How do you define ‘success’ for your children? Fame and excitement or contentment? More stuff or more kindness? The ‘Making Caring Common’ team at Harvard University found that while 96 per cent of parents say they want caring kids, 80 per cent of their own kids thought their parents valued achievement and success more than anything else.
Are parents all talk?
The ‘Making Caring Common’ findings are not a good look, especially for Christians. Teenagers can spot hypocrisy with the passion of Jesus!
Another recent report by the esteemed Barna Group shows that the top parenting struggles are both relational and technological. Relationships Australia notes that parents worry most about their children’s happiness and safety, bullying and social media, but also how to talk with their children.
Carol Ronken, director of research at a child protection organisation, says we can’t legislate our way out of technology issues such as pornography: “We need to have a much broader focus on prevention, talking to kids about positive relationships, teaching them to be critical consumers of what they see online.”
Parents of ‘successful’ kids need to spend time with them, having good conversations and helping them make decisions.
If parents and caregivers are not intentional about developing the caring side of a child’s nature, then our culture will tell them what to care about – and we may not like it!
There are four main areas of life that need attention paid to them if we are to raise kids who really care.
1. Build up their relationship skills
Whatever avenues of ‘success’ our children follow, it’s the quality of their relationships that determine their quality of life. For better or worse, family, church and community relationships model these skills, but we can be even more intentional about building them.
Most of our children’s resilience comes from their relationships …
Have we taught our kids how to be a good friend? Does everyone feel heard?
How do you deal with conflict? We can cringe from conflict – or see it as a necessary part of life that can build intimacy.
We preach forgiveness in church, but do we teach this difficult skill as a way of life? If we leave it to Hollywood, we can expect ‘an eye for an eye’ to be the much more likely social outcome.
Most of our children’s resilience comes from their relationships, so let’s make sure they are well equipped.
2. Build up their awareness of the effect of culture
We don’t realise the effect of our culture until we experience another one. We can help our kids evaluate their culture by giving them wide experience. This is tricky in these COVID times but, often, this can be as simple as inviting another family over for dinner.
We can build awareness of the intentions of the advertising industry, to help protect our kids from the overwhelm of consumerism. We can be explicit about our values and discuss the true meaning of happiness to help them have a framework for analysing cultural messages.
This is crucial in our world of technology – we don’t want random internet sites informing our kids about the meaning of life! Help them enjoy creating content more than they enjoy consuming it.
3. Build up their inner life
As spiritual beings in a material world, our kids need us to help them identify the differences. A spiritual life is concerned with wisdom and generosity, gentleness and purpose, love rather than fear. It makes sense then, to make sure we give these parts of our children’s inner lives as much nurture as sport does for their bodies and school does for their brains.
Talk to your kids about the world – don’t shelter them!
We can talk with our children about how we like to be treated, how we can recognise our soul’s desires, or how we can contribute to the common good of all.
This needs to be practical and modelled rather than idealistic theology. We can take our children with us when we deliver a casserole to a sick friend, when we volunteer for a cause we care about, or as we prepare for our ministry.
I asked a bunch of caring young adults what advice they’d give parents and they said talk to your kids about the world – don’t shelter them!
4. Build up their ability to contribute
If we only knew about the world from our newsfeeds, we’d get depressed pretty quickly. Our brains can’t cope with knowing every bad thing – we’re created to go and help when someone needs it. This is why we love technology to distract us from the pain of feeling helpless.
Rather than feeling helpless, let’s raise kids who see a problem in their world and think ‘I can do something about that.’
We’ll need to work at finding ways to let them practise their instinct for compassion, justice and generosity. Children want to be part of something big and worthwhile – like a Kingdom of Heaven life.
The Christian life is about both belief and behaviour …
So, ask them what they care about. Whether it’s lost puppies or less plastic in the ocean, let them get involved in progressively larger ways. What organisations can they find to volunteer with? Go with them, encourage their attempts to be a contributor to the world rather than a passive observer.
‘Let’s do this, together’
In late 2019, World Vision helped organise a study of 15,000 young adults in 25 countries called ‘The Connected Generation’. They found these digitally connected young people were lonely. They had a surprising openness to spirituality, cared about human suffering, and longed to make a significant difference. They were keenly aware of adults, and the church, not practising what they preach.
The Christian life is about both belief and behaviour – we know faith without works is dead. With children who are still in concrete stages of development, we can’t just say ‘believe this’ without showing them ‘here’s what believing this looks like in practise’.
Instead, we can take them by the hand and say ‘Let’s do this, together’.
Susy Lee is author of Raising Kids Who Care: Practical Conversations For Exploring Stuff That Matters, Together. For more information, visit the Raising Kids Who Care site.