Part of my job at Saint Barnabas includes writing articles for our quarterly parish newsletter. When the editor asked me to write about what was “new and exciting” for our children and youth programs this coming year, I’ll admit to feeling like I wasn’t working hard enough this summer. I didn’t have anything new and exciting to report at all. Actually, I wanted to write about not having anything new and exciting to say. We were pleased with what we did last year and so only planned on…well, doing more of that really great stuff.
It turns out that’s not exactly the case (and would’ve made a really boring newsletter article, anyway). In truth, I’ve spent this summer trying to revisit the work I did last summer to conceptualize and build our program: what we did, why we did it, what was worth keeping and what wasn’t.
This was meant to further enhance our own program, of course, but also to help other churches replicate what we’ve done at Saint Barnabas. Parishes from up Cape and down Cape, the Islands, rural south to the urban center of 5th Avenue have contacted me about our children’s program. The message is clear: churches are hungry to offer something meaningful to families—and they heard we’ve managed to do it.
Our program prides itself on resting at the intersection between what children and families need and what the church can and should provide. Churches need young families, sure, but not as fixtures sitting in the back pews. They need us to bring life to the church in a real way, finding ways to connect to members of every generation with meaning, understanding and love.
And what do we—as young families—need from the church? Well, probably more than we think. Parishioner Jaci Conry Hogan wrote an article last winter about children and empathy, and quotes of mine appeared alongside Harvard professor Richard Weissbourd, the world’s leading researcher on the matter. Weissbourd dedicates his life to finding ways to make children more caring, making him a bona fide superhero. To me, at least.
His research and that of others offers some grim facts about children’s values (and what they perceive their parents’ value to be).
In a study of over 10,000 children and youth, more than 80% believe their parents value—most of all—high achievement and personal happiness, trumping kindness and caring. This, despite a whopping 96% of parents claiming that they actually value caring and kindness more. It appears children aren’t getting the message that we think we’re sending: that being a good person is important, like super important. I find this incredibly troublesome, though shamefully affirming. Parents at Saint Barnabas already had this hunch, and told me so, which is why our program was created in the first place.
Parents sense that their messages of love and kindness are being drowned out by the noise of personal success and high achievement in our culture. And it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening. But don’t despair. I met with Weissbourd this summer, both to explore how his research could be useful in my book*, but also in our children and youth programs. The good news is that he’s optimistic about programs like ours and recommends four things that can shift the balance toward more caring children: regular practice of taking care of others, role models who have similar values, productive ways to manage destructive feelings like envy or anger, and learning to empathize with others. We’re doing all of those things here, all through the lens of a theme we’ve no plans to discontinue: love.
With a focus on developing empathy through intergenerational relationships and age-appropriate service projects, we aim to help parents raise children who are caring and kind, giving and grateful, and who feel prepared to use love of self, neighbor and God to address today’s challenges and those that lie ahead.
The plan: do even more of that in the coming year.