Leading Well During Childhood Transitions
by Amy Diller
Transitions are a normal part of life that often produce strong feelings for parents and children. Excitement, anticipation, wistfulness, and uncertainty make these transitions important steps for a child and his or her parents. If you are a parent yourself, you know what it’s like to watch your child move from one stage of development to another and have a unique insight into different transitions. If you don’t have kids of your own, learn from parents who have been through various stages with their children. The more you understand the typical feelings that arise during these memorable times you will be able to support families during these important changes.
From preschool to elementary grades and eventually middle school, parents and children experience a need for assistance and assurance. Even though these steps are often connected to school transitions, the same feelings can be associated with changes in church programming as well. So, what can you do to lead well through these important life transitions?
Focusing on the movement from preschool to children’s church or grade-level Sunday school groups is likely a time parents and children will need help to make the transition easier. Your preschool environment is probably set up to be full of play time along with a developmentally appropriate lesson. Whatever age you move children to the “big kids,” the change is a giant step. This transition may tug on parents’ heartstrings as they see their little one growing up, and children may have a difficult time with the switch. Consider hosting a get-to-know-you night. Invite parents and children into your elementary spaces. Allow kids to check out the rooms and activities they’ll get to do. Talk with parents about the routines and schedule you follow on Sunday mornings and midweek services. Introduce the volunteers who will be spending time with their child. Encourage them to ask questions and assure them that you will help reluctant children to become comfortable in this new place and will support parents in any way you can. This is also a great opportunity for parents to meet and form connections with others in the same stage of life.
During the elementary grades, you’ll have an influence on a child’s growing understanding of who God is and what He’s done for us. But this doesn’t take the place of a parent’s role. As the primary spiritual leaders in their homes, parents should be part of steps of faith. Again, provide opportunities for parents to come and learn about things like answering the tough questions kids ask about God, walking their child through salvation, preparing them to take communion, talking to kids about baptism, and starting to give and serve in the church.
Encourage parents that kids are not too young to walk out their faith and their relationship with Jesus. Assure parents that their kids may not yet be ready to make important decisions like salvation and baptism but laying the foundation helps children grow in their understanding of what it means to be a Christian. When kids express an interest in important faith decisions, don’t lead a child through the steps for salvation and baptism without involving the parents. These are huge moments for families to experience together. When a child asks to pray a prayer of salvation, you can simply tell them that you want to wait and include their parents because this is such a wonderful decision. You can be an important part of teaching kids about these things, but parents should always play a spiritually primary role. Even if parents are not saved themselves, they can be invited to be part of this beautiful moment. You never know what the experience with their child may do in their own lives.
The next transitional step in a child’s life is the big move from elementary classes to preteen or middle school ministries. This is a time that may present parents’ biggest need for guidance and support. They are thrust into a new world of changing hormones, mood swings, self-consciousness, possible interest in the opposite sex, and deeper questions about God as kids grow toward making their relationship with the Lord their own. Parents may not feel ready or prepared to walk through this transition. And as much as kids think they’re ready, they likely feel the push/pull of wanting to keep one foot in childhood and one foot moving toward being a teenager. Parents may experience that same push/pull, excited to see their children grow and yet sadness over wanting their kids to remain in childhood longer.
Your role in this transition is to partner with youth leaders to make this step a time of celebration as well as a time to calm anxieties both for kids and parents. Create a special event for kids and their parents to mark this occasion. As children’s ministry leaders, honor the kids moving from your area to another. Consider a gift to commemorate this time and pray a blessing over students. Provide time for students to interact with one another while your youth leaders take the opportunity to walk parents through the structure of this new ministry area. Allow lots of time for parents to ask questions while also being prepared to pose some of the questions parents may not ask but are probably thinking. Kids at this age may not yet have a personal relationship with Jesus, participated in communion, or been baptized. Share with parents how these things are handled in youth ministry, including the involvement of parents as spiritual leaders with the church as secondary support.
One of the last things that will help you greatly during these transitions is to become familiar with child development. Understanding typical growth in children will aid you as you create appealing environments and plan lessons and activities for kids. Focus on coming alongside parents as they walk through transitions in their child’s church experience. At any stage of a child’s and family’s life, always look for tools and resources to offer parents along the way. Pray for the families you interact with and yourself to have the wisdom to lead children through every age and stage well.