid over-promising: “Your mom and I will work things out, and we’ll all be a family again.”
Likewise, we should be familiar with what God promises– and doesn’t promise– and stay true to this when we inform children about God. For instance, we can mislead children: “Say a prayer so that Grandpa will get well.” or “Stop doing that or God will punish you.”
Offer true promises backed up by God’s word and character.
I use several child-centered promises from the sacred writings of the Talmud and New Testament to reassure children in times of trouble. You can find others as well.
- God cares about you.
- God is love and all love comes from God.
- God is trustworthy.
- You will seek Me [God] and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.
- God understands everything you feel inside.
- I [God] am with you and will watch over you wherever you go.
Tweetable: Be accurate about what God promises people and avoid misleading children. Six true promises here. Click to Tweet
At any given age children experience normal fears and anxieties. If a family becomes concerned about a child’s unusually high level of anxiety, plenty of psychological resources exist. But there is an additional, important resource to be found in anchoring children at their core—in their spirit.
We all need a place to take our troubles and fears.
For centuries the Bible has been a reliable source of wisdom and offers a powerful picture of what God is like. In one of it’s most meaningful, familiar passages, the 23rd Psalm, a fearful young man writes his prayer:
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
And much later in the book: “Give all your worries and cares to God, for God cares about you.”
Laura Turner states, “The admonition not to fear is the most frequently repeated instruction in the Bible.”
What my parents did
At a very young age, my parents gave me the following words, recorded in Genesis, spoken by God to Jacob: “I am with you and will keep you in all places.” They explained that nothing could separate me from the love of God, even when harm came to me.
“People have choices,” they said, “and some people hurt others, but when bad things happen to you, God is right there with you. God understands, and you will never be alone.”
Time and time again, these words–God is with me and will keep me in all places–comforted, reassured and built my sense of security not dependent upon my circumstances.
Security–a most valuable gift
Through the dangers, disappointments and losses of my life, God remains a steady presence in the depths of my spirit. I speak of this to the children I love so that they can develop a sense of security rooted in the presence of God and of people who love them.
Note: Bible quotes are Psalm 23:4, Genesis 28:15, 1 Peter 5:7
Tweetable: How my parents instilled a sense of security deep in my spirit that continues to this day. Click to Tweet
Phil Jackson, former NBA player and current general manager of the New York Knicks wrote: “To my father, there were certain mysteries you could only understand with the heart, and intellectualizing about them was a waste of time. He accepted God on faith and lived his life accordingly. This was an important [childhood] lesson for me.”
While there’s trouble and suffering in the universe, it is friendly…
…and we can see evidence of God’s presence countless times every day.
If you want to foster a a child’s sense of security, consider sharing this perspective: God’s intention is for all human beings to live in community with God and then with each another. Our human frailties, not God’s, increase the selfishness and suffering in the world. God is trustworthy.
Help children identify sightings of God’s care
1. The rainbow
On the very day I signed divorce papers, I saw a rainbow in the clearing skies above our condominium (a rare occurrence in Southern California). With my kids in the back seat, I pointed it out. One of my sons said, “Dad, God is near us and we are going to be okay.”
2. God’s “hand” on my face
One mother told her children how her father would tuck her into bed at night and place his hand on her face, soothing her to sleep. She continued, “Now when I can’t get to sleep, I pray and ask God to lay his fatherly hand on my face, and I am able to sleep.”
3. A kind stranger
While shopping with her children, Heather made it to the check-out a bit frazzled. Back at the car her kids piled in, every grocery bag loaded, she slammed the door shut–when she realized she left her wallet in the store. She got out and started unbuckling her children when she saw a man running over to her:
“The cashier let me run this out to you,” he explained. During the ride home, she and her children talked about how the man left his own grocery cart and delayed his day to show kindness to people he didn’t even know. And how they could see God in that man’s actions.
Have fun hunting for sightings of God’s activity with children, in–
- People’s kindness to strangers
- Unexplained events
Tweetable: Sharing God’s intention for the universe may foster a child’s sense of security. And what is that? Click to Tweet
Winnie and her daughter Marissa were watching a nature special together. Winnie noticed a mother eagle feeding, protecting and sheltering her young. This was the picture Winnie had been looking for to help her communicate words of value to her 3-year-old.
Marissa had been a good big sister after her brother was born, running to get a diaper for Winnie or asking to hold the baby. Marissa’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed. Winnie found a small plush toy eagle at a toy store and waited for a quiet time to talk with Marissa. “Do you remember that TV program about the eagles?” she asked Marissa.
Instantly her daughter recalled many details. “Well, honey, I want you to know that you remind me of that mommy eagle. You’ve helped take such good care of your little brother and I want you to know I am proud of you.” For days, Marissa did not let that eagle out of her arms.
By using an object familiar to Marissa to praise her, Winnie communicated much more than a simple compliment. She gave her daughter an image of one way she was so valuable to her mother.*
Communicating a child’s value can be difficult. Familiar objects help.
Use everyday objects and be clear about the meaning of the object.
- My life with you is like waking up to my birthday every day. You are like the best gift I could ever have.
- You’re like that smiley-face sticker. Your happy spirit brightens my day.
- When you played so hard knowing your team was losing, you reminded me of Grandpa. He never gave up. He’d be proud of you, and I am too.
- You’re just like a beaver. No matter how many times his home is wiped out, he rebuilds again. He always repairs and rebuilds.
*The concept of the blessing, Winnie’s story, and some of the ideas for using everyday objects are taken from John Trent’s book The Blessing.
Tweetable: Communicating a child’s value can be difficult. Using familiar objects to picture it can help. Click to Tweet