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Thursday, January 31, 2013

How to Have Life Changing Youth Centered Conversations

I ate a healthy chocolate chip cookie the other day. Here's what the advertising says: "As much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal. As much iron as an 8oz cup of spinach. As much Vitamin E as 2 cups of carrot juice." My first thought was, "We are talking about a cookie, right? This is too good to be true!"

Then, I tasted one. And, thought, "This is definitely not too good to be true!"

Just for the record. I don't blame them for not making them taste good. Chocolate chip cookies aren't supposed to be healthy. Actually, saying "healthy chocolate chip cookie" is kind of like saying "beef-flavored turnips" or "turnip-flavored beef." They just don't belong in the same sentence let alone the same recipe.

Chocolate chip cookies should be tasty. And kale should be healthy.

As parents, we all want our kids to be healthy. We want them to grow and develop and when they don't, we do whatever is within our power to help them.

What can parents do to help their children be healthy spiritually? That’s an important question. 

Before we answer that we must ask another question that might turn our thinking on its head.

What can’t parents do to help their children grow spiritually? Or rather...

What can a child only do for themselves? As parents we try to interfere in lots of ways to supposedly help our children through life, but many of those things wind up hurting our children instead of helping them.

We can easily cross that line as parents:

We want our child to look the best or at least not stand out because they have clothes without name brands. But, they wind up learning that their worth is based on their appearance.

We cheer them on a little too vehemently from the sidelines or maybe even coach their team to show how much we care. But, they wind up learning that their value is based on their performance.

We work extra hard on their lines for the Christmas play so they won’t forget their lines. They learn that remembering the true meaning of Christmas isn’t as important as other peoples' opinions of us.

But, where is the line? How do we do all that we can to help and support and encourage our kids to be healthy without sending the wrong messages about what’s really important?

First of all, let me tell you what you know already, “It aint easy!”

You will mess up. The harder you try to control every possibility and figure out every angle, the more likely you are to either be paralyzed with fear and never do anything or, on the flip side, teach your child that they have to always be in control, always be perfect (and always be paranoid). Either way, you lose.

“The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one” ~ Elbert Hubbard

So, go and do and parent your kids and plan to make mistakes.

Alfred Adler, “Do not be afraid of making mistakes, for there is no other way of learning how to live!”

In the process, you will teach your kids that they, too, must learn how to live. They, too, must make mistakes in order to succeed.

So, how do we teach our children what’s really important? We communicate. We listen to them with our full attention and we speak to them with our whole heart. We think out-loud with them; we explain what we are thinking about and why. We talk to them about how to communicate, how we talk to one another. We listen to them and teach them to listen to others. Our children will learn to communicate by seeing us model it.

Then, we tell them what is most important to us and we listen to them tell us what is most important to them.

David Dollahite and Jennifer Thatcher decided that the best way to find out about the connection between spiritual growth and communication was to do some in-depth interviews with highly religious families. 74 families later, they found some interesting facts about communication with adolescents. See the chart below. It describes how adolescents react when parents take these proactive steps in their communication. Dollahite and Thatcher call them youth centered conversations. You’ll see why from the chart.

When parents…
Listen more attentively
Talk more openly
Are understanding and compassionate toward the teen and their circumstances
Receive understanding and then begin to seek it from parents
Find specific applications where religion or spirituality could help in the teen’s life
See religion or spirituality as practical and useful
Enjoy talking with the teen and leave the door open for future communication
Enjoy talking with parents and leave the door open for future communication
Make nurturing the relationship with their teen a high priority in their lives
Make nurturing the relationship with their parents a high priority in their lives

These youth centered conversations demonstrate a parent’s awareness of and desire to specifically care for the child’s spiritual needs. It’s simple, but the response is a life-changing relationship between parent and child. And as a result, their research shows that adolescents from highly religious homes desire to grow spiritually, appreciate their parents’ involvement in their spiritual lives, and do grow spiritually.[1]

That's all we want as parents isn't it? We really just want our kids to be healthy, to grow and develop. We don't have to wait until they are adolescents to start this though. My 8 and 10 year old are able to have these kinds of conversations with me already. They know I love them, that I am willing to listen and hopefully when the tough times come, they'll know that they can trust me and talk to me.

So, in the spirit of helping my kids be healthy, I only ate that one healthy chocolate chip cookie and saved the rest for them while I grabbed some Oreos.

[1] David C. Dollahite and Jennifer Y. Thatcher, “Talking About Religion,” Journal of Adolescent Research 23, no. 5 (2008): 628–29.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guarantee or a Promise

Proverbs 22:6 - Train up a child in the way he [or she] should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (KJV)

I love the sound of that verse.

But, is it a guarantee?
I wish it were. There are so few guarantees in life. But, I don’t think so.

Or is it a promise?
It sure sounds like it.

So, what does this verse promise exactly?
Let’s start with “the way.”

Solomon, the ancient writer of this verse, was probably talking about living a good life, one that counted, one that a parent could be proud of. Who wouldn't want that for their child?

He was a follower of the Lord Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So, that was a big part of what he meant when he talked about the way. But, he wrote a whole book, Proverbs, and another, Ecclesiastes, with some very specific wisdom about how to live life. He was very practical in his approach. His advice was hands on. Don't swindle your neighbor. A good ox brings a good harvest. And, "don't txt whIl U R drivin." Real practical stuff.

A Christian may read, “Train up a child in the way he should go,” and think, “I need to teach my child to believe in Christ and follow him as I do, then he gets older he will.” Does that sound like something Solomon would say? Not really. Even if we excuse the fact that Christ wasn’t around at the time, it just doesn’t sound like the rest of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Here is what Solomon did say in Ecclesiastes 12:13.

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. (NIV)

So, God was definitely at the core of Solomon’s life and teaching. So, if you want to “Train up your child in the way,” you’d better include that part. But there is so much more.

Proverbs 1:8 - Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction
    and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. (NIV)

Proverbs was written as a guide book on life from a father to a son. Solomon wanted many to learn from it, see verse 1-6 of chapter 1, but the first few chapters are directed specifically to a son.

Solomon gives advice about how to deal with bloodthirsty men and adulterous women, the importance of dealing fairly with your neighbors and business partners, and the blessings and difficulties of being married to the right (and wrong) woman.

Solomon describes life and gives his son practical wisdom about how to navigate through the best and worst that life has to offer. Training up a child in the way that he [or she] should go is not a matter of passing on a faith in Christ as much as it is engaging in a very real, practical, personal relationship with your child.

According to their research, Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton have concluded, “that the best social predictor, although not a guarantee, of what the religious and spiritual lives of youth will look like is what the religious and spiritual lives of their parents do look like.”[1]

So, pass on your faith while you are engaged in an intimate and genuine, growing relationship with your child. It’s likely that they will see who you are and imitate you.

But, they will only be able to imitate you as much as they can see and understand who you really are. If you hide your doubts, fears and failures from them and give them a perfect picture of your faith, they will see that you are hiding and imitate that in their own lives. If you parent them using fear and guilt to manipulate them, they will see through that and believe what they think you believe, “God is a god of fear and guilt.” And, they will choose not to follow such an immature and weak god.

But, if they see you growing and failing, loving and accepting as best you can, admitting failure and striving to do better next time, they will see you more clearly. They will long for a real relationship with God, like the one they have seen you model.

If you teach them how to balance their check book, how to love the unlovely, how to treat your neighbor, and how to walk confidently through difficult times, they will value the relationship that they have with you. They will imitate you and your faith. And God’s promise will make sense…

Train up a child in the way he [or she] should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (KJV)

PS - This week, I realized that the worst traits of each of my children are my worst traits. But, I later realized that my best traits are also each of my children's best traits. So far, God's word and the research are accurate with my family. How about in yours?

[1] Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, USA, 2005), 261.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Don't yell at the refs!

This morning, I am running from God. I don’t want to look him in the eye or rather, I don’t want to see the disappointment when he looks in mine. I just got so frustrated last night. It wasn’t about winning or losing. I have seen my children do both and that is not it. It is not even about how my child played. I have seen my children play amazingly well and play poorly, sometimes all in the same game.

It was the refs. You may be thinking, “What else is new?” But hear me out. I am the first to shake a ref’s hand after a game and thank them for coming and taking the time to do what they do. But, something about last night’s game got me so frustrated. I felt helpless. And, then I got mad. I didn’t curse or call names. I didn’t even complain about bad calls. I cheered.

I cheered for the refs when they called a foul. One time, I yelled, “Great call!  That was really a great call!” as I clapped a little too loudly. I was being honest. It was the right call. I was just trying to highlight the fact that there were dozens of other times when the same call could have been made. The other coach had her 7th and 8th grade girls doing a full court press in the basketball game. That wound up being lots of reaching fouls and over the back fouls and one fat lip foul and a couple of “How is that not a foul!” fouls. But very few of those got called.

In the first period, no fouls were called. By the third, fourth and fifth periods, a few more were called. That’s when I started cheering. I wanted to influence the refs, influence the game, change the atmosphere, but I felt powerless to do so.

"Speak the truth in love," we are told, but some situations are hard to figure out. How do I speak the truth and yet hold back the insults, the curses, or the accusations? I guess we all feel that way at times. Sometimes it’s the situation at work with a coworker or boss who doesn’t fight fair. Maybe it’s the teacher at school who has a moving target for what they expect from you. Or maybe it is at home, our parents, a spouse, even our children can frustrate us to no end. How do we sort through our frustration to stay focused on the truth and speak out of love?

Some things I could have done differently last night:
1 – Wait for the right time. Be patient. When we are frustrated it seems like the only time that matters is right now. We can’t see past the moment, past the frustration to see what is coming next. The time for speaking up is often after the intensity of the situation is over and everyone is separated from the emotion of the moment. Sometimes, by then, we realize that we don’t need to say anything at all.

2 – Communicate your frustration. Sometimes you just need to communicate to a trusted friend or even just write in a diary or journal. But when you need to confront someone, it is so empowering to say in a calm voice, “I was so frustrated when…” What you are really showing is--I own my emotions. I can speak of them without being controlled by them. I am willing to talk to you about them because I either care about you and our relationship or because I am required to have a relationship with you because of the situation that we are in. Either way, I don’t want to hurt you. But, I am going to be me. I am going to express my emotions appropriately and you will have to deal with that--But, be careful not to accuse. “You made me feel…” is never a good start. It puts people on the defensive.

3 – Seek relationship. It may seem counter-intuitive to think about the person that you are upset with as a potential friend, but the best result of this confrontation is that you and the other person have a better relationship as a result of the conversation. Until that is your desire, don’t begin the conversation. Go back to #1 above. 

During the conversation, make sure that the other person knows that you want to build or rebuild a friendship through this. If they think you just want to be right or to make them feel guilty, they will defend themselves and attack you. Then, things will get worse, not better.

If they do wind up defending themselves and attacking you, withdraw. Don’t take it personally. Withdraw from them emotionally and don’t be sucked into a fight. Tell them calmly again, “I am not interested in arguing, I was hoping to talk through this and build (or rebuild) a better relationship with you. If you aren’t willing or ready to do that, then we can stop. If you want to try again another day, let me know. I’m here.”

The only thing we really have to offer to others is ourselves. Love yourself. Respect yourself. Extend yourself to others. Oh, and don’t yell at the refs.

So it begins...

A Brief Bio and Motivation for Writing a Blog...

My name is David Zirilli. This is my first blog. I am only a couple of decades behind the trend, but I hope this will be an encouraging blog to those who read it.

I am the husband of just one wife, Rachel, the father of four uniquely amazing kids, Anna-16, Katie-14, Ethan-10, and Ryan-8, housemate with Buddy the dog, and related to many, many more. I come from a big and diverse family.

I am a Doctor of Ministry, received my degree in June 2012.

I have been a pastor for most of my adult life. I was a part time youth pastor at age 21 in Windsor NY. I got married and moved to Houghton while Rachel finished her senior year of college and was a part time youth pastor in Delevan NY. I then moved back home to Orange County and was a pastor in Middletown for 18 years.

In August 2012, we began a home church in Campbell Hall NY. This has been the best ministry work that we have ever done as a family. We are excited to see what God will do in and through us during this season of our lives.

I completed my D.Min. degree by writing a 180 page dissertation that has transformed my perspective on spiritual development. I realized that as a pastor I was isolated from so much good information and research because of the divide that exists between those who study spiritual development and those who are doing hands on work in families and churches around the world.

My desire is to help bridge that gap. I want to take the insights from research that I have read and my own research and share those insights in practical ways that can help real people grow and develop spiritually and help others grow as well.

Relationships are key to growth, so I look forward to interacting with you through your comments and questions. We have so much potential for greater understanding when we work together. "As iron sharpens iron, so one [person] sharpens another.

Thanks for taking a moment to read this and to join the conversation!