Why We Don’t Have Children’s Church Anymore

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I’ve had a couple conversations with parents over the past weeks about children’s church and its demise. I’ve heard a a few different things. “It ended because we didn’t have volunteers.” “We stopped coming because we can’t have our children in worship.” “When are we going to offer that again? Having my children in worship is so hard.”

Parents of Young Children, I feel your pain. But I promise, I am not trying to torture you by asking you to bring your little ones into worship. And I am right there with you. I have three children. Two are still nursery age (a baby and a two-year old) but my six year old worships beside me for the whole service. We also attend church twice a Sunday – in the morning where I serve and in our home denomination, the Mennonite church, in the evening. In the evening all three of our children are in worship with us for most of the service. Our two little ones go to nursery only for the sermon. My six year old stays in both services the whole way through.

She is (God bless her) not easy. She doesn’t sit still and read a book. She is tired, squirmy, talks loudly, wanders, asks questions, spreads out her things, and distracts. I once took my daughter out the service to correct disobedience five different times. I’ve marched to the bathroom multiple times during every sermon I’ve ever heard. My husband and I have refereed fights. We’ve followed crawling babies around the sanctuary. We’ve created spaces to sleep, eat, and play. Every Sunday one of us sits in the nursery with our anxious toddler and “stranger danger” baby.

But ending Children’s Church was strategic. The reason we don’t have it anymore is because we know that going to all-church worship is the best indicator that our children will stick with their faith into adulthood. We aren’t making this up. Despite our intuition about engaging worship, relationships with peers, having something fun, none of this actually matches the data on what helps faith stick. The National Survey on Youth and Religion, which followed young teenagers up through adulthood, extensively detailing their lives and their faith, is where we learned this.

When I am wrestling a toddler to the ground or deciding at what decibel coloring is too loud I remember this:

The closest our research has come to that definitive silver bullet is this sticky finding: High school and college students who experience more intergenerational worship tend to have higher faith maturity. Of the many youth group participation variables we examined, involvement in intergenerational worship and relationships had one of the most robust correlations with faith maturity. This is true for our students’ senior year of high school and their freshman year of college.

Congregations are the place where teens, and before them children, create inter-generational relationships that will stay them through the years. For us, starting those relationships now, as young children, helps them be the church, not just show up once a week.

Being in church with our children shows them that they are accepted as they are because that’s what the church is. We don’t have to shuttle them off to their own private place, as if they are an embarrassment, or hindering us from worship. This season of life worship is about helping our church learn what it’s like to be a community of faith. It isn’t easy. It’s often messy and hard. But that’s also what church is.

We also know from the statistics that parents are the most formative influence on their children’s faith lives. Children overwhelmingly turn out just like their parents, despite our intuition that children are faith experimenters. So if my kids see that other activities trump going to church, or if they never see what adults do in worship, then chances are good that they are going to look the same way in twenty years. If we want children to learn the language of faith they actually need to see us worshipping, praying, singing, and receiving bread and cup.

Knowing these things has made church a little easier for us. In the moment I too long for children’s church, for an age-appropriate, entertaining space away from me. I want to be fed on Sundays. I want space to be hear the sermon, to sing without interruption. And there will be a time for that. There will be a time when my children are engaged in worship, when they can listen and sit still, where they can participate. But right now we are working on something else.

Just when I am at the end of my rope I can start to see the fruits of our work. Our daughter has asked us to invite some adult friends from church to her birthday party. We have other adults who help is in worship, who will hold our baby, or stop our child as she runs out of the room. In nursery many adults without children volunteer to stay with our little ones. One day soon, when they too reach kindergarten and join in worship for the whole service, they will know those faces and voices. And there are other adults my daughter can sit with in worship, other adults who she can go to when she needs support.

None of this makes worship easy. It doesn’t mean that we’re not tearing out our hair, or wishing we could be away for the weekend. It doesn’t mean we don’t worry that our child will fall behind, won’t have enough extra curricular activities, won’t be fed spiritually. But we keep moving ahead, keeping packing up our kids into the van. And we know our church loves our children and wants them to be a part of God’s good work. And we know we’re all in this together.

A few weeks ago I read Scripture during the service wearing our eight month old (see picture above). Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to be imitators. He writes, “You became imitators of us and of our Lord.” On the word “imitators” our baby did just that. Hearing mama read she yelled “ahhh!” We hope she continues to imitate the lives of faith, old and young, single and married who surround her as she grows. We hope her imitation of mama’s voice turns into imitation of mercy and justice, to imitations of the faithful people that surround her. Surrounding her with those people every Sunday starts now.

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Guidelines for Talking to Children About Race


1. Allow them to take the lead. Young children are already noticing difference in skin color. Listen for opportunities to talk about what they observe. One way this happens in our family is when we’ve seen someone in a career that is not historically typical for women. I am always quick to say, “women can be astronauts/engineers/President.” But I also started to add, “people of all color skins can be astronauts/engineers/President. People with cinnamon color-skin or chocolate chip skin or olive color skin.”

2. Don’t censure. Children don’t comprehend the social boundary around discussions of race. They may want to talk about skin color in ways that make adults uncomfortable. It is important in these situations to stay calm and to answer questions factually. Getting angry or upset, or silencing a child will lead them to believe race is something that is a bad subject, or that can’t be discussed with you. April Harris-Britt of the University of North Carolina says that if a certain question makes you uncomfortable to tell your children that their question is fine to ask but that you’d like to discuss it later. But be sure to return to the subject with your child in a private place.

3. Know the facts and be open to change. It is important for parents to know the history of racism in America and to know the ways race has, as a form of power, been used to benefit some while harming others. Be open to having your own opinions and biases challenged. A great way to inform yourself is by watching the PBS Series “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”[1]

4. Expose your child to people of all shades. Ziba Kashef writes, ” Before your preschooler even utters the words “black” or “white” in reference to skin color, be sure he sees plenty of people of different ethnicities. If you don’t live in a racially diverse area, surround him with children’s books and artwork featuring people of various races. All of this will help your child understand that a normal environment includes people of different races, says Marguerite Wright, author of I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children.”

5. Respond with concise facts and don’t expect too much. Every time my two-year old sees a black man he tells me that “there’s a basketball player.” It makes sense. We live in a historically African-American neighborhood where young black men play almost all the pickup games at the YMCA. Like all preschoolers he is too young to think about the complexity of issues of power and privilege related to race. By simply noting his comments, being open to discussion about what he sees around him, and making corrections we are laying the foundation for important and more serious conversations in the future. When my son sees “a basketball player” I tell him, “I don’t see him carrying a basketball. Maybe he likes dancing or soccer” or “Yes, he’s holding a basketball and likes to play just like you. People with peach color skin and coffee color skin play basketball.” I’m also careful to point out when we see people of different races and genders playing sports.

6. Be aware of media portrayals of race. Children get information about race from many places, including music, television, and movies. Help set the most open environment for your children by filtering out media that portrays race in a stereotypical way. Look for programs that provide positive multi-cultural messages. Be aware that certain older films (Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Jungle Book) contain ethnic stereotypes.

7. Remember that children are eager to talk about race. Po Bronson, co-author of the book NurtureShock shares his experience talking to his three-year old about race:

“I started with her baby dolls, as Bigler recommended. That night, as Thia played with her babies, I remarked that it was good she liked baby dolls with all kinds of skin color. I couldn’t get myself to say “brown skin,” but Thia practically leapt at the overture. She grabbed her brown-skinned baby doll and started talking about its brown skin, and how her doll’s brown skin was like her friends’ at school. Bigler was absolutely right. My daughter did want to talk about it. I felt something akin to relief in her ─ that her father had finally let her openly talk about skin color.”[2]

8. Make sure you share age-appropriately. It’s not best to read a preschooler a story that highlights the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But don’t avoid the racism that led to the Civil Rights struggle. One way to address this age appropriately is to focus on change- and peace-makers. Talk about a very important theme for preschoolers – that our world was not fair and that this lack of equity was based on color difference.

Talking to preschoolers about race can be awkward and strange for white people. Be of good courage! You are laying the groundwork for future conversations by showing your openness to talk. Remember these words of Willie Jennings: “Race was made, and it can be unmade.”

[1] http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm

[2] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/blogs/nurture-shock/2009/09/11/is-discussing-race-with-a-3-year-old-too-young.html

Talking to Preschoolers About Race: A Guide for Perplexed White People

My daughter and I were sitting outside of seminary housing when one of the few married, male black students in our apartment complex walked by. My daughter, then two, shouted, voice ringing across the playground, “Mom! That’s the man from the weather! The one on TV!”

She was talking about Al Roker, the famous weatherman who, in my opinion, looked nothing like our friend Earl. But in Princeton, NJ, with fewer black men in her daily life, my daughter thought she’d recognized someone famous.

As I felt my face turn red it took everything in me not to grab her and put my hand over her mouth. Fortunately, I was prepared for something like this to happen. Instead of pulling her aside I said, in my normal voice, “No, that’s not the man from the weather. That’s Mr. Earl. He’s a daddy and a pastor. And he’s a student here, just like mommy.”

If I had silenced her in that moment I would have been reinforcing an age-old myth, a secret code among white people – we don’t talk about race. When we stop children from talking about a subject, when it’s clear we are embarrassed by what he or she has said, they come to believe that the topic they brought up is shameful and embarrassing. It’s crucial in these formative years to lay groundwork that will make it possible to talk about difficult subjects like race when our children get older and start thinking in more complex ways.

One of my favorite educational pieces on discussions of race includes this teaching: “During childhood, our attitudes are molded directly and indirectly by the race, ethnicity, and status of the people around us (i.e. teachers and classmates, parents, colleagues and friends, salesclerks, doctors, nurses, waiters, house cleaners, construction workers, the unemployed, the homeless, etc.). By age twelve we have a complete set of stereotypes about every ethnic, racial, and religious group in our society.

One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.”[1]

Why do we have to start in preschool?
Children begin to notice physical differences from birth. Studies show that babies as young as six-months old can discriminate on the basis of skin color. Rebecca Bigler concludes from her studies conducted at the University of Texas – Austin that children are prone to in-group favoritism. Children naturally make sense of their world through categorization, and they most heavily rely on visual cues.

By the time children are five years old they begin to place value judgments on these categories of difference and similarity. This is a crucial period in the development of racialized attitudes. Children between ages five and eight are old enough to think about more complex ideas such as race but still young enough to be flexible about these beliefs. By the time children are in fourth grade their racial attitudes are much more rigid and difficult to change.[2]
Isn’t it better to ignore race differences and encourage children to be color-blind?
All physical human differences, including race, are clearly visible to children. If we don’t talk about race with our children they will begin making judgments on their own. “Bigler contends that children extend their shared appearances much further—believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn’t like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism.”[3]

An important study by Phyllis Katz, then at the University of Colorado, looked at 100 white and 100 black three-year olds to discover how they think about race:

‘Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”‘

Color-blindness is a myth and starting with this premise can lead to harmful racialized attitudes later in life.

That’s the “why” of talking to children about race, and at an early age. In my next post I’ll share specific guidelines and assistance as we begin to encounter these conversations with our under-4 set.

[1] http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children/

[2] http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children/

[3] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html