How we talk to kids matters

Conversation | Karen Mitchell Lambert | 23rd January 2021

When the kids are running around the Church being crazy and having a great time we can think how we talk to them doesn’t really matter, but it does.

Those quick unthinking words are like loud speaker to their souls. So what are we saying?

A kid I know very closely has ADHD. They can’t control their energy and struggle to concentrate even when they are on medication. They are a child with a beautiful soul; one who is generous and compassionate and sticks up for the underdog with a passion and vigour beyond most people’s courage.

They have been part of a couple of different worshipping communities, all had a significant collection of elderly people in them. The first had fairly strict expectations on themselves and everyone else. They looked on this child with disappointment and were regularly getting angry at them because “they should know better”. As time went on, they got less happy to go to church because it didn’t matter how hard they tried, they were never going to be good enough. But this child has a hidden disability, to look at them you can’t see it, but it is still there.

In the next church they went to there were a number of kids who were obviously differently-abled. The kids were free to climb and help pray with the minister, different people in the church would pick up the crawling babies, keeping them safe. This child I knew who also struggled with reading and writing was encouraged to draw instead, even as they got older. There was no shame just love and acceptance.

I have just read a book by Brene Brown who is a researcher in guilt and shame, she talks about the difference between guilt and shame.

Everyone makes mistakes and feels guilty about things. Kids need to be reminded that they might be doing something dangerous. It is how we tell them that matters. Do we suggest that they could run somewhere else or give them good options that encourage them instead?

Shame is when we use those mistakes as a direct reflection on the nature of who people are. Instead of saying “What you are doing there is pretty gross and you are making a bit of a mess how about we clean it up together,” we tend to say “You are really gross and how dare you make this mess in my place / our (not yours) church, clean it up.”

It is only a couple of words different but the intent makes all the difference. It moves it from condemning the person, to dealing with the issue at hand together.

I can’t tell you how powerfully it shows the love of God and gives our children a sense of belonging.

If we look at how Jesus spoke to people who were struggling, or how he spoke to children we see only love and compassion. The only ones he spoke harshly to were those he had a close relationship or those who were in authority who should have known better. Even when he was harsh to the Syrophoenician woman, he acknowledged when he was wrong.

What we say matters, this is not a new concept, prophets have been challenging us for generations.

Proverbs 15:1 A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.

15:4 Kind words heal and help; cutting words wound and maim.

So next time one of the kids at church is doing something that is annoying you – remember the gift they are, that God has given to your community. Take a deep breath, be honest about your own fears and help them find a new way to use that amazing energy!

It might take a couple of times to try and find new words to talk with them and feel really awkward at first but it will change their world (and yours too)!



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Karen Mitchell-Lambert is ordained in the ministry of Deacon and is the team leader of PULSE.