Leading Sensitive Conversations
Every parent and ministry leader knows the pressure related to broaching a tough but necessary topic with a child or teen. Besides subjects that are often surrounded by shame in our culture, such as sex, addiction, pornography and other “unmentionables,” a vast array of topics is presented to young people at increasingly tender ages because of tech access: racism, gender identity, public violence, sexual assault and terrorism, among others.
Do engaged Christian parents want their church’s help addressing these issues with their children? Sometimes.
Overall, nearly nine out of 10 parents (88%) say they want their church involved in some capacity in sensitive conversations with their child. According to children’s and youth ministry leaders Barna interviewed, about one in six parents (17%) expresses reluctance or discomfort when church leaders want to address sensitive topics with young people.
Perhaps counterintuitively, college graduates are more likely than less educated parents to say they want church guidance (94% vs. 84%). This is important for ministry leaders to notice, since it might be tempting to assume that well-educated parents are more equipped to broach these topics. At work here could be what one analyst calls “nuance paralysis”: reluctance to offer simple answers to complex questions. Well-informed parents may need guidance for what kinds of answers are age-appropriate in their complexity and nuance.
Another factor may be a child’s entertainment consumption. Parents of mediaengaged children are less likely to say they want to handle sensitive topics by themselves, without any kind of assistance from their church. They are more likely to want training and resources, and to seek multiple trustworthy voices to contribute to the conversation. But they may also need help to recognize that they are a vital part of guiding their child through hard topics. They can’t simply outsource responsibility to “experts.” Rather, they can grow in their own engagement as part of a team of guides that includes church leaders and mentors.
As we might expect, self-guided parents (who primarily rely on themselves for their child’s spiritual formation) tend to be more confident in their ability to handle tricky conversations on their own. However, they are no more or less likely than church-guided parents to want church-based training for how to have conversations about these topics.
Two-thirds of the church-guided group say they want ministry leaders to address sensitive topics with their children (68% vs. 55% self-guided). On the other hand, three in 10 self-guided parents say they don’t want sensitive issues addressed at church at all and want to handle them entirely on their own (31% vs. 19% church-guided). These findings may indicate potential disagreements about topic choices in children’s or youth programming at church. This is an area where leaders will need to do some digging to find out the dynamics of their specific ministry’s families.
At what age do engaged Christian parents and ministry leaders believe kids are exposed to conversations or material related to sensitive social topics? Here’s a look at what each group says about four fraught and hard-to-talk-about issues that inevitably arise at some point.
The takeaway? When it comes to social issues, parents and ministry leaders are broadly in agreement about the ages young people encounter sensitive content or topics—except when it comes to pornography. Ministry leaders are seeing younger kids exposed to porn, while many parents appear to think such exposure comes much later. (Most studies suggest ministry leaders’ estimates are closer to the mark.4)
What is needed is increased communication between parents and children’s ministry leaders about what topics are pressing and developmentally appropriate for kids today, and who is best poised to lead those conversations. Children are likely to need more than one guide in these areas, and solidarity between multiple adult figures is likely to be an effective solution to ensure that no child misses vital guidance on an important topic of life.
Media and personal devices come with a host of benefits—connection with others, access to knowledge, opportunities for play and learning—but parents and children need wise guides to navigate tech so that benefits outweigh potential dangers. Faith leaders can start by initiating honest conversations about the impact of new media on young people. Rather than making mere screen-time reduction the primary goal, intentionality in digital spaces and habits can help Christian families put tech in its proper place.
Moving toward more intentional media engagement is a countercultural action. This challenge can be an opportunity to meet our neighbors around a shared felt need to discuss and consider these issues together—not just in our churches, but in our living rooms, schools, community centers, and maybe even in our social media feeds.