Really knowing our children

Effective approaches in communicating healthy lifestyle values to young people.

Gary Hopkins, Dr.PH., is an associate director for the Institute for Prevention of Addictions, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

As children in school, we might have been scolded for chewing gum or passing notes. Today, in many countries, the issues are much more serious; school shootings, teen pregnancy, and crack cocaine, to name a few. Times have changed for our children and so our approaches must also.

As adults we attempt to address the needs of young people through preaching or spiritual conversation. However good, these means are no longer good enough in them selves, because many young people, when they leave home, leave the church also.

In church the children hear about Jesus, but if we want to keep them, they need to see and know Jesus. How can we show Christ to our kids, as opposed to just describing Him? While the essential requisite for such communication between us and our children is for us to actually know Christ ourselves, there are some further things to look at.

School as community

Excellent research suggests some of these. Though conducted in school samples, the research can be applied to church as well. The concept of "school as a community" has made for interesting research. Roberts and colleagues (1995) examined the extent to which students in grade school sensed that their school was a functional community.

In their work, they defined "school as a community" as a place where students and teachers care about and support each other; where students and teachers actively participate in activities and decisions relating to school; where students and teachers feel a sense of belonging and identification within the school group; and where the students and teachers have common goals and values.1 The questions used in this study included, among other things: How much "my class is like a family," "How much "can I talk to teachers in this school about things that are bothering me," and How often does "the teacher in my class ask the students to help decide what the class should do."

When students had a high perception of their school as a community, some positive trends were noted: they tended to read more outside of school; enjoyed reading more, enjoyed class more, and liked school more than those who didn't have that sense of community.

These students tended not to avoid work; were more academically motivated; trusted and respected school more; enjoyed helping others learn more; and had higher educational aspirations and higher educational expectations. Academically, they performed higher on reading and math achievement tests than those who, again, didn't view their school as community. Regarding their personal attitudes and behaviors they had more concern for others, higher self-esteem, and resolved conflicts more easily and effectively.

When teachers had a high perception of their school as a community, they had higher expectations for student learning; trusted students more; enjoyed teaching more; were more satisfied with teaching, and had higher overall satisfaction with their job.

When the school climate was rated as having a high sense of community, the principal was perceived as more competent and supportive, parents were more supportive, and there were more positive teacher-student relations. Getting involved with young people and creating school as a community even has the added benefit of fostering a moral character in young people.

Caring community encourages moral growth

Battistich, in a presentation at Fresno State University, stated that: "... a commitment to care is the basis for morality, and children learn to become caring by being in caring relationships. Research literature provides considerable support for this thesis.

"Children who grow up to be characterized as 'morally mature' have parents who are warm, trusting, and responsive to their needs. Similarly, a few studies that have been conducted have found that students of teachers who are considered warm and supportive are more helpful and cooperative than students of teachers who are either more 'businesslike,' task-orient ed, harsh or punitive.

"The importance of positive inter personal relationships to moral socialization is hardly surprising. We have a need to belong to a group, to feel accepted and valued by others. We seek relationships with those who meet this need, and strive to maintain these relationships by complying with the wishes of those who care for us, adopting their beliefs and values, and imitating their behavior. Although their relative importance varies over the course of development, this applies both to relationships with significant adults, such as parents, teachers, and to relationships with peers. Thus, a school environment which is characterized by caring and supportive relationships between teachers and students and also among students should be optimal for promoting pro-social and moral development. This is true because such an environment is one which provides both abundant models of behavior consistent with pro-social and moral attitudes and values, and motivates the student to adopt and internalize these attitudes, values and behaviors."2

The message in all of this is obvious. We need to strive to actually make our churches places where everyone has a "sense of community," where people are cared for and relationships are encouraged and nurtured. Then we will keep the children as they move into adulthood.

Getting connected

Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota, examined students' perception of "connectedness" and its relationship to problem behaviors among young people. Connectedness is very similar to "sense of community." The basic question asked in this study was: To what extent do young people feel connected to a parent or parents, and to their school? The findings, again, are significant.

"Regardless of the number of parents in the household, whether families were rich or poor, regardless of race and ethnicity, children who reported feeling connected to a parent are protected against many different kinds of risks including emotional distress, suicidal thoughts and attempts; cigarette, alcohol, and marijuana use; violent behavior, and early sexual activity."3

When these same students felt a high sense of connectedness at school, they were involved in fewer violent acts, were protected from cigarettes, alcohol, and marijuana use, delayed first sexual intercourse, and overall, school connectedness was consistently associated with better health and healthier behaviors among students.4

All of these benefits occurred because there were people willing to develop relationships with them and create a caring environment for them. Does that sound like authentic Christian love?

Love, social support, and good health

Of course. People who experience love become healthier. The social sciences have extensively explored the value of "social support." Social support is simply an emotion-based attachment between two or more people. When people have social support or social support networks here is what happens:

  • College students who reported high levels of social support also reported significantly lower levels of stress.5
  • Larger social networks are related to fewer hospitalizations.6
  •  A caring adult or supportive peer relationship can serve as a buffer to the experience of childhood physical abuse.7
  • Low social support is associated with a greater chance of death during the recovery phase following heart attack.8
  • When Hispanic female college students believed that their university environment was friendly and supportive, and they perceived social support from friends, they dropped out of college less.9
  • Patients with breast cancer and patients with a serious life-threatening skin cancer (melanoma) survive longer when they have social support.10
  • Chronically ill women with social support (love from others) have less depression.11
  • Social support is associated with improved performance on academic examinations.12
  • Social support for abused adolescent mothers predicted higher birth weight babies compared to those with low social support.13
  • Lack of social support is associated with problem behaviors (drug and alcohol use, and delinquent acts) among youth. Strong social support attenuates this adverse effect. 14
  • Social support is often less present in the lives of youths at risk of school failure.15
  • Students who report no or low support have lower attendance, spend less time studying, have fewer pro-social (positive) behaviors, and are less able to overcome school problems. Those with low support from their families engage in less disclosure of their feelings with the adults with whom they live; also, they reported that their adult caretakers show less interest in their school and monitor school activities less. 16
  • Social support is associated with successful vocational outcomes among individuals who have suffered a brain injury.17
  • Teenage mothers who have support from family members, friends, and the father of the child promote the ability of young mothers to pursue educational and career goals.18
  • Teenage mothers who have social support are only slightly less likely to graduate from high school than those who do not become mothers as teens.19

A simple, profound strategy

Recently I heard the story of a northwestern town with an alcohol and teen pregnancy problem. Though the city fathers tried everything (such as experts to speak in school assembly, a teen pregnancy prevention pro gram, expensive videos on drug use) teenagers were still drinking heavily and/or getting pregnant. At a town meeting, people scratched their heads and wondered what could be done.

An older rancher, wearing cowboy boots and his feet propped up on a chair said, "I don't know what to do. It seems like when I was a kid, every one in town knew us, called us by name, and sort of hooked into our lives. People were real back then and these problems weren't very common. Maybe we should get to know these kids."

With that very simple idea the town embarked on a plan to learn the names of every young person in town. Every kid would be greeted by name. It was simple and it didn't cost a cent.

When old Abe saw a kid at the store he would stop for a second and ask their name. "Hey, I've seen you around but don't know what to call you. What's your name?"

"My name is Mike."

"Nice to know you Mike," Abe responded. "Call me Abe."

After that it seemed simple, "Hi, Mike." "Hi Abe." Nothing to it. One afternoon Abe came out of the hard ware store and there stood Mike with a beer can in his hand. Abe said, "Hi, Mike." Mike quickly put the beer can behind his back. He didn't know why, but he felt nervous holding a beer in front of Abe. Something had happened. Just by learning Mike's name, a relationship had started. With that relationship came a little bit of commitment. Mike didn't want to disappoint Abe; he seemed so nice. Abe didn't scold Mike. He simply smiled, as always, and went on with his business.

Several months after the town started on their effort to learn the names of the local kids another town meeting was held. There was an enthusiastic buzz in the room. People couldn't wait to tell their stories, and every person in the room seemed to have one. People told of the relation ships that they had developed with youngsters in town that started by just learning their names.

After checking with the local doctors and police they learned that fewer teenage girls had become pregnant and the police reported fewer arrests for alcohol use. Something very subtle, but powerful, had happened.

Are we interested in retaining our young people as lifelong members of our church? Then let's go to our pulpits this weekend and tell our members that every adult is to learn the name of every young person in church. They should greet them by name, smile, and nurture a relationship. That's it. Let's get to know our young people and so create a caring community in our churches and then watch things happen.

Next time you are in the grocery store and you see a youngster from your church, wait to see if they approach you. If they don't, then you don't know them well enough, you aren't smiling enough, or you haven't really connected. When you do, you will know it.

Our young people have heard enough about Jesus. This is one way to show Him to them.

1 W. Roberts, A. Horn, and V. Battistich, "Assessing Students' and Teachers' Sense of the School as a Caring Community." Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, April 1995.

2 V. Battistich, "The Effects of Classroom and School Practices on Students' Character Development." Presented at the Character Education Assessment Forum, Bonner Center for Character Education and Citizenship, California State University, Fresno, California, 1998.

3 M. D. Resnick, P. S. Bearman, R. W. Blum, et al., "Protecting Adolescents From Harm: Findings From the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health" m'AMA, 278 (10:1997), 823-832.

4 Ibid.

5 R. C. Ainslie and A. Shafer, "Mediators of Adolescents' Stress in a College Preparatory Environment" in Adolescence, 31 (124:1996), 913-926.

6 M. Albert, T. Becker, P. McCrone, and G. Thornicroft, "Social Networks and Mental Health Service Utilization: A Literature Review," in International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 44 (4:1998), 248-258.

7 J. S. Milner, (1989). "Additional Cross-Validation of the Child Abuse Potential Inventory: Psychological Assessment" in A Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1, 219-223.

8 I. P. Farmer and P. S. Meter, (1996). "Higher Levels of Social Support Predict Greater Survival Following Acute Myocardial Infarction: The Corpus Cristi Heart Project" in Behavioral Medicine, 2 (59:1996),59-67.

9 A. M. Gloria, (1997). "Chicana Academic Persistence" in Education and Urban Society, 30 (1:1997), 107-121.

10 E. Maunsell, J. Brisson, and L. Deschenes. "Social Support and Survival Among Women With Breast Cancer" in Cancer, August 15, 1995: 76 (4), 631-637.

11 E. S. Hough and G. A. Brumitt, (1999). "Social Support, Demands of Illness, and Depression in Chronically 111 Urban Women" in Health Care for Women International, 20 (4), 349-462.

12 D. Goldsmith and T. L. Albrecht, (1993). "The Impact of Supportive Communication Networks on Test Anxiety and Performance" in  Communication Education, 42, 142-158.

13 M. Lindgren, (August 1999). "Support Attenuates Abuse Effects in Adolescent Mothers" in World Disease Weekly Plus, August 16, 1999; 4, 5.

14 M. L. McCreary and L. A. Slavine (1996). "Predicting Problem Behavior and Self-Esteem Among African-American Adolescents" in Journal of Adolescent Health Research, 11 (2), 216-234.

15 J. M. Rlckman, L. B. Rosenfled, et al. (1998). "Social Support for Adolescents at Risk of School Failure" in Social Work, 43 (4), 309-423.

16 Ibid.

17 S. Kaplan, (1988). "Adaptation Following Serious Brain Injury: An Assessment After One Year" in Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 19, 3-8.

18 K. Kissman (1990). "Social Support and Gender Role Attitude Among Teenage Mothers," in Adolescence, 25 (99), 709-717.

19 C. W. Sells and R. W. Blum. "Current Trends in Adolescent Health" in Handbook of Adolescent Health Risk Behaviors. R. J. DiClemente, W. B. Hansen, and L. Ponton, eds. (New York: Plenum Press, 1996).


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Gary Hopkins, Dr.PH., is an associate director for the Institute for Prevention of Addictions, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.

March 2002

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