How can we communicate effectively with the youngsters in our care?
If our approach to children is to be wise and sensitive, we need to understand something about how kids “tick”.
1. Be aware of the culture of children
If you live near children, or have them in your family, then we can see something of the activities they enjoy and how they relate to each other. We are all aware that through TV, the internet, computer games, comics, movies, toys, etc., children are being bombarded with anti-Christian material and anti-biblical values.
Knowing this will give us sensitivity to their life-style, compassion for them in their need, and a passion to see them released into the fullness of the life that Christ offers.
Elsewhere we have posted about an excellent site which gives insight into current media that kids are engaging with, and a Christian perspective on it.
2. Listen to children.
• Note the language they use
We can incorporate their expressions into our stories, where appropriate. This doesn’t mean trying to be someone we are not, by faking their slang. But it may be helpful to use a phrase or word they understand, or refer to a situation or scenario they are familiar with, in order to help them understand the point being made.
• Be aware of changes in the meanings of words
The word “sick” has come to mean something really good. “Insane” or “dope” often describes something wonderful, “cool” or “awesome”.
It is useful to know the word young people are using in their own specialised way, so that you can avoid giving wrong impressions. Imagine what some kids might think when you say, “Peter’s mother-in-law was sick” or “King David acted as if he was insane” !!
All this may already be out of date by the time you read this! But if we keep our ears open and we’ll be aware of what is happening.
3. Encourage conversation
If we have opportunity to chat to youngsters – maybe in our own family or the family of friends or when they come to our meetings – then it is great if we give them the opportunity to talk about the things they enjoy. You might ask:
• “What do you like doing the most?
• “What is your favourite game?”
• “What do you like doing when you are not at school?”
But we should not pry into their home life.
Tactful questions will give an opportunity to learn about their hopes, fears and concerns. It will give insight into their world-view and their needs.
4. PrePRAY and Prepare your meetings
In order to relate well to children, we can ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in what to present in our meetings, and how to present it. Preparation is vital if the meetings are to flow smoothly with no awkward pauses during which the young people will lose attention.
5. Encourage the kids
All children, but particularly difficult ones, will respond well when you find something positive to say to them.
“It was a big help to me when you…”
“Thank you very much for…”
“I am grateful for you.”
We shouldn’t dilute this praise and encouragement by reminding them of their previous bad behaviour! ( NOT “Thanks for helping put the chairs away, Peter. That was so much better than when you scattered the worksheets all over the floor” !!!)
Be careful not to overlook the quieter, less demanding kids. They, too, will respond to encouragement.
6. Remember the names of the children
Kids will feel valued when we use their name, when greeting them, and at other times,too. This gives them a sense of self-worth and a bond with you.
Name badges were a help for us at the start of a camp, when over a hundred youngsters were there.
Of course, remembering all those names wasn’t so easy when they pranked us by swapping badges!! We all had a good laugh!
But even with that many new faces, it was amazing how the Lord helped us to remember so many of their names.
7. Be approachable
This can be encouraged by:
- Arriving in good time for the meeting and being well-prepared, so that the children can chat if they wish without us appearing ruffled or dismissive.
- Interacting with them while helping them with their bags, coats, and so on.
- Listening to their news, or concerns, however trivial they may seem.
Kids really appreciate it when we make time to talk with them, other than during the lesson or meeting.
This approachability is especially important and helpful for the very young, or children with learning difficulties, but all kids value an adult giving them a listening ear.
8. Think before you speak
We are able to develop a good relationship with youngsters only as we communicate effectively with them. How will they interpret what we are saying?
• Explain old-fashioned or hard words
For example, redemption, salvation, resurrection. Even small words can be old-fashioned and unfamiliar to children – even words like sin and faith. It doesn’t mean that we should never use them, but they do need to be explained!
• Avoid evangelical jargon
Jargon is the use of words which mean one thing in the usual every-day context and something completely different in the church context.
In evangelical circles jargon is common, because the Bible uses some common words in a specialised Christian sense.
For example “saved” to a child might suggest saved money, or maybe someone saved from disaster. But with no Bible background they will not know what disaster they are to be saved from.
We can communicate more clearly if we add the words which will clarify an expression. We can speak, for instance, of being saved from the place of punishment.
More than one child has been afraid to “ask Jesus into their heart” because they thought it would mean a scary medical operation!
It is our responsibility to ensure that the children have fully understood what we have said to them!
• Avoid repetitive phrases
E.g. “You know …”, “and then”, “boys and girls …”
We will not be relating effectively or communicating Bible truth if the class are counting how many times we say our repetitive phrase!
9. Be aware of non-verbal communication
We must make sure that we do not contradict what we are saying by the non-verbal signals we are giving.
Once, a child was talking to her mother who was doing a chore.
“Listen to me mummy,” said the little girl.
“But I am listening,” replied the mother as she carried on with her task.
The child took her mother’s face in her hands and turned it towards her. She then said: “Mummy, listen to me with your face.”
Children can pick up signals from our body language.
• Facial expressions
We need good eye contact with the children (that means avoiding talking to the visual aid, or the corner of the ceiling!)
A pleasant expression also helps. A frown or blank look can convey a negative attitude, even if you do not intend it. Appearing to be Mr. Grumpy will not endear us to the kids!
Having said that, we don’t need to be unnaturally jolly all the time; there are moments when solemnity is called for.
• Gestures and posture
It isn’t always easy, but if we can be relaxed, natural and mobile we will communicate better. A rigid and inflexible posture will not help our relationship with the children.
We can more effectively engage the group in a story, for example, by acting out the gestures and movements of the characters as we tell the story. Our facial expressions can also add realism.
Imagine the lesson of the disciples in the boat in the storm – crouching, clinging to the boat, eyes wide with fear, etc.
Remember, too, that folding our arms across our chest can sometimes create a barrier between us and our listeners. It is a subtle thing, but folded arms can distance us from our class, or give the impression that we are casual about what we are teaching. As we said above, more animation and mobility will help (though not being frenetic!)
• Tone of voice
It is best if we can be:
– Pleasant, not gruff, loud or superior.
– Natural in intonation, not babyish or patronising.
– Natural in pitch, not squeaky or monotonous.
– Clear, not rushed or slurred.
Above all, we can trust God to help us. He can enable us to put into action the points listed above. But most of all, as we trust him, he can give us a compassion for each and every young person we meet, and empower us to relate to them as Jesus would.