Young children’s vocabulary grows incrementally between the ages of two and five. They quickly pick up words and, as their development allows, begin to string them together to communicate. By the time a child is age four, chances are, they will probably be able to speak (or sign) hundreds of words and understand even more. As a former preschool teacher, I discovered that one of the best perks of the job was the opportunity to sit and have an in-depth conversation with a three-year-old.
I’ve been in enough children’s ministry classrooms to know that not everyone is aware of this special perk. I have witnessed classrooms filled with littles engaged with their environment, or the toys, or one another . . . but not with the adults in the room. Often, adults stand above their small congregations, silently watching to make sure that nobody gets hurt or breaks the rules. What a grave mistake! As children are learning about God, what better way to represent what relationship and fellowship look like than to get down on the level of these little loved ones and engage?
When conversations with children are intentional and meaningful, you’ll see so many benefits:
- Separation anxiety is reduced
- Loving relationships are increased
- Aggressive and destructive behavior is diminished
- Connection with families is strengthened
- Children bond better with adults and other kids
- Doors to talk about God in a meaningful way are opened!
Sometimes, people will tell me that they just don’t feel very good at talking to littles. I’ll watch them as they try to connect by peppering a child with a bunch of questions that only require one-word answers, “Is that a bear? What color is the bear? Can I have the bear? Where did you get that bear?” The poor child often looks overwhelmed and many times shuts down from answering or just walks away.
Can you imagine going to breakfast with your pastor and having them use the same technique? “What did you order for breakfast? Are those eggs? What color are your eggs? Where do eggs come from? Can I have a bite?” It wouldn’t be long, probably, that you’d feel overwhelmed and might be thinking about how you could sneak out to the parking lot, never to return.
That’s because meaningful conversations are different than interviews or interrogations. Interviews or interrogations are more focused on one-sided questions and correct answers. Conversations involve input from both sides, and the process is much more important than the product. In other words, if a child is given just a bunch of rapid-fire questions, they will be more likely to feel the pressure to perform. However, if an adult is skilled in the art of open-ended questions (questions that don’t have right or wrong answers, like “tell me about your new shoes!” and “how did you learn how do that trick?”) and feedback loops (conversations which build on the last thing a person says, looping around back and forth), chances are better that you’ll reap the fruit of a meaningful conversation.
So, what’s the trick to mastering this? First, practice makes perfect. The more conversations you have, the more comfortable you will feel. Sit at eye level with the children (on the floor or in a small chair) and challenge yourself to see how many times you can loop conversation around (imagine a ping-pong game: it’s so much more interesting the longer the ball stays in motion). Also, read the Bible lesson really well the week before so you are familiar with the concepts you’ll be learning. This way, you can work in key words and phrases to your conversation. “Oh, you have a friend at home who is your NEIGHBOR? How did you get to meet your neighbor?” You’ll soon find that connecting the Bible with your conversation will become easier and easier. Finally, enjoy yourself! You will never find a more loving and forgiving and entertaining conversation partner than a preschooler. Once you’ve made the commitment to really prioritize meaningful conversation, you’ll find it gets easier and easier!