Rebecca Peters, Ed.D., is Professor of Education at Concordia University Irvine. email@example.com
I was born in the mid-20th century. My grandsons were born in the 21st century. Putting that into print reminds me once again that I grew up in a very different world than that of my grandsons. Yes, there are many similarities as children move through various developmental levels, but some of the differences between now and then make a world of difference in the faith lives of children today. This article first seeks to explore some of the challenges that children face in their world and then examines how we as educators can make some changes in the ways in which we share our faith.
Faith Challenges of Children Today
Single Parent Households. In a report published by the United States Census Bureau, Vespa, Lewis, and Kreider (2013) state, “Between 1970 and 2012, the share of households that were married couples with children under 18 halved from 40 percent to 20 percent”
(p. 1). The structure of these families varies. In today’s world children are raised in homes in which parents are divorced or never married or one parent has died. Sometimes extended family members are available to assist in the childrearing, but more and more children today live apart from their grandparents and other relatives. While the majority of single parent households are run by mothers, the number of fathers who shoulder the majority of their children’s custody is growing. In some divorced situations the divorce is amicable with parents who work with a united front in their childrearing values and tactics. However, when the divorce is a bitter one, children can experience what may be called bipolar parenting with parents who have opposing beliefs about how to raise a child. The ramifications of this type of experience can be extremely confusing and stressful for children. No wonder some of our children seem to have no concept of what is acceptable and what is not in the way they behave in school and relate to other children.
Explosion of Technology. When I was a child, technology seemed to be limited to navigating a TV (with seven different channels to choose from) and setting a clock radio. Times have changed. My ten-year-old grandson can list multiple examples of ways technology has impacted his life. Schools that avoid technology are becoming as rare as the one-room schoolhouse. Dan Costa (2007), author of a brief article in a technology magazine, warns parents against allowing their children too much screen time. Ironic, isn’t it? Bill Gates is said to have allowed his ten-year-old just 45 minutes of screen time a week night and 90 minutes on the weekend. After all, some studies show that an abundance of screen time for young children results in adhd (Weiss, Baer, Allan, Saran, & Schibuk, 2011). Too much screen time can influence some of the issues below.
Violence. Bullying is nothing new. What is a newer phenomenon is cyberbullying. In a recent study by the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (Englander, 2012), owning a smart phone in elementary school is a risk factor for being cyberbullied or being a cyberbully. Children most at risk of being a victim or perpetrator of cyber violence are those who actively play online games or participate in Facebook or similar websites. Although federal guidelines recommend that children younger than 13 should not be allowed on Facebook, in 2012, 49 percent of elementary students were involved with social media websites. Most bullies know their victims from school. Training students how to deal with cyberbullying can be effective in preventing continued experiences of it; cyberbullying education is an essential tool for parents and schools today.
Violence extends beyond what is found on social media; it can also erupt from content found on non-interactive websites. There are numerous examples of school violence that make national news. No schools are totally safe from this threat. While the vast majority of students will never experience a violent attack first hand, school lock-down drills are getting to be as common as fire drills were for previous generations. Students are aware that violence happens at schools, and they need to be prepared for it. The good news is that schools do have procedures in place to keep their students as safe as possible, but not every offence can be predicted.
Data for small scale campus violence in elementary schools is somewhat anecdotal; it is more challenging to be sure exactly what elementary school violence looks like. A decade ago USA Today (January 12, 2003) reported that violence in elementary schools is increasing. Today eight percent of elementary teachers and three percent of secondary teachers report being attacked by a student, and violence between students remains a concern as well (Indicators of Crime and School Safety: 2013).
Kids Being Kids. Since David Elkind wrote his well-known book The Hurried Child in 1981, there has been much discussion on pushing children into being adult too soon. While not everyone agrees with Elkind, his theories haven’t disappeared and many teachers would most likely agree that much has changed with expectations of children over the past 30 years.
Children are exposed to many “adult” topics that they would not have seen in the media a few decades ago. Even shows on the Disney channel aimed at eight to twelve-year-olds relate to dating and typical teen experiences. One has to be intentional to avoid the sexual suggestiveness found in the media today. Parent choices for positive family values portrayed in TV shows are minimal. Commercials cross the border of good taste and often lead to children’s questions as to the meaning of terminology and the uses of various products. Even news broadcasts can lead to questions about sex that would probably never have occurred without the child viewing a particular story with a sexually graphic description. (Editor’s note: See the articles on Millennials and Gen X in this edition of Issues for insights about how and why media content has changed.) This has an effect. Elementary children are exhibiting sexual behavior at younger ages today. Kaeser (n.d.) states that “We are … raising a generation of ‘super-sexualized’ young people” (paragraph 2). Children are bombarded with sexual images on television, social media, electronic games, and even billboards. This often leads to sexual confusion. Children have always been curious about sex; however, children today have a sexual distortion in which a God-pleasing view of sex is seldom found. They act out what they see. This can lead to bullying in which children sexually intimidate their peers and even to sexual behaviors against others.
Alvin Rosenfeld (2004), American child and adolescent psychologist, claims that “parenting is now America’s most competitive adult sport” (p. 1). Children play organized sports at younger and younger ages. Some parents believe that the earlier start in sports, the better chance their off-spring have when they get to a level in which participation is determined by ability.
With the models of Tiger Woods on the golf course at three years of age or the young Williams sisters hitting a tennis ball over the net, some adults imagine that their child can meet similar achievement and fame. Even for those who acknowledge that their child probably won’t play competitively after college, the goal is to make their off-spring the very best they can be. Parents have dreams for their children, but sometimes these desires get in the way of the child’s physical and emotional needs.
For some parents, putting kids in an organized sport is a way to fill their child’s time. Boredom is seen as the ultimate enemy of childhood. Boredom for extended periods of time is not beneficial, but some boredom can lead to developing creativity and thinking out of the box. Children are often at their most creative when they design games and fantasies in which to involve themselves. The role of play in childhood (and beyond) is important. Unstructured play provides benefits that are not found in structured play, which is often adult-driven. Benefits of this type of play include developing the imagination, physical dexterity, and cognitive and emotional growth through brain development. Unstructured play builds children’s confidence and resiliency as they learn to play with others, positively handle decision-making and conflict, and learn what drives their interests. When caring adults join in play that is child-driven, the relationship between adult and child is strengthened (Ginsburg, 2007).
Faith challenges have faced every generation. However, we as adults and educators do not always figure out the current challenges for children until they have navigated into their adolescent years or beyond. Knowing what children are dealing with is foundational to finding solutions. Every community has its particular issues, but just because a particular problem has not yet hit the area, doesn’t mean it won’t. We cannot wait until we are overwhelmed by particular problems. Caring congregational leaders are called to anticipate and be ready to act for times the world seems to crash down on children.
Baptism: Becoming Part of God’s Family. In a world where distances between extended family members is growing and the number of children living in two-parent heterosexual homes is decreasing, the concept of family is becoming more muddled. What greater comfort is there than to know that being part of God’s family is forever. God chooses each of us specifically because of His love for us (1 John 3:1-3). He never moves out or gives up on a person. Regardless of where we’ve been or what we’ve done, His love is enduring beyond measure. He doesn’t change (Hebrews 13:8). Like the perfect parent (which is an oxymoron), God directs us with the exactly right blend of Law and Gospel which He utilizes with loving precision. It is essential that children know that God chose them before time began to be His own (Ephesians 1:3-10). Remembering this is especially important for those children who experience complexity in their family situations. The baptism of children is cause for celebration. Incorporating children in these celebrations helps them realize the importance of their own baptisms.
Creeds and Children. Children learn through stories, and our creeds tell the story of what we believe. Knowing the story is essential to any understanding. Creeds range from the simple, “Jesus is Lord,” to the more complex Apostle’s Creed which is appropriate for older children. While this is not the place for an extended discussion of the merits and drawbacks of memory work, telling the story of who we believe in and why we believe is critical. Faith has to have an object which in the Christian church is Jesus Christ. The creeds are much more than a memorized statement said in unison by the congregation; the creeds frame our story and name our faith.
Sharing the Good News. Sharing the Gospel is best done through not just words but actions as well. To do this effectively, we need to be in caring relationships with those we teach. This means time is taken to get to know students (whether they are found in the classroom or the neighborhood) and learn their interests, fears, and joys. They need to know that they are physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe in our presence which means we share our interests, fears, and joys as well. We demonstrate by actions that Jesus is our protection. Kids today are usually well aware that there is a lot of bad news in this world. The Good News is something to be celebrated and shared with others. The Good News trumps our current violence eternally!
With the ever-changing new technologies, we need to keep up with trends that will help us tell the story in ways students can understand. Churches should look at investments in educational technology as mission investments and learn to be creative in blending their use of technologies and children’s activities that promote engagement. We need to challenge ourselves to ask new questions and investigate strategies that connect children with their Savior. What might Mary Magdalene have tweeted on Easter morning? What would Doubting Thomas’s Facebook posts reveal over the course of the week following Easter Sunday?
The Role of the Church. Perhaps now more than ever the Church needs to look intentionally for ways to support parents in their efforts to teach the faith in their homes. With so many single parent families, parents’ time is often crunched between work, kids’ activities, homework time, shopping, quick meals, and dropping from exhaustion once the kids are asleep; consider how much more hectic this is for single parents. Christian parents today know the need to be the primary faith teacher of their children, but too often this becomes a burden rather than a joy.
The local church strives to know the needs of its parents in order to build scaffolding on which to assist them. While support groups for single parents are great, they often become one more thing to cross off of a To Do list. Christian parents want their children to be faithful, but they often have no knowledge of exactly what this entails in the home. Churches need to partner with all their parents to encourage and equip them to take an intentional role in the faith formation of their children. This task is not intended to be handled by parents alone; the church stands alongside parents to support them. Making materials available for parents, generating a list of other adults who can be faith mentors and role models for children, and matching parents with older prayer partners are but a few possibilities to consider.
Consider the needs of our children and the issues that face them. Does your congregation offer a kids’ support group for those dealing with divorced parents? What new ministries and services does your church offer that did not exist 20 years ago? How can unstructured play be used in your ministry?
A Growing Resource. Given tight budgets, investing dollars in children’s programs or assistance for parents who are struggling is usually not the highest priority. However, perhaps God has given today’s church a unique resource. According to a report from a large insurance corporation, there are approximately 65 million grandparents in the United States (Metlife, 2011). Currently, about one in every four adults in the U.S. is a grandparent; by 2020, it’s expected that number will rise to one in three being a grandparent. Grandparents are spending more on child-related purchases than in the past. We also know that while many grandparents either live with or parent their grandchildren, growing numbers of grandparents do not live in close proximity to their grandchildren. For those who seldom have face-to-face contact, this distance can be a source of sorrow. Perhaps God is opening the door to seeing this challenge as an opportunity.
Churches can utilize the resources and time of grandparents (and those of grandparent age who have no grandchildren of their own) to better the lives of children, even those to whom they are not directly related. A course in distance grandparenting may become both a support group for this demographic as they strive to discover ways to impact the faith life of their distant grandchildren and an opportunity to become involved in the lives of children who would benefit from an “adopted” Granny or Grandpa. Grandparents who are not directly involved in raising grandchildren often have the time that hurried parents don’t have. While grandparents of preschool and elementary-aged children tend to be still employed, they are often looking for another way to “give back” and be an influence to others. Although this age demographic is often considered the financial givers in the congregation, they need to be seen beyond the monetary contributions
they can make.
Children today face many of the same challenges that their grandparents did, but the challenges have escalated. I vaguely remember crawling under my desk in elementary school to “duck and cover” for nuclear attack. Children today witness violent attacks on TV and in their own schools and neighborhoods. The majority of my classmates lived in traditional two-parent homes; today that is no longer the norm. Technology has not only changed how children learn in beneficial ways, but it also offers dangers and temptations. I was a true “kid” possibly longer than some of my peers, but “hurried” I was not. There were few after-school activities, and they just weren’t feasible for most families with five kids and one car. Many middle-class families today are two-car families, considered a necessity for shuttling children. Worry over their children inadvertently encountering pornography was not a concern of my parents. Organized sports? Only for my brother, and that within reason. We had lots of unstructured play time. All five of us went to college and three of us went on to advanced degrees, so I’m guessing that free time did not hamper our aspirations.
Yes, some things have changed over the years. What hasn’t changed is that each child needs to hear that age-old message that God is love and wants every individual to be His son or daughter. We are called to a life of faithfulness for today and in leading future generations. Finding avenues to do so is not an option.
Costa, D. (April 24, 2007). Turn it off, kids! PC Magazine, 26 (9) 5. doi: http://ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=24630537&site=ehost-live
Englander, E. (2012, November 6). Cyberbullying among 11,700 elementary school students, 2010-2012. Presented at the International Bullying Prevention Association Annual Conference, Kansas City, Missouri. Retrieved from http://webhost.bridgew.edu/marc/ElementaryCyberbullyingReport.pdf
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119. 182-191. doi: 10.1542/peds.2006-2697
Kaeser, F. (n.d.). Towards a better understanding of children’s sexual behavior. Retrieved from The Child Study Center website: http://www.aboutourkids.org/articles/towards_better_understanding_children039s_sexual_behavior#
MetLife. (July, 2011). The MetLife Report on American Grandparents: New Insights for a New Generation of Grandparents. Retrieved from https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/mmi/publications/studies/2011/mmi-american-grandparents.pdf
National Center for Educational Statistics. (2014, June). Indicators of school crime and safety: 2013. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2013/key.asp
Rosenfeld, A. (2004). Harvard, soccer, & over-scheduled families. Youth Studies Australia, 23 (1), 15-18. doi: http://ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=12405317&site=ehost-live
Toppo, G. (2003, January 12). School violence hits lower grades. USA Today, retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-01-12-school-violence-usat_x.htm
Vespa, J., Lewis, Jamie M., & Kreider, R. M. (2013). America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2012: Population Characteristics. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/p20-570.pdf
Weiss, M. D., Baer, S., Allan, B. A., Saran, K., Schibuk, H. (2011, December). The screens culture: Impact on ADHD. ADHD: Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, v. 3 327-334. doi: 10.1007/s12402-011-0065-z