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Thursday, April 26, 2007

The rest of Ask the Matriarch: problem child(ren)

Hello, I am back and at your service. I had no idea that the event at Zach's preschool was going to take so long. Sorry. But lets get on to the wisdom and knowledge of our Matriarchs as they deal with a question about problem children.
Dear Matriarchs,
I head up the children's ministry programs at church. We have been working really hard to get more folks in for Sunday morning programs, as well as others. The increase in kids (happily) means an increased need for volunteers.

Problem: One couple and another lady have stated they do not like to help because of the behavior of other peoples kids. These folks do not wish to volunteer, but they also do not want to bring their kids.There are two kids who are especially trying and oddly enough they show up every week! Fancy that. They are cute, though! :)

Anyhow, I want all my kids there, but I would like volunteers to help. How does one deal with the issue of kids' misbehavior, keeping volunteers and kids' numbers up and most of all, not hurt any one's feelings?

Didn't Jesus say, "Let the children come to me?" Aren't we supposed to be like Jesus?
And the answers our Matriarchs gave to this Minister of Children,

It sounds like training for both volunteers and parents would be helpful.

Convey the privilege of sharing faith with children -- the amazing moment when you realize that you are sharing the story of Sarah & Abraham or Noah or David for the first time with a child. Maybe someone (you?) who has experienced amazing moments doing this ministry could speak briefly in worship. It makes a huge difference to share what a difference this ministry makes in your own spiritual life. And then invite members to consider if they might have gifts in this area.

We've also experienced problems when one or two children make it difficult for the others. (We once had a family leave our congregation because a boy was so nasty to their daughter.) If necessary, you and another respected adult should talk with the parents of the exuberant (!) kids to figure out what might be done to help those kids work better with the whole group.

Some parents (we've found especially first-time parents) will never feel like your program is helpful/safe enough/right for their children. That's okay. Prove them wrong by offering an awesome program.

As for behavior, it might help to have some agreed-upon standards (no hitting, no yelling, etc.) of behavior.

It may not be possible to avoid hurting someone.

First, are the expectations of what behavior is expected made clear to the kids? They have to know, black and white, what is okay and what is not. They also need to know what happens if they do not behave. Will they be given a warning? Two warnings? Will they be sent to sit with mom and dad? If the expectations are clear, and the consequences are clear, it is critical that the adults follow through. No tears or saying “I won’t do it again…pleeeeze.” Everyone needs to be in agreement and willing to stand firm.

Secondly, do the parents of the two cute but misbehaving children know that there are issues? If you make expectations clear, and you follow through, and problems continue, I’d recommend a meeting with them where you can, as gently as possible, let them know what is happening and hopefully enlist their aid.

I vividly remember in our first pastorate years ago when the sweet, elderly children’s church leader came to me….in fear and trepidation…to let me know that my darling little boy was the terror of the class. She had let him get away with bratty behavior for weeks. Of course, it escalated. She was afraid to tell me, poor dear. When she finally let me know, I told her I wished she had told me sooner. We had a serious talk with our little guy. Who wants a bratty PK that no one will confront! He was genuinely sorry. He sent her a card, and he apologized, and his behavior changed. But if I’d have known I would have acted sooner. Of course, the parents of these kids may not see it that way.

It is unfortunately true that even one consistently out of control kid can have a serious negative impact--not just on your Children's Ministry, but on the whole congregation. At one church I served I am very sure that the behavior of one particular set of siblings was consistently the reason that first time visitors often did not return.
There is usually more going on in these families that just unruly children.Take a team approach and get the pastor(s) and other staff to have a conversation about this issue. What does the other staff know about this family? Sometimes, when you all put in the piece of the puzzle you've got, a solution emerges--or you discover that the problem is bigger and deeper than you imagined and requires a serious, co-operative effort--or a professional intervention of some sort.
And sometimes the problem is systemic to the congregation. In the situation I mentioned in my former church, a big part of the problem was that these kids were part of the large, extended family that was the heart and core of that small congregation. To challenge their behavior would have required me and everyone else to challenge that family's control of all kinds of things that went on there, both good and bad. It wasn't something I could do myself and the rest of the congregation wasn't inclined to. So look beyond the problem family to see if there is a wider issue regarding how ministry decisions get made and how power is distributed.
There are many times there are children that come without their parents and can be unruly. There are children who are member's children who misbehave. There are kids who have emotional behavioral problems as well. All this children are God's children, and are welcome in the church. But what do you do with the program then? If these are kids that are coming with no parents, or the parents are new to church, you can remind the church members, council that by them coming you the church can be the place they can learn manners, appropriate behavior, and most of all about God's love for them. What an opportunity. It may be several years before the vision catches on for all involved. If these kids are church members kids, then the other matriarchs have give some thoughtful advise.
It has become harder to get volunteers to work with children, also, no matter if the children are good or bad. I am not sure though we are looking for volunteers in the church; but rather Disciples, people living out their passion and using their gifts and graces. That may also have to do with the question is your church a gift based ministry or volunteer based? Perhaps you, the Pastor and others on staff may need to address this matter. But if you are going to go with volunteers, Group publishing has some good material and conferences on Volunteers in the church called Volunteer Central. Group also has some good material on Children's ministry. PS, my sister who is Christian Education Minister working with children, swears by Group Publishing. God bless you in your ministry with children, their parents and families.
Now don't we have wise Matriarchs.


  1. yup wise Matriachs- nothing to add except that God made these children- and when they are difficult and we can't cope whose problem are we reflecting???

  2. Dear all- I have worked with children's ministry and early childhood education for years....and yes, the ones who are the most disruptive are usually the ones who show up every week- for everything- maybe because they need God and God's family so much! That said, there are many variations in temperament, parenting styles, etc- the rule about consistent behavioral guidelines and policies is critical- and it doesn't need to be mean spirited- just a "Jeffy doesn't seem ready to be with others today, Mom and Dad" as you hand him back to his parents care. Be well- N

  3. Just a little question - does "hand them back to their parents care" when they aren't playing well with others mean that attending worship with their parents would be seen as punishment?

  4. The most practical action that we've taken to deal with behavior problems (of which we've had very few, but a couple of definitely notable one!) was to include a behavior covenant along with our Sunday School registration form that both parent and child have to read and sign. The consequences are spelled out clearly in three steps: #1 - child is pulled out briefly so inappropriate behavior and expectation for change is explained; #2 - child is pulled out again and this time parent is notified of second incident and any discussion; #3 - child is pulled out and parent is located - next class parent has to attend with child. (Note: where parent can be found in the building during SS and a cell phone number - in case they go to Starbucks - is also recorded on the registration form.

    With clear step-by-step guidelines for addressing behavior problmes, we've had no more issues with volunteers balking or with children continuing bad behavior.

  5. Children often copy what's in the home...outside the home. They are precious gifts from God who need respect shown/given just as we all do. That's how they learn what receiving it. Otherwise its an empty word. Just as love would be without the experience.

    How we teach is what we teach...scary, when I hear a child who asks for a hug and is told she's a "suck". Not a Jesus message, not a love message.

    Children do need to know what is expected. Rules of 'no hitting', 'no shouting', apply to adults and children alike.

    Children haven't as many 'words' yet to tell how they feel about something, so adults need to take the time to talk about 'how they feel when...'. Then alternatives can be talked about and learned. Take the time to teach self-discipline...which force never can.

    Let's never deny anyone's feelings, especially a child's. They may go elsewhere to be heard because they'll know they don't count. Feelings are just that...feelings; they are not right, or wrong. What you DO about those feelings can be right, or wrong.

    Our society has odd rules anyway...for all of us. They rarely fit the lovingness of Jesus' way.

    In my 'former life' of teaching young children in Day Care, I learned that I set the tone and they follow accordingly. We as minister, teachers, bosses, etc. have no idea if there was a 'melt down' at home before they arrived. Adults have them too..we all do.

    Labels will not be helpful... and when something is over, it's over ...leave it there. Deal with each situation as it is. Dragging them on leaves things unfinished, unforgiven and dangling. No child can handle that inside hurt for long.

    Following through is important, but only when the 'follow through' is a decent, and respectful of body, mind and soul. This includes all ages, for God created us holy and sacred as the only living creatures who are conscious and know it.

    Whew!! Now that calls for responsible behaviour.

    By the way, children are never responsible for an adult's behaviour. In taking ownership of our own feelings..we are more apt to stay 'adult' rather than abdicate our adulthood and scurry back to childhood 'stuff'. It is confusing for children when adults become...not child-like, but childish...a huge difference.

    There are times when everyone needs to take a 'time out'. Self-discipline can be difficult at times, but again they copy us.

    Blessings be upon all who work with the youngest children of God!
    They will be able to change this warring, power greedy world into something God had intended in the first place.

    We live in a noisy gong, clangy symbol is the only way to transform it.

    If this long-winded...children are a passion and a wonder to behold. And can make, and break our hearts....but we, also, can do that to them far more easily.


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