Children say the cutest things. I have a long list of memorable questions and statements which children have made during my ministry career. Most are hilarious. Others, quite sad. Still others probe the depths of Christian spirituality, often retaining characteristics of humor and grief. All of them reveal the innocence of childhood in a way no Hollywood script writer can convey.
Capturing these moments requires an intentional posture of attentiveness. That is, we must listen. We must not only listen to their words, but also observe the facial expressions, postures, and gestures which children employ while expressing themselves. This is no small task. To them, we are giants. To us, they may seem so very small. By degrees of course, since some older children can be quite tall for their age.
I suggest adding five basic tools to your relational portfolio. These tools or behaviors should aid you greatly in learning to attend to children in ways that foster trust and clear communication. I share them based on my own experience.
1. Learn each child’s name.
This includes learning to say it and spell it correctly. Speak it with respect. For example, in group settings I will typically speak to children by using Mr. followed by their first name for boys, and Miss, followed by their first name for girls. So, if Tony Kummer, owner of this site, was still a young child and he attended one of my kid’s church or Sunday school gatherings, I would refer to him as Mr. Tony. I do this for each child respectfully, not in a condescending way. The children seem to understand this. Whether or not you choose to do this, I still urge you to speak their names with the dignity each child deserves.
2. Get down to the eye-level of the child.
If you only speak to a child while standing up, they will always have to crane their necks to make eye contact. Sit down with them. Kneel before them on one or two knees. Get on the floor with them. Make eye contact as close to their level as possible. This speaks volumes. It should be a required component to any children’s ministry training.
3. Stop talking and start listening.
A large majority of children’s ministry workers seem to think it is their job to instruct children by talking for most of the time they are with their students. Why is that? Why not set the stage for what the children are to learn, but then listen, interacting based on where children are actually at in their learning and development? So, when you listen, actually listen. Concentrate. Don’t always try to develop a response while a child is speaking. Let their words, along with their nonverbal clues, speak for them. Your responses to them will be far more relevant and potent if you have heard their words, and quite possibly, their hearts.
4. Speak normally with appropriate vocabulary.
When you must talk, don’t use baby talk with your preschoolers. Likewise, don’t use sing-song or silly talk with your older elementary children. They will think you are ridiculous, especially if they perceive you are quite serious. There is nothing wrong with having fun with kids, older or younger, but they (especially older children) will not tolerate behavior which seems to assume they are much younger than they actually are. They may not mock you, or tie you up to be their next piñata (not that it isn’t a good idea to keep all duct tape, rope, and blunt instruments out of their reach), but you can be sure they will check out.
5. Be sincerely loving.
In your manner of speech, your behavior, and your attitude. Children will remember this above everything else you say or do. Just like they can spot a fake, they can also perceive the real deal. When they have their own children or grandchildren, that is what will cause them to remember your name and to tell their offspring of your love for Jesus and them.