In social justice and in Sunday school, we need to pay more attention to the lessons we can learn from kids.
When I joined a volunteer committee to rework my church’s Sunday school policies, I was reminded of the recent Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex. The movie hinges on the evolution of justice and equality before the law. A pivotal scene follows Ruth and her teenaged daughter, Jane, walking down a city street framed by construction in 1971, at the beginning of Ruth’s career as a litigator. When men in hardhats hurl catcalls at them, Jane throws back a smart, loud scolding. Ruth marvels at this, knowing that she would have never dared to call out misogynistic bullying behavior like this when she was Jane’s age.
Ruth was struck with the revelation that radical social change had already happened. Ideas about justice and how to fight for it had evolved. In the movie, Jane showed her mom how far society had come, how far the arc of history had bent toward justice—and that gave her mom the confidence to attack the many laws that discriminated on the basis of sex.
Much as the United States needed (and still needs) to revise discriminatory laws, churches need to change the way we think about children’s ministry. In working to update our Sunday school policies—like Justice Ginsburg—we found that the lessons driving us to re-evaluate our standards were lessons learned from our kids.
Ideas about how to practice kindness evolve, and our policies should evolve with them.
The last time my church had revised our Sunday school policies and procedures was the year 2002, so our children’s minister and committee volunteers (like me) had our work cut out for us.
Most of our revision work was straightforward: we still needed fire drills and volunteers and registration forms and first aid procedures; so, for many of our policies, we just updated to reflect our current practices. Some policies were so outdated, however, that they just needed to be removed. We had some quaint ideas about how to use email in 2002, for example, and those policies needed to go. We also had some ideas about disciplinary procedures that needed to go. We had a draconian policy stating that if a child disrupts a Sunday school class, the teacher gives one verbal warning, and if the problem continues, the child is removed from class. In 2019, we think we can do better. We think our faith—a faith that calls us to be kind to all people—asks us to do better. Ideas about how to practice kindness evolve, and our policies should evolve with them.
In my many years as a Sunday school teacher, I have been blessed with some magical experiences. I have taught Sunday school when a neatly spaced circle of children sat rapt in our story. I have taught Sunday school when the kids raised their hands and waited to be called on, and their comments were easy to interpret and those comments took the discussion exactly where I wanted it to go. I have taught Sunday school when our movement activities were full of grace and cooperation and awareness of the bodies and the furniture and the walls around us so that no one ran into anything. But, most of the time, Sunday school isn’t magically perfect. The grownups aren’t perfect. The kids aren’t perfect. Sometimes I even see edges of behavior that give me insight into why our 2002 discipline policy existed. It can be easier to condemn and turn away from a problem than try to understand it and work to engage its root causes.
Understanding others is a profound act of kindness. Practicing kindness in Sunday school requires learning about the kids in it. Our Sunday school kids may or may not have the words to tell us what is going on inside them. Sometimes behavior is their primary way of communicating, and interpreting that behavior isn’t always easy. Adding to the communication challenge is the tendency for the kids who need the most love to ask for it in the most unloving ways. A kid’s behavior may be a way of expressing anger, confusion, fear, exhaustion, grief, pain. Or, as one kid who couldn’t sit contained during our story told me, “I just have a lot of extra energy this morning.” Even though it isn’t always easy, understanding a problem offers a road map toward solutions grounded in empathy.
When both kids and grownups are teachers and learners together, finding solutions is a team effort, and the synergy can expand everyone’s world view.
Sometimes kids may have a hard time communicating verbally, but sometimes they can articulate lots of wisdom. The kids at church have taught me that wisdom is much more than a function of age and experience. Being the grownup in a Sunday school class carries plenty of responsibilities, but being the sole source of wisdom is not one of them. A truly wise Sunday school teacher solicits and employs the wisdom of the kids. Creating space for the kids to share their wisdom builds community and hones their ability to relate to each other. Rather than exploiting our power as grownups and calling all the shots, we can empower the kids to help us and each other. When both kids and grownups are teachers and learners together, finding solutions is a team effort, and the synergy can expand everyone’s world view.
We are now able to see how our church’s 2002 disciplinary policy was outdated because the arc of history has bent towards justice. And, as is so often the case, it is our kids who show us how far we’ve come.
To be clear: changing policies and expectations does not mean a change in our core principles. Rather, it is our religious principles that call us to reform and revitalize our policies, instead of becoming stuck in our ways—and often we need the voices of children in order to see how to do that. When I’ve been with religious youth at youth conferences and summer camp, I’ve witnessed them living our faith in radical ways. They are welcoming and considerate and they strive to help each other feel safe. When they describe the community they create in those spaces, I hear the word “healthy” a lot. This community of religious youth teaches the tools of kindness: how to ask, how to listen, how to help. They enabled me to practice asking inclusive questions like: “My name is Tess and I prefer the pronouns she/her/hers. What’s your name?” Because of these youth, the way I introduce myself has changed since 2002. Kindness has evolved.
Like most things in life, the more we practice, the better we get. Kindness can be taught. Getting the words right can be taught. The more we practice those tools of kindness—asking, listening, helping—the better we get, no matter how old we are. To practice empathy, we ask things like:
“You seem sad. Is everything okay?”
“You seem unable to sit still. What’s going on?”
“What do you think might solve this problem?”
And then we listen. We make the time and space to listen. We affirm what we hear and do what we can to help, saying things like:
“I see how you feel.”
“I’m here for you.”
“In this place, we help each other.”
“I want to ease your pain.”
Tools of kindness can be used to help a kid who’s having difficulty sitting still. These same tools of kindness are also fundamental to social justice. Striving for social justice is how we practice kindness on a macroscale. Social justice action requires the empathetic work of learning about individuals and communities who face injustice. We enter into conversations so we can understand the problem. We read work by marginalized people. We discern historical truths. Empathetic learning empowers us to fight for a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Children are the empathic elite….and they have learned that being a listener means standing up for those whose voices might otherwise be drown out by hate or fear or ignorance.
My church kids carry wisdom and empathy. Even when behavior in Sunday School is challenging or unexpected, our kids are reliably kind. Even as our national leaders spout hate and meanness, our kids are kind. And, from my experience as a school teacher in a variety of communities, most kids are kind. Almost all of them believe in kindness and know that being kind makes them feel good. When they come into their school communities, most are ready, willing, and able to hone their kindness skills. In my church community, when we gather with our kids—kids who are already proficient at using the tools of kindness—we owe it to them to lift up kindness in turn. So, rather than removing a child, at my church we will now affirm that child’s inherent worth and dignity by asking, listening, helping. In practical terms, this might include taking a little walk with a supportive grownup in the hallway. It also includes coaching the other kids to ask, listen, and use their wisdom to help. To help their friend who came to Sunday school with a lot of extra energy, one of our kids suggested we look into getting a special seat cushion, one designed for wigglers. We haven’t gotten the cushion yet, but, remarkably, the thoughtful suggestion itself seemed to have a calming effect. Kindness can be transformative.
There is an old Japanese saying: “One kind word can warm three winter months.” The world over, humanity calls us to be gentle with others, to be kinder than necessary, to be on the lookout for people who need help. People of all ages are in more pain than we can see. Kindness is a powerful healer. When bad things happen, Mr. Rogers advised children, “Look for the helpers.” But what I know from being around kids and youth in our faith community is that, so often, they are the helpers. Children are the empathic elite. Children are the listeners, and they have learned that being a listener means standing up for those whose voices might otherwise be drown out by hate or fear or ignorance.
Practicing kindness nurtures and mobilizes moral courage, and that is what will change the world.
Author Bio: Tess McFarland-Porter is a teacher, mom, and member of First Universalist Church in Rochester, NY. A happy advisor at UU youth conferences, she has spread her sleeping bag on church floors across the Northeast.