Sunday, June 16, 2013

Talking to children

Talking to children is a tricky affair for most adults.  Most adults speak to children the way they speak to another adult albeit in a slower, sing-song voice with plenty of exaggerated tones you don't hear in an adults conversation.  In many cases, the content of what we say are largely attempts to bring them into an adult's world as quickly as possible, to equip them to interact in our world.  At times, I find it a little condescending.

It is unfortunate that many adults have forgotten what it was like to be a child.  Truthfully, though, there are physiological reasons for this forgetfulness.  Apparently, a child's ability to constantly learn is based on a child's brain deleting memories to make way for new ones.  Which, explains why we lose most of our memories of very early childhood even as we  remember memories from just a few years later with clear vividness.

Children do not listen and understand in the way adults do.  For one thing, they have much shorter attention spans.  Also, when a child's brain gets bombarded by many new imageries as in a complicated idea, the child's brain seems to blank out those ideas that it does not understand and focus on those that they do.  There is only so much time to process these ideas before the next one comes in.  As a result, such selective understanding of a complicated message may result in an incorrect understanding of the message.

Another principle is that, in common with adults, we all learn better when we are thinking through the concept rather than passively listening to it.

I have been working with children in the Church for three decades (has it been that long??).  There has been plenty of time to analyse how complicated church doctrines can be reduced to simple terms that children can digest.  Plenty in the armoury of how to explain these complicated church doctrines to children.

I, therefore, would like to share with you some principles of talking to children that I and others have found successful.  In particular, I would like to focus on sharing the Sunday Gospel with children, which is the aim of this blog. 

Many adults tend to be rather didactic when talking to children.  That was how our parents talked to us.  However, the world has inexorably moved on.  We now realised that children now need to explore and understand on the basis of their own personal voyage of discovery.  Not just children but adults too and that has spawned a whole new practice in the corporate world called coaching.

I apply the concept of coaching by asking the children leading questions and prompting them with those questions to the direction I intend for the discussion to go. This requires a lot of preparation as a series of questions need to be prepared with variations planned if different answers takes you down different paths of discussions.  You also need to enjoy repartees as such sessions depend very much on children being willing to give you answers, or insist on a particular point of view.  And who knows what children will say when given the freedom to do so.

But believe me, it is worth it.  Sometimes discussions go into areas where we do not expect.  But such discussions tend to be very rich as it focuses on a topic that the children wanted to know.  We just have to leave it to the Holy Spirit to lead the discussions.

As a rule of thumb I find the sessions successful if the children spoke 80% of the time.  Some faith educators, sadly, find this threatening to their role.  In such discussions, my role is limited to summarising all the input from the children into a single coherent and simple idea that they will take all along with them.  This summary is important and should be a single idea delivered in no more than two sentences with full emphasis.  This sends the children off for the week with that one idea in their head.

We live in a world of sound bites.  Today's children are used to ideas being delivered to them in small chunks that they can absorb in the short time as they flit from one activity or thought to another.  More so in today's world of targeted advertising, fast moving computer games and short messages on phones & laptops.

Concepts have to be packed in small stand-alone packages.  Such packages should be limited to no more than two minutes.  This will enable children to understand the concept in the short time even if their attention wanders.  This, by the way, also applies to adults.  I have ran talks with people who walk in and out of the room.  Even in such situations, attendees can understand a single concept as long as they are there for those two minutes.  Because each package is delivered as a stand-alone, the listener does not need to know what came before and what came after.

An example of a stand-alone package that I use is the link from carnivals to Ash Wednesday.  The famous Carnival is the one in Rio de Janeiro, held on the weekend before Ash Wednesday from Friday to Tuesday.  This is a great party in which everyone had a jolly good time and eat what they want to eat before the fasting begins on Ash Wednesday. Carnival comes from two words - "carni" which means "meat" as in "carnivore" and "levare" which means "to put away".  So carnival is "putting away meat" which is how the people of Rio choose to put away meat before the fasting begins in Lent, when no meat is consumed for the forty days in Lent in times past.  See the children's eyes widen when I tell them that under rules of olden days, they cannot have MacDonald's for forty days!!

Now, after I tell you this, I am sure whenever the carnival comes on TV every year, you will always remember that in the past, meat is never consumed during Lent.

Concepts you want to have to get across to the children must be relevant to the children.  It is no use talking to them in adult concepts.  All concepts must be translated into everyday children experience that they encounter at home and in school. For that, we need to view the world from the eyes of a child.  No point telling them things that will be relevant to them in the future ("When you get married one day when you are older, you should .....").  Children have too many everyday things to worry about today without having to keep something in mind for a later date.

So, paraphrase concepts and words from the Catechism with ideas that mean something to the children.  We do not talk about sins but we talk about doing wrong.  We do not talk about crimes such as murder but we talk about taking cookies before dinner even after Mom has told us not to.  You are not watering down the Catechism when you do so, but rather you are throwing light on them.  If you don't find an idea that would be relevant to the children, maybe it is not yet time to talk to them about it.  We don't need to discuss the Seventh Commandment with five-year-old children, for instance.

One variation of this idea is to draw parallels between a concept that they understand and a concept that you want to get across.  Drawing parallels are a great tool as it forms an easy bridge for them to get from something they understand well to something new.  Still, as with all allegories, parallels have their limits and you need to ensure the mirrors are not exact.  Otherwise, you could end up with very hilarious conclusions.

An example: You get the concept of the Church across by explaining that we belong to two families.  The family at home, where Mom and Dad are the heads; and the family of the Church, where God is the head.  Many other concepts can emanate from this understanding.  For instance, just as the family at home gather round the dining table for dinner, the family of the Church gather round the altar for mass.  And both tables have many things in common: they both have a cloth over it (tablecloth/altar cloth).  They both have something in the middle taking the pride of place (the main course/bread and wine).  You can see how you can take this on and on.

In future blogs, I hope to expand on these principles with more concrete examples.  I hope they help.  Let me know what you think of them.

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