What do children need most?
I write this article not from my perspective as an all-age worship leader, nor as a children's worker, nor even as a parent, even though all those may be real and valid positions to consider, but others have written far more effectively than I could hope to from those perspectives. Instead, I write mainly from my memories and viewpoints as I remember them from when I really was a child (and I hope to be a child again soon! I love Graham Kendrick's song: "Growing up to be a child", which echoes Jesus' words: "unless you become like little children..." Matt 18:3)
I believe that if you ask any child the question: "What do you need most?", you may firstly get an answer that reflects their immediate situation (eg. money, clothes, good results in my test tomorrow), but if you clarify that you mean in general terms, what do they, or any other child need most, they will almost certainly say something like "their parents" or (if they're well-taught church kids!) "Jesus", and then if you ask what it is that their parents or Jesus could give them that they need, they will probably say "love". I've tried it with a few children, and either first, second or third time round it ends up at the same conclusion: love.
It's been suggested that you and I, and virtually everyone who is alive or has ever lived essentially has the same basic spiritual problem. That is, we simply don't know how much we are loved. If you really knew (in your heart as well as your head) how much God loved you, then all your other problems and struggles would take on a whole new perspective.
So, for children, we could sum up everything that we need to do for them as children's workers in a church setting, or as parents in the home, by simply saying that we need to love them, and by our words and actions, let them know that they are loved. Of course, teaching, training, encouraging, correcting, are all valid and essential activities, and we should do them, but without love, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13, it's nothing.
Think back to your own childhood. Whether it was broadly happy or sad, ask yourself the question: which people had the greatest positive impact on my life? If you had loving parents, then they may be high on your list, but who are the others, and why? As I did this myself, I came up with a fairly short list of 5 or 6 people, some of whom were christians and some not, but at the time, and looking back now, I could sense that essentially they were "for me", or "on my side", or "cared", or however I could describe it: I know they loved me. The list included teachers, family friends and children's workers. The startling thing is that there are only a few that I can remember. Not that there weren't others who loved me (I know there were), but for whatever reason, I didn't know it or feel it at the time.
In the UK, some of the greatest modern-day heroes to my mind are school teachers, because many manage to hang on to their ideals and motivation for wanting to teach, despite the generally poor pay and conditions. Many, sadly however, do not, and end up going through the motions of teaching, without the spark of passion and care for children that they maybe once had, but has been diminished or extinguished by "the system". Sadly, the same is sometimes true in our churches, and for many different reasons, children's workers can often feel isolated (out of sight, out of mind), under-valued, and embittered. In my experience, two of the toughest callings and ministries in the church can be children's work, and cell group (or housegroup, small group, midweek groups, whatever you call it!) leadership. The challenge to church leaders is to love and cherish children's workers in a way that will enable them to do the same for the children in their care. (If you want to check out the spiritual health of a church, don't just go to the main service, go with the children to their separate groups)
How does this concept that we need to demonstrate love for children translate into practice? Or, simply put, how do you let children know that they are loved. As with any relationship, some of the keys are:
spending time with the children to develop friendship and understanding, especially outside the set times of the church timetable.
talking to the children as equals, and showing an interest in their hobbies, family, pets, schoolwork, whatever. Many children arrive at church, but no-one talks to them until they get to Sunday School; worse still, they talk over them.
being prepared to tolerate and forgive where necessary. Children are, by definition, immature, so whilst we should expect and teach high standards of manners and behaviour, we should be quick to forgive (7 times? No, 70 x 7)
standing up for the children whenever necessary; championing their cause
giving children the best, in terms of our time and effort, the quality of the teaching materials we use, the songs, the equipment, and so on. Why should the "adult church" have all the best resources, and the children be left with the crumbs?
Ultimately, it's not the content of our teaching programme, nor the excellence of our presentation, teaching and discipline skills that will matter, important as all of those are. What counts in the long term is whether we love children, and how we show it.