Have you ever worried that your relationship with your child is at risk? Is there a growing disconnection between you and your kids? Do you wonder if your firm discipline might be disenfranchising your kids? Or perhaps you’re wondering if it’s possible to be your child’s parent AND friend at the same time? Parenting can be challenging, but God created us for connection, and the integration of science and the Bible only proves this.
The heartbeat of Connected Families
In the 1990’s, as professionals working with children, youth, and families, Lynne and I began noticing how increasingly relationally disconnected kids and parents were, in spite of parents’ good intentions. We saw how disconnection fueled resentment, rebellion, and discord in relationships – in homes, extended family, and community. We even saw the price society was paying for what seemed to be a growing epidemic of disconnection.
This intensified our desire and belief in the importance of fighting for connection even when life is hard and disagreement is strong. As Lynne and I began teaching other parents things we’d learned firsthand in our own family and through working with others, it strengthened our resolve to learn. And we discovered a beautiful harmony between scripture and science regarding the importance of connected, unconditional love in how children should be parented.
The reality is this: God created us for connection.
The longer we work with parents the more we see that science only confirms what the Bible has been teaching us all along. What follows in this article is a whirlwind tour of how the idea of connection – the knowing, loving, and enjoying of other people- especially our children, became the heartbeat of Connected Families.
Connection: Science and God Agree
God created us for community and, it turns out, there is science behind the human need for connection. In fact, it has been shown that relational connection is the best predictor of a positive future and the biggest antidote to many of the social challenges of our day. When people are disconnected they really do “look for love in all the wrong places,” or may even quit looking for connection altogether. People who are well connected, tend to make better choices for themselves and the world.
When science is so clear about something, it’s no surprise to the God who created science! It’s why He built families (or more precisely clans) for the care of people. Typically, although not always, the people who know and love us the most are family. And the Bible is clear that when parents’ hearts are turned to their children those children are best prepared to live how God intended. (Luke 1:17)
Note: As Christians, the goal of connection is to set an example of God’s unconditional love. This is not to say we excuse our kids’ sin, but that we stay connected as we address it. We write more about this here.
To connect is to know, love, and enjoy another person. The deeper the knowing, loving and enjoying, the stronger the connection. Learning to connect well with each of your children may be the most important parenting skill you can develop.
How I learned about the human need for connection
One of the first church songs I remember to this day was when the kids’ choir presented their annual concert. I don’t remember the other songs, but still remember where I sat, and where Pastor Brown turned toward the audience as he sang this connection song:
Turn the hearts of the children to their parents.
Turn the hearts of the parents to their young.
Turn the hearts of us all to one another.
Turn the hearts of the people to the Lord.
As a young teen I became a “connection scientist”. My mom ran a daycare in our home and I especially enjoyed the challenging kids. You know, the ones who were too loud at nap time, too wild on the play equipment, or too rough with other kids. When I found ways to have fun together these more difficult kids became more responsive to my efforts to guide them to be quieter, calmer, and more respectful of others.
That’s where science came in:
Observe well. Test ideas. Try this. Try that. Not too much. Not too little. If it doesn’t work try something else. If it works, do it more. Build on what you learn.
My love of connection continued through high school and into college as I volunteered in care facilities, tutored inner-city kids, built relationships with neighbors and classmates, and generally connected with people wherever I went. Some people were quick and natural connections and some took more time and effort. Some, because of me or because of them, would have no part of connecting.
Human connection became my career
I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do when I grew up. I’d been to the Philippines after college on a ten-month ministry project and returned shortly after the youth pastor at my church unexpectedly resigned. I was asked to fill in until they could find a properly credentialed candidate. I was hesitant because I’d had no substantive experience working with youth. But the senior pastor gave me permission to keep it simple and connect creatively with the kids who showed up for the youth group.
I started observing and trying ideas. If something didn’t work I tried something differently. If it did work, I did it more. We had a lot of Ultimate Frisbee Bible studies that summer. I taught a lot of kids to fish and waterski. I opened the Bible whenever it seemed natural. Building on what I learned, I got to know them. Enjoy them. How could I not love them?
The group grew over the summer, a rarity in this specific church’s recent history. At the end of the summer the senior pastor and the chair of the board approached me with the offer:
“Jim, we’d like you to consider the role of full-time youth pastor,” The deep-voiced board chair said.
I resisted. I didn’t have a seminary degree. No previous church ministry experience. None of the main things they were looking for on the job posting. I reminded them of the qualifications they sought.
“That’s all stuff you can get,” added Pastor Dave. “But the thing that matters most, that you can’t teach, you have it. You love the kids. It’s obvious. And they love you. The rest of that stuff…I’ll help you.” I got hired because of my ability to connect. And it’s what I’ve done ever since.
Connection is the gateway to another person’s heart
The bottom line is that people thrive when connection is strong and people suffer when connection is weak. I love connecting with people and I love teaching people to connect with each other – especially parents and their kids. Connecting the hearts of parents and kids was even how God prepared the world for Jesus!
When it comes to the importance of connection the science tells us what the Bible already made clear: there is no more significant relationship than that between parents and their children. And God created us for connection and community.
The most important message to send your kids
We often ask parents, “What is the most important message, beginning with the words “You are…” that you want your kids to embrace as their identity?” Nearly unanimously, the first answer they give is, “You are loved!” Almost as if this need for love, for connection, is hardwired, which indeed, social scientists say it is.
On the one hand, making sure kids know they are loved as a top priority seems simple. If every time there was stress or sin of any kind, the first thing a child experienced was loving touch, loving words, and loving actions, the world and it’s children would be so much better off. Connected kids do better in life by just about all measures.
However, conflict of all kinds often tends to get the upper hand. We forget about connecting and get right to the business of teaching or correcting our kids. Teaching and correcting are important. But if done at the expense of connection it leads to, well, disconnection. And disconnection leads to challenges of many kinds. Crime, addiction, mental illness, violence, life expectancy all become more problematic where disconnection abides.
When asked how well they connect with their kids, most parents will say, “I think I connect pretty well with them.” Their intentions are good. But what do you think the kids would say if asked to gauge the parent’s connection with them?
How can I better meet the human need for connection with my kids?
Much has been written about how to better connect. What I’ve discovered, however, is that rather than teach people to connect in ways that feel unnatural to them (and thus their kids), the best starting place is to identify what you are already doing to connect successfully.
For some, it’s encouraging notes. For others it’s hugs. Some share common interests. Whatever you utilize to already connect in some small way with your kids – do it more! You already know how to do that and it won’t be awkward.
The hard part is to be intentional. For example, if you already connect with your kids by watching cartoons on Saturday morning, make a special date to do it on Wednesday night. If it’s cooking a meal together once a week, do it twice! Tuck your kids in bed at night? Great! Try tucking them out in the morning. If you’re good about empathising with your child when she gets injured, put that same empathy into her poor grades when she is struggling.
One of the best ways to know how (or if) you’re connecting well with a child is to ask your kids questions like, “How connected to me do you feel?” Based on the answer, ask, “What could we do to be better connected?” Then do it! 🙂
We asked our kids one day, “What do we do that makes you feel the most loved?” Their answers surprised us and were extremely different from each other. Try asking your kids questions about how they view the connection in your relationship – you might also be surprised…
Other quick ideas for connecting:
1. When your kids are present, be present.
This doesn’t just mean being in the same room together, it means letting them know you are there for them. Do this by noticing details about them, and verbalizing. Perhaps something like this: “I noticed you concentrating. I could tell by the way you squinted and twisted your head.”
If the child says something outrageous, let the child know you’re listening by giving full focus to their statement, repeating what you heard (not judging or giving your opinion), and asking for more. Maybe like this, “So you hate your math class. What do you hate about it?”
This can be so hard! I know from experience that the first impulse when kids say extreme things is to say something like, “You shouldn’t hate it.” or, “I don’t think the teacher cares whether you like it or not, so get over it.” We say these things because we want to toughen our kids to get through sour experiences. But more often than not these kinds of statements lead to less connection not more.
When kids feel heard they are far more likely to be open to constructive (wisdom building) questions later.
2. Shared experiences bind people together
Whether it’s ice-cream, board games, concerts, sporting events, or adventures of some kind, when people have shared experiences it draws them closer.
Note: It’s important to remember, the goal of shared experiences is connection. (Not to drag your child to your favorite activity, or to manipulate, get obedience, or a certain desired behavior.)
3. Create connection routines
Some families do weekly game nights. Some have special greetings or affectionate nicknames. Research shows that sharing food together builds connection and leads to far better outcomes for children.
4. Lots of hugs!
And of course don’t forget the importance of physical affection as you build these routines. The least stressed 30 year-olds in the world are those who received lots of physical affection as children.
5. Jim’s favorite way to connect
My favorite connection activity was to surprise kids with something goofy and unexpected. Perhaps I’d go in and beat their alarm clock by a minute by singing (even dancing) a gentle wakeup tune. Or interrupt their chore time with a nerf-gun war. In their older years we’d show up at their college dorms with surprise care packages. Once, we even “delivered ourselves” in a refrigerator box by ringing the doorbell and then hiding in the box (with a plate of cookies). Anything I could do to keep laughter present through all the ups and downs of everyday life.
Can I connect and still be “The Parent”?
Much has been said about how you should not be your child’s friend. I get it. God gave parents the role of parent for a reason. That said, it’s clear that being in a parental role doesn’t necessarily mean you always have to be the strong-handed authority.
When the apostle Paul described his relationship with his spiritual “children” at Thessalonica, he described wearing many “hats” in his role. He was gentle and humble (like a child), nurturing and caring (like a mother), affectionate and open (like a good friend), and encouraging (like a father).
Research has also shown that it’s best for kids when parents can flex to a child’s needs and take different roles, or “wear many different hats.” So yes! Be the parent – if “parent” means setting and keeping limits. But if that’s all you do, or if there is an imbalance of too much strong authoritarian parenting and not enough warm, supportive connection, it can lead to avoidance of God and authority figures.
What about when kids require discipline?
No question. Kids will require discipline. But discipline does not eradicate the need for connection. In fact, some of the most effective discipline stories we’ve heard incorporate connection. Like the time Jesus connected with an adulterous Samaritan woman at the well and had a gentle conversation about her life, and offered her the water of eternal life. (John 4)
A practical story of connecting during discipline
Or, more practically, when John got down on the Lego cluttered floor with his eight-year-old son Andrew, who habitually left a Lego mess in spite of typical discipline measures.
Instead of another stern lecture about “why you need to learn to clean up after yourself!” and taking more Legos away, John sat in the middle of the mess alongside Andrew. Surveying the room from his new vantage point, he sighed and empathised, “Oh, it really feels overwhelming down here. Is that how you feel?”
“Yes!” cried Andrew, feeling understood about this for the first time.
What about “fight or flight”?
Keep in mind that when kids feel lectured or threatened, their “fight or flight” brain goes into gear. They quit thinking about rational things and start thinking and impulsively acting to protect themselves. They are defensive. Perhaps even combative. But when kids feel understood, their frontal lobe – the thinking part of their brain – is much more active and receptive to learning.
With Andrew calmer and more receptive, John’s “Connection in Correction” effort continued. “I have an idea!” John calmly offered, “How about you sit on the bed and tell me where things go and I will put them away today so I know that you know where everything goes.” Andrew eagerly jumped on his bed and gave instructions to his dad. John had fun putting the things away and then said, “Wow! You know where everything goes! So next time I ask you to clean up, do you think you’ll need help or do you think you’ll be able to do it alone?”
“Maybe a little help?” Andrew replied.
By John’s report a few weeks later, Andrew became responsible for cleaning up his Legos even without being asked. Legos strewn all over the floor was never an issue again.
This is “Discipline That Connects with Your Child’s Heart”! Andrew learned. He became more wise and responsible about his Legos. He and his dad grew closer through it.
But what about when kids are really nasty or aggressive?
The first step is to do whatever you need to do to get calm so you don’t match their angry intensity – that only feeds it. Even repeat this scripture in your head…
And then see what happens when your first goal is to be a conduit for the kindness of God, as you let go of a primary goal of getting quick behavior change.
FBI negotiators know that their best chance for good outcomes (behavior change) in a hostage situation is to listen, empathize, and build rapport with the perpetrator. In short? Connect. To do this requires a heart of compassion, knowing that “hurt people often hurt people.” And making demands of perpetrators will often inflict more hurt. So, if when lives are in the balance it makes sense to connect, why not connect whenever there’s conflict brewing?
De-escalating challenging situations
In my work with high-risk teens we knew that the best way to de-escalate even the toughest of situations was to connect. Only in that rare instance, when safety was threatened, did we do what was immediately needed to protect youth from harm.
Even when I stepped between two teens about to kick or hit each other, my next move was to empathize using language they could relate to, “This sucks!” I’d say as loud as needed. “You two are really pissed!” I did what I could to join them rather than oppose them.
Whatever they said I would repeat, so they knew I was listening. Then I’d ask, “What am I missing?” Not in an angry tone but in a respectful (though still loud) tone. Usually one of them would add more. I’d ask again, “Anything else?” Every time I did this the teens settled down. Some talked it through with each other on the spot and some decided to wait.
Connecting with really upset kids almost always bears immediate fruit. If not, keep connecting and watching for more opportunities for connection.
But what about “accountability” for their behavior?
Accountability is much more effectively administered in environments of connection than environments of contention. Remember, God’s kindness is His best tool to lead to repentance. (Romans 2:4) Yes, if kids break rules they need to make things right. But if those kids feel respected and valued they are in a much better heart and brain space to join the problem solving or accountability work. This leads to more respect and connection not less (which leads to less misbehavior and more honoring choices.)
Research done with juvenile offenders shows that an honoring process of respect and empathy is far more effective than punishment. In the Victim-Offender Mediation programs offenders are given the opportunity to hear from, and respond to, their victims. The process of connecting to their victims led to better rehabilitation and increased empathy towards others.
We have worked with parents long enough now to see the long-term impact of those who have prioritized staying connected to their kids, and those who didn’t. In a previous blogpost we wrote about “Greta,” a child who was very difficult to connect with, and her mother, who persevered to prioritize connection above all the other necessary roles of parenting.
“Greta” is now finishing college, and her mom recently told us, “While I saw glimpses of hope during her younger years, I also had lots of times where I didn’t think my parenting was having any effect or the impact was unknown. I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate your encouragement to continue to connect well, despite all the challenges we experienced. Our family went on a canoe trip through a wilderness area this summer and had a delightful time together. We just love being together and I’m sooooo grateful!”
At Connected Families, we believe that scripture and science agree: Effective parenting does not neglect setting boundaries and correcting our kids when they need it, but it persistently prioritizes rich connection. This follows the model of our heavenly Father as he guides us toward maturity in Christ, so we can trust the help of the Holy Spirit to empower us to do the same for our kids. God created us for community, and that starts in the home!
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