Kids, Free Play and God

If you were a child in the 1960’s your jobs were to go to school, do chores and play. There weren’t many expectations of participating in other activities until well into elementary school. Even then, it usually was an hour or two a week until your teen years in many cases.

Today’s kids live a very different life. They are in constant planned activities from infancy. There is very little if any time to just play like children used to play. Our kids are missing out on some of the benefits of free play that even teens used to regularly get. Some of those can also be impacting the spiritual lives of young people, too.

As the world gradually returns to normal, here are some reasons you should keep your kids’ schedules lighter and allow more time for free play. (Note: Free play does not include anything that involves a device.”

  • To show their hearts. Mr. Rogers once said,”Play allows us a safe distance as we work on what’s close to our hearts.” The free play your kids choose to engage in can tell you a lot about what is important to them. What is each of your kids’ favorite way to play? What does it reveal to you about what is important to them? Does it show a loving or an angry heart? They may never articulate the things their play reveals.
  • To try out new ideas. Play is a great way to safely test new ideas in a controlled environment. What happens when you build a tower of blocks and knock it over? How do others react when you are a grumpy store clerk when playing grocery store?
  • To better understand things or problem solve. Play is a great way to begin understanding things that are confusing or try out different solutions to problems. How is that toy put together? How can I fix it if it breaks? How would my “mommy” doll respond if I said different things to her?
  • Mimic what they see, hear and experience. Play therapists sometimes use play to encourage kids to open up about traumatic events they have experienced. In fact, if your child plays the same negative pretend game over and over, you may want to get professional help determining if your child has experienced a trauma of which you are unaware. On the other hand, how your kids play pretend games like “house” may give you an idea of how they interpret your marriage or your parenting. These may also be the qualities they carry into their future families.
  • Sharing their faith. Kids who love church often choose to “play” church. It’s a way for them to practice the various acts of worship and invite friends to share in that part of their world. It’s faith sharing in its purest, simplest form.
  • Gift discovery. Have a child whose toys are always organized? She might have the gift of organization. Kids often display an early aptitude that is actually a gift from God they can develop and use to serve God. If they appear to enjoy something and have an aptitude for it, consider providing things to help them to continue to explore and develop that potential gift.

What items do your kids need to get these benefits from play? The great news is that expensive toys are often the least helpful in providing benefits to children. Common objects like pots and pans, crayons and paper, sticks and rocks can give kids an opportunity to be truly creative in their play. And that’s when the benefits really begin to appear.

Tips For Raising Empathetic, Loving Kids

One of the goals for Christian parents should be to raise kids who truly love other people like Jesus did. Heart issues always seem to confuse parents the most. How can you know what your kids’ hearts are really like? How can you influence them to want to be like Jesus, including in how they treat others?

You can make all sorts of rules about how your kids are to treat others. You can tell them every Bible story and have them memorize every verse about loving others. Yet, you could still raise a child who doesn’t love others like Jesus. Or worse yet one who is unkind or even mean or spiteful.

Thankfully, science has done some research that can help. It turns out raising children who love like Jesus involves parents loving their kids like Jesus. What does that mean practically in how you parent your kids? Here are some of the top things they found parents did that led to their children being more empathetic, loving, kind and helpful as they grew.

  • Facial expressions and emotions. Studies have found that as young as infancy, children who can interpret facial expressions and emotions easily, show more early signs of empathy and even caring than children who struggle recognizing emotions in others. Genetics can play a role in the ability to recognize and interpret emotional states from facial cues, body language, vocal tones, etc. If your kids struggle, spend time showing them photos of various expressions associated with emotions or act them out yourself. Make it a game. Work with your kids until they show the ability to identify even subtle emotional clues.
  • Share your emotions in age appropriate ways. You don’t want to burden a toddler with every negative emotion you feel. On the other hand, hiding your emotions or pretending your only emotional state is happiness does not help your child develop empathy. They need to understand when they say something hurtful to you, it makes you sad. No need to be overly dramatic, but it is one way of teaching them their words and actions impact the emotions of others.
  • Work on developing the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain associated with executive functions. The prefrontal cortex (primarily) or decision making, executive function part of the brain is one of the last to develop. There are activities you can do with your child that can help this area of the brain develop more quickly than it would on its own. Why is this important for empathy? Studies have shown that if the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, seeing someone in pain may create distress in a child, but not the desire to actually help the person in pain. A more developed prefrontal cortex allows the child to move away from the emotional state enough to create and execute a plan to help the person in need.
  • Work on self control. Studies found that children who were shy and/or well behaved showed more empathy than those whose behavior was “uninhibited”. One can assume, this is in part because those children are more likely to notice someone in need.
  • Explain “stranger danger” carefully. You absolutely want to teach your kids skills that will keep them safe from predators pretending they need help locating a lost puppy. On the other hand, those incidents are rare and need to be differentiated from the need for them to help people in real need in ways that are age appropriate for them. These will sometimes change as your kids grow older. Your kids should never get in a car with a stranger at any age, for example, but they can be taught to go run get you to help or offer to make a 911 call. Studies showed that children raised with an extreme fear of strangers refused to even help peers they did not know.
  • Encourage facial mimicry games with infants and toddlers. Researchers think there may be a connection between the ability to mimic another’s facial expressions and the ability to connect emotions to facial expressions. It may seem natural to you to laugh when your baby laughs, but that may be because your mother did the same for you as an infant. Playing games like peek-a-boo and encouraging mimicry when interacting with your baby can also increase empathy.
  • Respond to your child’s needs appropriately. Secure attachment to parents and the responsiveness of care givers to the needs of infants and toddlers plays a large role in the empathy development of children. If your child spends a great deal of time in a day care situation, it is imperative you find ways to monitor how responsive caregivers are to the needs of your child. This does not mean catering to every whim of a three year old. It does mean, however, that you acknowledge his or her expressed need and explain in loving ways why you aren’t letting him or her have or do certain things. Remember a child’s needs also include loving, consistent, firm boundaries.
  • Maternal warmth. Personally, I believe this is important from both parents, but the study only examined maternal warmth. Those hugs, snuggles, kisses and “I love you” a million times a day make a huge difference in how empathetic a child becomes.

You can’t control your child’s heart, but you can influence it. Teaching your child about Jesus and how God wants him or her to love and care for others is crucial. Adding the above elements to your parenting toolbox, as well as demonstrating empathy for others in your own life, will make it much more likely you will raise a loving, caring, empathetic child.

2021 Christian Parenting Challenges Week #1

We know you are busy and social media prevents you from seeing many of our challenges. This year, we will send a weekly summary of the challenges for you to print and use at your convenience.

Monday: Why use a raised bed versus planting the “regular” way? Great question! When your kids see the way you do things, they may not question you about why you do them. They will either copy you or reject your choice for themselves. Not a huge deal when planting a garden, but extremely important when talking about whether or not to obey God. Taking time to explain to your kids that what you are doing or not doing is to obey God and why it’s important is so very crucial. Otherwise, they won’t understand the importance of the choice they are making when they are deciding whether or not to copy you.

Tuesday: Fences can be viewed two ways…They keep you from something you want to do OR They keep you safe from predators and other potential dangers. You can focus on what you can’t do and make yourself miserable or you can focus on the complete freedom, without worry of danger, you have inside the fence and be happy and content. Your kids will view God’s commands the same way. Your job is to help them understand and focus on the protection and freedom and not on wondering about the sins they aren’t allowed to commit without making God unhappy. It’s all about the heart and attitude.

Wednesday: Your kids will probably become overwhelmed if they attempt a reading the Bible through in a year plan. The plans usually require reading multiple chapters a day and quickly involve books that can bog down young independent Bible readers. Instead, encourage them to read story heavy books, like Genesis, Esther or the Gospels. Or practical books like Proverbs or James. It’s the habit you want to encourage, so focus on a chapter a day or even a verse for struggling readers. Then encourage reflecting on what they have read for the rest of that day. For more tips, we have a free resource that prints as bookmarks (Available in English, Spanish and Russian)

Thursday: Most people saw a dead tree, but one man saw a work of art and created this. Can you see potential in your kids? God can! He gave each of your kids at least one gift to use to serve Him. That’s potential. Helping your kids make that potential into a life that obeys, worships and serves God is your privilege and your responsibility as a Christian parent. It’s also one of your greatest rewards to see your kids reach their God given potential.

Friday: What world views are your kids being taught in school? They will often claim none, but every textbook, every teacher has a bias. Not knowing what it is means you can’t discuss them with your kids and counter any that are ungodly.

A Great Way to Help Your Kids Recognize Influences

Social media influencers can make a lot of money convincing their followers to purchase specific items. Those posts are pretty obvious to most young people today. Can your kids, however, recognize when the books they read, games they play or media they watch are changing their world view, ideas or beliefs?

The answer is probably not. Why? Because content creators are often purposefully subtle (yet effective) in their attempts to influence the minds of young people. Your kids probably have no idea of what content creators may want them to believe or the actions they hope to inspire.

There’s a relatively simple way to help your kids be more aware of when others are trying to influence them and what those ideas are. After they finish interacting with any sort of content, ask your kids what the ad for it would look like. What is the tag line? In other words, what are the authors of the content trying to sell your kids?

Your kids may struggle with this at first. Another way to ask the same type of question would be to ask them the moral of the story. If they are familiar with Aesop’s fables, they know about the last line that sums up the lesson readers were supposed to have learned. What would be that last line for the movie, book, game or other creative content with which they just interacted?

If you catch subtle content they miss, ask them a question to see if their brains registered something they weren’t consciously aware connected. For example, let’s say a character decided to lie to a friend to spare their feelings. The creators believe this is perfectly acceptable, even laudatory behavior. When summing up the episode, your child doesn’t mention the incident. So, did it impact your child?

You can try the direct approach and ask what they thought about the scene. A more indirect way would be to present a similar dilemma. What would they do in a situation that is similar, but not exactly the same as the creative content?

Making your kids more aware of when others are attempting to influence them is an important skill set. It will help them think more critically about ideas they have unknowingly had repeated to them multiple times in thousands of different ways. Otherwise, they risk being brainwashed into believing sin is great, good is bad, and the world God wants is archaic and suspect.

Helping Kids Conquer Peer Pressure

If you dig deeply enough, you will find that many of the problems in the world today are caused by adults who have given into what they perceive as peer pressure. Even Christian adults are not immune to peer pressure, often with the same negative results teens and kids get when succumbing to it. Your kids will be more likely to obey God if they can learn to ignore peer pressure while they are still young.

Insulating your kids from peer pressure takes work. Kids and teens are wired to want to fit in with their peers. Spending most of their days together in school and activities only increases the pressure to conform. Some peer pressure can be positive, but often it encourages negative and even sinful choices. It is the rare young person who can stand up to peer pressure without any previous coaching from parents.

Coaching your kids is easier if you start when they are young. Small children often spend less time with peers and are more likely to still believe their parents are the people they most want to please. Helping older kids conquer peer pressure is tougher, but not impossible.

Here are some of the concepts your kids need to embrace to be able to stand up to peer pressure.

  • Pleasing God is more important than pleasing peers. This is perhaps the toughest one, because it involves attitudes, mind sets and hearts. Work with your kids on having hearts that want to please God. Encourage them to have their top goal be going to Heaven and taking others with them. Teach them their true worth is in God’s eyes, not with peers who may or may not have their best interests in mind. A child who puts God first and knows what God wants for his or her life will be much less susceptible to peer pressure that would lead to disobeying God.
  • Christians will never truly fit into the world around them. If Christians look exactly like everyone else in the world, there is something wrong. Your kids have to understand and embrace the fact that they should never want to be just like everyone else they know. While some Christians are well liked and even well loved because of the loving ways they treat others, they will still be excluded from situations because of how others perceive Christians. Or they will need to exclude themselves from participating in sinful activities. Popularity in the way most young people mean it should never be the ultimate goal.
  • Make decisions early. Often peer pressure works because young people aren’t given enough time to really think about what they are being asked to do by their peers. Having discussions about specific situations before they happen can help. Teach your kids how to make good choices about certain topics before their peers can tempt them to do those things. If they have previously decided something is a bad choice, it will be much easier for them to say no than if they are trying to process the options in real time.
  • Practice responses. Remember the temptation of Jesus? Jesus knew exactly what to say to reject Satan’s temptations. Help your kids develop a toolbox of helpful responses when faced with negative peer pressure. Don’t forget to also have them practice what to do if the pressure continues.
  • Develop escape routes. The Bible tells us God always provides an escape route when the temptation to sin gets to be too much to bare. Unfortunately, most kids and teens don’t know what to look for to escape peer pressure when it gets to to be too much. Teaching them options like walking away or talking to you or another trusted adult can help them find those escape routes God provides when they need them.
  • Memorize Bible verses. Teach them Bible verses they can repeat to themselves in their minds either to remind them of what God wants them to do or to remind them God will help them deal with the situation. If they practice them enough, those Bible verses will be in their minds for the rest of their lives.
  • Find a few good friends. Popularity generally encourages lots of shallow friendships over a handful of meaningful ones. Teach your kids how to find a true, godly friend. They only need one or two. Teach them to seek friends who will encourage them to obey God. Often these people are Christians themselves, but not always depending upon where you live. If your kids can’t find Christian friends, teach them to look for people who want to support them in their principles and morals even if they themselves don’t always follow those same standards for strictly spiritual reasons.
  • Have other options ready. Often peer pressure is to participate in a default activity when young people are bored. They’ve not been taught to think of fun things to do that don’t involve making poor choices. Teach your kids how to find other fun, more interesting things to do and present them as alternatives. It won’t always work, but it works more times than people realize. If the ideas are rejected, encourage your kids to go ahead and do something else that is fun, but a good choice. Saying no to peer pressure does not require one to sit at home alone, bored and sad. Teach them they can have fun doing what is right…even if they are doing something by themselves.

Avoiding peer pressure is tough. Otherwise it wouldn’t involve the word pressure. Working with your kids to be strong in the face of peer pressure will take time and effort, but it can help them avoid making poor choices for the rest of their lives.