Conversation about Conversations – Part 2

Resources for the Home

In my last post, I promised to share resources that help parents encourage conversation in the home.  It’s been awhile since I’ve been able to get back to this post, between a major milestone, demands at work, and a household of sickness.  In the midst of all that, circumstances led to private conversations with each child about an important issue in their life. Then there were the usual conversations about the minutia of life, with a few brief moments of intentional connecting with each child.  And through it all, there is me, living with the nagging feeling that I am too busy, and not spending enough time with my kids!

Still, setting the guilt aside, I realize that these moments of conversations are for me some of the most enjoyable parts of parenting. More importantly, I know my children feel cared for when I take time to really listen and engage with them.

Conversation goals with children and teens

I have always thought of conversation as a learned skill, and see honest conversation as a gift we can give our children. Scripture talks about God knowing our innermost being, of God hemming us in ‘behind and before.’ (Psalm 139). There is nowhere we can flee from a God committed to loving us, just like the bunny that is unable to escape his mother’s love, in Margaret Wise’s well-loved children’s story, The Runaway Bunny.

Scripture tells us God knows us.  And that is comforting, intellectually. But how do we come to experience ourselves as known, and loved?  For me personally, the experience of being known and loved by God has come through prayer, which is of course conversation (talking, listening, focus on mutual presence and through it all: honesty).

Most of my conversation goals with my children come from my experiences in prayer.  Also influential is a book I read by Toronto-based child and family therapist, Jennifer Kolari, called Connected Parenting.  The book describes, among other things, how to build loving bonds between you and your child through empathetic conversations.  I read it ages ago, but it continues to subtly shape my thinking and practice.

Here is a rough description of how I would like our children to feel in conversation with me.  Namely that:

  • Mum genuinely is interested in what I think and how I feel
  • Mum is willing to talk with me about hard things
  • Mum is willing to listen
  • Mum values me
  • Mum and I can heal do healing and constructive things through conversations
  • Mum is proud of me and thinks I am a cool person

My hope is that our children will not only learn how to have conversations, in general, but that experience of being loved through conversation might also open them to experiencing loving conversation with God.  Whether or not I am succeeding in any of this, I have no idea. Regardless, I am committed to trying!

As a Christian mum, another one of my goals is to introduce faith as one of the many things we talk about as a family. Just as I want my children to gain the words to talk about their feelings, about their problems and about ideas, so I want them to acquire a language of faith.  One of the way that language acquisition happens is through conversation with a parent or close mentor who already speaks the language.  And, as mentioned in the last post, learning to speak about faith is part of the acquisition and development of faith itself.

Aside from the conversations that happen organically over the course of the week, here are some of my intentional practices:

Resources:

Encouraging dinnertime conversation:

We are lucky to be able to eat all our dinners together.  Our longtime practice has been to do a simple review of the day, each person sharing the best part and hardest part of the day.  When they were younger, to get things going and to learn about emotions, I would ask the kids to pick cards that described two to three emotions they felt during the day. (You can find that post here.)  We also have conversation cards, to broaden the topics we speak about as a family, and to build bonds by learning more about one another.  Some of the sample questions we have asked are as simple as “What is your favourite food that grandma makes?” to more obviously spiritual “If you could go and witness any moment in Jesus’s life, which would it be?” to downright revelatory: “If you could ask God any question, what would it be.” If you google “conversation cards Christian parenting,” a ton of free resources will come up such as this and this.  It’s up to you as parent to figure out which questions to ask in your home.

Using guided conversations around faith:

So, Christian devotionals.  Nothing revolutionary here. And it is not always effortless. We are are 24 entries into a new one right now, and it’s just meh. Our kids have loved the Adventures in Odyssey table devotional, and we have several of those. Overall, our experience with devotionals have been really hit and miss.

What is important to me is that there is a least some time in the week when we are having a family conversation about faith, no matter how brief, or, occasionally, how bored or confused.  The scintillating discussions are awesome, but I suspect the mundane and brief ones might matter too.

And to be perfectly up front: it doesn’t happen every day.  Sometimes we have been weeks without it, especially when we are running off to other activities.  But we always come back to it, and keep trying.

Seizing ordinary opportunities for conversations about faith:

This is really just about remembering to pay attention. If your kid asks a faith related question, don’t disappoint them by failing to engage!  This might unintentionally communicate that questions about faith don’t matter.  If you don’t have time, acknowledge the importance of the question and agree to find time later to pick up the conversation.

And if, of course, your child asks a question that stumps you (happens all the time around here), try not to close the conversation before it starts by only saying: “I don’t know.”  How about: “I don’t know.  What do you think?”  Or: “I wonder who might be able to help us find the answer?”  Wondering questions are always good. And it’s okay not to have all the answers.  I sure don’t have all the answers, and I am supposed to be a Professional Religious Person!

Creating extraordinary opportunities for conversations about faith:

Is there a parent/child Christian retreat at your Church or at your child’s summer camp?  Seize it. Is there a learning event that would interest your child, that you can attend together? Grab it.  Is there an opportunity to invite your tween into a conversation with other adults on faith?  Invite them in.  Recently, I took our eldest to a convent for a spiritual retreat. I thought she would be bored to tears; instead, she really welcomed the experience of silence.

When we move outside our comfort zones during these liminal moments, God sometimes does surprising things. Certainly, I am learning not to underestimate my offspring. Or God.

This desire to create extraordinary opportunities may be more important during the teen years, as the cognitive capacity of  your child grows and there is the desire to verbally and intellectually make sense of life, the world and faith.

Inviting others into the family conversation:

This is important for teens.

This is a new idea that we are trying on in our household, so I don’t have much insight to offer!  But the research suggests that for faith to “stick”, teens benefit from 5 Christian mentors investing in their lives in some way.   That person might be a youth pastor, a godparent, a trusted friend who is a regular feature in the family.  I will share more on the research on this one in a later post.

 

Conversation about Conversations

A few years ago I read the book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids.  The book is one of two coming out of a major research project by Kara Powell and Chap Clark from Fuller Institute, who researched a group of 11,000 church-going teens. One of their findings in that study was the importance of conversations about spiritual matters between parents and their children. Sadly, the study also discovered that these kinds of conversations are happening infrequently in American Christian homes.

Since then, I have read a number of interesting studies in psychology journals whose findings line up with those in Sticky Faith.  A particularly compelling read was Kenda Creasy Dean’s report on the results of the National Study of Youth and Religion research, by sociologist Christian Smith.  In her book, Almost Christian, Dean has a chapter on the importance of language for creating not only meaning, but faith.  That chapter is so important, I reproduce a portion for you, below.

After a discussion of philosopher Charles Taylor’s writing on language, Dean notes:

If language has world-creating power, a theological vocabulary that helps us talk about God also helps us imagine what a God-shaped world looks like. The Holy Spirit reveals divine truth in the gospel not only to tell us what God has done in Jesus Christ but to help the church envision a way of life in which the life, death and resurrection of Christ become the ‘grammar’ of human existence. Teenagers who have trouble articulating what they believe about God also seem to have trouble forging a significant connection to God – and youth who do not have language for Christ are unlikely to imagine an identity in Christ. The practical theologian Thomas Long points out: ‘We don’t just say things we already believe. To the contrary, saying things out loud is part of how we come to believe.”(142)

Dean then goes on to make a case for what she calls ‘conversational Christianity,’ which includes reflections on the place for testimony as a tool for learning Christian language. (You can see the influence of Dean’s writings in my un-Anglican love of testimony!)

Dean’s writing in particular has galvanized my interest in helping parishioners find ways to gain a language of faith; in the home, it has in particular spurred on my interest in ‘sticky conversation.’

In my next blog posts, I will share resources I have found to encourage sticky conversations in the home, and my own efforts at encouraging parishioners more generally in developing their skills in conversational Christianity.

St. Patrick’s Feast Day

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It’s March 17th, and bars around the world are serving green beer.

In our home, we are marking the day with our annual Irish coddle, a heart-clogging stew of potatoes, onions, bacon, sausage garlic and beef broth. It’s the only time we make it – in the hopes that the children will associate St. Patrick’s with this family meal in the same way I link turkey to Thanksgiving dinner. We are intentionally trying to build a family tradition.

coddle
It tastes and smells better than it looks.

And it’s a tradition that we are trying to create not so much because we are Irish (we are Irish in the same way that we are Scottish and English: barely).  We have made this celebration a family tradition because Patrick is a Christian saint whose story is inspiring and worth re-telling, year by year. Plus, it’s a party, and why shouldn’t religious things be associated with good food and good fun?

We celebrate the Church Year in our home, as a way of marking time other than by the school year calendar. I like the cyclical nature of the Church Year, with the holy seasons like Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter shaping our family practices, and the party days like St. Patrick’s giving us reasons for practicing hospitality and inviting over friends, and fellowshipping over a fine meal.

A feast for the eyes:

Just like we decorate our homes for Christmas, so we decorate our home for the different seasons of the Church Year.  This often includes Saints days like St. Patrick’s.

shamrock
The feast begins.

As much as possible, I like there to be consonance between the seasonal colours at church and in our home, so there is the visual carry over from worship in community, and our communal life at home.

Thrift stores and dollar stores are my best friends. Plus, small plastic bins for storing these treasures year to year.

Fun and Fellowship

When our children were younger, we would often play games associated with whatever gospel story or feast day we were celebrating. On St. Patrick’s day, for example, a very popular one was finding the dollar store plastic green coins Mike hid around the house, then exchanging them for the pot of gold (dessert).  We still eat gummy worms with our dessert in memory of the fanciful tale of St. Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, but this year we skipped the treasure hunt. Nobody complained, which is a reliable sign that the time for that game has passed. This year, the older ones were more interested in joining in adult conversations, and that is pretty wonderful too.

The key thing? I want my children to have warm associations with their faith. I want these celebrations to provide them with a treasure trove of good memories, and memories that go deep because they are rich with familiar tastes, sights, sounds and stories.

The Stories We Tell

As part of our Feast day celebrations, we always take a moment to read the bible story of the event we are remembering, or read a storybook or watch a video of the person we are recalling.

Since I left our usual St. Patrick storybook at the office, we watched this video instead.

It held the attention of the tweens in the room, and was easy enough to follow for the younger ones. It also generated some good discussion, including our youngest wondering how Patrick knew it was God who spoke, and not just a strange dream because of something he ate. This prompted a little out-loud thinking about how God guides, and some suggestions as to why Patrick drew the conclusions he did. There was also some wondering about whether we would have readily gone back to the country that had enslaved us. Our son concluded that “It would have to be from God” for him to go, but if God said “go,” then he’d go.

Then we ate green jello and worms, which is often how these things end: with laughter and too much sugar.  Just like every good celebration.

Edited to add:  this photo from five years ago just showed up on my Facebook timeline.  What ridiculously cute kids, eh?  And, I see we were still eating green jello back then.

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Conversation Cards: Review of the Day

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When our children were very young – babies and toddlers – I was very attuned to their emotional state and the goings-on in their day. This was because I had witnessed all of it. (The gift of maternity leaves and part-time work!)

But when they began school, much of their day happened away from me. So we began practicing a “review of the day” at suppertime.

This is much easier an exercise than it looks. Our introvert would summarize her day thusly: “It was good.” With probing, she would expand: “I don’t remember.” Our little extrovert offered an unstoppable flood of words, not touching her food, not pausing to catch her breath lest someone interrupt her.

So I went out to our local teacher’s supply store and bought a poster depicting different human emotions.  Something like this (only ours had triple the photos):

emotionsposter

Then I cut all the squares into individual cards and put them in a basket.

Here’s how it works. At supper, each child chooses 3 cards to describe the different emotions they felt during the day. If they want the same card, they share it (yeah, when they were little it sometimes took some parental direction). When it comes to their turn to review their day, they show us their cards and then explain why they felt shy, or tired, or proud etc. Mike and I participate as well. I used to pull out these cards about once a week, although it’s become less frequent of late.

This is a very simple idea that has worked well in our family. It has given our introvert a structure to encourage conversation and it has provided boundaries for our extrovert. When our kids were little, it had the added benefit of teaching them to name emotions, an important life skill in learning to respond to and manage feelings. As a mother, it gives me insight into my children’s general emotional state,  for me an invaluable gift. And as the research talks about the importance of warm, parent-child relationships in the inter-generational transmission of faith, this is easy way to nurture those kind of connected conversations.

This is a tool that is attractive to children, not tweens or teens. I would recommend it for children around the ages of 2-11. (Our twelve year old still participates, but that is most likely because she grew up with the tool and is a cooperative kind of kid.)

You don’t have to buy a poster board either. If you google “emotion for kids” and then click the Images tool, lots of printable resources turn up.  I do recommend having concrete images to work with, because the process of sorting through the pictures helps kids in reviewing their day, and readies them to share.