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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.

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