May 9, 2016—I received an e-mail from a church staff member about that perennial problem: the pushy parent (sometimes called “helicopter parents”). The problem comes in all forms: parents who want allowances or exceptions for their “special” child, their “gifted” child, or their “tender” child. They want the child advanced a grade, put in the “smart” class, held back a grade, or, put into the same group with their “special little friends.”
Once, when I was a school principal, a parent insisted I place her twin daughters in the same class all through grade school—and, requested that they always sit next to each other. There was no thought about encouraging individuation on the part of that mom! Even when a graduate school dean I’d get calls from parents (usually the mom) contesting a grade!
The harried staff member shared a case in which a mother wanted to keep her child, a kindergartener, in a younger Sunday School class, and, also keep her first-grade child with the younger children during the worship service afterward. This church includes kindergarteners in the worship service for the full hour.
I was gratified that the staff person gave attention to the developmental welfare of the child, and, to his commitment to the integrity of the program. That’s always a balancing act. Sometimes, you have to weigh one against the other. This is a common scenario. Most congregational program staff will face it every now and again–it inevitably comes around. How can congregational staff handle the dilemma?
First, it’s helpful to determine whether the matter is an educational issue, a church dynamic issue, or an individual congregational member issue. Certainly, it can be all of those things, but I find it helpful to identify what it is at heart. If one can do that, it’s easier to discern the best way to approach it, and also, to avoid approaching it from a perspective that will not address the problem. So, first question: what’s this all about?
Second, it’s important to educate parents about your church’s approach to education and formation, including children’s participation in corporate worship. The more we do that, and the more effective we are about it, the more it tends to mitigate situations like the one my caller described. When educating parents it’s helpful to remember that we are addressing two issues: (1) we need to “educate” the parents about developmental dynamics, faith development issues, church community practices and values, and the rationale of your church’s programming, and, (2) we need to address the anxiety issues of the parents. One is rational, the other is not. Do not confuse the one for the other but address both. Keep working at making this component more effective. It should be a regular part of your church’s curriculum for parents.
My own rule of thumb for most congregations is that the time to push for full attendance (and participation) in corporate worship is when the child is in first grade. Ideally, I agree that there is room for younger children in corporate worship, but there are some pragmatic issues we need to address. For one thing, there is advantage in waiting until children are “readers” so they can enjoy fuller participation in the corporate worship setting. Let’s face it, most of our congregational worship is adult-oriented and adult-focused. And while I believe that young children are very capable of being formed in their faith though the experience of corporate worship, and very capable of appreciating and participating at their level, let’s just confess that we’ve just not designed our corporate worship for them—that’s our fault, so we shouldn’t penalize the younger children.
Again, ideally, I’d say include children as young as four in the entire corporate worship service. With cultivation, you can work at including the K-5 children in corporate worship. But then the worship leaders (pastor, staff, lay leaders) need to be intentional about shaping the corporate worship experience to accommodate, respect, and address the matter of having a multigenerational worshipping community. (A good resource to read about this, and perhaps use to educate pastor and staff is, Howard Vanderwell (ed),. The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshipping Together (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
Emotional process issues
I think one danger in this scenario, and similar ones, is getting into a battle of wills with the parents. Avoid getting triangled in with the parent, the child, and whatever issue the parent is dealing with and is trying to pull you in on (anxiety issues related to the child, conflict with others in the church, unresolved issues with the Church or faith, etc.). In these situations it’s helpful to listen to the parent, ask for clarification about the request and the issue (ask lots of dumb questions and questions of clarification). Then, offer information about (1) how your church does it and why, and (2) your recommendation. You may ask the parent to decide what she/he thinks is best for the child in this situation. Whatever the parent(s) decide, you may say, “O.k., how about we try that for a couple of months and see if it works for [child’s name]?” Doing so helps make the focus about the welfare of the child, and not about you or the parent, or, about the parent AND you).
At that point, most parents will agree (I’ve never had one refuse—after all, they’ve gotten what they wanted, they were “heard”, and, they got to make a decision about their child). The parent’s decision may not be what you think best or wanted, but the issue here is that you give responsibility back to the parent about their child. I’m personally o.k., with the parent making a mistake, but I’ll also be available to help them correct it after the trial period is over.
If the bad decision results in the child disrupting a class or not being able to get along with other children (because the child is too young or too old), then you’ve got that “couple of months” trial period to get back to the parent and say, “This isn’t working,” and work at another solution (usually, it’s your original recommendation). I’ve found that by that point they are more ready to listen to you because (1) you took the time to listen to them, (2) empowered them to make a decision for their child, (3) didn’t format the relationship as a battle-of-wills, and (4) the situation they created has gotten worse and they want help or rescue.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.